Worcester Cathedral and the Kempsey Church Chantry

If you know Worcester Cathedral at all, you will know that Prince Arthur, the eldest son of King Henry VII, and brother of Henry VIII is buried there. He died at Ludlow in 1502 of an unknown illness, and his embalmed body was laid in a tomb in the Cathedral in a specially built chapel now known as Prince Arthur’s Chantry. A Blog from November 2015 describes the chantry in detail. Do you know why is it called a chantry?


Prince Arthur’s Chantry. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK


The English word chantry comes from medieval French chanterie, literally meaning a place of singing. A chantry is a place dedicated to conducting services and saying prayers for the soul of someone who may or may not be buried there. And it can also be a kind of trust fund set up to employ a priest to conduct services for the benefit of the someone’s soul, usually that of the donor who established the chantry.

Chantries were often established in parish churches and the famous Worcester White Book is full of examples from the early fourteenth century. Places mentioned with chantries include: Elmley Castle, Kempsey, Ettington (near Stratford), Blockley, Erdington, Hartlebury, Chelmscote (now a deserted village near Brailes), Bordesley, Stratford, Ripple and Eastington (near Stroud). Several of these parishes are no longer part of the Worcester Diocese.

We are fortunate to have a detailed account of the establishment of the chantry at Kempsey in Canon Wilson’s A Great Benedictine Monastery In The Fourteenth Century, which contains in Document number 704, an abstract of the deed of foundation dated 1316.

John of Kempsey, treasurer of the church of Hereford, under charter from King Edward II, and with the consent of John Deverrois, Rector of Kempsey, gives two messuages to God and the Blessed Virgin, mother of Christ, and to John Bromhale, presbyter, and his successor, for a mass to be said daily at the altar of the parish church of Kempsey for his health while he lived, and after his death for his soul, and the souls of his ancestors and benefactors, and the souls of all the faithful.


St Mary the Virgin Kempsey, showing the chancel and north transept. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)


A messuage was a plot of land suited to or already containing a house and suitable outbuildings. In this instance the two messuages amounted to about forty acres, their situation and boundaries carefully described in the deed. The money paid to rent these lands would generously support the chantry priest. A presbyter was a ‘second-order’ minister, with a position under the authority of another, in this case of the Rector of Kempsey. The presbyter should be present in church for the canonical hours, and the daily celebration of the mass should include prayers for the health of the sponsor and also for his benefactors.

A chantry altar was built in the south transept, but this did not survive the Puritan interregnum and no sign of it remains. However the piscina illustrated below may well be from about the same time, being dated to approximately 1320.


Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)


The chantry deed stipulates that the presbyter “should live chastely and honestly . . . should it happen that he is charged with a fall into the sins of the flesh he must be deprived of the chantry and another and fit presbyter be appointed in his place.” Clearly the thoughtful John of Kempsey did not want a sinful priest saying prayers for his soul.

Although establishing a chantry sounds a good thing to do it did not always meet with full approval. Families often objected to the proceeds of valuable bits of land being allocated to prayers for long-dead ancestors. The deed clearly states that relatives should not interfere with it in any way, and it is signed by the Bishop and other important witnesses.

The King could also object to land coming into the possession of the Church. Edward I enacted the Statutes of Mortmain to prevent this happening – Mortmain literally means “the dead hand.” Feudal estates generated taxes at the time of inheritance or granting of the estate, but religious organisations never died and so such taxes were never paid. However John of Kempsey paid a sum of money to King Edward II and in return received a royal licence assigning the messuages to the parish church “to be had and held for ever by the said chaplain and his successors to celebrate the Divine Service in the aforesaid church for the souls aforesaid.”


King Edward II. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)


In this case the legal and statutory safeguards seem to have been successful. In 1548 the endowment of the Kempsey chantry still produced 6 pounds 10 shillings and 11 pence, which was granted to one Kenelm Buck, then in possession of the Nash estate in Kempsey.


Tim O’Mara






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