Posted by Peter Lester at 17/09/2012 09:16:14
The Southwell Chapter was the religious body which governed Southwell Minster. It was a powerful religious body whose effects could be felt by people living in and around Southwell. Its court dealt with people's moral and spiritual affairs; it issued marriage licences and proved wills; and it ran a grammar school and a song school.
The Chapter was made up of sixteen prebendary canons. The canons were secular clergymen who lived with other clergymen on a common estate, serving a common church and living according to a common set of rules or statutes.
The prebendal system was established at Southwell in 1069. Different parish churches surrounding Southwell had lands and estates attached to them and the profits resulting from these lands and churches were used to support each canon. There were sixteen prebends supporting the canons who formed the Southwell Chapter.
The prebendal system gave each canon a double function. The canon was to be the parish priest in the prebendary church. They were also obliged to attend all the daily masses and services that took place in the Minster. To get around the problem of being in two places at once, the canons would appoint deputies to carry out the work for them, both in their prebendal church and in the Minster.
The deputy appointed to undertake the canons' work in the Minster was called a Vicar Choral. All the services and prayers in the Minster were sung, so the Vicars Choral would be members of the choir and would sing together. They were also fully ordained priests and would say mass; some performed special masses for the dead and others would be appointed to chair business meetings and other administrative matters of the chapter.
Three times a year the Chapter would meet in a process called visitation, at which some of the canons would assess the behaviour of the other ministers and, if necessary, demand correction for any misdemeanour. During this process every vicar choral would be examined to see what he had to say, and any complaints he had to make; and if necessary questions would be put to the examinees on these matters. In response to these examinations warnings might be issued or punishments inflicted. The types of offences presented at the visitations ranged widely in scope, and were often a mixture of trivial matters and serious crimes. They included:
- leaving the church doors open
- sleeping during services
- talking and laughing during services
- spitting and blowing noses in choir
- stabbing and fighting
It is possible to find out a lot about the personality and life of individual vicars choral from the visitations. This page displayed relates to Thomas Cartwright, who repeatedly appears in the records.
A few early references to Thomas in 1478 accuse him of leaving the vicars' gate open and walking around the church instead of attending the choir services. In February 1479, he was suspended from the choir for fighting in the churchyard. He was fighting with Robert Layn, a priest, one using a dagger and the other a club. It was likely that the fight was over a women: the widow Archa, who lived in Southwell. Thomas was made to do penance for his actions; on one Wednesday or Friday he was to walk before the cross bearer publicly in procession 'like a humble penitent', wearing only his surplice and amice, and to say the psalms of the passion kneeling before the high altar, publicly during mass. This was a common form of penitence for the laity but was unusual for clergy. Thomas was also told to abstain from widow Archa's house and that if he was found carrying a dagger again he would be suspended at once. The page displayed records these actions and the penance required.
Despite this punishment Thomas frequently appears in the records of the visitations. In 1481 he was accused of playing backgammon during service time, and in 1484 of singing badly. But the visitations only record when things went wrong, and good behaviour can only be alluded to.
Thomas' story is part of our new exhibition on the Southwell Chapter.