St Neots Parish Gild

This article was written by Revd. Roger Arguile for the Town Museum and is published by them. Much of the material is taken from *Gilds in the Medieval Countryside - Social and Religious Change in Cambridgeshire c.1350-1558 by Virginia Bainbridge (The Boydell Press 1996) and The Stripping of the Altars by Eamon Duffy (Yale 1992)*

Gilds were local associations in towns and villages, traditionally associated with crafts of various kinds, which flourished in the late middle ages. But our understanding of their role and character has been changed by recent historical study. Whereas once they were widely seen as evidence of secularising tendencies in English society, democratic, non-religious, essentially working men’s organisations, even early precursors of the trades’ union movement, they have been shown to be an important expression of parish religion. Some have even used them as evidence of the vibrancy of pre-Reformation devotional life. Two other observations may be made: they were hugely popular; secondly, because they constituted independent centres of community life, governments tended to dislike them.

The earliest gilds, as we now understand them, date back to the tenth century. They grew in popularity so that in 1388, Richard II, concerned to obtain the support of the lesser nobility and gentry, ordered a survey of them to see how widespread they were, to assess their taxable potential and to ensure that they did not infringe the royal prerogative. That record shows that there were 521 gilds, most of them in East Anglia, then the wealthiest part of the country. Richard, in fact, did nothing to stem their popularity and they grew hugely in numbers from then onwards. Of the 350 gilds identified in Cambridgeshire, 113 were founded in the fifteenth century and a further 152 between 1500 and 1547. It is estimated that London had something in the region of 150, King’s Lynn over seventy, Bodmin over forty, Great Yarmouth at least nineteen. By the end of the Middle Ages they were as much a rural as an urban phenomenon and most villages had at least one gild so that the patterns of religious belonging represented by the gilds were available to the majority of the adult population.

As to what they were for, the surviving statutes of gilds show that in the overwhelming majority of cases religious devotion was at the heart of their existence. There is some difficulty in making a sure judgement because so few records survive (though the fact of the destruction of records gives a clue as to their unpopularity with the authorities). Even those urban gilds which might be called craft gilds usually had a religious dedication. The fact is that the division of life into secular, social and religious is one which was alien to the understanding of the late mediæval mind. The “mediæval notion [was] that the spiritual was infused in the material, the religious in mundane social acts.” (Bainbridge). This was true even in towns, so that no one regarded faith as a matter of individual confession; it was part of the whole structure of life, from religious holidays to the cult of saints and their dedication to aspects of daily life, to the constant presence of death. In the countryside most emphatically gilds were “designed not to regulate trade or manufacture but the devotional lives of their members” (Duffy). Craft gilds often had a parallel institution, a fraternity consisting of the same members, which existed for religious and social purposes.

Gilds represented a shift or, at least, an extension of religious influence from the control of monasteries and clergy over religious practice to the laity and from inward to outward forms of piety. In that respect they may indicate a long term trend. Lay people, not clergy, organised and ran the gilds, though clergy belonged to them. Gilds took responsibility for the maintenance of lights in church. They organised charity and village social life. They even employed their own priests to say Mass for them on appointed days. They were, likewise, very often independent of the control of the nobility and gentry, a reason for government anxiety about them.

Some of this can be seen in the gilds which flourished in St. Neots and Eaton Socon from the fourteenth to the sixteenth centuries. The parish church of St. Neots was supported by at least one gild, the Gild of Jesus, which existed in the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. It consisted of a president, wardens and brethren, who built and used the Jesus chapel on the north side of the chancel. As visitors to the church can see, that chapel is faced with dressed stone, instead of the Bedfordshire clunch of which the rest of the church is built, and the monogram IHS is carved on each of the buttresses, thus indicating the prestige of the gild. Jesus altars were very much a feature of late mediaeval churches. Lay people paid for the setting up of nave altars for the saying of Mass during the week including a requirement that particular lections should be used. The Mass in honour of the Holy Name of Jesus was, throughout the fifteenth century one of the most popular of all votive Masses. It was celebrated regularly, usually on a Friday, paid for by the gild, at an altar on which the figure of Christ was fixed separate from the crucifix above the chancel step.

Likewise, in Eaton Socon there was the Gild of Corpus Christi. The Feast of Corpus Christi was first observed in England from about 1318 and became widely popular; it was associated with charity and Christian catechesis. The devotions connected with the feast included the procession of the Host through the streets on the Thursday after Trinity Sunday, which quickly became a major event in the life of the community. The Eaton Gild was founded sometime around 1343 by Sir John Engayne, a local landowner. Typically, it employed a priest to say mass for gild members while they lived and for their souls when they died. He received his income from land and property bequeathed to or acquired by the gild. Initially this was five dwellings, sixty acres of arable and one acre of meadow, obtained in 1353. Eventually it acquired a common hall where members met and the annual meeting was held, when, in the Sunday after Corpus Christi, the gild would elect two of its members to act as Masters, though it also suffered hard times when it fell into arrears from which it was assisted by bequest.

The typical features of parish gild activity were threefold. The first was to maintain a great torch or candle in honour of the saint whose name they bore and, possibly, which was the dedication of the Church in which their devotions were held. This torch would be lit every Sunday and holy day at the elevation of the host in the Mass - this is the moment at the end of the Eucharistic Prayer when the chalice and the consecrated bread were raised up for all to see and kneel in adoration. The second function of such gilds was the procurement of prayers and alms from all the members for the repose of the souls of deceased brothers and sisters. All were to attend the funeral of dead brethren, making an offering at the Mass and another as a dole to the poor afterwards, and from the common fund gild Masses were to be said for a period of time for each deceased member. The third function of the gild was the promotion of charity and a communal sense. Charity was initially seen as operating within the fraternity though it also extended to the relief of poverty or even to the building of roads or bridges. An annual meeting of members would take place for Mass when the gild torch would be solemnly offered and business would be transacted for the election of officers and the examination and possible revision of the gild statutes. The proceedings would end with a gild dinner. Such social occasions might take place at other times of the year also.

Every parish church in England had many lights - they burnt before the Great Rood, the statue of Christ on the cross above the chancel arch, and before each of the images in the church. There were a number of altars, apart from the high altar, in St. Neots: a Trinity altar and a Lady Chapel altar, a tabernacle of Jesus and St. John, and a statue of St. Ninian, all of which would require lights. In addition, extra lights were lit during the canon or Eucharistic prayer of the Mass, and each Holy Week dozens of lights would be set around the Easter Sepulchre in which the Sacrament was reserved from Good Friday until Easter day. In many parishes there was also a corpse or bier light, lit at the obsequies of parishioners, especially those too poor to find their own wax. All these lights had to be maintained. which we, with our access to instant illumination, may wonder at. The building, like the now empty fields, would have been full of activity and life. St. Neots’ and Eaton Socon’s altars and statues were objects of devotion and would therefore have had a torch constantly lit in front of them.

Around this core of devotion other functions might develop but they derived from these three emphases. They often provided music for services. The funds established for the maintenance of lights were usually invested in the purchase of livestock or property, witness the purchases described at Eaton Socon. Various wills also evidence gifts of land and livestock as well as cash. These assets were hired or farmed out to members who then paid the gild any increase on the stock at the annual settlement of accounts. Many successful gilds, attracting gifts and bequests, thereby became major elements in village economy with patronage to dispense; membership of a gild could have very direct financial advantages and in some communities it might actually be essential. Thus the gild’s central activities on behalf of deceased brothers were usually extended to providing decent burial for members too poor to pay their own funeral expenses. The burial of the dead was , of course, one of the corporal acts of mercy, here exercised as an act of charity among gild brethren.

The mutual charity required of gild members towards each other was, in many gilds, extended to providing financial relief for members who fell into hardship or illness, “provided that their misfortune was not the result of extravagance or loose living”(Duffy). The concern of many sets of gild ordinances with the preservation of peace and the prevention of litigation among members was also an extension of this concern with the promotion of mutual charity. Many gilds were expressly founded to maintain the fabric or ornaments of the parish churches, or to provide services within it for the common good.

Some gilds concerned themselves with public works such as the building of roads and bridges. Even here the religious dimension was present. “Just as dykes and causeways made it possible to traverse the treacherous fenlands, so the spiritual succour [of wayside crosses and chapels] may have comforted both the real and the supernatural fears of travellers.” (Bainbridge).

Gild and parish represented different types of religious allegiance. Membership of the parish was a matter of geography, the rights and obligations fell on everyone who lived there, whereas the gild was a voluntary organisation deliberately joined and its affairs secret. Many gilds laid great emphasis on the preservation of the secrecy of gild affairs. In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries especially, this sense of identity was marked by the fact that many gilds had a distinctive livery, or at least, a hood, worn by members at gild functions, though this feature of gild life had begun to disappear by the end of the Middle Ages. In addition, gilds often had their own paxbreads, bread given out at the kiss of peace during the Mass. Most gilds also had entrance fees and an annual subscription, and though these were usually modest they meant that, unlike the all-inclusive parish community, membership was, by and large, not open to the very poor. Some urban gilds had membership from several parishes and there were parishes which had many gilds.

All of this could threaten the integrity of the parish though to be a member of a gild was, more often than not, simply “one of the conventional ways of being an active parishioner”(Duffy). In towns, even in the Middle Ages, parish boundaries did not mean as much as they did in villages. Moreover, it was in towns that the craft functions of gilds tended to be most heavily developed. There was a tendency for craftsmen of a particular trade to live close to each other and for a particular church to be associated with their craft. In the countryside, a gild might comprise most of the adult population of the village; and the fact that the ordinances or gilds often place weight on the moral and religious probity of the members suggests that, far from being societies of the pious, “gild membership was of the ordinary man and woman in the pew, warts and all”(Duffy). What, of course, we don’t know is how the unlanded peasantry related to all of this. As in Eaton Socon, wealthy landowners were often instrumental in their foundation; we don’t know what part people played who had nothing to leave by will, could not afford the expenses of membership and who will have been excluded from them. They were and are now voiceless. Charity extended less readily to those who were not members of the gild and less to strangers.

In any mediæval parish, as in any modern church or community, sub-groupings develop and many of the organisations which supported the ceremonies and devotions of the parish church were not formal gilds but groups, for instance, of young men, ‘maydens’ or wives who might subscribe towards a church window, or vestments or vessels. Sometimes these might solidify into gilds but not always. Likewise, gilds would sometimes simply dissolve into the ordinary run of parish life. But even where they were formally set up, gilds were not exclusively male organisations. Most gilds were open to both men and women, though their participation was usually confined to certain activities: they could not hold office nor were they generally consulted as part of the collective decision making process. On the other hand, they are recorded as having in some places held stock and appear as foundresses and benefactresses, often linked with their husbands.

Some gilds were wealthy and influential. Wealthy gilds might possess a gildhall for their meetings, livestock and their own chaplain, who might also serve at the parish church. There is little evidence of hostility between parochial and gild clergy. (In fact, it has been said that. initially at least, it was the Reformation which fostered anti-clericalism where parishioners were more conservative than their clergy.) Sometimes, indeed, gilds could be instruments of domination within the parochial community at large. “Some of the smaller urban gilds, while not monopolising economic and political power in the community were clearly exclusive rather than intregrative” (Duffy). It is from these urban craft gilds that the popular conception of the nature of gilds comes. Even in places where human activity was differentiated as tended to be more the case in towns, the connexions between, for instance, secular and sacred, work and leisure, were much closer than they are in our society. There is no reason, for instance, to think that the five craft gilds in Bodmin out of forty altogether, were vastly different in their sense of devotion from those whose primary object was religious. Moreover, the powers of craft gilds had been increasingly eroded by increasing royal control over trade over the course of the Middle Ages. By the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries they were subordinate in importance to borough councils; the religious and social expression of their identity remained.

Gilds, as religious institutions, finally disappeared with the 1547 Injunctions of Edward VI when their major purposes became illegal. The Injunctions were the culmination of a series of regulations against images which had been promulgated during the reign of Henry VIII. Images were not, as such, forbidden unless they were ‘abused’, that is, the subject of veneration. The Injunctions, however, required the removal of altars, statues and lights and thus made the functions of gilds illegal. When this happened, the lands of the Jesus gild in St. Neots were concealed until 1552 when the matter was reported to the Commissioners, by one Robert Payne, who thereupon confiscated them. There had been local image breakers previously. A dispute between a number of townspeople and two members of the gentry, Sir Lawrence Taylard and Oliver Leader Esq., over the removal of images was brought to the Privy Council - which took the side of the iconoclasts. The Injunctions made an end of the gilds, which were never revived. At Eaton Socon, the dissolution of Bushmead priory was followed by the end of the Wyboston chantry and then finally the Gild. Its property, amounting at that time to eight dwellings owned and the rental from some others and a hundred acres of land, having an annual value of £8, were confiscated, though a pension of £5 was given to Robert Kyppest, the gild priest.

The abolition of gilds satisfied two desires of government. It did away with the means of expressing “superstitious” practices. It also was part of the process of asserting centralised control over parish life. But not only did it result in neglect of parish churches; the gifts towards such projects as highways also dwindled during the reign of Edward and did not revive until Mary’s reign. Gilds, together with monastaries, had supported hospitals. These too disappeared and new foundations became necessary, funded by different means. The works of corporal mercy: the provision of food and drink, hospitality to strangers, the clothing of the poor, caring for the sick and visiting risoners which gilds had, admittedly somewhat patchily, provided had now to be replaced with secular forms of poor-relief. In the short term, the confiscations of gild property “struck a serious blow to the system of mutual charity in urban society”. (Bainbridge). The confiscations alone made it almost impossible to resurrect them in Mary’s reign. In the long term “the Protestant shift away from a religion of good works towards a more abstract theology was paralleled by the greater impersonality of the Elizabethan Poor Law system.”(ibid.) Parish life, especially insofar as it related to the parish church, was not to find stability for more than 100 years and was never to regain its former unity. A new cast of mind, modern, confessional, individualistic and entrepreneurial, now came to dominate affairs.