The Concept Of Offsetting
We are familiar today with the concept of offsetting. The word appears usually in the context of global warming. If a company creates a lot of carbon dioxide (which is known to accelerate global warming) with its products or by its production process, it can choose to offset that damage by, for example, planting a number of trees or by helping the creation of wind farms. If individuals contribute to global warming through frequent air travel they could pay a company to offset the damage they have created.
In the Middle Ages global warming hadn’t been invented. However, people were seriously concerned about the harmful effects that might happen to them after death and took seriously anything they could do to offset those consequences.
At the time, the theology of the pre-Reformation Roman Catholic Church (that everyone in England would feel compelled to attend) gave three possible destinations for the soul after death. A very few people would go straight to heaven, a lot more might go straight to hell, but the majority would go to purgatory – a state after death according to Roman Catholic belief in which the souls of people who die are made pure through suffering before going to heaven.
During the Middle Ages and Sixteenth Century there were several ways in which it was believed that a person’s time in purgatory could be shortened. While alive they could regularly confess their sins and be penitent and they could do good works and acts of charity.
People could get time off purgatory for going on a pilgrimage, or on a military crusade to the Holy Land, and for giving money to the church. In Lynn (latterly King’s Lynn) for example people who gave money in the Twelfth Century to help pay for the building of St Margaret’s received 40 days off after-death punishment.
Having people pray for you while you were alive, and also after your death, was thought to be another effective way of atoning for sins and of remitting divine chastisement. And, of course, those people perpetually praying for you would need housing. Those who were rich enough thought of ways of investing for eternity.
What Was A Chantry
The word “chantry” can have several related meanings, but in this context it is best to think of it as a kind of trust fund. It was money that was set aside for a specific purpose – to pray for the souls of the person who had set up the chantry. And it would be hoped that the money would be sufficient to provide for the ongoing prayers so that the dead person being prayed for is helped in the afterlife.
Sometimes accommodation would be provided for the priests (chantry priests) who were expected to do the praying. Sometimes buildings would be created or areas within existing churches provided (chantry chapels) for the priests to exercise their duty.
When Were Chantries Abolished
Whatever his religious motivation may have been, Henry VIII realised that the abolition of the monasteries in 1537 had provided the crown with a lot of money. His act of 1545 stated that all chantries and their properties had misappropriated lands and misapplied monies and would henceforth belong to the crown, and this was intended to finance his war with France. However, Henry died within two years of passing the act and it was left to his son, Edward VI, to pass another act in 1547 which completely suppressed 2,374 chantries and guild chapels. Although the act called for the money to go to “charitable” ends and the “public good,” most of it appears to have gone to Edward VI’s advisors. The Crown sold many chantries to private citizens.
King’s Lynn’s Lost Chantry
In 1508 a rich Lynn farmer, Thomas Thoresby, was thinking about his afterlife. Thomas was nicknamed “Flock Master” and owned several properties in the town as well as a good deal of land where he grazed sheep and cattle.
He started to build the “college” now named after him and it was completed in the year of his death – 1510. In his will he left instructions for money to be sent to several religious causes including donations to the four existing friaries in Lynn and to St Margaret’s and St James’s churches. He also paid £60 to the Pope in an attempt to obtain a pardon for the improper celebration of certain feasts.
However, Thoresby’s major attempt to offset his time in purgatory were in the arrangements he made for the 16 priests who were to live in, and work from the college:
- 13 chantry priests to pray for the Holy Trinity Guild and its members
- 1 priest for the charnel chapel and for the dead whose bones were there
- 2 chantry priests to pray especially for him and his family for ‘as long as the world shall endure’.
In theory, such a provision should have lasted longer than a luxury car, or even a large look-out tower on a town building.
Unfortunately for Thoresby’s afterlife the college only survived as a chantry until 1547 when Edward VI suppressed all the guilds and chantries. The Mayor and corporation acquired it in 1548 converting it into a merchant’s establishment with living quarters, offices, bakehouses, brewhouses, and warehouse space. The purgatory offset scheme had failed.
Although the name has been left on the college’s marvellous early C16th door proudly proclaiming (in Latin) that Thomas Thoresby was the founder of this place, the words “pro anima orate” (pray for the soul of) have been quite deliberately chiselled off. No more prayers here.
For more details on the building itself, the wonderful door, and the college’s links with Lady Diana’s mother, see HERE.
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© James Rye 2022
- Owen, D. (1984) The Making of King’s Lynn, OUP
- Parker, V. (1971) The Making of King’s Lynn, Phillimore