Lynn Lost A Chantry

The purification offset scheme that failed

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. Throughout the Middle Ages the primary motive behind the founding of chantries had been manifestly clear: by means of prayers, to secure relief for the souls of the founder and others whom he might name, who were suffering in purgatory. 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. It was quite common for money to be set aside for priests to pray for monarchs. For example, in 1484 Richard III funded a chantry chapel in York Minster to be staffed by hundreds of praying clergy.

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 some of the money to go to “charitable” ends and the “public good,” a lot of it appears to have gone to Edward VI’s advisors and to the crown itself. The Crown sold many chantries to private citizens.

King’s Lynn’s Lost Chantry

Thoresby College, King’s Lynn
Photo © James Rye 2021

In 1508 a rich Lynn farmer, Thomas Thoresby, was thinking about his afterlife. Thomas was nicknamed a “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. And if there was no purgatory through which to speed the dead, then no one needed to pay for priests to help them on their way.

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. Although the people of Lynn would not have understood the labels, the end of the chantries and of praying for the dead marked the end of the Middle Ages.

For more details on the building itself, the wonderful door, and the college’s links with Lady Diana’s mother, see HERE.


When the Chantry Act was being passed through Parliament, the burgesses of King’s Lynn made their opposition to the Act known and were described by one writer (Kreider) as “cantankerous”. Provision in the Act was made for land to be given to the king. The Lynn leaders were alarmed that the town might lose the land which had been used for “the maintenance and keeping up of the pier and sea banks there, which being untended to would be the loss of a great deal of low ground of the country adjoining”.

The opposition from Lynn was so fierce that the privy counsellors feared that the whole Act might be lost. In the end the privy counsellors reached a deal with the Lynn burgesses. The latter ceased their opposition in return, on 6 May 1548, a grant of the relevant land was made to the town.

Concern about flooding in the coastal town is not just a recent phenomenon.

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© James Rye 2022



  1. […] Over the front doorway the words “Pray for the soul of Thomas Thoresby” were originally written in Latin. However, after Edward’s VI’s closing of all chantries in 1547, the words “Pray for the soul of …” (Pro ora anima …) were removed and Thomas’s original intention for the building came to an end. (See Lynn lost a Chantry.) […]

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