A chantry may refer to one of two meanings of the term. Firstly, it could mean the prayers and liturgy in the Christian church reserved for the dead as part of the search for atonement for sins committed during their life. It might include the mass and by extension, the endowment left for the purpose of the continuance of prayers and liturgy. It could be called a type of "trust fund" established during the pre-Reformation medieval era in England for the purpose of employing one or more priests to sing a stipulated number of services for the benefit of the soul of a specified deceased person, usually the donor who had established the chantry in his will. There could be a stipulated period of time immediately following her/his death. It was believed such masses might help atone for misdeeds and with mercy enable the soul to be granted eternal peace in the presence of God. Chantries were commonly established in England and were endowed with lands, rents from specified properties and other assets by the donor, usually in his will. The income from these assets maintained the "chantry" priest.
Alternatively, a chantry chapel is a building on private land or a dedicated area or altar within a parish church or cathedral, set aside or built especially for the performance of the "chantry duties" by the priest. A chantry may occupy a single altar, for example in the side aisle of a church, rather than an enclosed chapel within a larger church, generally dedicated to the donor's favourite saint. Many chantry altars became richly endowed, often with gold furnishings and valuable vestments. Over the centuries, chantries increased in embellishments, often by attracting new donors and chantry priests. Those feoffees who could afford to employ them, in many cases enjoyed great wealth. Sometimes this led to corruption of the consecrated life expected of clergymen. It also led in general to an accumulation of great wealth and power in the Church, beyond the feudal control of the Crown. This evident amassing of assets was one of the pretexts used by King Henry VIII to order the Dissolution of the Monasteries in England. At that time, chantries were abolished and their assets were sold or granted to persons at the discretion of Henry and his son King Edward VI, via the Court of Augmentations. Many Tudor businessmen, such as Thomas Bell (1486-1566) of Gloucester, acquired chantries as financial investments for the afterlife, but yielding income streams in the here and now, derived from chantry rents, or they "unbundled" the chantry assets and sold them on piecemeal at a profit.
The Christian practice of prayer and offering mass for the repose of the soul of a deceased person is recorded as early as the 8th century. The most common form was the anniversarium or missa annualis, a mass said annually on the anniversary of a person's death. At the Council of Attigny in 765, about 40 abbots and bishops agreed to say mass and recite the psalms for the repose of the souls of their deceased brethren. Ninth-century France and England have records of numerous such undertakings between monasteries and churches, whereby they would offer prayers for the souls of deceased members of each other's communities. Before the year 1000 in Italy, France and England, parishes extended the benefits of such facilities to the laity. Kings and great magnates asked for prayers for their souls in the monasteries they had founded.
The word "chantry" derives, from Old French chanter and from the Latin cantare (to sing). Its mediaeval derivative, cantaria means "licence to sing mass". The French term for this commemorative institution is chapellenie (chaplaincy). The Latin word obiit, used in English as a noun in this connection, means literally "he is dead", from the verb obire, that is, ire "to go" with the prefix ob-, meaning "beyond", giving "to go beyond", hence to "die".
Current theories (Colvin) locate the origins of the chantry in the rapid expansion of regular monasteries in the 11th century. The abbey of Cluny and its hundreds of daughter houses were central to this. The Cluniac order emphasised an elaborate liturgy as the centre of its common life; it developed an unrivalled liturgy for the dead and offered its benefits to its patrons. By the 1150s, the order had so many demands for multiple masses for the dead that Peter the Venerable placed a moratorium on further endowments. Other monastic orders also benefited from this movement, but similarly became burdened by commemoration. The history of the Cistercian house of Bordesley (Worcestershire), a royal abbey, demonstrates this: in the mid-12th century, it offered the services of two priest monks, presumably to say mass, for the soul of Robert de Stafford; between 1162 and 1173, it offered the services of an additional six monks for the souls of Earl Hugh of Chester and his family. This sort of dedication of prayers towards particular individuals was a step towards the institutional chantry.
Another theory (Crouch) points to the parallel development of communities or colleges of secular priests or canons as an influence on the evolution of the chantry. Such communities were not monastic foundations: although members lived a similar lifestyle to monks they differed in that their monastic rule was relaxed to allow preaching and ministry, beyond the confines of their institution, to the population at large. Like the monasteries, they offered dedicated prayers for the dead. An example is the collegiate church of Marwell (Hampshire), founded by Bishop Henry of Winchester in the early 1160s. The priests of the college were to pray for the souls of the bishops of Winchester and kings of England. Gradually perpetual masses for the dead were delegated to one altar and one secular priest within a greater church.
The family of King Henry II of England (1154-1189) contributed greatly to religious patronage. Henry II founded at least one daily mass for his soul by his gift of the manor of Lingoed in Gwent to Dore Abbey in Herefordshire; he provided for the services in perpetuity of four monk-priests. In 1183 the king lost his eldest son, Henry the Young King. In 1185 his third son, Geoffrey, Duke of Brittany, died in a tournament near Paris. Henry II commemorated his sons by founding what resembled the classic institutional chantry: he endowed altars and priests at Rouen Cathedral in perpetuity for the soul of the Young Henry. King Philip II of France endowed priests at the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris for the soul of Duke Geoffrey. John, Count of Mortain, the youngest son of Henry II, also created chantry-like foundations: in 1192 he endowed the collegiate church of Bakewell in Derbyshire for the establishment of a prebend at Lichfield Cathedral; the holder was to celebrate mass in perpetuity for John's soul. The concept of the institutional chantry thus developed in the 1180s within English and French royal circles, which were wealthy enough to endow them.
In non-royal society, the first perpetual mass was endowed by Richard FitzReiner, Sheriff of the City of London, in his private chapel within his manor of Broad Colney in Hertfordshire. He established it by the terms of his last testament in 1191, and the chantry was operational in 1212. In close association with the Angevin royal court, Richard may have adopted its religious practice.
Analysis of later medieval wills has shown that the chantry appeared in many forms. A perpetual chantry consisted of one or more priests, in a private free-standing chapel, usually licensed by the local bishop (such as the surviving one at Noseley, Leicestershire) or in an aisle of a greater church. If chantries were in religious communities, they were sometimes headed by a warden or archpriest. Such chantries generally had constitutions directing the terms by which priests might be appointed and how they were to be supervised. The perpetual chantry was the most prestigious and expensive option for the wealthy burgess or nobleman. A lesser option was the endowment of a fixed-term chantry, to fund masses sung by one or two priests at a side altar. Terms ranging from one to ten years were more common than the perpetual variety of chantry.
Following the Reformation in England initiated by King Henry VIII, Parliament passed an Act in 1545 which defined chantries as representing misapplied funds and misappropriated lands. The Act provided that all chantries and their properties would thenceforth belong to the King for as long as he should live. In conjunction with the Dissolution of the Monasteries, the Act helped to finance the war with France. Because Henry lived for only two years after the Act was passed, few chantries were closed or transferred to him. His young son and successor, King Edward VI, signed a new Act in 1547, which ended 2,374 chantries and guild chapels and seized their assets; it also instituted inquiries to determine all of their possessions.
Although the Act required the money to go to "charitable" ends and the "public good", most of it appears to have gone to friends of the Court. The Crown sold many chantries to private citizens; for example, in 1548 Thomas Bell of Gloucester purchased at least five in his city. The Act provided that the Crown had to guarantee a pension to all chantry priests displaced by its implementation.
An example of the fate of an abolished chantry is St Anne's Chapel in Barnstaple, Devon: its assets were acquired by the Mayor of Barnstaple and others in 1585, some time after the Dissolution of the Monasteries. The deed of feoffment dated 1 November 1585 exists in the George Grant Francis collection in Cardiff, summarised as follows:
i) Robert Appley the elder, Robert Cade, Hugh Brasyer and Richard Wetheridge of Barnestaple to: ii) William Plamer, mayor of Barnestaple, Richard Dodderidge, Roger Cade, Symon Monngey, Robert Appley the younger, Robert Pronze (Prouse?), Roger Beaple, George Pyne, gent., Jacob Wescombe, Gilbert Hareys, Robert Marlen, Thomas Mathewe, James Beaple, George Baker, James Downe, William Bayly, John Collybeare, Robert Collybeare and John Knyll of Barnestaple; 1 Chancery and Chapel of St Anne lately dissolved in Barnestaple with 1 house with land belonging to the late Chancery and Chapel; also 1 house and land in Barnestaple which John Littlestone of Barnestaple, merchant and John Buddle, potter granted to (i).
One of the most significant effects of the chantries, and the most significant loss resulting from their suppression, was educational, as chantry priests had provided education. Since they were not ordinaries, neither did they offer public masses, they could serve their communities in other ways. When King Edward VI closed the chantries, priests were displaced who had previously taught the urban poor and rural residents; afterwards such people suffered greatly diminished access to education for their children. Some of the chantries were converted into the grammar schools named after King Edward.
Royal Peculiars were not covered by any of the above Acts of Parliament, so were not abolished. Most declined over time, until the jurisdiction of almost all was abolished in the 19th century. Some royal peculiars survive, including Westminster Abbey and St George's Chapel, Windsor.
Historian A.G. Dickens has concluded: