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The Reformation of Cathedrals
Cathedrals in English Society, 1485â"1603
By Stanford E. Lehmberg
PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 1988 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
THE END OF THE OLD ORDER: THE SECULAR CATHEDRALS
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By basic definition a cathedral is a large church where a bishop has his seat (in Latin, cathedra). The notion of a cathedral as the mother church of a diocese was implicit from the beginning but not fully articulated until modern times. During the Middle Ages cathedrals became centers for the arts — architecture, sculpture, music — and for learning and education as well as liturgy, but there is little theoretical writing about the significance of these roles.
The oldest English cathedral, Canterbury, was founded as part of Augustine's mission in A.D. 597 and was dedicated in 602. Its neighbor, Rochester, followed in 604. The first cathedral in London is also said to have been built in 604. A wooden minster is recorded at York in 627.
As dioceses were established, cathedrals were erected. By the end of the Anglo-Saxon period there were churches on the sites of all of the Tudor cathedrals, but virtually nothing is left from this era, since the Normans thought the earlier buildings too small and insignificant.
Much remains from the great age of building following the Conquest in 1066 — one thinks first of Durham, then of Ely, Norwich, Rochester, and Peterborough — and most of the cathedrals retain some Norman work.
The thirteenth century saw the beginning of a second great era of construction. This produced the masterpieces of the Early English Gothic style, or "first pointed architecture" so dearly loved by high-church Victorians — Salisbury, Wells, and Lincoln among others — and left its impress almost everywhere. Chapter houses, where the cathedral staff could hold meetings and conduct business, were built in many places during the thirteenth century. Beautiful examples, generally octagonal with a slender central column supporting a vaulted roof, may be seen at Lincoln, Salisbury, Wells, Lichfield, Worcester, Exeter, and York. The Decorated style transformed Gothic architecture during the years between 1250 and 1350, introducing a new sense of freedom and creativity and producing such marvelous works as the choir at Wells and the octagon at Ely. Finally, around 1330, the uniquely English Perpendicular style appeared; its fan vaults and enormous windows were to dominate church architecture until the Reformation brought building to a halt under Henry VIII.
As the veneration of the Virgin Mary assumed greater importance during the later Middle Ages, Lady Chapels were added to the cathedrals. Some of these were not completed until the fourteenth or fifteenth century. At Wells an old Lady Chapel, built in the 1180s, was replaced by a new building between 1306 and 1319; this in turn was superseded by a large cruciform chapel off the cloisters, begun by Bishop Stillington in 1477. Remodeling of Norman buildings in the latest Perpendicular style was also characteristic of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, Winchester and Gloucester providing the most splendid instances of such work. Although additions and enrichments were still underway in many places (these will be described below), the cathedrals were essentially complete by 1485, and those familiar with the present structures would easily recognize the buildings as they stood when Henry VII came to the throne.
In the early Tudor period there were nineteen cathedral churches in England. Nine of these — Salisbury, Lincoln, York, Exeter, Hereford, Lichfield, Chichester, Wells, and St. Paul's in London — were secular cathedrals, served by a dean, chapter, and inferior clergy who were in holy orders but not monks. The remaining ten cathedrals were monastic in organization. Canterbury, Winchester, Worcester, Rochester, Durham, Ely, Norwich, Coventry, and Bath were Benedictine priories, while the cathedral at Carlisle was staffed by Augustinian canons. In organization and finance the two types of cathedrals differed significantly. This chapter will describe the condition of the secular cathedrals during the decades immediately preceding the Reformation; the next will examine the cathedral priories in the half century before the dissolution of the monasteries.
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The clergy who staffed the secular cathedrals were called canons or prebendaries. The word canon originally meant "rule," and cathedral canons had at first lived under a rule, in a sort of communal life, even though they were not monks. Their lives may have been regulated by rules drawn up by bishops; the most famous and most influential of these was the set of orders promulgated by Bishop Chrodegang of Metz about 755.
By the time of the Norman Conquest, canons had begun to acquire individual property. As this happened they abandoned their communal life and established homes in separate houses near the cathedral. For a time it was common for them to be married, but this arrangement ended by the thirteenth century. They gained their financial support from individual endowments — lands and the right to collect rents, fees, and tithes from parish churches — which were called prebends. The canons thus became prebendaries, who could be referred to by naming their principal estate, such as the prebend of Masham at York. For my purposes the terms canon and prebendary are virtually synonymous, and they were used more or less interchangeably during the Tudor period. But they do have different origins and different technical meanings. For legal purposes they were often conjoined; the full title of a canon at Lincoln, for instance, was Canon of Lincoln and Prebendary of Buckden, or whatever other prebend he might hold.
The number of canons in the secular cathedrals before the Reformation varied considerably, but it was always surprisingly large, at least in comparison to modern cathedral establishments. Lincoln — a vast and rich diocese before the 1540s — had fifty-eight prebendaries. Salisbury followed with fifty-two. York, though the seat of an archbishop, had only thirty-six. Lichfield, one of the poorest cathedrals, had more canons than St. Paul's in London; the numbers are thirty-two and thirty, respectively. There were twenty-seven canons at Hereford and Chichester, twenty-four at Exeter, and twenty-two at Wells.
The chief officer in every secular cathedral was the dean. The bishop was rarely present; he might celebrate mass or preach at Christmas and Easter, and he would normally be consecrated, enthroned, and eventually buried in the cathedral. But it was the dean who presided over meetings of the cathedral chapter, joined with the canons in holding title to cathedral property, and was generally responsible for all activities of the cathedral. He had the cure of souls for all the cathedral clergy. As will be seen shortly, his income was much larger than that of other canons, and he was expected to live grandly and entertain on a large scale. Many deans held other positions in the church concurrently, and a number were named bishops later in their careers. Although deans were supposed to be elected by members of the cathedral chapter, royal nomination became quite common in the later Middle Ages, with the actual election no more than a formal confirmation of the monarch's choice. An extreme case is presented by the appointment of Henry VIII's great minister, Thomas Cromwell, as dean of Wells in 1537, for Cromwell was a layman as well as an obvious nonresident. But Cromwell was exceptional; most royal nominees were well qualified in addition to being well connected.
Three other great officers were found in the secular cathedrals; they, together with the dean, formed the quatuor personae spoken of in medieval texts as forming the four cornerstones of the cathedral's spiritual and material fabric. Ranking next to the dean, though much inferior to him in wealth and prestige, was the precentor. He was in charge of the cathedral services, the music and liturgy, the choir and song school. The chancellor kept the seal of the chapter and acted as its secretary, but his most important functions related to education and scholarship. Most cathedrals had schools, which operated under the general supervision of the chancellor. He was usually the cathedral librarian and archivist, and he was often responsible for arranging the reading of lessons at services and for scheduling sermons. The treasurer was not, as one might expect, given control of cathedral finances. Instead he guarded the cathedral's treasures — plate, vestments, relics — and provided the lights, candles, incense, bread and wine, and other things needed at the altars. He was also responsible for the regulation of the clock and bells.
Each of these great officers commonly had a deputy who assisted him and performed his duties in his absence. The subdean might be especially important in cases where the dean himself was nonresident or frequently absent from his cathedral church. At Lincoln the subdean was specifically charged with the duty of hearing confessions from members of the cathedral staff and assigning penances. As deputy to the precentor, the succentor was usually the real director of music in the choir and at the high altar during the later Middle Ages. At Exeter, for instance, we know that he lived with the choristers and taught in their song school. The vice-chancellor's chief duty seems to have been arranging the lessons for the choir offices and assigning lectors. The sacrist — deputy to the treasurer — often assumed the routine duty of providing the material articles required by the liturgy (bread, wine, and lights). In some places archdeacons were also counted as officials of the cathedral. They were really assistants to the bishop and helped him oversee the parishes of the diocese, but they sometimes held prebends and were treated as guests of the cathedral, being allotted stalls in the choir next to those of the other great officers. In all, then, there could be nine principal officials in each secular cathedral, but they were rarely all present, and primary responsibility always remained in the hands of the dean and his three chief colleagues.
One would hardly expect that such large numbers of canons would be resident at the cathedral continuously, especially when many of them held posts in parish churches, at court, or in the universities. In fact the problem of nonresidency presented great difficulties in the Middle Ages, and there were complaints of cathedrals being poorly served because few members of the senior staff were actually present. Eventually a satisfactory accommodation was reached, under which a small number of prebendaries would be designated residentiary canons. To them would be given the real responsibilities of running the cathedral, and they would receive additional compensation: as well as the revenue that came to individual canons from their prebends, the cathedral had common funds that were divided only among the residentiaries. Besides these, the resident clergy received quite substantial sums for participation in obits (endowed masses and memorial observances).
At York, where there were sometimes only two or three residentiaries in the fifteenth century, a clear distinction grew up between two types of canons. Those who did not actually reside were principally royal clerks and university scholars, while the four great officers and a few other active administrators formed the much smaller group of residentiaries. York appears to have been unique in that even the nonresidentiary canons had small houses in the immediate vicinity of the cathedral. As a result, the minster was "surrounded by a dense jungle of small and transient urban tenements." At St. Paul's the residentiary canons were called stagiaries. There were ordinarily eight of them. Five canons generally resided at Lincoln, although there were occasionally only three and sometimes as many as seven. Six or seven are common elsewhere; numbers fluctuate, and it is not unusual to find as few as four.
By the beginning of the period under discussion, the rewards of residence had grown so great that there were more canons wishing to reside than could easily be accommodated or paid without prejudice to those already residing. It was probably for this reason that the cost of assuming residence was set very high. A nonresidentiary who wished to come into full residence was required to declare his intention of doing so well in advance. If this was agreed to, the new residentiary would be required to attend every cathedral service for three-quarters of the first year. In addition, staggering responsibilities for hospitality were laid upon him. At St. Paul's new stagiaries had to keep open house daily at breakfast time; entertain the other stagiaries, one by one, at dinner each quarter; feast the choir twice a year; and provide semiannual banquets to which were invited the bishop and all the canons (including nonresidents) as well as the mayor and aldermen, judges, and other leading royal officials.
All of this could easily cost 1,000 marks (£667). Indeed, new statutes enacted for York in 1541 complained that major residence (the term given to the first year, with its strict requirements) did cost 1,000 marks, so that only the richest clergy could contemplate it. Even at a relatively remote and poor cathedral like Lichfield, no canon was allowed to take up residence unless he was able to spend at least £40 a year of his own money in the city, and he was required to pay the dean too marks, the money to be used partly for maintenance of the cathedral building and partly for church ornaments. After the first year, or in some places a somewhat longer period of time, canons could enter into what was called the lesser residence, which required their presence for only half of the year.
At the beginning of the Tudor period, the residentiary canons were generally well established, well off, and prepared to live out their lives in the relative comfort of the cathedral close. Indeed all but one of the fifty residentiaries of York during the century and a half before 1500 died in office. (The single exception went on to become bishop of London.) They were educated men, almost all graduates of Oxford or Cambridge; occasionally, as at Hereford, they were given leaves of absence for a year or two so that they could undertake further study at the university. A number of surviving wills of fifteenth-century canons testify to their wealth and the luxury of their homes. Their private libraries were often among the largest in the country.
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The principal responsibility of the cathedral clergy was the maintenance of a daily round of services, the Opus Dei of praise and prayer. The mass was, of course, the central act of worship before the Reformation, and it was celebrated several times each day: there was the morrow mass at dawn and the mass of the Virgin Mary in the Lady Chapel as well as the solemn high mass. But the mass was not the only service sung in the cathedrals, for the Use of Salisbury or Sarum and its local variants, especially the Uses of Hereford, York, Lincoln, and Bangor, prescribed eight other daily observances. These were matins (sung during the night, before daylight), lauds (offered at daybreak), prime, terce, sext, none, vespers, and compline (celebrated just before retiring). By the fifteenth century some liberties had been taken with timing. At Lincoln, matins continued to be sung at midnight between Michaelmas and Easter until 1548, but between Easter and Michaelmas it was postponed until about 5 A.M.; elsewhere night matins was transferred to the early morning, just after the morrow mass, and was followed immediately by lauds. The Lady mass was usually celebrated at about 9 A.M. Terce was said while the celebrant was preparing for high mass, at 10 A.M. Sext and nones were sung after the mass, often together. Such a schedule occupied most of the morning but left the early afternoon free for other activities.
All of these services included Psalms and prayers, and all were generally sung. Simple plainsong chant generally sufficed for the lesser offices of prime, terce, sext, and none. Although awkwardly timed, matins and lauds often contained some more elaborate polyphony, as did compline. Vespers, in which the liturgy included the Magnificat, had come by the late fifteenth century to be the most important of the offices musically. Antiphons and hymns were sung at matins, lauds, vespers, and compline; on Sundays and festivals the Te Deum concluded matins.
The principal mass of the day might be sung with relative simplicity on ordinary weekdays, but on Sundays and high holy days it was celebrated with great magnificence. Polyphonic music would then alternate with chant or replace it altogether in the Ordinary of the mass (the Gloria, Credo, Sanctus and Benedictus, and Agnus Dei), and antiphons and motets appropriate to the season could be included. The Marian masses sung in the Lady Chapels provided the greatest opportunity for the performance of elaborate polyphonic music sung by trained choirs of men and boys. Cathedrals that had shrines honoring the memory of saints and martyrs would provide regular services there as well.
Excerpted from The Reformation of Cathedrals by Stanford E. Lehmberg. Copyright © 1988 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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