1979-Oct-pg12_The Parish Chest – 3, Pre-Reformation Ceremonies

1979-Oct-pg12_The Parish Chest – 3, Pre-Reformation Ceremonies

This article came from the Chronicle published September 1978. Page 12


The Parish Chest – 3,
Pre-Reformation Ceremonies

Author: L.C.Hayward


A life-like demi-figure by Westmacott of the Reverend Robert Phelips, Vicar of St. John’s from 1815 to 1855, stands in a large niche on the north chancel wall of St John the Baptist Church, Yeovil. Mr John Goodchild in his ‘Brief Description’ (1921) rightly believed it to be the Easter Sepulchre, and this opinion is confirmed by the Churchwardens’ Accounts. In pre-Reformation times statues of the Holy Family and of the Saints were shrouded in black as a sign of mourning during Lent, a custom still followed in Roman Catholic countries. In the accounts 2d was regularly paid ‘for coverynge the ymages of the Chyrche in the time of Lent’, and at the same time a veil was hung on a rod supported by the two sculptured heads still visible on the chancel walls. Making the ‘Lenten Cloth’ cost 4d, with an extra 1d for the cord to suspend it.

Mention in the 1457 accounts of ‘4 iron staples for covering the Lord’s Body at the Feast of Easter’ suggests that the custom of placing an actual figure of the dead Christ in a special niche (called the ‘Easter Sepulchre’) was followed in St John’s. A canopy was made for its thread, pins, lace, and staves were bought. A priest and the two churchwardens kept watch over the sepulchre on the night before Easter, for which they were paid sixpence, with in allowance of threepence for breakfast. A special feature of the Easter Day ceremony was the lighting of a large Paschal taper of wax to be carried in a colourful procession through the church.

Processions with bells ringing also took place on the Feast of Corpus Christi (the Thursday after Trinity Sunday) and on three other holy days mentioned in Woborn’s Almshouse Charter. On these occasions ‘doles’ were given to the Vicar, the chantry chaplains, the clerk, the singing boys, the custos and wardens of the almshouse, and to the crier who recited the names of the benefactors in the town. Those festivals took place on St Mary Magdalen’s Day (22 July), St Catherine’s Day (25 November) and the Feast of St Ursula and the Eleven Thousand Virgins (21 October). St Ursula was a fifth century British princess said to have been massacred with her companions by the Huns at Cologne while she was on a pilgrimage to Rome.

The accounts illustrate many other pre-Reformation rites and customs: charcoal and chains for the censers (and even a pair of tongs at twopence) necessary for the burning of incense; ‘a holy water pott cast by a tinker’ costing eightpence, probably for use when making the Sign of the Cross on entering the church; wax candles for the trendle or round box for tapers (its making cost 1s 10d, and a key was later provided), vaunt or font tapers, and great candlesticks for the High Altar made of latten, an alloy of copper, zinc, lead, and tin, the ‘scouring’ of which cost eightpence each year. Many of these ornaments were let out on hire, to the great benefit,of the parish funds; in 1457, a cross,cope, and censer were lent for the burial of the Rector of Berwyke (Barwick), and linen and jewels of the church were sent to ‘Sturmyster Nywton’ for the Feast of St.Lawrence.

There are payments too for white damask copes, linen ‘Rackyts’ (a kind of surplice) and albs, red cloth for the High Altar (costing £2 with twopence for carriage from London), ‘yorkell (a kind of tape) to make gyrdles for vestments’ at fourpence. ‘Washing the church clothes’ cost. 3s 4d each year and repairs are frequent. In 1542 tenpence was paid for ‘making two syrplices out of old racketts’. Economy indeed! The Reformation put an end to many of these items, and the bedesman (or parish clerk) must have missed his ‘dole to pray for all crysten zowles’ on All Saints’ Day.