This article came from the Chronicle published April 1984. Pages 79-81
A YEOVIL CHANTRY
Author: Leslie Brooke
There has always been some uncertainty as to the position of the chantry chapel dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary ‘outside the Church’ of St.John the Baptist, Yeovil. It bore this designation to distinguish it from another chantry, bearing the same dedication, inside the church, in the south transept.
The only positive, contemporary evidence for its existence,. seems to be that contained in the grant of indulgences by Bishop Beckington in 1450, following a disastrous fire which destroyed the greater part of medieval Yeovil. The entry recorded in the Bishop’s register, which also refers to other chantries in St.John’s, reads as follows:
Grant by the Bishop – on representations by the vicar and parishioners of the parish church of Yeovil that on the feast of Holy Trinity last 117 houses in that town were accidentally destroyed by fire, among them being 15 dwellings belonging to the chantry of the Holy Trinity in the said church, 11 belonging to the chantry of the Virgin Mary outside the church, 19 belonging to another chantry of the Virgin Mary in the said church, and 2 belonging to the almshouse of the town, and that they intend to rebuild the same if helped by the charity and alms of the faithful – of forty days’ indulgence to all contrite and confessed persons giving of their goods for the above purpose; to last for one year.
Wells Palace, 26 June 1450.
When Daniel Vickery, editor of the Western Flying Post, and a churchwarden in 1860, wrote his ‘Sketch of the Town of Yeovil’ in 1856, he stated that the land on which the Unitarian Chapel stood in Vicarage Street ‘was originally the site of the chantry, dedicated to the Virgin Mary, already mentioned in the account of St. John’s Church, as being without the church. Four years later, when churchwarden, he expanded. on this in an account in his newspaper of the restoration work then carried out on the church. He describes the former vicarage in Vicarage Street, and then writes:
Nearly opposite, stood one of the chantries, namely that founded to the honour of the Virgin Mary, and close to this a piece of garden ground, called ‘Egypt’, upon which we are told, for many, years stood an ancient ruinous stone building, called by some persons ‘The Abbey’ and which nobody owned.
Among the Donn papers in the Somerset Record Office is a deed of 1763 which also refers to ‘lands called the Chantry’ in this area. Still earlier, Edward Drake of Colyton, Devon, in his will dated 4 May 1668, left to his daughters, Anne and Mary, the ‘tenement called the Chantry, and a Horse Malt Mill belonging thereto in Yeovil’, besides other property in Yeovil and Kingston; And earlier still, John Phelps ‘of the borowe of Yevill, mercer’, in his will, dated 19 June 1558, left ‘To Thomas Phelps, my son, my house called the Chauntrie House all my title in a close of pasture called Pavittes Downe, and in my mylne and mylne orchards in Pittlane and Quidham Streete. All these seem to refer to the same Vicarage Street site, but there is still no direct evidence that the house had actually been used as a chantry, and it seems distinctly possible that it had been chantry property rather than the chantry chapel. The chantry of the Holy Trinity in St.John’s church possessed property in Vicarage Street in 1393-4, the text of the conveyance reading:
To all the faithful to whom these presents shall come, John Onewyne Archpriest of the chantry of the Holy Trinity of the town of Yevele greeting. Know ye that I have granted to John Page of Yevele, Cristina his wife, and Richard their son, a messuage within the free Borough of the town of Yevele in a certain street called la Quydamstrete between a house of John Page belonging to the burgesses of the town of Yevele which houses Thomas French held formerly, paying a rent of four shillings per annum. Dated At Yevele Monday the Feast of St.Michael the 17th year of Richard the Second.
The list of properties belonging to Holy Trinity chantry, included in the return made in 1548, also includes ‘two burgages and a garden’, and ‘a barn and a garden’ in Quedamstrete. The barn could well have been the ‘ruinous stone building’ referred to by Vickery, and possibly used as a horse mill by Phelps and later by Drake.
But, if this was not where the chantry of the Blessed Virgin outside the church stood, could it have been the building which once stood adjoining the church tower, and rebuilt in 1855 opposite the west door of the church? Although. it is always referred to simply as ‘the chapel’ in churchwardens’ accounts and in the 1548 Return of Chantries, when the historian Leland came here between 1540 and 1542, he wrote:
Ther is at the Weste Ende of the chirche a greate and fayre old Chapel, the which semithe to be a thinge more auncient than the Paroche. It is usid for a Chauntrey.
It is the last sentence which suggests that it may have been the building housing this Chantry of the Blessed Virgin outside the church, which is the way it is described in the grant of indulgence of 1450.
Furthermore, since this chantry does not appear by name in the 1548 return, and no property is recorded as belonging to it, except the eleven buildings mentioned in grant of indulgences, it would appear the chapel had ceased to be used as a chantry by the latter date. Indeed, as early as 1519, the churchwardens’ accounts include three entries as follows.-.
To John Nipper and John Edwards for dressing of borde and tymbr. on the chapell – 2d
To John Thatcher for a daies work to help the carpentr. – 3d
For beryng of ledde owt of the church into the chapell – 1d
which seem to show that even then it was not in use as a chantry perhaps it did not survive the loss of endowment following the destruction of its, property in the fire of 1450.
The building also poses a problem as to its date. When it was re¬moved from the churchyard in 1855, a stone coffin was discovered under its west buttress containing nothing but rubbish, also, reported Vickery in in his 1860 account, ‘several old coins and tokens…a silver coin of Henry II or IV is one of them. The tokens are those of a merchant of Nuremberg’. A stone crucifix was also found embedded in the south-east corner of the building, which is said to date from the thirteenth century, and was almost certainly the head of the old churchyard cross, which now reposes in the Church of the Holy Ghost. Several carved stone corbels bearing human heads, two carved stone niches, and a carved stone piscina, all of hamstone from the old building, are preserved in the present one, the niches and piscina bearing more decorative carving than those in the church. Preb.E.H.Bates Harbin recorded a boss in the roof of the old building bearing the arms of the Wynford family of Brympton D’Ervercy, but if the coin mentioned by Vickery was that of Henry IV and it was under the foundations, then it cannot have been built earlier than 1400, which makes it contemporary with the church. Unfortunately, he does not state where the coins were found, and it is possible they were beneath floorboards.
When the chantries were suppressed in Edward the Sixth’s reign, commissioners were appointed to make a survey of. them, they reported on Yeovil’s establishments in 1548, adding a memorandum which stated:
Ther is a chapell Scituate w.tin the churche yarde of Yevill kev’ed w.t leade contaynying by estima on nigh one fonder praysed worthe to be sold – £4, wch thenhabitaunts ther desire to have for a scholehouse. The towne is a great market Towne, and a thorough faire. Lead 1
On 16 February 1549, this chapel was acquired by Robert Freke, ‘servant of Robert Keylway, esquire’, for £4, on behalf of the inhabitants, though it was not until 1573 that is was converted for use as a school. As a matter of interest, Freke also purchased, on 18 June 1549, twenty-four chantry copes and vestments for £5 15s.0d.
The Churchwardens’ accounts for 1573 show the conversion of the chantry chapel in the churchyard into a school. The considerable number of entries relating to the work then done – sixty-three in all – account for the sum of £12 13s.4d. But that is the subject for another story!