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The Early Church: The People's View

By Carol Davidson Cragoe
Guilds and the local community

Image of protestant reformers at a table
'Bible bringers' contemplate religious reform in the 1520s  ©
Founding a private chantry was much too expensive for most people, but the desire to have masses said for people's souls after death was, nevertheless, popular.

In consequence, many individuals joined religious guilds, which were a cross between a social club and a friendly society. Members paid a fee, and often gave gifts of property to the guild. Money was also raised through feasts held in the guildhall. In return, the guild paid a chantry priest to say masses for the souls of its members, and ensured that members had proper funerals.

'... the rise of guilds in late medieval England was a product of the growth of a new middle class.'

Guilds also took responsibility for providing other charitable services for their members and for people in the wider parish community. The Guild of the Holy Cross in Stratford-on-Avon, for instance, ran a school, a hospital and an almshouse.

Many guilds opened their membership to everyone. Some were more exclusive, charging higher entry fees. Others, such as for example maidens' guilds, restricted entry to certain groups. In general the rise of guilds in late medieval England was a product of the growth of a new middle class, which wanted the same spiritual benefits that aristocrats such as Alice de la Pole were enjoying.

The way in which they expressed this desire took shape in a variety of forms of local patronage. Some families paid to construct monuments to themselves and their relatives inside the church, with internment after death within the crypt or the nave. Others were more altruistic, providing alms for the poor within the parish or sponsoring education for a clerical life.

'By the 1520s, protests against the prevailing method of worship could be heard throughout the country.'

The dissemination of ideas through teaching based on scripture and biblical texts was an important way of enforcing a moral code within a local community, and the priest provided guidance on how to think, act and behave to the majority of his flock who regularly attended church.

The parish church became the central point of community life in Anglo-Saxon times, and this continued for centuries. The architecture changed and improved, but the role that the Church played remained essentially unchanged until the early 16th century. However, signs began to appear that sections of the population were unhappy about the way church architecture prevented congregational participation in the mass.

The Lollard movement, lead by John Wycliffe, championed the cause of an English prayer book in the late 14th century. By the 1520s, protests against the prevailing method of worship could be heard throughout the country. Whilst England’s king remained amongst the Brotherhood of Christian Princes, the Protestant doctrines being discussed in continental Europe were only a remote threat to the English parish church. But when the ‘break from Rome’ occurred, the floodgates for reform opened.

About the author

Carol Davidson Cragoe is Assistant Architectural Editor of the Victoria County History.


Published: 2005-02-02

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