The staff of the church


Centre for Metropolitan History



Henry Littlehales (editor)

Year published




Citation Show another format:

'Introduction: The staff of the church', The medieval records of a London City church: St Mary at Hill, 1420-1559 (1905), pp. XVI-XXVII. URL: Date accessed: 19 April 2014. Add to my bookshelf


(Min 3 characters)


The Parson.—The word parson is used advisedly, for whenever the word occurs in full in the MSS. it is generally so spelt (see facsimile, p. 322). In our text we constantly find mention of six of the parsons who held the benefice of St. Mary's—Thomas Atherston, William Sparke, and John Horne, William Wild, Dr. William Atcliff, and Alen Percy. Very brief mention is made of the earlier three, and they may be set aside.

William Wild is first mentioned in 1492, p. 34; the last time his name occurs as parson is in 1501–2, p. 246; and as the late parson in 1504–5, p. 257. William Wild, as we have noted elsewhere, was a generous benefactor to the church of St. Mary. His gift of a blue satin chasuble, ornamented with silver, is noted with other gifts at p. 31. In 1496–7 he gave on Christmas Eve £3 (a considerable sum at that time) to 'the chirche warkes and odir benefyttes,' p. 221. Parson Wild appears to have been at Stratford in 1497–8, when a messenger was sent—

"for to desyre hym to come to the Avdyt of the last Accmpt," p. 230.

In 1502–3 wine 'was sent to Master parson to stratford,' p. 247.

Dr. Atcliff is first mentioned in 1505–6, p. 260, and the record of the ringing of his funeral knell is set down in 1520–1, p. 311. In 1513–14 Dr. Atcliff had £6 16s. 8d. in hand which had been presented by three ladies, the whole probably to go towards a new altar cloth for the high altar, p. 285. In the preceding year viij s and iiij d was expended for ten ells of holland cloth for the doctor's new surplice, which was then made by 'woodkokes wyffe,' for xx d, p. 282. At p. 31 we have the record of his gift to the church of a beautiful pyx cloth ' with knoppis of golde & sylke of spaynesshe makyng.'

Dr. Atcliff appears to have been staying at Greenwich in 1509– 10, p. 269.

Alen Percy is first mentioned in 1522–3, p. 319; he held the benefice until and during the Reformation. It was he who instituted the custom of appending signatures to the conclusion of the year's accounts. He also appears to have paid part of the organist's wages (see below), and also, sometimes, part of the cost of the 'bread, ale and wine,' provided for the refreshment of the choristers 'at divers high feasts in the year,' p. 344. The document on p. 353 by which parson Percy acknowledges owing £24 to the church, and expects six months' notice before being required to pay it, is of interest.

About the year 1533 Alen Percy made over by a formal deed a proportion of the tithes due to him, pp. 363, 394. At first sight it would appear that this gift might be intended to meet the substantial debt of £24, but apparently the gift is too large for such to have been the case (£17 1s. 8d. in one year, p. 385), and the length of time over which the gift extends is too great. We have seen, too, that Alen Percy was by no means ungenerous in his dealings with the church, and these tithes are distinctly described as for the 'mayntenaunce of the quire.' They are generally termed the 'parsons dewtye,' p. 363.

Alen Percy signs for the last time in the great book of Accounts in 1556–7.

A reference to Alen Percy's housekeeper occurs on p. 407, and this reference is the more curious that it indicates, with another reference at p. 394, that the parson was not living then in the parsonage:—
"Item, paid to Mr parsons woman that kepes his house, for a quitterent of the newe house in the northe churcheyarde, for one whoale yeare—iij s iiij d."

It is somewhat singular that none of the three parsons of St. Mary's during the period over which the chief part of our Records extend appears to have been buried in either the church or churchyards of St. Mary.

At p. 67, however, we read of a payment for the 'stone of sire William Sparke.'

The Parsonage.—The parsonage occupied much the same position as it does to-day, namely, immediately south of the church towards the east: 'at þe sowth dore next þe parsonage,' p. 301; 'the Est chirch gate next þe parsonage,' p. 302. A bridge apparently at one time reached from the parsonage on to the roof of the church aisle, p. 311.

Meetings of the parishioners took place sometimes at the parsonage, when bread and drink was supplied them at the cost of the church, p. 298. At times parish business was transacted in the church, and 'bread and ale fetched into the church,' p. 292. It is probable that these meetings took place in the vestry: 'colys to brenne in the vestrye,' p. 225.

The Parish Priest.—The parish priests were not the parsons of St. Mary's, but were, as is clearly specified more than once, the parson's deputy—'Mr John Redye, parish priest, as the parsons deputy being present,' p. 227, at the time William Wild being parson. The same distinction also occurs in the Will of Mr. Porth. In 1519–20 many garlands were purchased by the churchwardens for the Corpus Christi procession of that year, and the sum of eightpence was 'paid for two garlands for Mr Doctor and the parish priest,' p. 305.

John Alen was 'Curat of the Chirch' in 1520–1, p. 312. In 1537–8 the parish priest lived in Priests Alley, p. 377. Doctor Hardyman was parish priest in 1557–8.

Chantries and Chantry Priests.—A chantry may perhaps be best described as being the income from a certain property left by testamentary disposition for the purpose of providing for certain devotions to be said for the welfare of specified persons. (fn. 1) The Chantry Priest was the priest to whom the income was paid for carrying out these devotions, often at an altar mentioned as that at which the prayers should be said.

Our text tells us much of the chantries—by whom they were founded, of what the property of each consisted, their incomes, services, names of the chantry priests, etc. etc. At p. 303 we find an ordinance 'that every priest shall sing with his founder's vestments, and their chests to be at the altar's end next where they sing.' One chantry priest had a cupboard in the choir, p. 149.

There were seven chantries in St. Mary's church:—Nasing's, Goslyn's, Cambridge's, Rose Writtell's, Bedham's and Causton's. Later, the chantry of Mr. Porth became added to the list.

The Morrow-mass Priest.—The Morrow-mass Priest was he who sang the first mass of the day. In 1493–4 Sir John Plomer was in office, p. 197, and in 1522 Sir Richard Ellys, p. 317. The fee appears commonly to have been xx s a year, but in later years considerably more appears to have been paid, p. 402. It will be noticed that candles were sometimes purchased for the Morrow-mass Priest, and naturally, that mass being the first of the day, pp. 317, 321. The Morrow-mass Priest had a particular chest, probably for his vestments, etc., p. 343.

Morrow masses were sung by some of the chantry priests, pp. 13,

18. Sir William Rychard and Sir Edmond Toe sang the morrow mass in 1555–6, one for half-a-year, the other for a quarter; no payment is entered for the remaining quarter.

The Parish Clerk.—Our text supplies us with the names and particulars of successive parish clerks, how much each was paid, when each one came into office, and when each died or left. The wages of the clerk are entered in the accounts each year. His fees for burial and for funeral knells are set down at pp. 231, 319. At pp. 303–4 we find in the 'Articles following for the Church,' that the clerk and sexton, when sweeping the church, were 'to cast water in the sweeping of it.' Also that one or the other should set the great holy water stoup at the choir door; that the holy water should be made before the commencement of Matins; also that the clerk, personally, was reverently to distribute the holy wax candle.

The clerk in 1557–8 gathered the parson's tithes, but these tithes were probably those given to the church by Alen Percy.

In 1522–3 one and eight pence was paid to the parish clerk, 'Roger Mason, for childrens dyner at his howse,' p. 316.

Michael Grene in 1531–2 changed places with one of the choristers, William Patten by name. In the years succeeding till 1535–6 we find the change maintained, Grene being a conduct at £8 a year, and Patten being parish clerk at £6 13s. 4d., pp. 359, 371.

[The Parish Clerks, 1493–1558. The earlier names are too uncertain for insertion.]

1493–1500. Robert Debname. (1501. George Gysborowe.)

1501–10. John Law.

1513–21. John Snow.

1521–5. Roger Mason.

1527–8. Peter Purvoche.

1528–31. Michael Grene.

1531–9 ? William Paten.

1547 ?–8. Thomas Marton.

1548– William Mondaye.

The Sexton.—The sexton's office was of inferior dignity to that of the parish clerk. John Law and John Bull, respectively parish clerk and sexton, at the beginning of the sixteenth century, received for their annual wages, the former £4 13s. 4d., the latter 40s. In 1512–13 the then sexton, William Wild, appears to have had the management of collecting the church rents and 'engrossing' the accounts, p. 285. In 1527–8 a relative of the sexton, being a goldsmith, carried out many repairs to the plate of the church, p. 344.

In 1539–40 the sexton was paid twopence— "for prycking of a song booke," p. 382.

In 1500–1 the then Sexton remitted a part of a fee as a gift to the church, the fee being for the grave and funeral knell, p. 241. These fees were evidently in addition to the sextons' annual wages.

[The Sextons, 1500–1558. The earlier names are too uncertain for insertion.]

1500–6. John Bull.

1507. Harry Hunt.

1508–21. William Wyld.

1521–3. William Wyld and Thomas Smyth.

1523. William Wyld, Thomas Smyth and Augustyn.

1524. William Wyld, Thomas Ripton and Augustyn.

1525. William Wyld, Thomas Ripton and Thomas Monday.

1526. William Wyld and Thomas Monday.

1527–31. Thomas Monday.

1531. Thomas Arrowsmyth.

1532–7 ? Thomas Hoggeson.

1547– Thomas Monday.

The Organist.—The names of several organists appear in our text. In 1477–9 Walter Plesaunce was paid sixpence 'for playing at the organs,' p. 81. In 1523–4 we find that John Norfolk was paid for keeping the choir and the organs all the twelve days of Christmas. John Norfolk appears to have been a most energetic official, and for some years after this entry a more or less frequent succession of expenses occur in connexion with the music of the church. It is significant that almost immediately after the first appearance of the name of John Norfolk, a school 'for Norfolk's children' was established, and money was expended for the purchase of twelve surplices for men and twelve for children, p. 321. John Norfolk is frequently referred to in the accounts as a 'conduct,' p. 334.

The organist at times repaired books, probably, however, only those with which he and the choir were concerned, p. 339.

The Organ Blowers.—References to the blowing of the organs appear frequently in our text. Sometimes the almsmen appear to have added to their little incomes in this way. At p. 333 we find that they had been constantly employed as organ blowers, receiving for every week the fee of twopence, which was that commonly paid for this work.

For some years before the Reformation Baleham was the official organ blower, being paid eight shillings and eightpence a year for his exertions. In the 'christemas holydays' of the year 1529 he 'was Syke,' and fourpence had to be expended in addition, p. 349. That it was an additional expense we may see from the entry of Baleham's wages of the usual eight and eightpence on p. 351. There are very clear indications that on Sundays alone was the organ in use, for the fee paid to the blower, the common eight shillings and eightpence, and the calculation of his payment is expressed at p. 364:—
"to thomas coldale ffor blowynge of the organs lij Sondais in the yere, ffor euery sonday ij d, viij s viij d."

In later times, however, the organ was in use daily, p. 386. Chaucer students will remember the allusion to the 'merry organ' in church.

The Churchwardens.—The wardens were chosen by the parish, and on such occasions refreshment in the shape of bread and ale was provided, p. 264. It will be noticed, p. 264, that one warden only was chosen. The explanation of this will be found if we look at the sequence of the names of the churchwardens, when we shall see that it was customary for one warden to retire each year: thus each warden held office for two years successively, but not with the same colleague.

The names of the wardens for each year will be found at the commencement of each year's accounts. Apparently no one in the parish was ineligible for selection; many were tradesmen, p. 227.

In 1509–10 one of the churchwardens travelled to Kingston:—

"Paid for my Costes for me & my horse to Kyngeston, for to by bourde and lathe—x d," p. 269.

Singers of the Royal Chapel.—After 1527 we frequently find payments recorded to those of the king's chapel for singing in the church:—

"Paid at the Son tavern for the drinking of Mr Colmas with others of the kinges chapple that had songen in the churche—ix d," p. 344.

In the time of Mary the payment was made to— "gentyllmen of the qwenes chapell for syngynge a mas here," p. 396.

At p. 270 they were entertained at dinner at Mr. Sidborough's, which place appears to have provided dinners more or less frequently (see Dinners).

In default of other evidence we may perhaps conclude that these choristers were attached to one of the royal chapels within the precincts of the Tower.

The Choristers.—The terms 'Clerks' and 'Conducts' in our Records appear to be applied commonly to the men choristers and organists.

In 1523–4 several hymnals and a processional were purchased 'for þe clerkes in þe quere,' p. 321. These two books were those especially used by choristers before the Reformation.

References to 'þe clerkes & þe children at Masse' occur at times, pp. 290, 305. At p. 134 we have the apparently clear distinction drawn of 'prestes, clarkes & childern,' and a reference to surplices for conducts and children occurs at p. 358. At p. 81 we have a reference to wicker mats 'boght for prestis and clerkis,' and at p. 322 the entries:—

"paid for ij yerdys of wykur matt for the childrens fetexvj d
paid for vj Round Mattes of wykers for the Clerkesxv d"

At p. 364 we have the conjunction of "the organ player & ye clarkes."

Occasionally, but very rarely, a priest appears to have been employed as a chorister (?):—
"Sir Symond þe Base," p. 349.

As to the term 'conduct' we have the following:—
"paid to Iohn Northfolke [the organist] & the conductes & the Children," p. 327.

"to hier a conducte, a base," p. 406.

"paid to a condukte for the Estur halydays, for lak of the Clarkes absence, for to play at orgons," p. 281.

And Norfolk the organist is also described as a conduct at p. 324.

At p. 352 William Patten is mentioned as a 'conducte,' his yeares wages being £8 in the year before, p. 348, he is described as a 'clerke,' but receives the £8 certainly for the same period, and we may suppose for the same labour.

At p. 1 we find mention of the wife of a 'clerk,' and at p. 8 a reference to a John of Gildeford, 'sumtyme Citezein and Clerk.'

There seems to have been an understood system at St. Mary's by which certain parishioners agreed to pay so much towards the maintenance of the 'clerks wages,' p. 126. Not unfrequently these payments, apparently purely voluntarily given, were in very considerable arrears.

The 'Rowle for the Clerkes wages' is at times referred to, and it is probable that these rolls (see the 'Booke' at p. 126) were a yearly record of those people who agreed to pay so much for a year towards the wages of the parish clerk, sexton and choristers. At p. 378 we have a reference to 'the roll to gader the clarkes wages by.' And at p. 385:—
"Receyuid of the parissheners for the clarkes wages this yere, as particularly doth appere in a Roll made for the gathering and leveying therof."

These 'wages' appear to have been paid by the parishioners to the church funds four times a year—at the feasts of Christmas, the Annunciation, St. John Baptist, and St. Michael, pp. 128, 253.

At p. 294 we have a list of those who were behind with their payments towards 'clerkes wages.'

The money collected for 'Clerks Wages,' 'Paschal' and ' Beamlight' was ordinarily used to pay the wages of the parish clerk, sexton, organist, and choristers, p. 324, etc. etc. The wages of John Norfolk, the organist, were paid partly by the parish, partly by the rector, but this arrangement appears to have been exceptional, p. 324.

Sometimes children from another parish were engaged. Four from the neighbouring church of St. Magnus were paid a penny each for singing in 1477–9, p. 81. In 1493–4 a child singing 'trebyll' received twelvepence 'to help the choir in Christmas holidays,' p. 197.

Morres, the bass, was paid at the rate of twenty nobles a year, p. 329.

The number of men and boys in the choir is not at all clear. The children of the choir, excepting three boys in 1489–90 and 1490–1 and 1491–2, do not appear to have received any regular wages, though in the event of additional boys' voices being procured from the neighbouring church of St. Magnus or elsewhere, then such children, as we have seen, received payment. One of the boy choristers mentioned above appears to have been boarded out, for at p. 162 we find the record of a payment of vij s 'for his borde, to William Hall for xiiij wekes.'

The fact that two yards of wicker mat were purchased for the 'childrens fete,' and six round mats for the clerkes (see above), seem to point to a customary number of six men choristers and six boys, but the wages paid to the conducts and clerks generally seem to imply the engagement of a smaller number of men. Regarding the boys our Inventory at p. 31 refers to 'vj copes for children.'

On special occasions extra singers were engaged, 'bowere & hys companye,' pp. 173, 399. At p. 232 we see a chorister is hired from 'shroftyd to lammas.'

Rectors of the Choir.—Only two references to these two choirmen are to be found in our Records. At p. 31 we find in the Inventory of 1496–7:—
"Item, ij cheyres of Iron for Rector Coris"; and at p. 358 the expenditure of iiij s ij d is entered by the wardens as having been ' paid for ij stolys for the Rectours in the quyre, and ij Greyes skynnes.'

The Vestry.—Perhaps the most explicit reference to the body forming the Vestry is that on p. 319, where our text, making reference to an ordinance for burial fees, mentions that 'it was agreed, and by a Vestry ordained, by these persons following,' etc. See too p. 357.

The 'Vestry' is often referred to as having ordered such and such to be done or paid. 'The Seniors of the Parish' are at times alluded to, p. 246; and 'the masters of the parish,' pp. 309, 318. At other times money is formally deposited in the church chest in presence of 'xii persons of the parish,' p. 330. More than once the financial difficulties of a tenant of the church were generously considered by the Vestry, p. 342.

Viewers and Overseers.—Viewers and overseers for the Rents of the church and chantries are at times, though rarely, mentioned, pp. 111, 285, 320.

Sureties.—Parishioners sometimes stood as surety one for the payment due from another; an instance may be seen at p. 320.

The Raker.—The raker was hardly, strictly speaking, an official of the church, but was employed as a sort of scavenger. He was paid annually for some time the sum of eightpence, pp. 235, 256. See, too, p. 219.

The Prophets.—The Prophets were those men whose business it was to act on a stage built temporarily at Easter by the north door of the church. In 1524–5 we read of the purchase of wood 'for the fframe ouer þe North dore of the chirche, þat is for þe profettes on palmesonday,' p. 327. At p. 354 we find mention of 'papur for the profettes on palme sonday in þer hondes;' also of their clothes, wigs and false beards, of which some, probably all, were hired.

At p. 369 reference is made to 'ij skaffoldes,' evidently in connexion with the prophets; and the 'settyng vp of the stage' on p. 379.

Extra seats to view the performance, evidently, from the small sum paid, hired, appear to have been procured one year, 1537–8, when the wardens paid 'for cheires and formes on palme sonday, vd,' p. 379.

At p. 304 'the skaffold ouer þe porch ayenst palmesonday' is mentioned.

Almsmen.—The almsmen, though scarcely on the staff of the church, may be mentioned here. They were three in number. Their origin is to be traced to the Will of John Bedham, where at p. 17 we read:—

"Item, I woll that the said wardeyns . . . . pay to iij poure people most nedefull . . . dwellyng in the said parissh of seynt Mary atte hill, euery Sonday, wekely, euery yere for euermore, that is to sey, to euery of the same poure people, iiij d."

The entry of such payment in our accounts recurs annually, till the destruction of the fund; with often the names of the recipients. In 1487–8 these names were Hugh Jackson, William Paris, and William Wylcockes.

Sometimes the Almsmen added to their little incomes by blowing the organ. On pp. 328 and 340 we have entries to the effect that they were organ blowers for the whole year.

According to the will of Richard Gosslyn, p. 14, two other 'poure men' or 'poure women' were to have sixpence each, weekly, as alms; but our Records contain no entries of such payments.

The Organ Maker.—Various references to 'the organ maker' are recorded in our pages. In 1524–5, p. 328, the organ maker was paid two shillings for mending the organs according to the instructions given by the organist, the energetic Mr. Norfolk.

The sum of twelvepence was paid yearly to the organ maker for supervision of the organs, p. 314, in addition to expenses incurred for their repair.

The Laundress.—Several laundresses were employed at one time and another to wash the church linen, the most conspicuous being Alis Smale, who for several years washed and mended the linen vestments, p. 270, etc.

The Ringers.—The ringers are occasionally alluded to, as at pp. 149, 327, etc. The following entry is, however, unusual:—
"paid for Ryngyng of None, curfew and day pele and courfewe & other pelis on our lady day the Assumpcion," p. 332.

The greater dignitaries of the diocese are but very rarely referred to in our text, and the following few extracts virtually exhaust the references to any of them.

The Bishop of London.—This great dignitary is seldom mentioned in our Records. The bishop held a visitation in 1494–5 in the neighbouring church of St. Magnus, p. 214, and again there in 1497–8, p. 230, but such appear to have been the only occasions of episcopal visitation in this neighbourhood. At the latter visitation refreshments appear to have been provided:—
"Item, paid [for] bred, ale & a Rybbe of bieff Spent at the Castell in fish strett on dyuerse of the parishons at the visitacion of the bishope of london in Seint Magnys chirche. Summa viij d," p. 230.

The servant of the bishop, or suffragan bishop, received in 1519– 20, twelvepence at the 'halowyng of the vestementtis,' p. 306.

To these references we may add that of the visit paid by the parson and several parishioners to the bishop at Fulham respecting one of the chantries. Apparently the journey was made by boat, p. 296.

The Bishop Suffragan.—The 'soffrycan of london' was in 1493–4 paid ten shillings and fourpence for hallowing the altar of St. Stephen, p. 198. In 1503–4 the 'svffrycans man' was paid fourpence apparently on the occasion of a consecration or 'hallovyng,' p. 250. In 1493–4 xij d was 'payd to mastyr parson for halowyng of the westementes,' p. 199. In 1555–6 no less than thirteen shillings was expended on—
"the dynner of the suffrycan yat daye he halowed the altars and other yat did service with hym," p. 403.

A list of the suffragan bishops of London will be found in Hennessy's Novum Repertorium, p. 3.

The Archdeacon.—This dignitary, like the bishop and bishop suffragan, is also rarely mentioned in our text. Two visitations are alluded to, both very late, at pp. 407, 411.

The Chancellor.—Our text contains but few references to this official, one being 'when the goodwyff hewys was called befor the chaunseler for the chirch money withholdyng,' p. 296. At p. 344 occurs the entry of two shillings and eightpence having been paid—
"for a pekerell givin to the chaunceler of london for alowing of our tolleracion for Maister Nasing."

The Commissary.—Two references only to this functionary occur in our text. The first is not very explicit:—
"Item, spent on Master Iohn, Thomas Wattes, Thomas hunt, Iohn derhame, when we aperyd afor the comyssary at Seynt Manguls," p. 240.

But for whom the commissary was acting, whether for the bishop, bishop suffragan or archdeacon, is not told, nor for what purpose these people came before him.

The second reference is nothing more than a mention of 'the Archedeken of london or to his commyssary,' p. 6.

The Somoner.—The somoner, though very far removed from a dignitary, finds perhaps his best place here as being a particular official of dignitaries. The somoner was a server of summonses and an official of the ecclesiastical courts. On p. 410 he is referred to as 'my Lorde of Londons somner.' This official makes his appearance very rarely in our text. In 1529–30 we find he was paid twopence 'for Somenyng of Mr Hiltons, preist,' p. 349.

More than once the somoner appears to have been paid for bringing small articles to the churchwardens. In 1556–7 he brought the chrismatory at Easter, p. 406.


1 Mr. A. F. Leach points out that some chantries were established during the lifetime of their founders.