Unsung Souls: William Skeyte and the English Reformation
The singing priest, William Skeyte, suffered the misfortune of losing a ‘job for life’ not just once but twice, first in consequence of the Dissolution of the Monasteries, and again within ten years as the English Crown drove the Reformation yet harder with the abolition of chantries and free chapels.
‘Cantate domino’ – singing priests in the St. Omer Psalter [Yates Thompson MS 14 f.103r]
Christchurch Priory (then in Hampshire, now Dorset) was surrendered to the Crown in November 1539 (its cartulary survives at the British Library in Cotton MS Tiberius D VI). The life pension of £6 subsequently granted to William Skeyte was typical of those received by all of the Priory’s former canons: in modern terms, this might be equivalent to annual income of about £33,000.
The manorial free chapel of St Anne at Hinton Admiral, just three miles from Christchurch Priory, is absent from the Taxatio Ecclesiastica of 1291-2 (Harley MS 591), and so was probably established after that date. Its endowment in 1448, by the foundation of a chantry within the chapel, provided a salary of 63s 4d for a cantarist, and Skeyte is likely to have taken up this post only after his duties at the Priory had been abolished. In order to reduce the time they would spend in purgatory, Skeyte would be required to sing daily prayers for the souls of a long list of founders and their family, friends, and benefactors, but primarily for the souls of Elizabeth St. Omer and her third husband, John Syward. The psalter pictured above was produced initially for a member of her family, and it was from Elizabeth’s second husband that their daughter, Joan, inherited the manor of Hinton Admiral in 1394.
After the closure of the chantries on Easter Day 1548, Skeyte continued to receive his salary in the form of an additional life-pension. The chapel itself was turned to other uses within the manor. Its assets, seized by the Crown, amounted to no more than ‘one litle Belle’ weighing about 20 pounds and valued at just 2 shillings, together with ornaments valued at 9 pence and plate at 2 pence.
Among Skeyte’s possessions, listed in an inventory taken after his death in January 1551 by the mayor of Christchurch, were a surplice, and a saddle and bridle, all of which had presumably been in daily use for his visits to Hinton. Curiously, he also owned a sword and spear. Administration was granted to his brother, Thomas Skeyte, a husbandman of Downton, Wiltshire.
The chapel is the subject of ongoing research, which has already established that its structure may have survived until the early 19th century, close to the site of the present-day war memorial at Hinton Admiral. A century earlier, the manor house across the road was replaced by another elusive building, Hinton Place.
University of Winchester
Alixe Bovey, Death and the afterlife: how dying affected the living
Cotton Ms. Cleopatra E v, f.142: Bishop of Worcester's writing on purgatory, with notes by Henry VIII
Crown and Church: How did reforms in religious practice in the mid 16th century affect the people of Britian?
A broader picture and a list of source material is given by Alan Kreider, English chantries: the road to dissolution (Harvard University Press, 1979)
Details of the elaborate dining and shaving routines of the canons in Christchurch Priory before its dissolution can be found at Cotton MS Tiberius D VI, II ff.67-68, published in Katharine A. Hanna, ed., Christchurch Priory Cartulary, (Winchester, 2007).
The Digital Image Archive of Medieval Music has a growing collection of music of the sort that would have been familiar to William Skeyte.