Untold lives blog

2 posts categorized "Medieval history"

04 September 2018

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.

Singing priests in the St. Omer Psalter ‘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.

Manuscript illustrating the relieving of souls, ‘drawne up oute of purgatory' The relieving of souls, ‘drawne up oute of purgatory by prayer & almos dede’ [BL MS Add. 37049, f.24v, early 15th century]

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.

TNA E 101-75-14 (detail)  Accounts showing the payment of just a half of Skeyte’s pensions during the year of his death  Accounts showing the payment of just a half of Skeyte’s pensions during the year of his death [TNA E 101/75/14, E 101/76/15].

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.
Inventory of the Goods of William Skeyte  page 1

Inventory of the Goods of William Skeyte  page 2Inventory of the Goods of William Skeyte [Hampshire Record Office: 1551U/091]

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.

Stephen Gadd
University of Winchester

Further reading:
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.


25 October 2015

St Crispin’s Day

The Battle of Agincourt was fought between the English and French armies 600 years ago on 25 October 1415, St Crispin’s Day.

And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.
(Shakespeare’s Henry V Act 4, Scene 3)


Plan of the Battle of Agincourt from The Chronicles of E. de Monstrelet (London, 1840) BL flickr  Noc


St Crispin is the patron saint of shoemakers, cobblers, and leatherworkers.  In the third century two brothers, Crispin and Crispinian, went from Rome to France where they preached Christianity and worked at night making shoes.  The Roman governor had them put to death and they were made saints having been martyrs for their faith.


St Crispin and St Crispinian from William Hone, The Every-day Book (1825) Noc


Shoemakers traditionally celebrated St Crispin’s Day with a day off work and much merrymaking. Newspapers often published stories of shoemakers ‘on the drink’ as they kept St Crispin’s Day. An old rhyme ran:

The twenty-fifth of October,
More Snobs drunk than sober.

If it rained on 25 October, St Crispin was said to be helping shoemakers by sending weather that made people think of buying new shoes and galoshes.

William Hone tells the story of Emperor Charles V roaming incognito in Brussels when his boot needed mending.  He found a cobbler but it happened to be St Crispin’s Day.  The cobbler refused to leave the jollities to carry out the repair in spite of being offered a handsome tip by the Emperor: ‘“What, friend!” says the fellow, “do you know no better than to ask one of our craft to work on St. Crispin?  Was it Charles himself, I’d not do a stitch for him now; but if you’ll come and drink St. Crispin, do and welcome: we are as merry as the emperor can be.”’ Charles accepted the offer.  The cobbler guessed that Charles might be a courtier and drank a toast to the Emperor. Charles asked if he loved the Emperor: ‘“Love him!” says the son of Crispin; “ay, ay, I love his long-noseship well enough; but I should love him much better would he but tax us a little less”’. The next day, Charles summoned his host to court.  When the man realised whom he had entertained the previous day, he feared his joke about the Emperor’s long nose would cost him his life. However Charles thanked the cobbler for his hospitality and as a reward ordered that the cobblers of Flanders should bear arms of a boot with the Emperor’s crown upon it, and that the company of cobblers should henceforward take precedence over the company of shoemakers in processions.

Charles V
The Emperor Charles V (1500-1558) from Cassell's Illustrated Universal History (London, 1893) BL flickr Noc


So we wish you a Happy St Crispin's Day!

Ho! workers of the old time styled
The Gentle Craft of Leather!
Young brothers of the ancient guild,
Stand forth once more together!
Call out again your long array,
In the olden merry manner!
Once more, on gay St. Crispin's day,
Fling out your blazoned banner!

From 'The Shoemaker' by John Greenleaf Whittier


Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records Cc-by

Further reading:
William Hone, The Every-day Book (1825)
British Newspaper Archive