Medieval Part II: Religion

The power and influence of the Catholic Church – then the only Church in western Europe – reached its zenith in England in the Middle Ages. In the 14th century about one in 15 of all Englishmen were churchmen of some kind. Most senior government officials were bishops or other clergy.

Mount Grace Priory, the last medieval monastery founded in Yorkshire

Mount Grace Priory, the last medieval monastery founded in Yorkshire


Bishops and abbots were also powerful landowners, living in great mansions such as the Medieval Bishops’ Palace in Lincoln and Wolvesey Castle, Winchester.

Few new monasteries were founded, with the exception of those of Carthusian hermit-monks, such as Mount Grace Priory, North Yorkshire, in 1398. But despite the crisis of the Black Death, many older monasteries revived and thrived, often commissioning lavish new building works.

For most people, however, the parish church was the focus of religious life. Here they heard Mass each Sunday and celebrated the many saints’ days and festivals interwoven with daily life and the agricultural year.

Exterior of St Mary's Church, Kempley

St Mary’s Church in Kempley, Gloucestershire. Parish churches were at the heart of medieval life, and were in many cases the only major communal building in the local area.


Some might bequeath money for the priest to pray for their souls after death. They hoped that prayer might shorten their time in Purgatory, where souls not condemned to Hell were ‘purged’ of their sins until they were fit for Heaven.

The wealthy could endow permanent chantry chapels (like the splendid Percy Chantry at Tynemouth Priory, Tyne and Wear, and the chapel at Farleigh Hungerford Castle, Somerset). Chantry priests were employed solely to pray for the salvation of these benefactors and their families.

The chantry chapel at Tynemouth Priory

The chantry chapel at Tynemouth Priory, Tyne and Wear, was endowed in the late 15th century, possibly by the Percy family. Mass would be regularly chanted for the person or family who endowed a chantry chapel, as it was believed that prayers and Masses could shorten a soul’s time spent in Purgatory.


Many people similarly hoped to achieve spiritual merit or cures for poor health by making pilgrimages to holy shrines. For others, like some of the tale-tellers immortalised in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, pilgrimages were an excuse for an enjoyable outing.

The goal of Chaucer’s characters was the most renowned English shrine: that of St Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral, where he was martyred in 1170. Pilgrims flocked to it from all over Britain and Europe.

This was part of a wider pattern of pilgrimage across England, often to places claiming to house saints’ relics. Hailes Abbey, Gloucestershire, boasted no less a relic than a phial of the supposed Blood of Christ. The ‘Holy House of the Virgin Mary’ at Walsingham in Norfolk brought prosperity to monasteries like Castle Acre Priory and Binham Priory, as pilgrims sojourned along the ‘Walsingham Way’.

Medieval ampulla (holy water container) found at Finchale Priory

Holy water containers, or ampullas, were often sold to pilgrims at shrines. This ampulla was found at Finchale Priory, county Durham, a popular pilgrimage destination which housed the shrine of St Godric, a 12th-century ascetic and hermit.
© Sunderland Museum and Winter Gardens/Chapter of Durham Cathedral


Though many complained about the clergy, few in England openly questioned the Church’s teachings until the later 14th century.

The Oxford academic John Wycliffe (d.1384) famously denounced the Church’s possessions and influence. He questioned un-biblical beliefs in Purgatory, pilgrimages and the cult of saints. Most crucially, he also disputed the power of priests to create the Body and Blood of Christ at Mass.

Wycliffe also pioneered the hitherto forbidden translation of the Bible into English, and though contemptuously nicknamed Lollards (meaning ‘mumblers’), his ‘heretical’ followers initially gained some support in high places. This prompted an alarmed Church to pass the law De Heretico Comburendo in 1401, allowing obstinate heretics to be burned. And after an abortive Lollard conspiracy in 1414 failed to kidnap Henry V at Eltham Palace in Greenwich, heresy was equated with treason against the state and lost all political credibility.

Not until the Reformation under the Tudors did the state itself overturn the power of the Catholic Church in England.

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