Windleshaw Chantry - 600 years old

By Kevin Heneghan

Monday 22 June marks the 600th anniversary of Windleshaw Chantry in St Helens and to honour the occasion Mass was celebrated by Fr Tom Gagie, parish priest of St Thomas of Canterbury in the Lancashire town, at the ruined Chantry which falls under his supervision.

Previous Masses at the Chantry – which recent research shows was officially opened on 21 June 1415 and not in 1435 as previously thought – have been well attended. It is hoped English Heritage can be persuaded to make a grant for its partial restoration.

Windleshaw Chantry, sited in a small graveyard adjoining St Helens Borough Cemetery, is one of the oldest buildings in the area, having been built in 1415 by Sir Thomas Gerard, lord of the manors of Bryn and Windle, to have Masses said for his wife, himself and his ancestors.

Windleshaw Abbey may be its local name, but the ruin in the graveyard was never an abbey, as its size alone shows. It is only 50ftx40ft and 14ft high, with a tower just 36ft tall and 12ft square, with walls 3½ft thick, and built of sandstone quarried nearby in Hard Lane.

It was Chantry guide Ted Forsyth who recently discovered in an old document that it was in 1415, and not 1435, that the Chantry was inaugurated. The document, dated 21 June 1415, states: "I John Catrick, Bishop of Coventry and Lichfield, give licence to my dear son in Christ, Thomas Gerard Knight and his wife Margaret, for Mass and Divine Office to be celebrated in their Chantry Chapel within their manor of Windle, the same being situated in the said diocese."

Clearly the Chantry was already built. Like the present church at Dentons Green, it was dedicated to the Gerard family patron, St Thomas of Canterbury; indeed, the tower of the present church, opened in 1912 and designed by Pugin & Pugin, is modelled on the Chantry tower. St Catherine's Chantry at Lydiate is also known locally as 'Lydiate Abbey'.

What was a chantry? It could be a separate building like the one at Windleshaw or a chapel or altar in a parish church. Some chantries were provided by individuals and others by fraternities or guilds. People supplied candles, flowers, stained glass windows and other decorations, with rich and poor alike donating either money or goods for their maintenance, such as beeswax, cattle, sheep, timber, stone, malt, silver, cloth and ordinary household utensils. When the Chantry was visited in 1558 under the Chantry Act of 1547, there were 2,374 chantries in the country. There were more monasteries and priories in the east of England but more chantries in the west.

Why were chantries made? In the Middle Ages, people had a firm belief in Purgatory – a terrifying place of intense but purifying fire, where souls who died with punishment still due for sins repented and forgiven in Confession had to attain the perfect holiness essential for entry to Heaven. Masses, prayers and good works would speed them on their way. The present view is that the chief pain of Purgatory is a burning desire for union with God. As Sir Thomas Gerard died aged 56 in 1416, a year after the Chantry's opening, he could well have been aware of his own approaching end and, being a rich man like many of his forebears, had recalled the Gospel reference to the camel and the needle's eye. Building a chantry to provide for Masses might win celestial Brownie points.

Eventually, the lordship of Windle came to another Sir Thomas Gerard (1520–1601). He had married Elizabeth Port of Etwall, Derbyshire, and was imprisoned in the Tower for trying to help Mary Queen of Scots escape to the Isle of Man from nearby Tutbury Castle. He had to sell an estate to buy his freedom. This would later win his elder son Thomas a baronetcy from Mary's son King James 1, absolving him from the usual £1,000 fee "for the love which I have for your blood".

Secret burials took place here. In the early 1600s, Catholics were refused burial in the consecrated ground of once-Catholic but now Anglican churchyards. The land around the Chantry was therefore used for secret burials at night. The St Helens Family History Society noted in the 1985 text 'Monumental Inscriptions – Windleshaw Chantry' that, "As a place of sepulture for the clergy, Windleshaw remains unique. At least 60 priests are buried here, more than in any other place of similar size in England."

Among them is Bishop Thomas Penswick, Vicar Apostolic of the northern District 1831–36 and his brother, Fr John Penswick, the last survivor of the Douai priests, who in 1828 built St Mary's Birchley.

The Reformation begins: In 1547, the ten-year-old Edward VI succeeded his father, Henry VIII and the country was governed by a regency. England now became markedly Protestant under the influence of Archbishop Thomas Cranmer. In 1548, under the Chantries Act of 1557, Edward VI's commissioners came to assess the Chantry's value. They noted that it was founded by Thomas Gerard Knight to have Masses for the souls of his ancestors. The priest, Richard Frodsham, received £4 16s annually in two half-yearly payments from the manor of Windle – and "the said preist is remayning ther and doth celebrate accordinglie". This implies that the priest was left undisturbed. He was then 54. There were also no 'reprises' (annual charges) due to the Crown.

The chantry priest was called an 'annualer'. Besides his salary, he would have been provided with a house and a plot of land. He could also have supplemented his income by teaching yeomen's children to read and write, helping farmers and tradesmen with their accounts, and supplying Mass occasionally at the parish church in Prescot. He would thus have enjoyed a reasonable lifestyle in an age when a labourer's wage was less than one shilling a week. Mass at the Chantry would have enabled labourers and servants to attend a 'morrow Mass' before starting their day's work.

When Mary Tudor succeeded in 1553 and restored Catholicism, there was respite until she in turn was succeeded in 1558 by the staunchly Protestant Elizabeth I. Mass evidently continued undisturbed until the death of Richard Frodsham. By then, in this new age of priest-hunting, no replacement would have been possible. For anyone wishing to learn more about Catholic life in this period, Eamon Duffy's 'The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England 1400–1580' is required reading.

South of the Chantry are the remains of the old town cross, which once stood in the market place near the site of the present parish church. Its arms were destroyed in the 1600s by Puritan iconoclasts, so influential Catholic landowners, of whom there were many, moved it to its present location. Close to one of the lodges and surrounded by rusty iron railings is the Gerard family vault.

The Chantry began to decay in 1644 when Parliamentary troops under General Fairfax stripped lead from the roof to make musket balls and cannon shot on their way to the siege of Lathom Hall. Further vandalism occurred in the present century when the former nave became a den for local druggies. It is hoped English Heritage will make a grant to allow some restoration work to be done on this priceless relic of bygone days.

On the Solemnity of All Saints in 2008, parish priest Fr Tom Gagie celebrated Mass at the Chantry – the first for nearly 600 years. Mass was repeated on Easter Monday 2009 and again on Easter Monday 2010 and 2011, the large attendances giving clear proof that the faith of our fathers is living still, in spite of dungeon, fire and sword.