Tuesday, March 24, 2015

A requiem for Richard: on the cult of purgatory, chantry chapels, and the king's faith

Yesterday, the cardinal-archbishop of Westminster, Vincent Nichols, celebrated a requiem Mass for Richard III at Holy Cross Priory, a Catholic church near (Anglican) Leicester Cathedral. I've only been able to find one photograph, the one you see above. I find it most regrettable that the Mass wasn't of a form that Richard would have easily recognized, especially since the Dominican Rite liturgy is apparently celebrated at the priory daily. Still, there are two noteworthy links to the past from that Mass which I'm compelled to point out.

1.) One of the choirs that sang at the Mass was the Choir of Saint Barnabas Cathedral, Nottingham. Saint Barnabas was one of the first Catholic parishes built in England after Catholic emancipation. It was designed by Augustus Welby Pugin in 1841, sponsored largely by Pugin's longtime patron, Lord Shrewsbury. Unfortunately (with no disrespect intended to its current members who serve in good faith), the choir has not been of the traditional boys/men style for many years.

The Westminster vestment, front
2.) The chasuble worn by Cardinal Nichols at this Mass was an antique; so old, in fact, that some people were upset at the risk simply wearing it at all would pose to the fabric. It is the Westminster vestment, dating to the 15th century and believed to have been worn by the Benedictine monks of Westmnster Abbey during the reign of Richard III. Further, its designs match that of a vestment described in Richard's royal inventories. We have reason to believe, therefore, that Richard may have attended Mass by a priest wearing this chasuble at least once in his life. One description says of the needlework:

"Over the crucifix is a dove symbolizing the Holy Ghost; and over the dove is God the Father surrounded by glory. On each side of the crucifix are two angels in mid air, with chalices in each hand receiving the Precious Blood from the wounds of the dying Christ. At the foot of the crucifix is a figure in armour over which is thrown a robe open at front. This and the following single figures are standing under an architectural canopy in which we see 'Perpendicular' characteristics. On the orphrey on the front of the chasuble are: St. Edward the Confessor, a female and a male saint, the three being crowned and richly attired. All the figures are graceful and edifying. The main body of the chasuble is covered with a beautiful woven 'pomegranate pattern.' Though the general effect of this vestment is somewhat spoilt by its being cut down to the French 'violin shape,' yet it is, nevertheless, very rich and fine." (The Month, Volume 103, page 617)

And yes, before one jumps to the assumption that this chasuble is proof of the fiddleback style's antiquity, I assure you it's quite the contrary! Some Rococo-era vandals sliced the fabric away to conform this fine vestment to the fashions of the day; probably the priests and seminarians of Ushaw College (an active seminary until it closed in 2011 due to lack of vocations), who received the vestment as a gift in 1867. Ushaw does provide us with another Pugin connection, however. Augustus Pugin designed its first chapel, in 1847. Two of his sons, also architects, provided buildings of their own.

Why the requiem Mass matters

What's a requiem Mass, anyway? The name comes from the first word of the Introit chant which begins that Mass: Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine. "Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord." It, and all the other proper chants of the Mass have long since been set to famous scores by classical composers such as Mozart's (which were still meant to be sung in the context of actual Masses, not concert-halls), but you may listen to the original plainchant version, which I sing with my Gregorian schola from time to time, below:

Rest from what, though? This liturgy is officially called the Missa pro defunctis, the Mass for the dead: and its chief purpose is to be offered to ease the suffering of a soul in purgatory. Since purgatory is a uniquely Catholic doctrine, only the Catholic Church ever offers requiem Masses for the dead (although the Eastern Orthodox, to my knowledge, have similar services). Most other Christian sects teach that souls only go to one of two places: heaven or hell. But in the Catholic faith, it's understood that many souls, even if they've been forgiven of the eternal consequences of sin (the loss of eternal salvation) by confession, must still atone for temporal consequences of sin by the purifying process we call purgatory, before being admitted to the gates of heaven.

A solemn requiem Mass from a book of hours.
I explained the doctrine in part in my past article on indulgences, but in short, the Church encourages her members to pray always for the souls of all the faithful departed because those prayers may ease the passage of such souls to eternal life. Any prayer may be said to give relief for the souls of deceased loved ones and so on, but no prayer is higher in value than that of the sacrifice of the Mass. Because the Mass is the highest prayer, by which Christ's sacrifice on the cross is mystically re-presented in an unbloody manner, the Church has long applied the Mass's boundless merits to the souls of the departed.

A better understanding of what the requiem Mass is may be gathered by considering who doesn't receive them:
-Requiems are never offered for canonized saints, of course, because those souls are already in heaven and have no need for prayers of repose.
-Requiems are also not offered for the souls of baptized infants and children who die while young; because they died before reaching the age of reason, they had no occasion to ever commit sin, and therefore died as saints. They are buried instead with the Mass of the angels, the clergy wearing white vestments rather than black.
-The question of children who die before their parents can baptize them is a thorny one; while I personally have no doubt that God would bring those children to heaven, this was not a "given" until recent times. Still, even in the strictest theological understandings, a baby has no reason to go to purgatory, so requiems are not offered for them, either.

This leaves everyone else; at least, all Catholics who are known to have died at least nominally within the faith. So, anyone who didn't die while excommunicated. All these Catholics may have the requiem Mass prayed for them, even the worst sinners. [Edited to add: a commenter adds, citing the Catholic Encyclopedia, that the requiem Mass may be offered privately, but not publicly, even for deceased non-Catholics and excommunicated persons under certain conditions.] While the requiem's prayers are of no avail to people who are in hell, there's no way for any of us to know who's there; therefore, having the requiem offered for them is always a good thing. What's more is that the requiem Mass, though it forms a central part of the burial rites of any adult Catholic, is by no means limited to that moment. It can be offered for any Catholic on most days (excluding feasts of certain rank), and is especially recommended on the anniversary of either death or of burial. And, unless the person is declared a saint, requiems may be offered for that person every eligible day until the end of time. And here is where Richard III enters our story.

Richard's chantry chapels

We can get a window into Richard III's beliefs by examining how he treated the dead. From the 13th century until the Reformation, the English were perhaps Christendom's most zealous believers in purgatory and the need to offer souls for the faithful departed. An entire institution was created just for this need: the chantry chapel. A chantry was an endowment for one or more priests to offer requiem Masses and other prayers (such as the Office of the Dead) for the soul, or souls, of the patron. Basically, a priest was given an income solely to offer requiem Masses. Since a priest traditionally could not offer Mass more than once a day, these chantry priests had no liturgical duties to the greater community and could focus the rest of their time on charitable works; a feat much lamented when Edward VI's reformers came around to suppress all the chantries and confiscate their wealth for the king's advisors in the name of redistribution for "the public good".

Remains of the St Leger chantry chapel at Saint George's Chapel, Windsor Castle. It was endowed for two priests to sing for their souls ("with too prestys sy’gyng for ev’more. On whose soule god have mercy") for Sir Thomas St Leger and his wife, Anne of York. Anne was the older sister of Kings Edward IV and Richard III. One of her living descendants, Michael Ibsen, provided his DNA to positively identify the remains of Richard III.
Medieval cathedrals and parish churches alike in England are still filled with the remnants of the chantry chapels, which are often like private churches within a church. These alcoves were originally built by the wealthy, but eventually, people of the common classes also pooled funds together to build chapels to be shared among several families, or for guilds. In the medieval Church, we can see that there was serious preoccupation with the fate of one's deceased relatives and other loved ones. Even by medieval standards, though, Richard III took that devotion to a new level. I will mention some examples named in Aubrey's National and Domestic History of England, among other sources:

-after his elder brother's death, Richard paid the friars in Richmond "for the saying of one thousand masses for the soul of King Edward IV"
-he endowed the chantry priest at the village of Sheriff-Hutton, where he had imprisoned Earl Rivers, with an additional ten pounds per year
-he elevated the chantry at Middleham, where he first met his wife, Anne Neville, into a college of 12 priests; the charter explains his intention was "in part of satisfaction of such things as at the dreadful day of judgement I shall answer for" (so says Seward's Richard III: England's Black Legend)
-and, most notably, he planned to erect a chantry chapel at York Minster with 6 altars and 100 priests. Seward observes that this would have been a monumental expense involving also expenses for hundreds of additional servants, and a great many vestments and vessels. If he had succeeded, Richard would have had enough priests to offer requiem Masses for his soul all day long on every permitted day of the year: truly, in perpetuity.

The Markham Chapel, built in the reign of Henry VIII, is an example of one of the many chantry chapels built in ordinary parish churches: a church within the church. All around it are designs from the "dance of death" motif, reminding all who see it of their own impending mortality.
Yet another abortive project, which was actually on the verge of completion, was Richard's chantry chapel at the site of the Battle of Towton. Claiming the lives of around 28,000 men in 1461, Towton was the bloodiest battle of the Wars of the Roses, and in fact, all of English history until the Somme during World War I. Richard's brother, Edward IV, ordered his men to take no prisoners; bodies piled up in the river until the waters ran red with blood for whole days. Richard set his men to dig the bodies out of mass graves, where they had lain for over twenty years by this point, and re-buried in consecrated ground. He set aside forty pounds for the chantry chapel to be raised atop the very battleground, where priests would pray for the souls of the men on both sides of the war, York and Lancaster. The king said:
"the people of this kingdom, in a plentiful multitude, were taken away from human affairs; and their bodies were notoriously left on the aforesaid field and in other places nearby, thoroughly outside the ecclesiastical burial places, in three hollows. Whereupon we, on account of affection, contriving the burial of the deceased men of this sort, caused the bones of the same men to be exhumed and left for an ecclesiastical burial in these coming months, partly in the parish church of Saxton in our said county of York and in the cemetery of the said place, and partly in the chapel of Towton aforesaid, and in the surroundings of this very place."

After the ascent of Henry VII, the construction was abandoned and the chantry chapel fell to ruin. Archaeologists have, however, apparently discovered its remains just last year.

Richard's personal devotions

Aside from the chantry chapels, Richard endowed many other priests to offer Masses for the living, and seems to have endowed the creation of more college chapels during his two years than any other king of England in the same amount of time. But what about his private devotions? Did Richard even pray at all when his subjects weren't looking? Or was piety, as in the scene of his pretended reluctance to accept the crown in Shakespeare's play, all just going through the motions?

Our best indicators would be from the books Richard was known to have owned. In yesterday's article, I commented on the Wycliffe New Testament that he seems to have had since his days as duke of Gloucester. He also had an Old Testament in paraphrase verse, a book of private revelations by Saint Mechtilde called the Book of Special Grace,  and of course, a book of hours. This was found among his belongings at Bosworth Field. Henry Tudor presented it to his mother, Margaret Beaufort, probably as a trophy.

The book of hours was, without question, the most important religious book for (well-to-do) laymen in the Middle Ages. More than the Bible or the Missal, the book of hours was the lay Christian's guide to daily prayer. At its core laid the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary, a simplified version of the full Divine Office prayed by clerks and monks. And England, more than any other kingdom in Christendom, was known for zealous observance of the divine Hours through the day even from lay folk. Like their modern counterpart, the hand missals, books of hours also included the seven penitential psalms, the litany of saints, and all the other essential prayers one might desire, even custom additions or specially composed prayers at the patron's request. Eamon Duffy has a wonderful volume on this subject called Marking the Hours, with special emphasis on all the little notes in the margins that medieval owners left for us to analyze (everything from typical prayers to store inventories, shopping lists, and gossip).

An Annunciation scene in Richard's book of hours.
Richard's book of hours was already an antique by the time he got it, but he made it his own with a prayer added at the end. I quote only one section of a longer text:
"Lord Jesus Christ, son of the living God, deign to free me, your servant Richard, from every tribulation, sorrow and trouble in which I am placed and from the plots of my enemies, and deign to send Michael the Archangel to my aid against them, and deign, Lord Jesus Christ, to bring to nothing their evil plans... even as you brought to nothing the counsel of Achitofel, who incited Absolom against King David."

Seward goes on to psychoanalyze Richard's prayer, as though it suggests a man living in the paranoia and guilt of past sins. The strongest evidence in favor is the prayer's heading: de beato Juliano. The prayer invokes the name of Saint Julian the Hospitaller, who (according to the Golden Legend) was forgiven by Christ even after murdering his own parents. Would this prayer, then, resound in a special way for a man who ordered the deaths of his own nephews in a bid for the crown? On the other hand, as a Ricardian would point out, there's nothing unusual at all in the language of Richard's prayer for a pious man of the age. It was a time when the faithful were preoccupied with the last petition in the Lord's Prayer, of deliverance from all temptation and evil spirits; a worldview which reached its full and truly ridiculous exaggeration in the person of a young monk named Martin Luther a few decades hence. The consequences of its backlash would spell the end of spiritual unity in the Christian west.

God outside of time
If this all seems like nothing more than a journey through the superstitions of a long-dead age, I apologize for sharing my ideas so poorly. No, I wrote only to explain a system of belief that's now effectively alien to the modern man, even the average modern Catholic. Strange to say, though, that it wasn't the Reformation that brought an end to the idea of chantries for the dead. The last chantry in England was endowed by Queen Mary during her brief restoration of Catholicism, but elsewhere, purgatorial societies; that is, fraternities of people enrolled together with a pledge to pray for the souls of the departed of a particular community, such as the local parish church; had a rebirth in the later 19th century and persisted in strength until (you guessed it) Vatican II. The idea of such a medievalism then became an embarrassment among the enlightened clergy, which just about every bishop and priest of the day liked to fashion themselves as... and so, the societies withered down to extinction in short order.

Thankfully, since God exists outside of time, the modern Catholic need not feel enslaved to the whim of theological trends, and can rest assured that prayers offered in the year 2015 can be just as powerful for someone who died in 1485 as though they offered up on the altar on the very day of death.

Cardinal Nichols isn't the only one to offer prayers on behalf of the forgotten king. The Dominican friars at Holy Cross will pray Vespers this evening. And, notably, on the day of reinterment, the church of Saint Catherine, Leyland will be celebrating a sung requiem Mass in the traditional Latin Rite, with music "in the style and manner" of Richard's day. My own efforts to organize a requiem Mass for Richard (and the princes in the Tower, and all who died at Bosworth Field) came to naught, but I'll be uniting my prayer intentions on that day with any Masses being offered for the same on the 26th. I hope that if anyone out there happens to attend a requiem for Richard that you will kindly share pictures with me to repost here.

I end this post with the text of Cardinal Nichols's homily during the Requiem Mass at Holy Cross Priory, first posted on the Catholic Herald. As with the homily at Compline, it's worth reading (and for frock flick viewers, look out for the thinly veiled reference to that Cromwellian agitprop piece known as Wolf Hall).
This evening we fulfil a profound and essential Christian duty: that of praying for the dead, for the repose of their eternal souls. Here we pray for King Richard III, ‘King of England and France and Lord of Ireland’ to use a title he ascribed to himself. This is a remarkable moment.
The prayer we offer for him this evening is the best prayer there is: the offering of the Holy Mass, the prayer of Jesus himself, made complete in the oblation of his body and blood on the altar of the cross, present here for us on this altar. This is the summit of all prayer, for it is made in and through the one person, the eternal Word, through whom all created beings have life. It is a prayer that arises from the very core of creation, the cry of the Word returning to the Father and carrying within it the totality of that creation, marred and broken in its history, yet still longing for the completion for which it has been created. It is, therefore, such an important Catholic tradition to seek the celebration of Mass for the repose of the souls of those who have died, especially for each of our loved ones whose passing we mourn. Let us not forget or neglect this great gift.
During this week, Mass is being offered in many Catholic Churches for the repose of the soul of King Richard III. Rightly so. That is exactly what he would have wished, having himself set up at least one chantry chapel for Masses to be celebrated for the dead of both sides of the Battle of Towton in 1461. This was a most violent conflict, marking the defeat of Henry IV, a single day on which between 10-20,000 Lancastrians were killed and a stark demonstration of the tragedy of civil war. Prayers were indeed needed.
Surely we can be confident that, despite the haste and the violent confusion of the time, this same Sacrifice of the Mass was celebrated by the Greyfriars for the repose of the soul of the defeated King at the time of his burial in their church here in Leicester in August 1485.
Indeed we know that Richard was a man of anxious devotion who kept and marked his own book of prayers and who must have attended Mass throughout his life. Remarkably we also know that this vestment that I wear this evening is recorded as belonging to the royal wardrobe of Richard III. We may reasonably speculate that Richard participated in the celebration of Mass at which this same vestment was being worn.
Richard was not a man of peace. The times in which he lived and the role into which he was born did not permit that. But now we pray for his eternal peace.
Richard was a man who sought to offer to his citizens justice through the rule of law. He brought in important changes to the administration of law, including the institution of the Court of Requests at which poor people could bring their grievances to law. He improved the conditions of bail, enabling people to defend their property in the period before trial and he ordered the translation into English of written laws and Statutes again to make them more widely available. His role and arbiter and judge appear strongly in contemporary records and he twice asserted, in one legal dispute, that ‘we intend, nor will none otherwise do at any time, but according to the King’s laws.’ His actions did not always match those words. But this evening we pray that the merciful judgement of our loving God is extended to him in every degree, for we know that it is only the gift of God’s mercy that protects us from the demands of God’s justice.
I am much relieved that this evening we are not required to come to any such judgement ourselves. Indeed the judgement of our fellow human being is only of passing consequence for we know how fickle that judgement can be. This we see most clearly as reflection continues on the dramatic years of the House of Tudor in both fiction and historical research: saints are recast as sinners and sinners can become saints. But that is not our business.
Ours is to beseech of our loving Father the embrace of his mercy for this our brother who lived and died so long ago but who through such strange circumstances is again at the centre of public attention and human judgment. We pray for him as a sinner, like every other person, even if his life was lived on a more spectacular scale and in a more public arena than most. Today then we seek not to assert the greatness of Kings but the greatness of God’s mercy towards them and towards us all.
Richard, we know was not the physically most handsome of men. We know he suffered a brutal death, suffering ten fierce blows to the head. We know that his body was subject to humiliation after death, paraded from the field of battle by being thrown naked over the back of a horse and there receiving further wounds from a hostile sword. But we also know that he had been baptised into the death of Christ and so received the promise that he would rise with Christ to new life.
The words of the Holy Gospel, then, invite our trust, not only for ourselves but for all who have departed this life with a trusting faith in God. We know that the Lord has gone to prepare a place, a home, for us. This promise of a heavenly home was made to Richard. In his day, a ruthless and violent age, especially in the upper reaches of society, a home certainly had to be a castle, strong, well-fortified and easily defended. Otherwise it provided no safety at all. But the home promised to us by the Lord is of a different nature. In it peace comes only through the victory of Jesus over the last of all enemies, death itself. Protection too is ensured by that victory which has dethroned the powers of evil once and for all, even though they are still to be found within the fashioning of every human endeavour. The entry to that heavenly home, its open gates and sweeping drive, the royal road of life, is none other than the person of Jesus, the Way, the Truth and the Life.
This evening we pray that this promise of the Lord is indeed fulfilled. We offer this holy Mass that even while his remains are lying in the Cathedral nearby, his soul is united with God in the glory of heaven there to await the final resurrection of all things in Christ.
This was the hope he held in his heart. This is the hope we hold for ourselves and our loved ones too. We share this one hope and the faith and love which accompany it. In this grace we pray for this dead King and we pray that the kingship in Christ, given to us all, may truly guide our lives and make us builders of that eternal Kingdom here in our world today.
Other entries during "Richard III Week":

-Today in history: Henry IV: the man whose claim to the crown started the troubles that led to the Wars of the Roses

-The first day: Richard on tour: select photos from the procession on Sunday, and the cardinal-archbishop of Westminster's Compline homily

-The Bible in Richard's day, and, was Richard a proto-Protestant?: on the king's reading habits and what to make of his Wycliffe New Testament

-A requiem for Richard: on the Requiem Mass, the king's faith, his book of hours, the cult of purgatory, and the chantry chapels of Richard's age

-Of hearses and hearse cloths: looking at Richard III's funeral pall and dressing the dead in medieval times

-Richard III's claim to the throne: sanguinity, statue, or sacrament?: Examining Richard's dynastic claims and what makes a king the king

-O God of Earth and Altar: a hymn by G.K. Chesterton, used at the reinterment on Thursday

-The poet laureate on Richard III: the poem at the reinterment. Also, Benedict Cumberbatch.


  1. SIR Thomas St Leger. Not Saint!

    1. An honest typo, now corrected. Thanks for pointing it out!

  2. "For the sake of completeness a third and last question must be touched on in this section: For whom may Mass be celebrated? In general the answer may be given: For all those and for those only, who are fitted to participate in the fruits of the Mass as an impetratory, propitiatory, and satisfactory sacrifice. From this as immediately derived the rule that Mass may not be said for the damned in Hell or the blessed in Heaven, since they are incapable of receiving the fruits of the Mass; for the same reason children who die unbaptized are excluded from the benefits of the Mass. Thus, there remain as the possible participants only the living on earth and the poor souls in purgatory (cf. Trent, Sess. XXII, can. iii; Sess. XXV, decret. de purgat.). Partly out of her great veneration of the Sacrifice, however, and partly to avoid scandal, the Church has surrounded with certain conditions, which priests are bound in obedience to observe, the application of Mass for certain classes of the living and dead. The first class are non-tolerated excommunicated persons, who are to be avoided by the faithful (excommunicati vitandi). Although, according to various authors, the priest is not forbidden to offer up Mass for such unhappy persons in private and with a merely mental intention, still to announce publicly such a Mass or to insert the name of the excommunicated person in the prayers, even though he may be in the state of grace owing to perfect sorrow or may have died truly repentant, would be a "communicatio in divinis", and is strictly forbidden under penalty of excommunication (cf. C. 28, de sent. excomm., V, t. 39). It is likewise forbidden to offer the Mass publicly and solemnly for deceased non-Catholics, even though they were princes (Innoc. III C. 12, X 1. 3, tit. 28). On the other hand it is allowed, in consideration of the welfare of the state, to celebrate for a non-Catholic living ruler even a public Solemn Mass. For living heretics and schismatics also for the Jews, Turks, and heathens, Mass may be privately applied (and even a stipend taken) with the object of procuring for them the grace of conversion to the true Faith. For a deceased heretic the private and hypothetical application of the Mass is allowed only when the priest has good grounds for believing that the deceased held his error in good faith (bona fide. Cf. S.C. Officii, 7 April, 1875). To celebrate Mass privately for deceased catechumens is permissible, since we may assume that they are already justified by their desire of Baptism and are in purgatory. In like manner Mass may be celebrated privately for the souls of deceased Jews and heathens, who have led an upright life, since the sacrifice is intended to benefit all who are in purgatory. For further details see Göpfert, "Moraltheologie", III (5th ed., Paderborn, 1906)."


    Basically, it seems, you can publicly announce the Mass intention only for non-excommunicated people who died Catholic...but can privately offer it for just about anyone, except infants and canonized Saints (and "the damned" if specified/assumed to be such; but as you point out, we can't know that for any *particular* person).

    1. I added your observations to the article. Thanks for mentioning it.

  3. Do you know of anyone that goes to chancery chapels and chants part of the Requiem for the souls of the people that rest there? Is it allowed?

    1. Amy: no, I don't know of any such thing. In theory, I suppose it would be allowed so long as one got permission from the clergy in charge of said church.