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Chantry is the term for the establishment of an institutional chapel on private land or within a greater church, where a priest would celebrate Mass. The same term is also used for the endowment itself. The word derives from the Latin cantaria, meaning 'licence to sing mass'.
Chantries were often established in the medieval period by a wealthy person, who gave funds (often rents on land) to pay for a priest to say prayers or sing masses in a chantry chapel (or at an altar in an existing church), often for the perpetual spiritual benefit of a family member. A foundation charter usually laid down conditions for ensuring the exact and proper use of the endowment throughout the years to come.
Many chantries were set up across the country in the 13th and 14th centuries.
The Hungerford chantries:
The religious upheavals in the reign of Henry VIII not only led to the final dissolution of the monasteries but also affected the chantries, the dissolution of which followed soon after in the reign of Edward VI. The Act for their dissolution was passed at the end of 1547 and commissioners were appointed by the Crown to survey their possessions.
Early in 1548 the commissioners had completed their survey of the two Hungerford chantries of the Holy Trinity and the Blessed Virgin Mary and issued a certificate of their findings (see the articles on each individual chantry).
Abolition of Chantries Acts, 1547 and 1549: When Henry VIII initiated the Reformation in England, Parliament passed an Act in 1545 that chantries were, in fact, misapplied funds and misappropriated lands. The Act stated that all chantries and their properties would belong to the King himself for as long as he should live. Along with the dispersal of the monasteries, this was designed to help Henry relieve the monetary pressures of the war with France. However, few chantries were closed or given over to Henry, as Henry did not live far beyond the passing of the act.
His successor, Edward VI, had a new Act issued in 1547, completely suppressing 2,374 chantries and guild chapels and launched inquiries into any possessions they might have. Although the money was supposed to go to "charitable" ends and the "public good," most of it seems to have gone to Edward VI's advisors. However, the Act provided that the crown had to guarantee a pension to all chantry priests so displaced.
All in all the chief value of the two chantries in Hungerford was probably to provide an additional pair of priests to assist the vicar in a parish which otherwise would have been too large for him to manage competently alone. And this value in turn depended on the quality of the chaplains, their willingness to serve and their ability to guide their flock.
The most significant effect of the chantries, and the most significant loss that resulted from their suppression, was educational. Chantries had provided education to their communities. Since chantry priests were not ordinaries and did not offer public mass, they could serve their communities in other ways. When Edward VI closed the chantries, the amount of education available to the poor and the rural residents was greatly diminished. Some of the chantries, however, were converted into the grammar schools that are now called "Edwardian."