Can You Purchase Paradise?

Abbey Church of St Mary the Virgin (Tewkesbury Abbey)
Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire

Listed: 1952
Grade: I
NHLE entry: Listing details for Abbey Church of St Mary

A central belief of Christianity in the Middle Ages was that a form of after-life existed. People believed that a person's soul had three possible destinations. Traditionally, those who had lived a notably saintly life would go to heaven, or if you had followed the path of evil, you would be cast into hell.

Seeking a passage to heaven

Most, however, believed they would find themselves in the half-way house of 'purgatory'. The idea of this 'third place' was formalised in the 13th century as an intermediary location between death and heaven. Some thought purgatory was a stinking pit, full of fire and brimstone.

Others suggested it was simply a featureless place where the soul resided, seeking salvation. Here the souls of the dead made a long, arduous journey towards heaven, weighed down by their sins.

So how did people ease their journey? A central belief was in the power of 'intercession'; the ability of priests, through prayer, to help the dead by 'purging' sins. For this reason a system emerged whereby priests would say or sing masses for dead individuals on a daily basis: these were known as chantries. Chantries were founded throughout England, like the group in the Abbey Church of St Mary the Virgin in Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire.

A building within a building

Some left money to pay for a priest. The wealthiest could afford perpetual chantries, while others were financed for only five or ten years. These were usually paid for by endowments - like a trust fund - from a dead person's relatives or their estate.

Thousands of chantries were founded; from the mid-14th century some bishops and nobles constructed tiny chapels within the church - freestanding stone structures known now as cage-chantry chapels. Stone traceried screens enabled the priest inside to be glimpsed within a private space - a building within a building.

An exceptional group of cage-chantry chapels is found at St Mary's Tewkesbury, then an abbey. Three sit near the high altar dating from about 1375 to 1423. The latest one is known as the Warwick Chapel. It was constructed in 1422 by the 22-year-old heiress of the Despenser family fortune, Lady Isabella, for her husband Richard Beauchamp, Earl of Worcester.

Collectively these grouped chantries can be interpreted as a dynastic mausoleum for the mighty Despenser family. The chapels were architecturally innovative and very expensive. This one was probably designed by master mason Richard Winchcombe, designer of the Divinity School, Oxford.

Protecting paradise today

The practice of founding chantries was abolished in the Reformation in 1547 and only 25 cage-chantry chapels survive in England today. We are therefore lucky to have the elaborate Grade I listed chapels at Tewkesbury as they provide valuable physical evidence of the importance of purgatory and intercession and a reminder of the medieval focus on salvation after death.