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1520: Cuckfield’s early welfare support

The Order Of Our Blessed Lady tending to the sick and elderly in Cuckfield, as visualised by Bing Image Creator AI

The Fraternity of our Blessed Lady

In the 15th and early 16th centuries villagers would have been grateful for the work of the Fraternity of our Blessed Lady in the village. This religious and secular organisation looked after the running of the grammar school. They also carried out the chantry prayers for the souls of the departed and provided a range of community-caring services.

In his instructions for the future running of the school Edmund Flower named this order. And by researching other Merchant Taylor activities, we now know that this body was the charitable arm of the otherwise trade-linked livery company, Merchant Taylors.

There were many such fraternities around the country. They were small religious houses endowed with land to support a priest whose duty it was to sing masses for the soul of the founder. a chantry chapel, a building on private land, or an area in a parish church or cathedral reserved for the performance of the ‘chantry duties’.

It seems likely that the chantry chapel in Cuckfield in the 1500s was within the church itself. But there is mention that there once was a chantry chapel in the churchyard. But there were a number of wealthy Tudor families in the village, and this chapel may be unrelated.

The care for sick and elderly would have taken place, most likely, in a nearby building. Further research may be possible on this on this but it could have been adjacent to the White Hart Inn., or possibly 'The Sanctuary' not far from Church Street.

According to academic Dr Matthew Davies in his authoritative account 'History of the Merchant Taylors' Company' (p99):

'There is no doubt that for individuals the Reformation was at times a difficult and disorientating process. Belief in Purgatory was the motivation behind not only the foundation of chantries and

anniversaries, but also bequests to the poor, relief for prisoners, and the foundation of grammar schools. Indeed, a key part of the duties of the schoolmasters appointed to the grammar schools founded by Edmund Flower and by Sir John and Thomasine Percyvale [King's School in Macclesfield] was to sing Mass for the souls of the founders. The main evidence for religious belief and practice in this period comes from wills.'

Here is the relevant quote from Flower’s will:

‘… cause my body to be honestely conveyed … unto the parisshe Chirche of Saint George in Southwark* in the Countie of Surry and there the Maister and Wardeyns of our blessed Lady Saint Mary the Virgyn holden and kepte in the saide Chirche of Cukfeld with others to receyve yt’

‘…I and my Wiff may be ppetually praied for there, I wolle that the Maister and Wardeyns of our blessid Lady now holdyn and kepte in the parisshe chirche of Cukfeld aforesaid …’

This suggests that he anticipated that he would die at his London home near St Martin Outwich, then be taken to *Southwark Cathedral to be cared for by blessed Lady Saint Mary the Virgyn - then be moved for burial in Cuckfield Church and prayed for there by The Fraternity of our Blessed Lady.

Flower for two years was Master of Merchant Taylors one of the richest livery companies in London. It seems likely that he was closely involved in the founding of the school and the selection of wardens and schoolmasters from the date of formation until his death..

Religious fraternities

Dr Jessica Freeman has written an authoritative account: ‘The Religious Fraternities of Medieval Middlesex’, these operated in London. We can learn how these fraternity societies were structured and operated. While they mostly were active in the capital - they also provided charitable work around the country.

‘At their simplest, fraternities were voluntary fellowships of men and women who joined together under the patronage of a particular saint or saints, whose light, image or altar they supported, and whose feast day they celebrated. Members undertook to provide their dead brothers and sisters – still considered gild members – with a funeral, together with regular prayers and post-mortem masses for their souls.’ Earlier in the article she writes about other services ‘… and financial help for the needy, and encouraged a sense of community through feasts and processions.’

On the website for The Worshipful Company of Pewterers you can read that, ‘The leading Westminster gild was that of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary'. This, 'the great brotherhood of Our Blessed Lady', is first documented not long after its foundation in 1431:

‘Women, [too,] who were excluded from the trade gilds which existed in some towns, could belong to religious fraternities, and their participation was natural in a gild of the Virgin Mary.

‘Sisters of the gild watched over the body of a departed member; sewed liveries and prepared dishes for the triennial gild feast; made or donated vestments for use at gild services, or simply left money 'to be prayed for' by their fellow members.’

‘… for the souls of departed brethren, and the prospect of a speedier release from Purgatory into Heaven. But while the religious inspiration of the gilds undoubtably remained fundamental, the social role has perhaps not yet been fully appreciated.’

With the money donated they were able to help the poor, look after the sick and provide shelter for the homeless.

Closure of the Fraternity in Cuckfield

As Rev. JH Cooper put it in ‘History Of Cuckfield’, ‘exactly when the Fraternity of our Lady came to an end cannot be stated, but its property was dispersed by 1543’.

This will have coincided with the Reformation and the Dissolution of the Monasteries (1536-41). King Edward VI, signed a new Act in 1547, which ended 2,374 chantries and guild chapels and seized their assets; it also instituted inquiries to determine all of their possessions in 1547. Chantries were shut down with the Chantries Act, but the school itself escaped. The word ‘chantry’ derives from Old French chanter and from the Latin cantare (to sing).

Commissioners were sent out to confiscate their land and to collect any gold and silver plate they had in ther possession. The school’s escape from the act is not unique some of the chantries were actually converted into grammar schools named after King Edward.

Chantry priests did not offer public masses so this allowed the time to teach and provide other social duties. Maisie Wright in a 'A Chronicle of Cuckfield' records:

'In the archives of Hickstead Place (now in the East Sussex County Record Office), there are letters patent of 30th March 1592 granting, to William Tupper and Robert Dawe of London, the premises which belonged to the then dissolved Guild of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The profits of the Guild were to be used to provide a priest to say Mass in the parish church of Cuckfield. 'The guild of tradesmen had been dissolved (with others throughout the country) following the Reformation. The Chantry Certificates of 1548 record their foundation and assets. The archives of Hickstead [Subsidy Roll of 34 Henry VIII] show that the Fraternity of Our Lady and the “stock of goods belonging to the Brooderhed of Cokefeld being in divers menne’s hands” were dispersed by 1543. There is a tradition that the meeting place of re guild was the building on the site of Mercers in the High Street.'

In a paper 'Cuckfield Church Schools' published in the Mid Sussex Times 3 January 1922 Cuckfield headmaster William Herrington mentions the tantalising possibility of the remains of a building: ' But the Reformation came, over one thousand monasteries were suppressed, and with them went, in 1543, the Fraternity of Our Lady. It went and left no trace behind, unless, perhaps, the base of a column lying on a grave in our churchyard was part of their building.'

Contributed and researched by Malcolm Davison.


Edmund Flower’s will East Sussex and Brighton and Hove Record Office (ESBHRO) SAS/A8

A transcript can be found in Rev James Hughes Cooper  ‘History of Cuckfield’, 1912. P128 et seq

The Religious Fraternities of Medieval Middlesex, Dr Jessica Freeman, of the department of English at the University of Southampton

The Early History Of The Merchant Taylors  Company Part l by Charles M. Clode pub 1888

History of Cuckfield , Rev James Hughes Cooper, 1912

Wikipedia entry for Chantry

The Medieval Town 1200-1540, by Richard Holt and Gervase Rosser

A Chronicle of Cuckfield by Maisie Wright, First printed June 1971 Chapter 1

'Cuckfield Church Schools' by William Herrington pubished in the Mid Sussex Times 3 January 1922


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