Chantry, chantry altar, chantry chapel, chantry guild, chantry priest, gildhall. One of the strongest strands of medieval English Catholicism was the cult of the dead. For the medieval Christian, communion was something that existed between all members of the parish, whether alive or dead. Thus, prayers were said for the souls of the dead (who, it was presumed, were saying prayers for the souls of the living).

To ensure that prayers were said for them after their death, rich people would endow chantries. These were foundations, by which priests could be employed to say masses for their souls in perpetuity. A priest in such a capacity was called a chantry priest. The masses would be said at a chantry altar, probably in the nave; if the person was rich enough, this might be enclosed in a specially constructed chantry chapel. Many churches had them. Grand chantry chapels survive at Lavenham and Long Melford; on a smaller scale, there are interesting ones at Ampton, Dennington and Kenton, among others. After the Reformation, many were pressed into service as family mausoleums or pews. Paradoxically, some family mausoleums pretend to be former chantry chapels, Boxted and Little Glemham for example, as if this was a way of suggesting the family was an ancient one.

For poorer people, there was the opportunity to join a gild, where, for a penny or so a week, they could ensure that the gild chantry priest would say masses for their soul after their death (along with those of the other dead members of the gild). Many of these gilds were organised around particular occupations, and became a focus of social activity. They would meet in gildhalls, of which fine examples survive in Hadleigh, Hitcham, Lavenham and Laxfield, among others.

The investment that produced the income for paying the chantry priests was most commonly in land. The church or guild oversaw the management of the land, which is one of the reasons we have an image of a wealthy pre-Reformation church. Land bought to produce income in this way was known as chantry land, a name surviving in many places today. The largest housing estate is Ipswich, and, indeed, in all Suffolk, is called the Chantry Estate.

Those who invested in chantries (and few and far between must have been those who didn't) presumed that they were ensuring prayers and masses in perpetuity; but, of course, this was not to be. The suppression of the chantries in the mid-16th century by the Anglican reformers was a two-pronged attack; it destroyed the communitarianism of the cult of the dead, but it also meant that great wealth accrued to the crown, much of it to be used in pointless sieges of French towns, or creamed off by the advisors to the boy king Edward VI. Eamonn Duffy, in his remarkable The Voices of Morebath, suggests that it was this sequestering of chantry funds that forced parishes to abandon the old religion and embrace unpopular state protestantism.

All that survived the chantries was material evidence, and much of this fell vicitm to the iconoclastic puritans of a century later, who were outraged by inscriptions reading Ora pro Anima... (Pray for the soul of...).