William Canon

William Canon
A Fifteenth Century Barwick Priest

from The Barwicker No.48

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The earliest personal document connected with Barwick which I have found is the will of William Canon, Rector of Barwick from 1404 to his death in 1420, which is printed in Latin in the first two pages of GD Lumb's 'Wills, Registers and Monumental Inscriptions of Barwick-in-Elmet'. We are most grateful to Rev. Dr D L Wickham of West Wratling, Cambridge, for translating the medieval Latin text for us, and to Mr and Mrs Wade of the Old Rectory, Barwick, for making this possible.

William Canon was a pre-reformation priest of the Catholic Church in England, with the Pope as the supreme head. What was happening in England when William Canon was in Barwick? Henry, Duke of Lancaster had deposed his cousin Richard II in 1399 to become King Henry IV. These were troubled times with wars against the Scots and the Welsh and internal conflicts involving rebellious Englishmen. These included Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland, who was defeated by the King's forces in 1408 at Bramham Moor, a mile or so outside the boundaries of William Canon's parish. In 1413, Henry IV died and was succeeded by his son Henry V, who defeated the French at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415. In 1420, the year of William Canon's death, Henry married Catherine, daughter of the King of France.

What was Barwick village like in 1404? It is probable that the main street was established at that time, with narrow plots running west. The church was there with its nave, chancel and aisles but the tower was added half a century later. The earliest part of the old rectory was not then built but there is evidence that William Canon lived in some style.

The clergy of that time made up a greater proportion of the population and were more important in the running of the country than they are now. They were tutors and administrators in the households of the King, the barons and the lesser aristocracy. Some of them rose to the highest offices in the land. The clergy created hospitals and almshouses, colleges and schools. Many of the institutions of the church such as monasteries were very wealthy, owning much land.

The secular clergy included about 9000 parish priests and those with offices in cathedrals, collegiate churches, hospitals, etc. A rector like William Canon drew his income from three sources: from the tithes of wages or produce (usually taken in kind), from the cultivation of his glebe (his share of the land in the village fields) and from regular offerings and funeral dues. It seems likely that Barwick was quite a rich living. A rector was presented to his living by a patron who was often the lord of the manor.

Rector Colman, in his book 'The History of the Parish of Barwick-in-Elmet', gives the following account of the life of William Canon.

"13. William Canon (1404-1420) whose presentation by the King, as Duke of Lancaster, is dated 11 July 1404, was instituted 25 September. He had been Prebendary of the Collegiate Church of Wimborne and exchanged with his predecessor in this rectory.

There is a note in the second volume of the Parish Registers "In the East Window of the Church is a picture of William Canon in glass. I suppose he glazed the window, he was rector here, 1404, and dyed about 1420 or resigns the Rectory." This note is in the handwriting of Rev David Dawson, curate from 1723 to 1732, needless to say the picture has long since disappeared.

The name William Canon is frequently found in other preferments, but it would obviously be by no means an uncommon one for an ecclesiastic in the days of adoptive surnames. His will, dated 6 November 1419, was proved 1 June 1420, he left directions that he should be buried in the choir of this church on the south side of the altar."

Wimborne Minster is about five miles north of Bournemouth and Poole in Dorset. How and why did William Canon manage to exchange a post in Dorset for one in Barwick? We can only surmise but some light is thrown on the puzzle if we consider the account of Canon's predecessor, William Marnhull, in Colman's 'The History of the Parish of Barwick-in-Elmet'.

"12 William Marnhull (1402-1404) had been presented to the vicarage of Sturminster Marshall in the diocese of Salisbury in 1386 by Joan, the Queen Mother, as 'custos' of the profits of the rectory by grant of the king. At some time later he became Rector of Whitburn in Durham, whence he exchanged to Barwick "for divers and sufficient reasons", with Thomas de Popilton; he was presented 15 August, and instituted 22 August 1402.

He stayed here only two years and left in 1404 on exchange with William Canon to the Prebend of Kentisburn or Kentisford (one of the three tithings of the parish of Marnhull) in Wimborne Minster. He must have been a very restless person for in 1409, he exchanged back to his old parish of Sturminster Marshall where he died in 1434."
There are several examples of exchanges of livings involving rectors of Barwick in medieval times, usually to and from somewhere close, but how was an exchange arranged between two parishes which were separated by about 250 miles - perhaps a week's journey - and in troubled times? It seems likely that Marnhull wanted to get back to his native Dorset. But what was the reason for Canon's move to Barwick? The process must have involved the desire or consent of the patrons. The patron of Barwick parish was the King, Henry IV, as Duke of Lancaster. I am grateful to the Revd. David Price, Rector of Wimborne Minster, for the following information.

"As a royal peculiar, the appointment of clergy at Wimborne Minster would have been under the direct say of the monarch at the time and so presumably some agreement was made for the two men to exchange their posts with royal approval. I can imagine that William Canon's move was to have his own parish, and certainly attractive if it was a wealthy living. I suspect that the prebends here were not much more than curates and so a move to a living would certainly have been preferment."

Religious observance was regarded as very important in medieval times, the main object being personal salvation - good health and fortune when alive and especially a speedy journey of the soul to Heaven after death. People in medieval times would spend much time, effort and money to try to achieve these objects.

One popular activity was a pilgrimage to pray at the tomb or relics of a saint, whose intercession would ensure salvation. These might involve long journeys, for instance to the tomb of St Peter in Rome or to Santiago de Compostella in northern Spain. In this country places of pilgrimage included Canterbury (St Thomas) - Chaucer's 'Canterbury Tales' were written in the period 1385-90 - and Walsingham (Our Lady of Walsingham) in Norfolk. In Yorkshire, there were Beverley (St John of Beverley), Bridlington Priory (St John of Bridlington) and York (St William), and it is inconceivable that William Canon would not have visited one or more of these places during his incumbency here.

To ensure personal salvation, prominent people built collegiate churches (eg Wimborne Minster), where a master and a number of college chaplains (prebends) regularly said mass and prayed for the soul of their founder. Or a chantry chapel was built, often attached to a church, where the chantry priest was endowed so that he could pray for the soul of the founder every day. Lesser sums of money were given to help to build, renovate or repair churches, chapels, hospitals, almshouses, schools, colleges, even bridges.

The process did not end with a person's death. The doctrine of 'Purgatory' was widely held and it was believed that intercession by prayer by living people could shorten the time a dead person's soul spent in Purgatory and ensure a quicker passage to Heaven. A will could specify an elaborate funeral with a large attendance, many lighted candles and substantial alms for the poor in return for prayers for the soul of the deceased. Also sums could be bequeathed for the building work described above and for charitable acts.

Does William Canon's will illustrate the religious thinking of the time? I include the translated will below, divided into sections convenient for analysis and with some repetitious matter left out.

"I bequeath
  • In the name of my 'mortuaring' my better horse. (Mortuaring meant that on the death of a tenant, the lord of the manor had the right to claim for himself the best beast of the deceased.)
  • For my funeral expenses five marks in English money. (A mark was two thirds of 1. Five marks was 3.6s.8d. - a substantial sum at that time.)
  • To the high altar of the aforesaid Church one Missal according to the use of York in such wise that my executors may not be hindered by anyone in the free disposal and execution of my will and my goods. And if they are hindered or disturbed, I wish the said executors of my will to sell the Missal and use the money for the celebration of the sacred (mysteries) for the benefit of my soul."
A missal was a book containing the complete service for mass throughout the year. The term 'according to the use of York' suggests that the services in the missal differed somewhat from those of the archdiocese of Canterbury. The missal would be handwritten. Caxton's printing press was not introduced for another half century. The wording of this bequest suggests that Canon was expecting someone connected with the parish church to contest the will.
  • "To the fabric of York Cathedral 13s.4d.
  • To the fabric of my aforesaid Church 13s.4d.
  • To the fabric of the Parish Church of Alne 13s.4d.
  • To the fabric of the Parish Church of Elughton 13s.4d. (Was this Ellerton in Swaledale?)
  • To the same church one ordinal according to the use of York Cathedral
  • To each order of mendicant brothers of the City of York 6s.8d.
  • To the mendicant brothers of Pontefract 6s.8d."
Mendicant brothers were friars from open religious orders (eg Franciscans) who worked in towns and cities, often on social concerns, like a medieval Salvation Army. They obtained the money for their work from bequests and by begging (hence the term mendicant). They were unpopular with the religious establishment but were supported by the people - about one third of all wills in York at that time contained bequests to friars.
"I bequeath
  • to Custancia of Kereby, my blood relation, 10 pounds in silver(?), 6 silver spoons, 2 better beds, 4 coverlets, 4 linen sheets, 2 mattresses, 1 basin with bath, 1 fur-lined(?) gown, whichever she chooses and wants, and half my kitchen crockery and utensils.
    (This impressive list of bequests shows that William Canon was well supplied with household goods and probably lived in some style.)
  • To John Cras, clergyman one 'portiform' (a book of religious offices) with indication of the use of the Church of York aforesaid and 5 marks in money.
  • To Robert Otley, Rector of the Church of St Martin in Conyngstrete in the City of York my better 'ciphum murreum (a garment or a book?) edged with silver and gilded.
  • To William of Yolton, my servant, 10 marks of silver and 2 'bushels' of corn. (The Latin word used is 'quarteria' here translated as 'bushels' representing a measure of corn.)
  • To Master William Milford, chaplain 20 shillings
  • To William, son of William Hessile of York, 2 shillings.
  • To Thomas Cook the younger, my servant, 10 shillings of silver and 1bushel of corn.
  • To the Parochial Clergy of the above named Berwyk, 2s.0d. in silver.
  • To Master William Langtoo, my servant, 6s.8d. and 1 bushel of corn. (William Langtoo or Langloo is recorded as a tenant of the manor of Barwick in the survey of 1425.)
  • To Elizabeth(?) Webster for her maintenance 6s.8d. (Was she his housekeeper?)
  • To each of the below named executors for their labours, 1 mark in silver.
The remains of my goods not bequeathed above, after payment of my debts, I give and bequeath for the celebration of masses and other sacred (rites) for the good of my soul and the souls of all (my) benefactors and for the distribution to the poor in parishes where I have acquired possessions according to the discretion and decision of my aforesaid executors.

For the fulfilment of this will I appoint, make and constitute as my executors, the prudent man, Master John of Thornton, Vicar of Pontefract; Master John Spanyell, chaplain; and Edmund Cook of Walton. With these as witnesses: Master William Kymston, chaplain, William Beroby, Notary Public, and John Harpyn, diocese of York. Given under my seal at the aforesaid Berwyk on the day of our Lord aforesaid.

Probate was given at Cawood on 1 June 1420.
William Kymston (Kinston) was the priest of the chantry chapel attached to Barwick Church. The Chantry of Our Lady was founded by Alice de Lascy in 1303 in honour of the Blessed Virgin Mary and for the chaplain to celebrate the divine offices daily for the souls of herself and Adam de Potterton and their ancestors, and was endowed with 80 acres of land in Potterton. Adam de Potterton was the Rector of Barwick at the time.

Alice de Lascy was the daughter and heir of Henry de Lascy, Earl of Lincoln. She married Thomas, second Earl of Lancaster, and so the de Lascy lands, including the Honour of Pontefract, were added to the vast Lancaster estates (the Duchy of Lancaster). The chantry chapel was erected on the south side of the nave, an opening being made near the east end of the nave wall. When the south aisle was built, the chapel was incorporated into it. The chapel was confiscated by King Henry VIII in 1535.

The will gives evidence of a well endowed living at Barwick. William Canon came as a poor curate and died a rich man, leaving money, agricultural produce, books, household possessions and perhaps property. Unlike his predecessor, he seems to have had no desire to return to Dorset; he wished to be buried here and all the places mentioned in the will are in Yorkshire. He must have travelled about the county despite the troubled times and he made contacts with many local organisations and people. His life and will illustrate the work of such institutions as collegiate churches and chantry chapels.

William Canon was a man of his time. He left money for a lavish funeral, prayers for his soul, and building and charity work, demonstrating how important such religious devotions were considered to be in the early 15th. century.


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