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Boston - The Small Town With A Big Story


David Radford with Betty Brammer

Death was a constant thought-line in medieval times. Hell was the destination of the outright wicked whilst the saints went straight to Paradise. The rest were destined to be painfully purified by fire and ice in Purgatory before being allowed into heaven. The belief was that the time spent in purgatory could be shortened by the way a person lived, along with the prayers and pious acts of their friends after they had died. This led craftsmen and merchants, in particular, to form ‘religious clubs’ or guilds to ensure that everyone followed honest trading practices and that others would go on praying for them after death.

Illustrative depiction of St. Mary's Guildhall 1914

The Guildhall of St. Mary's Guild (FL Griggs, 1914)

St. Mary's Guildhall museum entrance

St. Mary's Guildhall Museum

Medieval Boston became renowned for its religious guilds. There were about nineteen in the town functioning as trading collectives and religious societies. The earliest was the Guild of the Blessed Virgin Mary formed in 1260 by some of the town’s merchants. Others came later, such as the Guild of St Simon and St Jude for mariners and the non-trade guild called ‘The Fellowship of Heaven’.

For the price of a subscription, the guild provided a variety of benefits from personalised funerals to special masses. Gifts were also distributed to the poor on behalf of the members. Guilds were open to all who could afford the membership fees which varied enormously. Some such as the Corpus Christi Guild were perceived as a rich man’s club with high ranking men and women, churchmen and local merchants on its books. These wealthier guilds could afford to build chapels with priests to serve in them and pay Bedesmen to say daily prayers. Bedesmen were so named after the string of beads called a Rosary that they used when praying. Members could also buy, from the Pope, special certificates called indulgences which would guarantee to shorten by hundreds of days or more the time that a person would have to spend in Purgatory.

Guild seals of St. Mary, St. Peter and St. Paul

Each Guild had its own seal for use on official documents
(i)Guild of St. Mary; (ii)Guild of St. Peter & St. Paul; (iii)Guild of Holy Trinity

The less well-off guilds used ‘chantries’, small side chapels or altars, in St Botolph’s or in the chapels of the wealthier guilds, where members would light candles on certain days and hold services. The Guild of St Anne claimed to have their saint’s finger which, for a fee, a pilgrim could visit to get additional time off from Purgatory.

The larger guilds ran active social and business calendars, with banquets and assemblies where they would manage their affairs and conduct some of the town’s business. Grand processions were held to celebrate Sundays, saints’ feast days and other religious anniversaries; Guild aldermen and priests wearing stunning vestments, paraded to St Botolph’s through a crowded town. It was noisy with the chanting of prayers, souvenir sellers and musicians, all accompanied by the incessant ringing of church bells.

The idea of purgatory eventually lost credibility, thanks to Martin Luther, and when Henry VIII seized all their religious property and treasures, guild life came to an abrupt end. The valuable guild assets were transferred to the newly formed Boston Corporation in 1545 and senior guild members were appointed as Aldermen, the forerunner of Councillors.

Before then some functions, such as the market and bridge maintenance, were the responsibility of the Lord of the Manor of Hallgarth, part of the Honour of Richmond and this was also passed over to the Corporation in 1545.