Guild Chapel

The Victorian frontage of the former Pennoyer's School gave little clue to what lay behind: a tiny flint-walled medieval Guild Chapel dedicated to St James the Lesser, the patron saint of hatters.  This is pictured left, before restoration.  

The principal source of income, and the wealthy status of Pulham St Mary during the Middle Ages, was due to hat-making and weaving. A local guild was formed of “hatters, cappers and hurers”, whose members were sufficiently wealthy to build a chapel dedicated to St James the Lesser, the patron saint of hat-makers. 
The chapel was originally attached to the north-east wall of the parish church, (left centre) but was rebuilt in the centre of the village in 1401. As the Register of Bishop Fordham of Ely records:

"1401: Also on the 24th day of the said month of June, my Lord granted to all helping towards the re-establishment of the chapel of St James, within the parish of St Mary of Pulham, diocese of Norwich and towards the support of Walter Colman the poor hermit there, forty days of indulgences to last for three years."

Between 1400 and 1500 there was a rapid expansion of guilds. The reason for moving the Pulham St Mary Guild Chapel may have been due to such expansion, or falling out with members of the church who wanted to establish themselves separately, although this is unlikely given the Bishop granted the members indulgences. It’s possible that guild members wanted to set up a dual-purpose building to combine Guild Hall and Chapel but no evidence - either documentary or archaelogical - of a Guild Hall has been found to date.

Medieval guilds were voluntary associations formed for the mutual aid and protection of their members. Joining a parish guild had spiritual and social purposes. Among the members there was a strong spirit of fraternal co-operation or Christian brotherhood, with a mixture of worldly and religious ideals — the support of the body and the salvation of the soul.  The guild would help to support the widows and families of deceased members, and it would act as a trade body promoting its members' interests.  

Guild chapels were also used as eating houses, with ceremonial elements such as feasting for their patron saint, so we can imagine the feasts that might have taken place here on the feast day of St James the Lesser.

The place of the Guild Chapel in the life of the parish is shown by Pulham wills of 1432 and 1488 bequeathing gifts of money and grain for its benefit. As late as 1536, immediately prior to the suppression of religious guilds, Robert Edwards, a priest and chaplain, gave legacies "to the chapel of St James at Pulham St Mary".
The Guild employed a hermit to say prayers for the souls of dead Guild members (the doctrine of Purgatory was extremely important in the Middle Ages).  Wealthy people employed their own priests; the guild did so collectively. 

Bishop Fordham's records from the 15th century note that Walter Colman was the hermit, and lived in a cottage nearby.  A hermit was simply a priest who lived without secular comforts, dedicated to his religious role.  The modern image of a hermit - a kind of bearded cave dweller - is a Victorian fabrication. 

By 1547, at the very end of Henry VIII’s reign, all fraternities, brotherhoods and guilds had been suppressed. The dissolution of the guild and all it entailed was an injustice to the people of Pulham. The extent of social and religious work of guilds and the principle of mutual aid upon which they were founded can be seen in the accounts of many village guilds in the early sixteenth century. The funds of the St James’ Guild were no doubt assigned to the Crown.

After the dissolution of the Guild, the chapel became available for village use, and by 1658 parish records state that the chapel was held in trust for parishioners. Manorial courts were held in the chapel, and it is likely that the building had other community functions too.

It was not until 1674 that William Pennoyer's generosity seems to have found a new, more permanent use for the building - one that ultimately ensured its survival to the current day.

lottery funded logoThe Pennoyer Centre, Station Rd, Pulham St Mary IP21 4QT Tel: 01379 676660 email: admin@pennoyers.org.uk

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