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History: Later Medieval York

Churches and public ritual

Individual churches were clearly centres of worship for their parishioners but many aspects of ritual activity and cultural investment were sustained across communities of more than one parish, either because of a desire to project, impose and sustain a greater sense of community in a diverse and potentially highly fragmented city such as York, or in order to sustain the cost of such enterprises, or quite possibly both. The focus of later medieval Christianity on saints' cults and sacraments, rather than just book learning and sermons, also encouraged associations with multiple holy sites spread across landscapes and associated with movement across space and time throughout the ritual year.

The guild of Corpus Christi

The guild of Corpus Christi became one of the greatest guilds of later medieval York attracting members from across the city and indeed the north of England and even beyond. It placed great emphasis on the practice of charity and its shrine was based in the Holy Trinity Micklegate until 1431 when it was removed to the civic chapel of St William on Ouse Bridge at the foot of Micklegate. A Corpus Christi procession had been held in York since at least 1366, and the guild may have been in existence by 1388 and may have originated as a guild for priests.

But by 1414, when Blakburn and his wife entered, it was increasingly associated with the civic elite of York, and the procession was of course the focus for the annual performance of the cycle of mystery plays performed by the guilds of the city for which York was already famous by the 1390s. The procession route started at the church of Holy Trinity and continued down Micklegate over Ouse Bridge along Coney Street and up Stonegate to the Minster. This major processional route, also used for royal processional entries to the city, thus united the sites of the two great pre-Conquest Minster churches in York and could well have been a processional way of some antiquity.

Archbishop Richard Scrope

The feast of Corpus Christi and the popularity of the guild seem to have gathered momentum in York in the early fifteenth century, following the 'martyrdom' of Archbishop Richard Scrope who was executed for his role in an uprising against Henry IV in 1405. Scrope had strong associations with Micklegate. His family owned the church of St Martin in Micklegate, which was rebuilt, possibly incorporating a shrine to Richard, about 20 years after his death. Richard was tried and executed in the fields of Clementhorpe just outside the city walls near Holy Trinity, and a chapel containing a reliquary of the saints' head was built in the fields nearby.

In 1413 a wooden cup, which Scrope had blessed, was bequeathed to the Corpus Christi fraternity in Holy Trinity church. Indeed many of the civic elite associated with the Scrope rebellion and its aftermath developed a special veneration for 'St' Richard Scrope although he was never officially canonised. Many of these families had a close association with the Micklegate neighbourhood, or moved into it after 1405, and it has been suggested that the vigorous growth of the Corpus Christi guild in Holy Trinity at this time (epitomised by Blakburn's patronage of it) was boosted by its association with Scrope's cult. This included not just mercantile families but several local gentry families who kept town houses in Bishophill and Micklegate. Indeed by the reign of Henry V even the monarchy had embraced veneration for Scrope and sponsored the foundation of new religious houses in exculpation of their responsibility for his death.

The so-called 'Bolton' Book of Hours, made about 1415 in York and associated with the Bolton family, descendants of the Blakburns and intermarried and connected to many mercantile and gentry families in the Micklegate neighbourhood, is a product of this rapidly growing cult. It is richly illuminated and centred on a strong veneration for both Scrope and other northern saints and national saints. But at the very centre of its devotions are two other images: first that of Holy Trinity which is the major image around which the donor family is depicted at prayer and second (on the reverse of the same folio) a depiction of the national patron St George whose feast was raised to a double-rank in 1416 following Henry V's victory at Agincourt.

The book is also full of other illuminations which together present a full catalogue of all the saints venerated in the many churches, chapels and hospitals of York's west bank, but also richly demonstrate the ways in which the Micklegate elite bought into the new religiosity of Henry V's court embracing fashionable new cults and bringing them home to York (such as the cult of St Bridget after whom the church of St Gregory was fleetingly renamed).

Holy Trinity parish in the fifteenth century thus stood at the epicentre of a dense network of devotions and social and political affiliations spreading out most intensely across the communities of York's west bank, which in the immediate aftermath of 1405 might even be described as a holy neighbourhood. These were not parochial devotions however, but placed the locality intensely at the centre of the ritual identity of the whole city, even the whole kingdom, at a particular moment of crisis and pain.

Conclusion

Both in the earlier and the later Middle Ages the history of the parish of Holy Trinity can tell us exceptional things. It can reveal the processes through which Christianity was brought to England and progressively embedded in the minds of the laity through successive layers of pastoral and parochial reform, and it reveals the mundane necessity of religion within the lives of later medieval communities of the laity. It also gives us glimpses of the ways in which the laity was not just constructed by their faith but used it in extraordinary times for extraordinary emotional and political affect, and that they were rarely constrained by merely parochial concerns and institutional obligations.

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