Records of the Jesus Guild in St Paul’s Cathedral, c.1450-1550 

An Edition of Oxford, Bodleian MS Tanner 221, and Associated Material


Thank you Dr New for answering some questions about your book Records of the Jesus Guild in St Paul’s Cathedral, c.1450-1550! Can you please begin by providing an overview of the book?

The main part of the book is an edition of the surviving records (ordinances, memoranda and twenty years’ worth of accounts accounts) of the Jesus Guild which met in the crypt of St Paul’s Cathedral, London, from the mid-fifteenth to mid-sixteenth centuries. I also decided to include accounts relating to the take-over of the crypt chapel by the parish of St Faiths because this provides an important coda, recording the way in which the parish enthusiastically ripped-out and sold-off Guild furnishings and fittings. The Introduction sets the Guild and its records in context, and an appendix provides biographies for the Guild’s Wardens. While all this might sound a bit dry, the book makes accessible crucial sources about the late medieval Church and society in London and beyond. It covers a period of dynamic socio-economic change and the fraught years of the Reformation, and is full of detail about everyday life and work in the capital. I decided to keep the original English (tidied-up a bit for ease of reading) because the records were written by several scribes and span a period crucial in the development in the English language. 

How long have you worked on this project? What is your background in?

As noted in the Acknowledgements, this book has been over 20 years in the making! I used the main Jesus Guild manuscript as a principal source for my PhD (London), which looked at devotion to the Holy Name of Jesus in late medieval England. An edition of this manuscript was supposed to be a postdoctoral project, but other things kept getting in the way! My first degree (Exeter) was in history, followed by a MA in Medieval Studies at York, then doctorate officially in medieval history but which incorporated many archaeological, literary, and art-historical sources. Since completing my PhD I have had an Andrew W. Mellon Fellowship in Toronto, worked on two projects at TNA and a manuscript project in Cambridge, and since 2007 have been at Aberystwyth, teaching history and heritage and working on two major AHRC projects. My research interests are broad, but I have worked a lot on medieval seals and sealing practices. Currently I hold a Leverhulme Trust Major Research Fellowship, with my project entitled ‘Identity, interaction and exchange in medieval England’. 

Tell us about the time frame for this book, 1450-1550. What happened in 1550? Did the records simply stop? 

The timeframe reflects the lifespan of the Jesus Guild. Its formal incorporation happened in 1459 but I know from other sources that it was established in about 1450. The Guild was dissolved, along with all religious fraternities, in 1548 on the orders of the Protestant king Edward VI, although none of its records survive after 1538, the date at which many of its activities and principal course of income were curtailed by royal decree.  Some of the St Faith’s records are in fact slightly later than 1550, but it seemed easier to stick to a neat timespan for the title! 

What was the nature of the Guild’s “cutting-edge devotion”?

Devotion to the ‘Holy Name’ – honouring the name Jesus, with its associations of divine power along with humanity – existed in early Christianity and developed during the next millennia, but in the fourteenth century there was a renewed emphasis on it, especially through mystical writing. What might be termed a ‘cult’ emerged in the fifteenth century, and by the early sixteenth century the Holy Name was the height of pious fashion. Scholars have often dealt with the Name of Jesus as ‘exceptional’, part of an increasing emphasis on Christocentric piety in the pre- Reformation period, but also as a rarefied and personal devotion. Some have even suggested that it was a precursor of Protestantism, appealing to those with heterodox tendencies. What the records of the Jesus Guild and evidence about its members clearly show is that it was thoroughly orthodox in its public and communal aspects, and indeed very much part of the reinvigoration of Catholic practices championed by Erasmus, John Colet and others, which was largely subsumed in the maelstrom of the English Reformation. 

How well known was the Guild at the time?

The Jesus Guild was known across England, Wales and much of Ireland. Its impressive religious services and other pious benefits were advertised through a system whereby the Guild leased the right to collect membership fees and offerings to sub-contractors in various parts of Britain and Ireland (although not Scotland, for political reasons). It also produced a printed advert listing the benefits of membership, a copy of which survives in an almanac from 1522. The Guild would have been very well known in London through its membership and because its main services and procession were advertised by the waits (professional musicians) who were paid for going through the city and suburbs announcing the Guild activities.

How many members did the Guild have at any one time and how did one join? 

Good questions, and I would love to know the answers! Although quite a lot of its records survive, none of the Guild’s membership lists had been tracked down. There is also a question about the payments made by non-Londoners – were these people full members? From the extant sources I would guess at a membership of around 400, but it could have been slightly lower or much higher. Members from outside London were added to lists brought to the Guild by sub-contractors and then recorded centrally. For those close enough to London there may have been an induction ceremony; a late fifteenth century man recorded that he was ‘made a brother’ of the Guild, but alas did not say what this involved. 

What do you think it was that attracted the more elite members of society?

Genuine devotion would certainly have attracted members of the Guild, something which too often is overlooked in our secular society. Membership, and especially office-holding, provided opportunities to meet wealthy and influential men from other occupations or parts of the city. Several Guild officers were aldermen, sheriffs, or mayors of London, and the Guild sometimes received offerings from the royal court, all very useful contacts.

You present a lot of fascinating information on the wardens. What roles did they perform and were they as representative of society as the Guild’s wider membership seems to have been?

The two Wardens ran the Guild, in conjunction with twenty-four (increased from the original twelve) Assistants. Like most religious fraternities those in charge were always laymen, although the dean of St Paul’s Cathedral had a ceremonial role as Rector of the Guild. The Wardens oversaw the Guild’s income and expenditure and drew-up the annual accounts; they were also responsible for keeping an eye on the Guild’s land and property, maintaining standards among the membership, and pursuing debtors. On a few occasions the Wardens took legal action to recover Guild money or to protect its good name against slander. In return, the Wardens received £4 per annum and got to wear some very swanky gowns. In the sixteenth century the Wardens were all London citizens, drawn from a range of occupations but with members of the Mercers Company best represented. Without membership lists it is impossible to say, but I suspect the Wardens and Assistants were generally among the wealthier and socially more prominent members of the Guild. 

Is there anything else you would like to share?

The Jesus Guild records are an incredibly rich source, especially the accounts which go into minute detail and provide a wealth of information about daily life in sixteenth-century London. I have flagged this up in the Introduction but encourage readers to dive in to pursue their own research and interests! 

Records of the Jesus Guild in St Paul’s Cathedral, c.1450-1550

Edited by Elizabeth A. New

9780900952623, Hardcover
£40 / $60
330 pp., 6 b/w illus.
London Record Society


£24 / $36 


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ELIZABETH A. NEW is Reader in Medieval History at Aberystwyth University, and has published widely on Christocentric devotion, the material culture of medieval religion, and medieval seals and sealing practices.