Merchant influence in the church: public displays of wealth, piety and charity

G112M6 Interior of the St Mary?s church, Beverley, Yorkshire and the Humber, England,
The Chancel of St Mary’s Church, Beverley
The second in a new series of fortnightly blogs exploring St Mary's curious carvings.  Written by Bryony Wilde, a recent Art History graduate of the University of York. The focus of Bryony's master's dissertation of 2020 was the roof bosses in St Mary's nave.

In the first post in this series, we started by discussing why these sculptures deserve our attention and began addressing some of the questions they pose. It’s been established that roof bosses offer a unique insight into medieval art and society. However, they also pose a challenge to understand – even knowing where to start is quite difficult. For instance, in St. Mary’s alone there are over 600 unique roof bosses. With that said, if we imagine the ceiling as an intricate tapestry, we can begin to pull at single threads which will gradually give us a more complete understanding of these amazing art works.

One of the biggest influences which can be seen throughout the church are the merchants and their wealth. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries Beverley flourished into a busy town, largely due to the lucrative wool trade. This meant anyone involved in this economic aspect of town life gained status and privileges within the community. Additionally, these merchants often formed ‘guilds’ or ‘fraternities’ which allowed them to work collectively and gain greater prestige in the community.

We can see this wealth reflected in the depictions of the merchants throughout the church. For instance, two roof bosses show men holding bundles. These might be wool as it was so important to the town. Both of these are large sculptures and appear in the middle of the ceiling, so they are quite eye catching when we look up. These would have most likely been to thank guilds for donations given to the church. From this we can see the guilds’ great importance and wealth.

So, the question becomes why do these images appear in a church? What would be the benefit of such imagery and why was it put there?

Bragging rights

Firstly, in the medieval and early modern periods the parish church space functioned differently to how we might now perceive it. St Mary’s would have acted as a central part of the local community, being a spiritual place but also being used for more everyday purposes.  This is where you would learn about the news of the day, chat to your neighbours and would spend a significant amount of time every week. Therefore, any image of these guilds acted to show off their power in front of their neighbours and to advertise the important elements of the town itself for any pilgrims or visitors. The church is also recorded to have been particularly popular with those involved in trade and crafts. Having your trade represented in the church’s artwork would have been a great way to show off in front of your colleagues.

This boss could be a merchant travelling with his wares on a horse. Having your occupation represented in the church would have been an important status symbol.

Links to St Mary’s and charity

Secondly, these merchant collectives would often have a religious significance for their members. The largest associated with the church was ‘The Purification of St Mary’. This guild used a sacred heart as their emblem to represent the love and sacrifice of Christ. It is also documented that on religious holidays the guild processed through the town with a young man dressed as the Virgin carrying a baby.

The benefit of a large, organised group also meant members could pool their resources and give larger donations to the church. As we’ve discussed, the wealth of the guild gave it power in town. However, this is also important from a spiritual perspective as in Medieval England it was believed that the more you gave to your church, the more likely it would be that you would have a place in heaven.

Lastly, one of the reasons we might see so many images of merchants in the ceiling could be more pragmatic. In 1520 the tower collapsed onto the church nave, causing catastrophic damage to the building and resulting in the loss of 55 lives.

St Mary’s was in desperate need of repair and so they turned to the wealthy parts of the community to help them rebuild. A large percentage of the congregation would have been part of the merchant class, and they appear to have come together to save their beloved church. We can see images of the generous individuals who helped with the rebuilding in the 1520s throughout the nave on the columns with inscriptions detailing their acts of charity.

Sculpture commemorating those who donated to help rebuild the church after the falling of the tower in 1520.

There are many reasons why merchants appear in the ceiling at St Mary’s. Medieval people would have been as nuanced and different as we are today – sometimes vain, sometimes charitable and sometimes wanting to show off in front of their neighbours!  Sometimes it’s all about flaunting it.