30 May 2024

Celebrating Corpus Christi
at the mediaeval guildhall
built in Leicester by
the Guild of Corpus Christi

The emblem of the Guild of Corpus Christi in Leicester, the Host and Chalice, seen in 15th century glass fragments in the Guildhall in Leicester (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Patrick Comerford

The Feast of Corpus Christi is marked in the calendar of many Anglican churches on the Thursday after Trinity Sunday, and this day is being celebrated in many English churches and cathedrals today (30 May 2024).

For example, the Eucharist was celebrated in Lichfield Cathedral at 12.30 today, Saint Editha’s Church, Tamworth, is celebrating the Feast of Corpus Christi with the Sung Eucharist at 7:30 pm, followed by sherry and shortbread refreshments.

There is a Corpus Christi procession in Cambridge each year, with High Mass in Saint Bene’t’s Church at 7 p.m., then moving along Trumpington Street, passing Corpus Christi College, Fitzbillies and the Fitzwilliam Museum as it processes to Little Saint Mary’s for Benediction, followed by refreshments.churc

I plan to be in Oxford later today for the Corpus Christi celebrations, with High Mass in Pusey House at 6:30, and a Procession to Saint Barnabas Church, Jericho, and Benediction. The preacher is the Revd Grant Naylor, Parish Priest of Saint Matthew's, Carver Street, Sheffield.

Corpus Christi College, Cambridge was established in 1352 by the Guilds of Corpus Christi and the Blessed Virgin Mary. But, it seems, many towns and cities in England had guilds dedicated to Corpus Christi. Last week I visited the Guildhall in Leicester, built in the 14th century by the Guild of Corpus Christi, and where the signs of the guild – the host and chalice of Corpus Christi – can be glimpsed in coloured fragments of medieval stained glass.

The Guild of Corpus Christi in Leicester built the Great Hall in Leicester in 1390 as the guild hall (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

The Guild of Corpus Christi was founded as a religious body in Leicester in 1343, and at one time was the most powerful organisation in the mediaeval town, bringing together the post powerful people in social, political and commercial life in a religious group.

The guild was a select group of influential businessmen and gentry founded, and the guild was the richest in the town and a powerful force in medieval Leicester.

The Guild of Corpus Christi had its own altar and guild chapel in Saint Martin’s Church (now Leicester Cathedral), and it financially supported four chantry priests who prayed for the souls of deceased guild members. In times of need, the guild members offered each other practical and financial assistance and spiritual and prayerful support.

The emblem of the Guild was the Host and Chalice, and can be seen in many of the fragments of 15th century painted glass windows in the Mayor’s Parlour in the guildhall. The annual guild procession took place through the streets of Leicester on the Feast of Corpus Christ.

The guild moved from temporary premises in 1390 when the Great Hall was built in as the guildhall or meeting place. Originally the Great Hall had a beaten earth floor which would have been laid with rushes and heated by an open hearth, with smoke rising to the roof. Leicester Guildhall in its present form incorporates a later Tudor extension to the original Great Hall.

From its earliest days, the Guild was a powerful force in the mediaeval borough. Ordinances in 1477 gave the masters of the guild precedence over the mayor and council.

Inside the Guildhall, built by the Guild of Corpus Christi, in Leicester (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

The Guildhall was a building of importance during the reign of Richard III (1483-1485). Many of the guild’s members were associated with the Corporation of Leicester, which began using Leicester Guildhall as a place of assembly from 1494-1495 or probably earlier.

During the Tudor reformation, the Guild of Corpus Christi was dissolved in 1547. The Corporation then bought the guildhall, and by 1563 the building had become Leicester’s first Town Hall with its west wing, including the Mayor’s Parlour, added in 1589.

The painted panels in the Great Hall ceiling are from the 1600s and show the coat of arms of the borough and the arms of the Hastings family. Over the Hastings coat of arms is a painted quotation reminding courts and corporations that ‘God shall bring every work into judgement.’

The painted panels in the Great Hall ceiling include the coat of arms of the borough and the arms of the Hastings family (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Over the centuries, Leicester Guildhall has had many different uses. In the 16th and 17th centuries, as well as being used for civic business, the Quarter Sessions were held there and public meetings, civic dinners, concerts and dramatic entertainment were hosted. There is a tradition that William Shakespeare was a member of one of the theatre companies that performed within its walls.

The Great Hall was also the venue for banquets at times of high festivals. The Mayor held a feast in the Guildhall to celebrate the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588. Arms and armour were kept in the building at this time in readiness for possible invasion.

The Town Library moved into Leicester Guildhall from the bell tower of nearby Saint Martin’s Church in 1632. It is the third oldest public library in the country. The library rooms were originally quarters for the chantry priests of the Guild of Corpus Christi.

Volumes in the library include the Codex Leicestrensis, an important manuscript of the New Testament in Greek dating to the 1400s, a Latin grammar of 1592 with the signature of the playwright Ben Jonson, a contemporary of Shakespeare, a copy of William Harvey’s 1639 classic work on the circulation of blood. De Motu Cordis et Sanguinis, and a New Testament in an American Indian language intended for missionary work in New England.

The elaborate decorative features in the Mayor’s Parlour date from the early 17th century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

The elaborate decorative features in the Mayor’s Parlour date from the early 17th century. The panelling and over-mantle were added in 1637 and Richard Inge, the then Mayor, gave the Mayor’s chair with the arms of Charles I above.

During the English Civil War, the Mayor and Corporation met in Leicester Guildhall to make key decisions, including how to respond to royalist demands for money. Prince Rupert eventually attacked the town on 30 May 1645 and breached its walls. The last stand made by the defenders was outside Leicester Guildhall and Saint Martin’s. The Royalists then entered Leicester Guildhall and looted the town’s archives, mace and seal.

Within a few weeks, the Royalists had been defeated at the Battle of Naseby and Oliver Cromwell advanced on Leicester. The Royalists surrendered and a thanksgiving dinner was held in the Guildhall to celebrate Cromwell’s victory.

From the later 1700s, Leicester was a larger and more important town. When the Municipal Reform Act was passed in 1835, the ratepayers elected a new council including local tradespeople such as hosiers, grocers, drapers, spinners and bankers.

Leicester Guildhall has been opened as a museum since 1926 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

The reformed Corporation took office on 1 January 1836 and at once held an auction in the Great Hall to dispose of the civic silver and china, including the Great Mace, as the ceremonial trappings of an earlier age. To accommodate a new borough police force, part of the ground floor of the east range was altered in 1840 to provide offices, three cells and a charge room. The banqueting kitchens on the south side of the courtyard were demolished and replaced with a house known as the Constables Cottage for the superintendent of the new police force.

But the mediaeval guildhall had become inadequate for the needs of a rapidly growing 19th century town, and a new Town Hall was built on the Horse Fair in 1876. Leicester Guildhall had a variety of uses after that, including as a domestic science school, with cooking lessons for the girls in the Great Hall.

Having lost its main civic purpose, however, Leicester Guildhall was neglected and it declined further during the late 19th and early 20th century. Neighbouring businesses and residents saw it as old-fashioned and gloomy and it was under threat of demolition. But the new City Council launched a major renovation programme in 1922-1926, spearheaded by Leicester Archaeological Society.

Leicester Guildhall reopened to the public as a museum in 1926, and the library of Leicester Archaeological and Historical Society is housed in the museum above the mayor’s parlour, in the former jury room. A further programme of renovation took place in 1991-1993, removing modern alterations to the building and restoring it to its former glory.

Today, the Guildhall is one of the most important mediaeval buildings in Leicester. It is a museum, performance centre, wedding venue, cafĂ©, local landmark, and a Grade I listed building. The Guildhall still has a place in the ceremonial life of the city, with the annual Freemen’s oath-taking ceremony takes place there.

Leicester Cathedfral seen from the courtyard of the Guildhall (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

The Collect:

Lord Jesus Christ,
we thank you that in this wonderful sacrament
you have given us the memorial of your passion:
grant us so to reverence the sacred mysteries
of your body and blood
that we may know within ourselves
and show forth in our lives
the fruits of your redemption;
for you are alive and reign with the Father
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Post Communion Prayer:

All praise to you, our God and Father,
for you have fed us with the bread of heaven
and quenched our thirst from the true vine:
hear our prayer that, being grafted into Christ,
we may grow together in unity
and feast with him in the kingdom;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

The emblem of the Guild of Corpus Christi in Leicester, the Host and Chalice, seen in 15th century glass fragments in the Mayor’s Parlour in the Guildhall in Leicester (Photographs: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

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