In fifteenth-century England everyone was brought up in the Catholic Church. They were baptised within a few days of being born. This was a ceremony that made them a member of the Christian Church and it was believed that the unbaptised could not go to Heaven after death. As children grew up they were taught to pray as soon as they woke up, before they went to bed, and before each meal. Those who lived in large households usually went to a service in the household chapel every morning and often another before their evening meal. Poorer people would just go to church on Sundays and special holy days.
The main religious service was called Mass. During Mass it was believed that bread and wine on the altar were miraculously transformed into the actual body and blood of Jesus Christ so that people present in the church were physically close to God (Christians believe that Jesus Christ is God in human form). Ordinary people were only allowed to eat the bread, not drink the wine, and many only did this on Easter Day.
Religion was woven into all aspects of life. For example, children were taught to read using prayer books. People were not allowed to eat meat during Lent (the forty days leading up to Easter) or Advent (the four weeks leading up to Christmas) or on Fridays (the day Jesus was crucified). The church had a whole law system with its own courts separate from the laws made by the king and parliament. These laws included rules about who people could marry. Bishops often had powerful positions in the government and could be very wealthy.
People were taught that after death their souls would go to Purgatory which was a place of suffering which would make them pure enough to go to Heaven. They believed that they could shorten their time in Purgatory by the good things they did in life. These good things included looking after the poor, giving gifts to the Church, and going on pilgrimages to holy places. Time in Purgatory could also be shortened if people prayed for you after death so many people gave money to churches (or even founded special chapels) in exchange for promises of prayers in the future.
Very often, instead of praying directly to God, people asked saints to speak to God for them. Saints were people who had died and were believed to be in Heaven with God – they were named as saints because of their holy lives which pleased God and because miracles had happened which were proof of their closeness to God. (For example, someone prayed for their help and then avoided shipwreck or were healed). The most popular saint was the Virgin Mary, mother of Jesus.
People used statues and pictures to help them feel closer to God or the saints as they prayed. Sometimes they used ‘relics’ which were objects connected to a particular saint or to Jesus. For example, a fragment of the cross Jesus was crucified on, the bones of a saint, or a piece of their clothing. Almost all churches had at least one relic and wealthy people would own some too.
Only men were allowed to be priests and priests were not allowed to get married. Some people chose to take up a ‘religious life’ focussed on prayer, either as hermits or, more often, with larger groups in monasteries, nunneries, priories or colleges. Ordinary people would visit or send them gifts asking for prayers for themselves.
Just like today, within the Church some people had very different ideas about parts of their religion from others. The principal beliefs and stories of the church were drawn from the Bible but very few people read these directly because books were very expensive and Bibles were written in Latin. People learned from priests and other preachers, or from plays performed on holy days, or from other books. Books of saints’ lives were especially popular as were Books of Hours. (Books of Hours were versions of the religious services used in monasteries that were shortened for lay people to use in their daily worship. Often some more personal prayers and texts were added).
Historians used to believe that in the fifteenth century a lot of people were fed up with bad habits and greed in the church and that this led to the Reformation in the sixteenth century. Very few historians still argue this.
The images on this page are all copyright of the British Library and have been put in the public domain. You can find out more about the images in their Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts.
Find out more about medieval churches and their services at Salisbury Cathedral’s Sarum Customary website.
Micklegate Priory re-created in virtual 3-D 15th century York by the University of York illustrates the monastic environment and daily routines of a large, medieval religious house.
Some of the books used by important figures during the Wars of the Roses are now fully online:
Richard III’s Book of Hours at Leicester Cathedral.