The fifteenth-century English gentry have been characterised in different ways by historians in respect of their religion: as anti-clerical harbingers of the Reformation, as orthodox, integrated members of the parish community, and as increasingly privatised individualists pursuing their own self-centred brand of piety. Christine Carpenter's work has stood apart from these historiographical (and often confessional) fault-lines and has examined gentry religion in its social and political context, while still taking seriously the inner beliefs behind its outward manifestations. In particular, she has shown how the late-medieval gentry achieved ‘a highly satisfactory reconciliation of the demands of this world and the next’ through public manifestations of their religion, notably post-mortem provisions, in one of the centres of local social and political life, the parish church.
This interweaving of spiritual and material priorities represents in microcosm the tensions inherent within the medieval church as a whole. On the one hand, the English church represented an autonomous body under the pope's supreme jurisdiction, its personnel set apart from lay society by their special status as ministers of the sacraments. On the other hand, the landed wealth that made the church independent of lay power inevitably involved it in worldly affairs. In addition, clergy were inextricably woven into the fabric of English social and political life, not only providing spiritual services but also acting as civil servants, government ministers, landowners, administrators, educators and leaders of local society. The laity, too, stood in an ambivalent relation to the clergy, simultaneously utterly dependent on priestly mediation as the only path to salvation and yet also able to call the tune as employers and patrons, as clerics depended on them for employment in what was, as we shall see, a buyer's market. This essay will examine how these tensions played out in local political society by revisiting the theme of gentry religion and its interplay with the broader social and political priorities of gentry families, as highlighted in Carpenter's work, through one particular intersection of the spiritual and material in the medieval church: advowsons and disputes over them.
An advowson was the right of a patron to present a priest to a vacant benefice.