We have been discussing the 'Abbey' on our Message Board. I decided that it would be appropriate to post this special piece of history on this site. This article is from Allan Whally''s - World St Helens Star and Kevin Heneghan
The ruin within the graveyard adjoining the St Helens borough cemetery has been known for generations as Windleshaw Abbey. But that is historically incorrect. For the much-vandalised landmark was a chantry, built almost six centruies ago by Sir Tomas Gerard of Bryn. Dedicated to his patron, St Thomas of Canterbury, it was a place where Masses could be sung or said for the souls of his ancestors; or in the written language of the time, 'the sowlez of his antecessors'. I've gatthered this knowledge from my old friend, Kevin Heneghan, retired teacher and keen researcher fo local history, in the hope that it might draw attention to the ruin and maybe inspire some restoration work before the present damage goes beyond repair.
It is of historical importance and great antiquity, having been built as long ago as 1435. Yet, reports Kevin; "When I last visited the ruin there was evidence of damage by vandals, and hypodermic needles littered the spot where the altar once stood. This ancient place of worship, which should be a local treasure, has become a druggies den". Picking up the threads of history, Kevin says that in the late Middle Ages, when nearly all England was Catholic, people were concerned about the safe passage of their souls from this world to the next, and above all with shortening their stay in Purgatory.
Masses were believed to be the best way of relieving suffering souls. "Good work also helped so they paid for the building and decoration of churches, making gifts of jewels, money, missals, vestments, plate, cattle, crops and other goods. The well-to-do sometimes endowed a chantry, which could be a chapel or altar in the pariish church or a seperate building like the one at Windleshaw, off Hard Lane".
Ancient records show that because of concern with the afterlife, there had been an increase in vocations producing a surplus of priests. These sought positions as chaplains or chantry priests, but the sum of £4.16 shillings that Sir Thomas paid his 'annualer' was by no means niggardly. For Kevin has discovered that arround this time, the yeoman father of Bishop Latimer could rent, for £3 or £4 a year, a farm with grazing for a hundred sheep and 30 cows plus tillage for six men. In those times, many liked to attend daily Mass and though there were chapels-of-ease, like that of St Elyn, around which the present town grew, a chantry of their own enabled local labourers to attend 'morrow Mass' at dawn, when they began their day's work.
Though the Windleshaw chantry was small it would have been adequate. For the population of England was only about three million - a twentieth of its present size. IIt originally measured 50ft by 14ft, the tower being 36ft high and 12ft square.
And what tales of change and conflict that ruin of yellow sandstone, quarried locally, could tell! The chantry useful life was cut short when the youthful Edward VI came to the Throne and the Protestant Reformation got underway, with monasteries dissolved.
Its closure was ordered under the Chantries Act of 1447 when the last incumbent was a Richard Frosham. Sir Thomas Gerard - descendant of the founder - pleaded in vain for exemption
When Edward's sister, the Catholic Queen Mary, came to the throne six years later, there was a brief respite and Sir Tomas was made High Sheriff of Lancashire
But his fortunes changed under Elizabeth and he was imprisoned in the Tower, charged with plotting to replace Elizabeth with Mary Queen of Scots.
Sir Thomas's son the Jesuit John Gerard also went to the Tower, having the dinstinction of being one of the few to escape from it. Despite having been tortured on the rack, he managed to climb down a rope from Cradle Tower to Tower Wharf and get away by boat. His life thereafter was full of adventures in hiding-holes and hairbreadth escapes.
From the early 1700's land around the chantry became a burial place for Catholics denied burial elsewhere. Many of the interments took place in secret at night.
Kevin adds: "It is believed that Windleshaw chantry was partly demolished in 1644 at the time of the Civil War, when Lathom House nine miles away, was under siege by 3,000 troops under Cromwell's General Faifax.".
Before the Windle estate passed out of the family's hands in the early 1900's, Dean Austin Powell of Birchley persuaded Laord Gerard to donate land as a site for a new school and church.
Opened in 1911, the church was like the chantry, dedicated to St Thomas of Canterbury.
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