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St Mary at Hill Church, London, c1815

​St Mary at Hill Church, c.1815

​The 16th Century Choir School at St. Mary-at-Hill

Dr Louise Rayment, University of Southampton

The churchwardens’ accounts for the City of London church of St. Mary-at-Hill (P69/MRY4/B/005/MS01239/001-002) are extensive for the period 1420-1558 and provide a wealth of evidence for the cultural life of the parish. They show that during the first half of the 16th century, the parish was both wealthy and musically advanced, with the church engaging a number of musicians in this period who later became significant figures, including the composer Thomas Tallis (c.1505–1585). This article provides a brief examination of the church’s choir school which was developed by the conductor, organist and master of the choir boys, John Northfolke during the 1520s.

Music at the Church

The musical advancement of St. Mary-at-Hill is evident as early as 1510. The church owned books of ‘pricksong’ (vocal music sung from a copy), had a permanent organist and could raise a choir to sing at important festivals or obits. This was almost certainly achieved by utilising resident chantry priests - of which there were seven at St. Mary-at-Hill by 1479 - alongside hired extras from other nearby parishes, from the large pool of freelance clerics supported by the city and even from the Royal Household chapel - an extremely beneficial arrangement which was probably due to at least one of the Gentlemen of the Chapel Royal, John Sidborough, living in the parish.

In 1523 the church employed John Northfolke to play the organs over Christmas. He stayed at the church for a further six years as a conductor, organist and choir master and appears to have been an energetic and enthusiastic employee who was passionate about music and instrumental in further developing the reputation of the church’s choir. Between his appointment in 1523 and 1529 the Gentlemen of the Chapel Royal begin to appear more frequently to support the church’s choir and weekly payments to organ blowers indicate that musically accompanied Sunday services were instituted. It is also noticeable that the number of permanent singing clerks doubled (from three to six) during the period of his employment, and that the number of temporary clerks employed as both extras for particular services and as singers who remained in the service of the church for only a short number of weeks or months increased. Perhaps Northfolke’s greatest contribution to the church’s musical development however, was a school for choristers, which was established between 1524 and 1525.

The Choir School

Evidence suggests that a school of some variety had been established at St. Mary-at-Hill several years before, as in 1521 a payment was made for 2d for ‘mending the lock on a chamber door that was Sir John Smith’s schoolhouse’ (P69/MRY4/B/005/MS01239/001/002, f.458r), but Northfolke’s school seems to have been in a different location if not an entirely new enterprise. The accounts show that 6d was paid for ‘makyng clene of a chamber […] for to be a skole howse for Northfolkes children’ (P69/MRY4/B/005/MS01239/001/002, f.497v) in the town house of the Abbots of Waltham, a large mansion which was located on the west side of St. Mary-at-Hill, south of the church. There were strong links between the church and Waltham Abbey (possibly arising from the fact that the church’s south aisle was built on the former site of the abbot’s kitchen), but despite this and the fact that the school room was within a house which was church property, Northfolke was initially charged rent of 6s 8d a year for its use (P69/MRY4/B/005/MS01239/001/002, f.508r). Whilst there was clearly a thriving musical tradition at the church by this point, it appears that financing the school was difficult, and in the early years of its existence, the rent seems to have been paid by the schoolmaster (P69/MRY4/B/005/MS01239/001/002, f.508r) until it was finally remitted and the accounts record several years’ vacation from paying for the room (P69/MRY4/B/005/MS01239/001/002, f.523r). Maintenance of the school was also helped by Alan Percy, who was rector at the church from 1520 until his death in 1560. Percy clearly had an interest in music, investing fairly heavily in the choir and possibly personally augmenting Northfolke’s annual salary in the early years of his role. The accounts record that in 1533, for example, he made over by a formal deed a proportion of the tithe due to him. Percy was by no means ungenerous in his dealings with the church and these tithes (which are generally termed as the ‘parsons dewtye’) are distinctly described as for the ‘mayntenaunce of the quire’ (P69/MRY4/B/005/MS01239/001/003, f.627r).

Whilst the running of the school was clearly financially problematic, it does not seem to have deterred Northfolke, who was supported by at least one other schoolmaster at the church by 1527. A document originating in the papers of the Reverend John Brand, antiquarian and rector at the church in the late 18th century and dated 5 February 1556 includes a copy in English of a certificate of the rector, Alan Percy, giving lists of tenants and payments relating to the church (Society of Antiquaries London, Ms 635). The original document from which the copy was made dates to 1527, in which year the sum of £8 10s was paid annually to the schoolmaster, one ‘Rice Williams’. Williams also appears in the church accounts in 1548 where he is listed as organist (P69/MRY4/B/005/MS01239/001/003, f.707v). Although exact details of the attendees of the school are not known, in 1523/4, almost immediately after the choirmaster’s appointment, money was expended on twelve new surplices for men at 6d each and twelve for children at 5d each, indicating the number of choirboys with which the school began (P69/MRY4/B/005/MS01239/001/002, f.497v). It is not clear where the boys who attended the choir school were found, but they were evidently competent, as demonstrated by an entry in the accounts very shortly after the school had started: ‘paid to Bright for ridyng to the Moore to Mr Parson for to speke to my lord cardenall for the taking of the children’ (P69/MRY4/B/005/MS01239/001/002, f.509v). Bright was one of the church’s lay clerks, the Cardinal referred to here is almost certainly Thomas Wolsey and the ‘Moore’ very likely the Manor of le More in the Colne valley held by Wolsey in his capacity as Abbot of St. Albans. The entry almost certainly refers to the practice of ‘impressing’ or taking talented children from provincial and parochial choirs to sing in royal or cathedral choirs, of which Wolsey’s chapel choir was considered one.

Records of the school continue to appear fairly regularly in the churchwardens’ accounts until 1537/8 and although it does not appear in the accounts after this date, in 1548 it appears in the Chantry Certificate (the reports of the royal commissioners appointed in 1546 and 1548 to survey colleges, chantries and kindred endowments) when Williams is still listed as ‘schoolmaster of the children’ (The National Archives, E 301/34). Most of the schools found attached to parish churches during the early part of the 16th century were able to run at least in part, because of chantries. Many schoolteachers were chantry priests who were capable of teaching Latin and whose other duties were fairly limited. John Sherpin was Richard Gosselyn’s chantry priest at St. Mary-at-Hill for which he was paid an annual salary, but in 1548 he is also listed as a teacher of children at the church (The National Archives, E301/34, mb 2d). Following the Reformation, and the consequent abolishment of the chantries, many choir schools also became redundant. The effect of the Reformation on these schools in London is demonstrated by the fact that despite the large number of parishes in the City (more than one hundred), in the 1548 Chantry Certificate teaching of any kind is referred to in only five; St. Anthony’s grammar school in St. Benet Fink, St. Dunstan in the East, the parish adjoining St. Mary-at-Hill, St. Gregory by St. Paul’s and St. Mary Woolnoth. St. Anthony’s remained as a functioning school until it was destroyed by the Fire of London in 1666, but the latter three schools all seem to have faded out gracefully during the 1540s - almost certainly with the abolishment of the chantries, they were not able to continue. Those pensioned off at this time were James Rimyger, organist and 'master of the singing children' at St. Dunstan in the East, Hugh Jones who taught singing children at St. Mary Woolnoth, and Peter Jackson, an ex-monk, who taught at St. Gregory’s. It is not clear what happened to the school that Northfolke founded at St. Mary-at-Hill after 1548, but the choirmaster’s legacy continues as music remains central to the life of the modern church, which is now home to a professional quartet of singers, the St Mary-at-Hill Choir, and the Square Mile Music Series.

Further information

  • The St. Mary-at-Hill churchwardens’ accounts are available for consultation at London Metropolitan Archives. The full catalogue for the parish of St Mary-at-Hill can be found on the LMA’s online catalogue at reference P69/MRY4.
  • You can find out more about our holdings relating to religion on our collections pages.
25 June 2014
Last Modified:
26 September 2019