Indulgent behaviour

In November 1349, Pope Clement VI authorised an agreement that anyone who visited St George’s Chapel on the feast days of St George (23 April) or St Edward the Confessor (13 October) would have one year reduced from the time that they had to do penance for their sins. This is confirmed in a parchment document that survives in St George’s Chapel Archives today [SGC PB.7].

This type of grant is called an indulgence. It is based on the understanding in Catholic teaching that an act of sin incurs temporal punishment, either in this life or in purgatory after death. However, through an act of faith, a person could gain an indulgence and the penance that they owed could be reduced.

The practice of granting indulgences originated in the 11th century and it was common in that time for indulgences connected with specific actions to be “worth” a specified period of time. Thus, the grant to St George’s gives one whole year to those who came to the Chapel on the feasts of St George or St Edward the Confessor and attended three services there that day: a Mass, Matins and Evensong. Furthermore, if they attended those three services in the Chapel exactly one week after either of the feast days, they could still claim an indulgence for one hundred days.

The system was intended to help people to achieve eternal salvation and the Church also used it to encourage certain behaviours in its followers. That might be anything from saying certain prayers to joining the Crusades. In this case, it was encouraging attendance at Edward III’s new church in Windsor Castle. Unfortunately, over time, the practice became corrupted by people who would accept money in place of the act of faith in return for an indulgence. Such corrupt practices were one of the key issues at the heart of the Protestant Reformation in Europe in the sixteenth century. One outcome of that was the formation of the Church of England, of which St George’s Chapel became a part. From that time, Pope Clement VI’s grant to St George’s would have been considered invalid by both parties.

A reformed practice of granting indulgences continues in the Catholic Church today and has been described by Pope Francis as “to experience the holiness of the Church, who bestows upon all the fruits of Christ’s redemption”.

Because St George’s Chapel was part of the Catholic Church for the first two centuries after it was founded, a number of the significant decisions relating to its foundation required not only the authority of the King, but also that of the Pope. A series of these high-status documents confirming the Chapel’s rights and privileges are kept in St George’s Chapel Archives. They are called ‘Papal Bulls’ because they were traditionally authenticated with round seals of lead known as bulla. These were attached to the documents by brightly coloured silk strings. However, most of the Papal Bulls in this collection have long since had their bulla removed. It is likely that they were collected or sold on by antiquarians.

Kate McQuillian, Archivist & Chapter Librarian

The King's Free Chapel. The Chapel of the Most Honourable and Noble Order of the Garter. The Chapel of the College of St George.