As Lent draws to a close, we look forward to the celebration of Easter Sunday in St George’s Chapel. Records in the Chapel’s Archives shed light for us on the celebration of this special, holy season hundreds of years ago. Some of the practices seem familiar while some are remarkably different.
St George’s Chapel was founded in 1348 and information about its early decades can be gleaned from surviving financial records. The Canon Precentor’s accounts tell us that as Holy Week began on Palm Sunday, he would provide pieces of palm and flowers for use in the Chapel. The choristers would sing Gloria, laus et honor to mark the occasion, a ninth century hymn which survives today as “All glory, laud and honour” and is often still sung on Palm Sunday.
The Precentor acquired extra candles to prepare for Holy Week’s additional services. This was especially important for the celebration of Tenebrae, a service held on each of the last three days of Holy Week. During this service candles around the church would be gradually extinguished so that it ended in total darkness. In Latin, tenebrae means ‘darkness’. A loud noise, called the strepitus, would be made at the end of this service to symbolise the earthquake that followed Christ’s death.
An Easter sepulchre would be constructed in the Chapel. The blessed sacrament (consecrated bread and wine which represent the body and blood of Jesus Christ) was housed in this from Maundy Thursday until Easter morning. It was topped with twenty-four candles which would be lit and extinguished at Tenebrae each day.
To prepare for Easter day itself, the Precentor typically paid the bell ringers to thoroughly clean and sweep the Chapel, cloisters and chapter house. Fresh rushes were bought for the Chapel floor. The veils which had covered the altar and reredos were removed; the 1384 Chapel inventory tells us that in the fourteenth century these veils were beautifully made of blue and white material powdered with garters and golden eagles.
The bell ringers returned to their official duties and rang out the Easter bells. In years when the king was at Windsor for Easter there was even more ringing. In 1378 the accounts record that ten men rang for three days and were paid 4d each per day.
For the Dean and Canons’ celebrations, the Precentor acquired special treats from London: red and white wine, spices including cloves and anise, and sweetmeats such as ginger comfits and spiced plums.
A full description of the Chapel’s practices at Easter and the other festive seasons of the Church year can be read in A.K.B. Roberts, St George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle, 1348-1416: A Study in Early Collegiate Administration (Windsor, 1947), which is available as a pdf through our website.
Kate McQuillian, Archivist & Chapter Librarian