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Arbroath and its Abbey
Chapter VII - Subsidiary Alters in Abbey Church


BESIDES the great or high Altar, dedicated to the patron saint Thomas Becket, which stood at the upper end of the chancel, the Church contained various other altars or chaplainries founded in honour of other saints, male and female. We have ascertained the existence of at least six of these altars, although it is probable that a far greater number existed, of which we have as yet found no trace.

1. The Altar Of ST CATHERINE the Virgin is understood to have been situated in the south transept of the church, under the conspicuous Catherine-wheel window. It seems to have been nearly coeval with the church itself, as Hollinshed states that Gilchrist, Earl of Angus, and both his sons, "are buried before the altar of St Catherine, as the superscription of their tombs sheweth." They were large benefactors to the Abbey. There are certain marks on the basements of the two southmost columns of the south transept which were probably caused by the erection of this tomb, if not of the altar in its vicinity. This altarage was largely endowed by Margaret Stewart, Countess of Angus and Lady of Abernethy. By her charter (confirmed by King David II. on 31st October 1344), she granted to the monastery her lands of Braikie, Bollischen, (Bolshan), and Kenbraid, with the muir called the Frith, and common pasturage in the King's muir, called Montrithmont, for the celebration of mass every day perpetually for the soul of her late husband John Stewart, Earl of Angus,, and for her own soul and the souls of their progenitors and heirs, at the Altar of St Catherine the Virgin, in the Monastery of Aberbrothock. This is the principal and almost the only accession of lands acquired by the monastery after the death of King Robert Bruce. Lady Margaret Stewart's valuable gift had obviously reference to the burying-place of the Earls of Angus near this altar.

2. The altar of ST PETER is mentioned in connection with an erection called a chapel, which stood within an aisle of the church. On 29th August 1465 Abbot Malcolm granted a charter of a tenement near the house now called Hopemount to Simon Tod, burgess of Aberbrothock, for eight shillings Scots, to be paid yearly to the younger monks serving the altar of St Peter in the church of the monastery for the repair of the altar and chapel thereof.

3. The altar of ST LAWRENCE is mentioned in the Chartulary as within the Abbey church in the fifteenth century.

4. The altar dedicated to ST NlcxoLAS, bishop and confessor, had right to five shillings of ground annual from a garden at Lordburn called the green yard (now occupied by the Tanwork), the property or ground of which belonged at the same time to the other altar of St Nicholas, in the Lady Chapel at the bridge. A piece of ground on the north side of Lordburn belonged to this altar, and was called the lands of St Nicholas. And in a charter of a tenement on the north side of Homlogreen the feuar is taken bound to pay five shillings Scots yearly for the sustentation of wax lights to the altar of St Nicholas.

These four altars were dedicated by George de Brana, bishop of Dromore, on 26th August 1485, immediately after he had dedicated the chapels and altars of Hospital-field and St Ninian, and the church of St Vigeans with its altars, as stated in a certificate signed and sealed the following day, and duly recorded in the Abbey register.

5. The altar of the Blessed VIRGIN MARY stood on the south side of the choir, close to the door of the vestry, now incorrectly called the chapter house, where the remains of the piscina or stone basin in which the vessels were washed, may still be seen. This altar is noticed at an early period ; and its existence—not far from the great altar—seems to account for the circumstance that, in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries the names of God, the Virgin Mary, and St Thomas the Martyr are often joined together in grants to the Abbey. The oldest of the conventual seals, besides containing the martyrdom of St Thomas in front, represents the Virgin and babe on the reverse. Previous to 1219 King Alexander II. granted the yearly rent of a stone of wax from his Loft beside the market of Aberdeen for lighting the altar of the blessed Virgin. In 1245 Abbot Adam granted the Mill of Conveth (near Laurencekirk) to John Wishart for ten silver shillings, to be paid yearly for lights to this altar. The document which indicates its position was a grant made on 28th April 1521 by the Abbot to Thomas Peirson, of a small piece of land called Guysdub, for the yearly payment of four shillings Scots to the chaplain of the " altar of the Blessed Virgin Mary, near the door of the vestry, in the church of the monastery, for the sustentation of the lights thereof."

6. The altar of ST JAMES was termed the altar Divi Jacobi. Its exact position is not indicated. On 10th April 1531 the Abbot confirmed to Adam Pyerson and his son, Thomas Pyerson, a tenement in the way or street of the Almory, lying to the south of the Almory House, and to the east of the chapel of St Michael the archangel, for the yearly payment of six shillings Scots, to the monks of the Almory, and of ten shillings Scots to the monk or chaplain of the altar of St James, "situated in the monastery."

The greater part of these and other altars which existed in the Abbey church were probably founded by private persons in performance of vows, or for delivery of the souls of themselves and their friends from purgatory; and their endowments seem to have been latterly supplemented by the provision of small payments to them out of lands feued by the Convent.

At this period every great church was studded with altars devoted to saints and angels. For example, the Trinity Church, now the Town Church of St Andrews, contained, on the authority of the late learned Principal Lee, perhaps not much fewer than a hundred such altars, and we have the names of more than twenty of their tutelar deities. Each altar was lighted by wax candles, and was surmounted by the image of its patron saint, clothed in gaudy robes, and glittering with tinsel of silver and gold—the i-doll of the shrine. Beside it stood a priest, especially on festivals, extolling the virtues and power of his divinity, every one " crying for their offerings," and holding out peace and pardons in return. The more fashionable altars were surrounded by crowds of worshippers on their knees, presenting their gifts, offering up their paternosters and Ave Marias, and telling their beads, while incense and music lent their aid to enliven the solemnities. It was such a scene that Sir David Lyndesay satirises in his poem of the Monarchic, when he makes the Courtier enquire of Experience as follows:

"Father, yet ane thing I wald speir,
Behald in every kirk and queir,
Through Christendome, in burgh and land,
Imagis, maid with mannis hand:
To quhome bone gevin dyvers names:
Sum Peter and Paull, sum John and James;
Sanct Peter carvit with his keyis;
Sanct biichaell with his wingis and weyis;
[With his wings and scales. This was Michael the archangel, the tutelar deity of the chapel of the Almory of Arbroath.]
Sanet Katherine with her swerd and quhil;
[Sword and wheel. The wheel, an instrument of her martyrdom, is commemorated by the St Catherine or wheel window (now called the round O), above her altar. ]
Ane Hynd set up beside Sanct Geill."

And, after a description of the images of St Frances, St Tredwall, St Paul, St Appolline, St Roche, St Eloise, St Ringan (Ninian), St Duthow, St Andrew, St George, St Anthony, and St Bride, he concludes:-

"Ane thousand mo, I might doclair,
As Sanct Cosma and Damiano,
The Soutars Sanct Crispiniane.
All thir on anitar staitlie stands
Priestis cryand for thair offerandis-
To quhome, we commounis on our kneis,
Dois worschip all thir imagereis;
In kirk, in queir, and in the closter,
Prayand to them our Paternoster:
In pilgramage from toun to toun,
With offerand and with orisoun:
To thame ay babland on our beidis,
That they wald help us in our neidis;
Quhat differis this, declare to me,
From the Gentilis idolatrie?"

Let the reader imagine himself placed in the great Church of Arbroath as it stood in its grandeur, on some 17th of July, beneath its "long drawn aisles and fretted vaults," among its massy Gothic pillars and arches, and in the solemn light admitted by its stained glass windows, while the rites here described were being performed at many surrounding altars, whose artificial lights threw a mystic glare upon their idols, priests, and worshippers, and on the tombs, gilded statues of abbots and kings, screens and crosses, and gold and silver vessels; and he thus may be able to form some faint idea of the festival of St Thomas Becket as it was annually celebrated at Arbroath for nearly four hundred years.


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