Boston’s wealth was due to the activities of the Guildsmen of St Mary – an internationally significant religious fraternity in one of the most important ports of medieval England who were able to communicate directly with the pope.
The merchant’s Guild of St Mary was a religious guild founded in 1260. For a gold coin fee and annual subscription, men, and unusually for the time, women, could be members and they maintained the Lady Chapel in Boston Stump for the purposes of “get out of purgatory” prayer. They also made provision for support of the poor of the parish.
The merchants made their fortunes trading mainly in wool – the backbone and driving force of medieval English economy. Boston’s Guildsmen worked hard and played hard. They recruited paupers of the town, giving them board, lodging and pay, to be beadsmen. The Beadsmen, so named because of the rosary beads they used during prayer, were paid by the merchants to help save their souls from the torture of eternal damnation. They believed that they could carry on living sinful and debauched lives so long as they continued to pay the Beadsmen to say prayers to reduce the time they would have to spend in the limbo of purgatory where their souls would be purified from sin.
When the Crown gave approval for guilds to possess assets, Boston’s fantastically rich merchants almost immediately built the Guildhall, making it one of the first in the country. The Guildhall was built from a new material not readily available in the 13th Century. The clay to mike its red bricks was dug out locally, and even Flemish brick makers were employed when it would have been much easier and cheaper to build out of more traditional materials such as stone or timber.
Their Beadsmen now had a home from which to pray for doomed souls – and the merchants celebrations went on, much of it actually in the new Guildhall’s banqueting hall. Many of these celebrations or festivities centred around religious dates on the calendar – feast and saints’ days – but there would always be food galore and mead and wine on these occasions.
They believed that in order to further to reduce their time in purgatory, gifts of property and land were given to the guild in return for salvation, calculated on a “pay” scale, ranging from 100 days remission from penance all the way up to 500 years of absolution. Over the centuries the guild acquired many sacred relics including a silver and gilt case containing an image of the Virgin and Child and, most fantastically, a sample of the Virgins breast milk. These items, along with others, recorded on an inventory on display in the Council Chamber. Were such alleged artefacts to still exist today Boston would be a world centre for pilgrimage to rival Lourdes and Turin. Along with a silver and gilt case containing part of the stone of Calvary, Boston Guildhall’s treasures have been long lost, claimed by King Henry VIII when he broke his ties with the pope and renounced religious guilds, taking land and property from them.
The Guildhall’s use as a religious building ended with the dissolution of the guilds and the founding of the new Corporation in 1545.