Gilted angels in the roofspace.

Friends of Cathedral Music: Sheffield Gathering

Angels in the cathedral roof are thought to pre-date the Reformation, though their wings are a more recent addition. (Detail from a photograph taken by Mark J. Hillyer Photography; used with permission.)

What did the Reformation ever do for Sheffield?

In mid-October, the Friends of Cathedral Music converged on the Cathedral of St Peter and St Paul, the Mother Church of the Church of England Diocese of Sheffield. The Friends’ national gathering took the Reformation anniversary as its theme, incorporating talks on changes in liturgy, music, and material culture. 

Reformation in Sheffield

Until 1914, the cathedral—the city’s oldest building still in daily use—was Sheffield’s central parish church. Not a monastery or abbey, it was not a prominent target in the first phases of English iconoclasm. Yet it could not escape change: As volunteer welcomer Margaret Garner explained to the Friends, what had once been a multisensory environment was whitewashed early in Elizabeth’s reign. Account books record payment for the removal of rood cross and other carvings in 1570, along with the destruction of an Anglo Saxon cross outside the church. Shifting attitudes to saints are also evident in the renaming of the church as “Trinity”, an identity that lasted into the 1800s.

Much here is typical of English reformation, but the Friends also heard about several distinctive features in Sheffield’s reformation experience. As some may form a topic for forthcoming assessment, one key example will suffice here:

The Church Burgesses

In 1554, two Sheffield inhabitants, Robert Swyft and William Taylor gained an audience with the Queen. They wanted to regain funds taken during the reign of Edward VI. Where Henry had seized the wealth of the monasteries, Edward claimed ownership of the lands that paid priests’ wages.

Improbable as it might seem, Mary granted their request. On 8 June 1554, the land was returned to local ownership. A trust was established to take care of the land, with the income devoted to paying for the priests, maintaining the church building, repairing roads, and providing for poor and needy inhabitants.

The Trust remains. In its first year, it raised £30 for Sheffielders. Today the 12 trustees, known as the Church Burgesses, manage the distribution of funds averaging around £1.5 million. The money continues to provide for building repair, for the cathedral and other churches in the area. The terms of the Trust were rewritten in the 1850s, with a fresh commitment to support education. (A more recent change, in 2002, admitted the first female trustee.)

Sheffield benefited in the 1550s, and continues to benefit now, from an era of English Reformation with a less commonly celebrated legacy.

Thanks to Sheffield’s second female Church Burgess (and former University of Sheffield employee), Barbara Hickman, who provided—through her talk to the Friends of Cathedral Music—much substance for this short report.


More information about the Church Burgesses Trust is available from their website.

More information about the Friends of Cathedral Music is available at fcm.org.uk.

More information about Sheffield Cathedral is available at sheffieldcathedral.org.


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