“Collegiate” is one of those words - there are many - that is bandied around in church guides without explanation. You might have thought that the word “college” implies some sort of educational role but you would be wrong.
The four essential elements of a collegiate church were:
1. There was more than one ordained priest incumbent.
2. There was a formal endowment to provide subsistence for the clergy.
3. It was not a Cathedral - that is, there was no bishop.
4. They were not monastic communities.
Although non-monastic, the colleges perhaps did develop out of early monastic practice. The earliest monastic churches - so called “minsters” - housed monks who served the wider community at a time when the parish system had not been established and many settlements had no place of worship. The great monastic foundations that followed (Cluniac, Cistercian and so on) demanded seclusion from the outside world. The priests serving collegiate churches were not monks. Often they were termed “canons”. They were - confusingly - known as “secular” canons. This did not, of course, imply that they were not religious. It simply meant they were not part of a monastic order. There were monastic canons in some churches and these were known as “regular” canons. Confusing or what?
There was a variety of ways in which the clergy could be maintained. At first most endowments were pooled amongst the canons and such men were know as “portioners”. Today we might call them shareholders. Later many canons had their own endowments and they were known as “prebendaries”. One of the clergy would be the rector (that is, the recipient of the tithes) and serve as parish priest.
So why have churches with a college of priests? The answer is usually to do with the mediaeval terror of Purgatory. I am going to assume you know what Purgatory was supposed to be but you might be less aware that it has no scriptural foundation whatsoever. There seems to have a long pre-Christian tradition of praying for the dead. This implies that all is not black and white beyond the grave. Christianity picked up this tradition and the concept of an “interim state” where the dead awaited the Last Judgement at which point the elevator took you to the roof garden or to the basement. When you think about it the idea has a certain logic. Only in the twelfth century did the concept arise that Purgatory was a physical place where fire (the Christian Fathers loved fire) would purge you - hence the name - of your inevitable sins.
Purgatory became the most useful weapon in the armoury of the mediaeval Roman Catholic cleric. Remission from periods in purgatory could be bought by endowing or helping in the building of churches, paying for “indulgences” (aka rich people bribing the clergy) or by having a lot of masses said for your immortal soul. Needless to say, none of this has any scriptural support either.
Rich people were distinctly unthrilled by the notion of Purgatory. A common tactic emerged whereby the rich person in question would endow an extension to a church (most commonly, a new aisle or an extension to an existing aisle) housing a little chapel where clergymen could, in return for an endowment, pray for the immortal souls of the benefactor and his family. It wasn’t long before rich merchants were doing the same thing. Not to be left out, “ordinary” people could club together, form a “gild” and endow their own chapels. These chapels were called “chantry chapels” because masses were chanted.
Establishing an Collegiate Church, therefore, could be a very smart move indeed. You got heaps of credit in the Heavenly Bank for your investment and you could then get Purgatory-reducing masses said for you as well. You couldn’t just do this: you had to get a licence from the Pope. Lady Elizabeth obtained such a licence and her motive, it is said, was to give thanks for the safe return of her grandson from the Agincourt Campaign in the Hundred Years War, a somewhat more creditable motivation than most perhaps As we have seen, however, it is unlikely that the college was ever established at North Cadbury.
The charmless regime of buying release from Purgatory contributed in no small way to the success of the Reformation. Indeed King Edward VI (Henry VIII’s short-lived successor) banned chantry chapels altogether. This, of course, spelt the end for Collegiate Churches.