Thame Local History
What is a Prebend, a Prebendal Church and a Rectory?
The lexicon of the early Church has many words which few outside the Church today
know the exact meaning of, such as prebend.
A more familiar concept is a benefice, being any form of ecclesiastical office that bestows an income on its holder.
There are many types of benefice, and a prebend is a particular type of benefice connected with a cathedral or any form of collegiate church, that is to say a church administered by a 'chapter of canons'.
(The word prebend , for those who are interested, comes from the Old Fench prebende, which in turn derives from the late Latin word praebenda, meaning a salary or a pension. The original Latin derivation is made up of prae- meaning 'forth', or 'before' in some cases, and habere meaning 'have'.)
In the medieval period every parish church had an income, made up of tithes and other income from land, as well as fees and donations made in return for performing religious ceremonies and rites.
This parochial income accrued in many cases to a rector, a local priest with responsibility for the pastoral and spiritual care of the parishioners. The office of rectory is another form of benefice, and one which proved lucrative to many a country priest over many centuries.
In certain designated cases, the income of the parish was appropriated by the Bishop of the particular diocese not to a rectory but to a prebend, and through the prebend it was assigned to the cathedral or collegiate church to which the prebend belonged.
The Bishop had a duty to provide for the spiritual needs of the parishioners within his diocese, but he also had a need to provide an income for the canons who administered his Cathedral and formed the hierarchy of the diocese, and also for those in religious training.
The benefice arising from a prebend was given to individuals within the cathedral or collegiate church, although there was usually a requirement for the holder of the prebend, known as the prebendary, to be resident within his prebendal parish, since it was he who had responsibility for the spiritual needs of the local parishioners.
A link with the cathedral church was often made through the allocation of a stall within the Cathedral with the name of the prebendal parish on it. Such stalls can still be seen in many ancient cathedrals.
Whilst rectories were often given on a hereditary basis, prebendaries were specific lifetime appointments, and since parish churches with a significant income were often chosen as prebendal churches, the office of prebendary could be a cherished prize, and in the early centuries of the medieval period it was often used to reward loyal service. Both the Bishops and the King granted prebends at different times, although as major benefices they were required to be ratified by the Pope.
The ecclesiastical lexicon has more words for us. An Impropriation in the context of a rectory or a prebend is the right to the income from the parish. An Advowson in the same context is the right to bestow a benefice upon a parish priest.
The distinction between an Impropriation and an Advowson is important in some contexts, since although both were usually the constituent parts of a prebend or indeed a rectory, they sometimes became separated.
Where a prebendary or a rector was unwilling or unable to carry out the necessary ecclesiastical duties within the parish, a minor benefice was created for someone who would carry out those duties on his behalf. Such deputies were of course called vicars and the benefice was called a vicarage.