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A prebendary is a senior member of clergy, normally supported by the revenues from an estate or parish.
A prebend is the form of benefice held by a prebendary, and historically the stipend attached to it was usually drawn from specific sources in the income of the cathedral's estates. When attending cathedral services, prebendaries sit in particular seats, usually at the back of the choir stalls, known as prebendal stalls.
At the time of the Domesday Book, the canons and dignitaries of the cathedrals of England were supported by the produce and other profits from the cathedral estates. The early 12th century saw the development of the additional institution of the endowed prebend, in possession of which a cathedral official had a fixed, independent income. This made the cathedral canons independent of the bishop and created posts that attracted the younger sons of the nobility. Part of the endowment was retained in a common fund. This fund, known in Latin as communa, was used to provide bread and money to a canon in residence, which he received in addition to what came to him from his prebend.
Most prebends disappeared in 1547, when nearly all collegiate churches in England were dissolved by Henry VIII by the Act for the Dissolution of Collegiate Churches and Chantries of that year, a stage in the English Reformation. The church of St Endellion, Cornwall, is one of the few still in existence.
The title of Prebendary is still retained by certain Church of England dioceses (those of Lichfield, Lincoln, and London being significant examples) as an honorary title for senior parish priests, usually awarded in recognition of long and dedicated service to the diocese. These priests are entitled to call themselves "Prebendary" (usually shortened to Preb.) and still have a role in the administration of the cathedral.
The Greater Chapter of a cathedral includes both the Residentiary Canons (the full-time senior cathedral clergy) and the prebendaries (and in London, the minor canons too). In the Church of England, when a diocesan bishop retires, moves to another diocese, or dies, the monarch will summon the Greater Chapter to elect a successor. This election is ceremonial, as the monarch (following the advice of the Prime Minister) also tells the members of the Greater Chapter whom they are to elect. If any members of the Greater Chapter fail to attend, they are declared to be "contumacious".
Saint Patrick's Cathedral, Dublin, in Ireland, still calls its canons Prebendaries, as does Wells Cathedral. They form the Chapter of the cathedral and sit in their prebendal stalls when in residence in the cathedral.
- Diane E. Greenaway 'The Medieval Cathedral', in Mary Hobbs, Chichester Cathedral: An Historical Survey (Phillimore & Co.), p. 14
- Norman F. Cantor, The Civilization of the Middle Ages (1993), p. 381.
- Cutts, E. L. (1895) A Dictionary of the Church of England; 3rd ed. London: S.P.C.K., p. 476.