It was the desire of Thomas de la Warre, lord of the manor of Manchester and rector of the parish church, to create a College of Priests. In 1421, he obtained a licence from King Henry V to do this, along with a decree from the Bishop of Lichfield. He set up an institution of chantry priests, known as ‘fellows’, with a warden in charge of them. This was effectively a ‘prayer factory’ with the priests saying daily mass to speed the souls of the departed through purgatory, and ensure their benefactors a speedy entrance to heaven.

Manchester College of Priests later became Chetham’s School and Library

The chantry chapels were set up in the Manchester church, which became accordingly the collegiate church. Any rich person could have this service done for them, for the right amount of money. We know that initially the fellows prayed for the king, the Bishop of Lichfield and Thomas de la Warre himself.

The initial staff at the college consisted of eight fellows, four clerks and six choristers. They took vows, but these were not as strict as those taken in a traditional monastery.

Thomas de la Warre did not live to see the completion of the college. The first warden, John Huntingdon (previously the rector at St Michael’s Church Ashton-under-Lyne), was in charge of overseeing the construction work. By the time Huntingdon passed away, the main hall and cloisters were complete, and he left money in his will for further building work.

The fellows had two rooms each for personal use – a downstairs study and an unheated bedroom above. This was much more generous than at Oxford and Cambridge Universities, where fellows were expected to share a room. The warden also had his own grander private lodgings.

The complex included a large two-storey hall for the staff’s meals, kitchen, brewhouse, bakery, storage barns and stables. Incredibly, many of the main rooms survive from this Medieval period, and we will give details of them and how to see them at the end of this piece. The collegiate buildings are the most complete of their kind anywhere in the whole of Britain.

The Stanley Takeover

In the late 1400s, the most powerful family in Lancashire – the Stanleys – were able to take control of the college. They could decide who would be made warden and the position frequently went to one of their own relations.  During their time, they added large windows to the hall and warden’s lodgings to make the establishment look much grander. Thomas Stanley, who was made first Earl of Derby by King Henry VII, had his son, James Stanley, appointed warden. (To see more on the first Earl of Derby and his decisive role in national and regional politics, see our page on Greenhalgh Castle here).

James Stanley was wealthy and influential in his own right. With the aid of his stepmother, Lady Margaret Beaufort, he oversaw extensive renovations of the church. He must have cut a striking figure at 6 feet 7 inches, and when he died, in 1515, a poem in his honour states that he was “A goodlie tall man as was in all England, and sped well matters that he took in hand” and adds “he did end his life in merry Manchester, and right honorablye lieth he buried there in his chapel…”

The college gatehouse

The College is Twice Abolished and Twice Refounded

Just before he died, King Henry VIII passed an act to destroy the chantry chapels. His commissioners arrived in 1546 to take stock of the place, much as they had done before the abolition of the monasteries ten years earlier. Under his son, the ultra-Protestant King Edward VI, there was no chance the college would be refounded. Edward Stanley, the Third Earl of Derby, was quick to buy the property.

After King Edward’s short reign, his Catholic sister Queen Mary refounded the college in 1553, and the former warden George Collier was reinstated. It is probable that the fellows were able to move back into the buildings as it was not the Stanley family’s main residence. When Mary’s sister Elizabeth became queen she again dissolved the college, only to refound it in 1578 and rename it Christ’s College. Her appointment of Dr John Dee to the position of warden was to be a controversial choice.

Dr John Dee 

Dr John Dee arrived in Manchester in 1595 to take up the position of warden. He was accompanied by his third wife Jane, pregnant with his seventh child. Aged 68, Dee had a colourful past.

He had gained some favour under Elizabeth I as her astrologer and advisor on changes to the calendar. An accomplished mathematician and geographer, he was consulted by celebrated map maker Christopher Saxton about local parish boundaries in the region.

However, Dee had less reputable interests as well. He believed that it was possible to talk to angels and had long engaged the services of the notorious charlatan Edward Kelley to do this. (Kelley lived in Lancashire for a time. See our page telling the tale of his trying to raise the dead at Walton-le-Dale here). While in Manchester Dee also continued to work on his alchemy experiments, but was hampered by a lack of suitable space at the college.

When Dee was asked to intervene with the alleged demon possession of the children of Nicholas Starkey of Cleworth Hall near Tyldesley, he wisely declined. He did offer use of his personal, extensive library to the man who sought to ‘cure’ them, and some of his books on witchcraft and demonology were consulted. This sorry episode became known as the affair of the ‘Seven in Lancashire’. Dee probably knew that anyone who got involved in exorcism could be denounced, as happened to the principal investigators who got caught up into the case.

Although in charge of the college fellows, Dee did not get on well with them. There was disagreement on governance of the college and church, and he differed with them on the correct procedures for religious observance. In 1603, Nicholas Mosley, lord of the manor of Manchester, wrote to Queen Elizabeth’s advisor Sir Robert Cecil. He stated that Dee was not a preacher or a fellow and “there is no such constant and acceptable course of ministerie houlden there as her Majestie entended by the Foundacon” (original spelling). The aim was to get Dee dismissed, and the next year he left Manchester to return home to his house at Mortlake by the River Thames. He still remained warden until his death four years later, but never returned.


Civil War and the College

James Stanley, Seventh Earl of Derby, was the owner of the college at the outbreak of the Civil War. As a keen supporter of Charles I, he was the leader of the Royalist movement in Lancashire. However, Manchester was very definitely a Parliamentary town, and James led a failed Royalist attempt upon it. The church and churchyard were used by the Parliamentarians to repel his attack and his own college building was taken over by the Parliamentary forces. They used them to manufacture gunpowder and later as a prison.

On the losing side of the Civil War, the earl had all his estates confiscated by Parliament. (See our page on Greenhalgh Castle here for more on his fall from grace). In 1648 Humphrey Chetham wrote to the earl’s agents, wanting to buy the college. His intention was to set up a school for poor boys and open a free public library. Chetham was a wealthy cloth merchant and a moneylender to the local gentry. He knew he could probably just buy the college off Parliament, but wrote to the earl out of courtesy, although the tone of his letter might have been more polite. The letter said that he “have thought the college a fit place and considering the uselessness of it to his Lordship in times of Peace, much more so now being sequestered and a great part of it spoiled and ruined and become like a dung hill”.

We don’t know what the earl’s response was, but Chetham was unsuccessful in his bid at this time. The Earl of Derby was executed in 1651, and in that same year Humphrey Chetham wrote his will, with plans to establish his school and library. When he died two years later, his will set up a group of trustees, known as feofees, to carry out his wishes. The money he left would pay for the purchase of the college buildings and their repairs. A sum of £7000 was left to buy land to generate ongoing income for the institutions, and £1000 to purchase books for the library. Forty boys would be educated at the school with full board. They had to come from poor families, and would leave to become apprentices at age 14.

The same year that Chetham died, the Countess of Derby paid a fine to get all the Stanley family property back, including the college buildings. The feofees were able to negotiate a 99 year lease with the Stanley family and finally the building work could go ahead.


Chetham’s School and Public Library are Created

The feofees commissioned local man Richard Martinscrofte to do a survey of the buildings. As well as being a surveyor, Martinscrofte was a mathematician, teacher, map maker and joiner. He designed and constructed the chained library. Refitting the buildings was a huge job, as many were in a poor state of repair after the Civil War. Records show 200 feet of glass and another 670 small square or diamond panes were needed. Forty loads of flagstones were ordered from Rochdale, seventy loads of lime, and thirty-one loads of slate. Seventy loads of rubble were removed from the site.

The school was named Chetham’s Hospital School (hospital indicating its charitable status, and that it was not a grammar school). In 1656, amidst ongoing building work, forty boys were admitted. All had come from local parishes and were aged between six and ten years old. That same year the first librarian, Robert Browne, was appointed.

The school flourished and the library garnered great praise. King Charles II granted the institution a charter in 1665, and it became incorporated into a single body governed by 24 feofees.  In 1670, the Master of Jesus College Cambridge stated that the Manchester library was better than any college library in Cambridge.

When the celebrated traveller Celia Fiennes visited in 1698 she noted there were now 60 boys.  She described the college as ” a pretty neat building with a large space for the boys to play in, and a good garden walled in”. She described the library as “large” and having “two long walls full of books on each side”. She was also struck by the curiosities it contained, such as a “long whispering trumpet… the skin of a rattle snake six foot long…their anatomy of a man wired together”.

When author Daniel Defoe published his book A tour thro’ the whole island of Great Britain in 1724, he described the library as “very fair and spacious, already furnished with a competent stock of choice and valuable books, to the number of near four thousand”.

Benjamin Franklin, American statesman and scientist also visited on one of his trips through Lancashire. For more on this, see our page here.

Into the 20th Century

In 1930, another charity school, Nicholls Hospital, merged with Chetham’s. In 1952, it became a boys grammar school. Its beginnings as a selective school for young musicians began in 1969. The school changed its name to the current one of Chetham’s School of Music in 1977. There are now 300 students attending, two-thirds of whom are boarders.


Visiting Today

Today you can see much of the history of the building by going on one of the regular tours, or attending on the Heritage Open Days. Below we look at the rooms of note.

The Great Hall is where the staff would have eaten together. The fellows would have sat at a raised high table at one end. A rare surviving Medieval screen that could be separated into three parts can still be seen in the hall. This room also gives good views of the Medieval roof beams, and much of the roof through the whole building is original. It is of the ‘crown and post’ type, which is unusual for the Lancashire region, cruck beam construction being much more common.

The executors of Chetham’s will, the feoffees, had two rooms converted for their own use from the Warden’s lodgings. The lower room became the Audit Room where they would conduct their business meetings. On tours you can sit at their table, marvel at the elaborate carvings such as the ‘mouth of hell’ and admire the plasterwork which is of similar design to that of Speke Hall.

The upper room became their dining room, and is now the Library Reading Room. The oak tables and chairs in both rooms were all constructed by Richard Martiscrofte, Chetham’s original surveyor. He also made the Gorton Parish Church chained bookchest that stands in the reading room, one of the five that Chetham provided for local churches. (Another is at Turton Tower, one of Chetham’s former residences). When you visit this room, take a moment to look the small alcove by the window. This was where Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels researched together in 1845, and the desk you see is the one they worked at. The library still contains the books they consulted. Twenty four years later, Engels wrote to Marx stating that he had again been spending time sitting at the desk, stating “I am very fond of the place”.

The jewel in the crown must be the original chained library, built by Richard Martiscrofte. The library looks as it did when the feofees had it first constructed, although the books were unchained in the 1880s. At the same time as doing this, lockable gates were inserted between the bookshelf bays and these are still in place.

The library now has 100,000 books. These include a number which are called Book of Hours, which gave people prayers that they could say at different times of day. There are collections of medical manuscripts, English poetry and Medieval astrological writings. The library has five books owned by Dr John Dee, with his handwritten notes and commentaries in the margin. Of particular interest in recent years is the extensive collection of broadside ballads, often in Lancashire dialect, that tell tales of local historical events. To read more about their extensive collection, visit Chetham’s Library collection page here.

Finally, a word on pronunciation. Humphrey Chetham was originally called Humphrey Cheetham, but in 1635 he took one letter ‘e’ out of his name, and this became the standard spelling of his name. We can see the earlier spelling of his name at Cheetham’s Close, a well known stone circle on land he owned near his home at Turton Tower.  We don’t know how he pronounced his own name, whether with a short ‘e’ sound or a long ‘e’ sound. The school of music is often called ‘Chet’s’ with a short ‘e’ sound. However, the library has traditionally used the long ‘e’ sound, like the nearby district of Cheetham Hill.


Chetham’s School of Music and Chetham’s Library are situated in the centre of Manchester, close to Manchester Cathedral.

To take a tour of both the college buildings and the library, see Jonathan Scofield’s regular weekend tours here

To book a tour of Chetham’s Library only, see their webpage here


The History and Architecture of Chetham’s School and Library, Clare Hartwell (2004), Yale University. A superb book, spanning the time from the foundation Manchester College of Priests through to its conversion into Chetham’s School and Library. Available from Chetham’s Library.

John Dee and the Seven in Lancashire: Possession, Exorcism and Apocalypse in Elizabethan England, Stephen Bowd, University of Edingburgh. Paper available for free as a pdf online Celia Fiennes in Manchester Daniel Defoe in Manchester

On site interpretation