Throughout Europe in the tenth century, almshouses, particularly in Great Britain emerged as centers which provided charitable housing based on Christian values for those struggling in dire poverty. Although the religious aspect is less important today than it was in the Middle Ages, many have survived and among them is Britain’s oldest alms house, St. Cross. Founded in 1132 by Winchester’s Bishop Henry de Blois, St. Cross remains active today and can be visited throughout the year should you happen to find yourself in Winchester. Nearly 900 years old, this historical institution has a fascinating history that is well worth exploring.
At the time of the hospital’s founding,( the early meaning of hospital being nearer to a hotel for our modern understanding) Winchester was very important as an ecclesiastical center as was its Bishop. In addition to being a papal legate, Henry also enjoyed the benefit of royal connections. He was a grandson of William the Conqueror and nephew to William’s heir, King Henry I. In his youth, the Bishop began his ecclesiastical career as a Cluniac monk at the famous abbey in France. And, it was at Cluny that the lesson of public charity was instilled in him. However, along with this lesson, Henry retained his pride and ambition making him a very busy young man.
The future Bishop was first brought to England by King Henry to take up the position as Abbot of powerful Glastonbury Abbey. Despite the relatively young age of 26, he was then made Bishop of the important ecclesiastical center of Winchester. However, this wasn’t enough, evidently. Henry believed he should be made an Archbishop and thus pursued this ambition by moving to raise Winchester to the status of an Archdiocese. In order to achieve this, Henry knew he needed to do something that would make his ecclesiastical administration more important than it already was.
Remembering the lessons of charity no doubt drilled into him during his tenure at Cluny, Henry decided that the founding of an almshouse was in order. However such founding couldn’t be just any almshouse, it needed to be one of considerable size and importance. By 12th century standards, Henry was a very wealthy man and so at first used his own resources to embark on his mission. As to the recipients of charity, Henry was quite clear in his mind. They would be thirteen poor men (commemorating Jesus and the twelve disciples, most likely) who were so reduced in circumstances and strength they couldn’t fend for themselves. (Note not surprisingly, that women were not mentioned!)
Inmates were to be given clothing, beds fit for their ‘infirmities’, a ‘daily good loaf of wheaten bread of the weight of five measures’(approximately 2¾ pound by today’s standards), three dishes at dinner and one for supper. In addition, they were to have the equivalent of approximately three quarts of good beer! Who would want to leave these environs? Nevertheless, should any of the ‘brethren’ recover they were to be dismissed with honor to make room for a deserving replacement. In addition to the thirteen men looked after in St. John’s, Henry also provided for an additional 100 who lived outside of the almshouse.
St. John’s has such a rich history of tradition, not to mention historical value to be found in its physical architecture that there may be more to come in future posts!
Examples of the modern cup and plate used in the ancient tradition(still maintained)
of the Wayfarer’s Dole which consists of a small cup of ale and a piece of bread.
Photography©Gaye F. Mack, Inc.
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