A peak into St Mary’s Hospital Almshouse in Chichester, a remarkable surviving example of a 12th century hospital
Walking through St Martin’s Square in Chichester, you may see a sign above an entrance saying ‘The Hospital of the Blessed Virgin Mary Founded A.D. 1158-1170’.
As a comparison, St Bartholomew’s Hospital, the oldest hospital in Britain, opened in 1123. Admittedly, St Bart’s has stayed in the same place and continued to function as a hospital, whereas St Mary’s moved in 1253 and changed purpose in 1528, but its main building is virtually unchanged and good work has continued throughout the centuries.
With the permission of the warden, you can pass through the inconspicuous entrance in the corner of St Martin’s Square. In front of you is a massive flint building like a great Sussex barn with a 30ft-high red tiled roof, reaching down almost to the ground. It was built in around 1290 with four tall chimneys, which pierce the roof, added later.
In Medieval times there were many hospitals built like St Mary’s, a long, single roofed building housing a hospital and chapel. However, save for a smaller version in Lubeck, Germany, all have disappeared.
Other almshouses consist of small houses arranged around a quadrangle and separate chapels. St Mary’s survives virtually as originally constructed and is still in use today as a home for four. The Great Hall is timber framed and consist of six massive oak bays. It is 25 metres wide and was 58 metres long when first built. The chapel at the east end is 14 metres long and is separated from the hall by a carved oak screen.
St Mary’s was initially established, reputedly by William, Dean of Chichester Cathedral, although this is open to debate, as a hospital for the ‘sick and wayfarers’ between East Street and South Street.
However, as a bustling thoroughfare, this site was considered to be too busy for the aged and sick, and in 1253, St Mary’s Hospital moved to St Martin’s Square to a site which had been occupied by the Franciscan Friars, who had themselves moved to Priory Park.
A community of brothers and sisters cared for the sick and the poor who needed a bed for the night. It is difficult to imagine the deprivation of poor people in Medieval times or the lack of medical knowledge of their carers. Like a religious order, the brothers and sisters were bound by an oath of poverty, chastity and obedience. They lived together, ate in silence and said services at regular hours like a monastic establishment. Punishments of the Brethren for bad behaviour included bread and water, flogging or expulsion.
Dean William Fleshmonger reorganised St Mary’s in 1528. According to his statutes, it became an almshouse, losing its hospital status by no longer providing for ‘wayfarers’ (travellers). The new rules provided a house of rest for five poor brethren and sisters ‘worn down with age and infirmity’.
When the Great Hall was originally built, the beds were arranged along the side walls. In the 17th century the beds were removed from the hospital, which at that time housed eight women, each in their own apartment, four chimneys, constructed in 1680, each supplying two apartments.
In the mid-20th century, kitchens and bathrooms were provided. In 1905, the four cottages in St Martin’s Square were converted, made into almshouses for men and, more recently, for women and married couples.
The hospital building is still in use for four residents and 32 more are housed in purpose-built accommodation, but St Mary’s is unique among almshouses in that four are still housed in the original almshouse building.
Residents are encouraged to live independently, assisted by a warden and two cover wardens, the gardens and maintenance officer and custos (chaplain).
In 1944, a bomb destroyed the east window of the chapel, leaving a large crater in the garden. The window was repaired in 1950, with the central panel of Madonna and Child, by Christopher Webb, whose windows can also be seen in the nave of Chichester Cathedral.
St Mary’s merged with Martha Dear’s charity in January 2021, taking over its eight bungalows at Riverside, Chichester. The Martha Dear’s charity, founded c1802, was originally housed in Almshouse Arcade, The Hornet.
Frequent bequests, grants of land and gifts of money have resulted in preservation of the original buildings and provision of service to the community for almost 900 years.
St Mary’s Hospital is a remarkable survival of a 12th century hospital, of which Chichester’s residents should be justifiably proud.
Acknowledgements: With thanks to Monica Winnett, warden, St Mary’s Hospital, for contribution to this article.