HOSPITAL OF ST. CROSS, WINCHESTER

Grid Ref: SU 476 277
Date: 2 July 2014

 

The name literally means the Hospital of the Holy Cross. It dates from a time when hospital did not mean a medical establishment but a place of residence for visitors or for those in receipt of alms. The word relates to our modern word "hospitality". Here on the outskirts of Winchester is a historic gem, reputed to be the oldest almshouse still in use. According to the hospital's own website,

"the principal activity of the Hospital continues to be the provision of individual, private apartments for a living community of about twenty-five elderly men. Known as ‘Brothers’ they wear black or red gowns and a trencher hat for daily church and other formal occasions. At the heart of the Hospital’s inner quadrangle is a wonderful Norman church, its tower, chancel, transepts and nave soaring so high that it looks like a cathedral in miniature. Nearby stand a classic medieval hall and kitchen, as well as a Tudor cloister"

stcross
The hospital of St. Cross entrance lodge
Saint Cross
The Church at the Hospita of the Holy Cross
St. Cross
Brothers' Lodgings

The Hospital is belived to have been founded by one of William the Conqueror's grandsons, Henry of Blois, Bishop of Winchester. Henry was the brother to Stephen of Blois who became King from 1135 to 1154. Stephen and Henry were the sons of William's daughter, Adela of Normandy. During his reign Stephen was in dipute with his cousin, the Empress Matilda, daughter of Henry I and widow of the Holy Roman Emperor Henry V who had died in 1125. Matilda's second husband was Geoffrey of Anjou and they had a son Henry in 1133. When Stephen lost his sole heir, he agreed with Matilda that her son, Henry, would succeed him and he reigned as Henry II from 1154 to 1189, founding the dynasty of Angevin (from Anjou) kings. The period of civil war between Stephen and Matilda, known as the Anarchy, brough widespread sufferering to the people. Henry II's fifth son, King John lost the Angevins' continental territories in 1204 and his son, Henry III, is often regarded as the first Plantagenet King although the line from Henry II was unbroken.

According to the founding legend, Henry of Blois was stopped by a peasant girl who begged for help because of the starvation caused by the civil war. Henry then found the remains of an Anglo Saxon religious house in the Itchen Meadows and used it to found a new almshouse. He had become Bishop of Winchester in 1120 at the age of 28 and the hospital is believed to have been founded between 1132 and 1136. It's initial aim was to support 13 frail old men as residents and feed another 100 at the gates each day. The thirteen men became the Brothers of St. Cross. The hospital was endowed with land and mills to provide an income to support this charitable work. It was not a monastery. Cardinal Beaufort created the Order of Noble Poverty, leading to the appointment of further brothers and he extended the existing buildings.

Note that the very tall chimneys on the lodgings date from the time of thatched roofs when it was important that no sparks from a fire issued from the chimney to set the thatch alight.

H.V. Morton, in his poetic travelogue In Search of England, published in 1927, wrote:

In the year 1136, Henry de Blois founded the Hospital of St. Cross to shelter "thirteen poor men, feeble and so reduced in strength that they can hardly or with difficulty support themselves without another's aid". They were to be provided "with garments and beds suitable for their infirmities, good wheaten bread daily of the weight of five marks, and three dishes at dinner and one at supper and drink of good stuff". The hospital was also to give food and drink to poor wanderers who came to its gates. This has been going on for 790 years. The hospital still retains its ancient charter and buildings. The poor Bretheren of St. Cross are still sheltered by the ancient walls, the poor men sill come from the King's highway and still are not refused.

Such places are so steeped in the peace of unhurried years that they seem out of this world: you feel that the worries of life have ceased at the gates. On the west side of the lawns stand the houses of the Bretheren, distinguished by tall chimneys, each house containing, like those of the Carthusians, two rooms a pantry and a garden. Over the smooth grass, in the shadow of the gracious grey stones, walk the ancient Bretheren of St. Cross, each one in a long gown, with a silver cross worn on his breast. When a Brother dies his silver cross is cut from his gown and placed on a red velvet cushion, which is placed over his heart in his coffin. Then it is removed and the Master of St. Cross fastens it to the gown of the next Brother, thus admitting him into the hospital.

In Morton's day there was a a long waiting list to join the hospital. Now vacancies are advertised on the website. You must be single, of limited financial means and sufficiently religious to want to attend daily service. On finishing his tour of the church, Morton asked for the wayfarers dole and was told that every day they gave away two gallons of ale and two loaves of bread divided into 32 portions. About thirty wayfarers, mostly tramps, who appreciated the horn of beer, received the dole each day. We were in too much of a hurry to enquire about the dole having spent far longer at this fascinating site than our tour itinerary had allowed!

Sources:

Hospital of St. Cross website
H.V. Morton, In Search of England, Methuen, 1927. Henry Canova Vollam Morton, (1892-1979) was a journalist and travel writer born in Ashton under Lyne in Lancashire.
Wikipedia articles on H.V. Morton, Henry of Blois, King Stephen, Henry I and Henry II

 

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