A History of the County of Chester: Volume 3. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1980.
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THE HOSPITAL OF ST. JOHN THE BAPTIST, CHESTER (fn. 1)
The hospital 'for the sustentation of poor and silly persons' which stood outside the North Gate of Chester was probably founded by Ranulph III, Earl of Chester, in the early 1190s. (fn. 2) He gave the site in free alms and free of all services except the reception and care of the poor and ordered that the brothers of the hospital who travelled through Cheshire preaching and collecting alms should be honourably treated. (fn. 3) The earl's grant was made to the Virgin and All Saints but within a few years the hospital had acquired its dedication to St. John the Baptist and was usually known as the Hospital of St. John without the North Gate. (fn. 4) In the 13th century the hospital community, apart from the poor and the sick, evidently consisted of a prior, brethren, and lay servants living under religious rule. (fn. 5) In 1241 the brethren were given permission to build a chapel beyond the Foregate (probably the North Gate). (fn. 6) The extensive privileges given to the hospital by Ranulph III were a potential cause of conflict and early in its history arrangements were made to protect the interests of the existing churches in Chester. It was agreed between the brethren of the hospital and the abbot of Chester that all servants of the hospital wearing secular clothes, apart from the gardener, the porter (claviger), the prior's groom, and the woman who attended the sick, were to pay tithes and offerings to the mother church of St. Werburgh, as were those staying in the hospital and wearing secular clothes; any servants engaging in trade were also to pay tithes and offerings to the mother church. Strangers and travellers, however, were allowed to receive the sacraments and make offerings at the hospital church. A similar agreement concerning burial rights was reached in the early 13th century with the abbot and convent of St. Werburgh's and the dean of St. John's: the brethren of the hospital were allowed to have a graveyard to bury the poor who died there and also men and women in confraternity with the hospital who had worn its habit in good health and for at least eight days. (fn. 7)
Besides granting the site of the hospital and taking it under his special protection Ranulph III agreed to maintain three beds for the poor and infirm at the rate of 1d. a day in alms for each pauper; these alms of £4 11s. a year were continued by the Crown after 1237 and were still paid in the 16th century. (fn. 8) By the early 14th century the hospital had endowments worth £31 4s. 10d. a year. (fn. 9) Several early grants of land, including some in Lancashire, were made by those who were among the witnesses of Ranulph III's charter or by members of their families or other friends or officials of the earl. (fn. 10) Members of the leading families of Chester in the 13th century also made gifts to the hospital, notably Ralph Saracen who gave a salt-house in Nantwich and land in Allerton (Lancs.) which he held of Cockersand Abbey. (fn. 11) In addition, the hospital had acquired by 1316 property in Chester worth £13 13s. 10d. a year in rents. (fn. 12) Much of the property outside Chester was alienated in return for small rent charges, doubtless for reasons of convenience; an inquiry in 1316 found that the improvident policy had been carried out by successive priors in the later 13th century. (fn. 13) In 1311 the master, William de Bache, was said to have so impoverished the hospital as to impair its work of mercy and hospitality and was removed from office. (fn. 14) A succession of inquisitions held between 1311 and 1341 reveals that the constitution of the hospital had undergone a transformation similar to that of other hospitals at the period and it was controlled by a master rather than a prior and chapter of brethren. Three chaplains celebrated there daily: two in the church and one in the hospital before the feeble and infirm inmates. (fn. 15) The hospital was to take in as many poor and sick as possible but thirteen beds were to be kept ready for the poor and feeble of the city; each inmate was to receive daily a loaf of bread, a dish of pottage, half a gallon of ale, and a piece of meat or fish. (fn. 16)
In 1316 twelve jurors from the city and twelve from the county approved the transfer of the hospital to the guardianship of Birkenhead priory, an institution impoverished by the cost of providing hospitality to travellers. The move, which had been planned five years previously, proved to be beneficial to neither institution. The priory took over the responsibility of maintaining the services and almsgiving of the hospital on inadequate and diminished resources. (fn. 17) There were further alienations of hospital property by the priors of Birkenhead and the annual revenues of the hospital declined from £31 4s. 10d. in 1316 to £27 3s. 10d. in 1341. (fn. 18) In June 1341 the Black Prince took the hospital with its estates into his own hands because certain duties were not being carried out and an inquiry was ordered into its government. (fn. 19) Before the inquiry was held the custody of the hospital, which was reported to be 'burdened with heavy charges and suffering from misrule', was given to a royal clerk. (fn. 20) The inquiry found that the church, chapel, and hospital buildings were not adequately roofed and that two large houses had collapsed from age and lack of repair. (fn. 21) In the following year some attempt was made to restore the fortunes of the hospital: a grant of £6 13s. 4d. was made from the profits of the trailbaston sessions of 1353 and in the same year two oaks were delivered from Delamere Forest to repair the hospital buildings. (fn. 22) In 1365 an investigation was ordered into the lands and rents of the hospital in case any were being concealed. (fn. 23) Individual masters were also generous at this period. John Brunham, a clerk of the Black Prince and chamberlain of Chester, planned in 1365 to endow a chantry in the hospital for himself and his family, the king and the queen and all the benefactors of the hospital; he also intended to endow a chaplain to serve in the hospital chapel and a servant to tend the sick. (fn. 24) He had evidently been granted a licence to acquire lands in mortmain worth £10 a year, but did not take it up. It is not known whether the plans were carried out but after Brunham's death in 1379 his executor handed over lands worth £7 19s. 2d. to the new master to maintain a chaplain to celebrate daily for the benefit of the king. (fn. 25) Brunham's successor, also a clerk in royal service, left £20 in his will to the hospital and the sisters there. (fn. 26) By the end of the 14th century, however, the hospital was in difficulties again and in June 1400 Henry, prince of Wales, took it and its lands into his own hands. A visitation was ordered but it is not known whether the commissioners, who included the chamberlain of North Wales, the mayor of Chester, and a royal justice, carried out their investigation; the master, who had been suspended, was reappointed in November 1400. (fn. 27)
In the later Middle Ages most of the masters must have been non-resident with livings and official duties elsewhere and it became the practice of such masters to appoint chaplains to administer the hospital for them. In 1396 Thomas Marton appointed Richard Lee to the offices of chief priest in the hospital church and chief administrator in the hospital for life with a salary of eight marks from the revenues of the hospital and a chamber between the hall and the barns of the hospital. (fn. 28) A similar grant was made by Robert Rothbury to Thomas Grene in 1414: Grene was to have a chamber standing at the end of the church and a part of the garden for sowing seeds. (fn. 29) In 1414 Henry V confirmed the privileges of the hospital and its tenants and specified those privileges as freedom from jury service and suit of court in the city and county and freedom from local tolls and taxation; the hospital was also entitled to collect amercements levied on its own men and tenants in any court. (fn. 30) All those privileges were claimed by the master in the 1499 quo warranto inquiries with an additional claim to a fishing boat in the Dee. (fn. 31) Nevertheless, the hospital remained impoverished and was exempted from taxation in the later 15th century. (fn. 32) It continued to receive occasional small gifts and legacies of money and it was doubtless to attract those that it was claimed in 1493 that the bishops of Coventry and Lichfield had given 40 days of indulgence to benefactors since its foundation. It was also said, by a messenger exhibiting a new indulgence, that four masses were said daily in the hospital church, two for living and two for dead benefactors, and in addition prayers were asked each Sunday in 18,000 churches and chapels for the members of the hospital's confraternity. At this time twelve poor and sick men and women were housed in the hospital. (fn. 33) There were complaints from the city authorities in the 1520s that, in the absence of the master, the hospital's constitution was not being properly observed and, in particular, 'foreign people' were being given places. The master pointed out that the revenues of the hospital could not maintain the full establishment of three chaplains and thirteen almspeople and that the hospital was not intended at its foundation to be exclusively for the citizens of Chester, although, as he himself had been brought up in Chester, he would be glad to give them preference. (fn. 34) In 1535 the establishment consisted of a non-resident master or 'prior', a chaplain celebrating daily for the souls of the king and his ancestors for an annual salary of £4 14s. 4d., supplemented by a fee of £1 6s. 8d. for acting as a receiver, and six consores, the widows of St. John's, who received 1d. a day. The revenues of the hospital totalled £28 10s. 4d. and consisted of £5 0s. 4d. in tithes from the church of Aston-in-Hopedale, £4 11s. in royal alms and £18 19s. in rents from property in the city of Chester, Hulmehouse (in Great Boughton), Barton, Edge, Pensby, Blacon, and Nantwich, and in Allerton (Lancs.). By then much of the property had been let on long leases. (fn. 35)
The rôle of the hospital in housing the infirm poor of the city of Chester doubtless saved it from dissolution under the Act of 1547. The commissioners who visited Chester in May 1553 to list church goods found nothing worth selling in the hospital and distributed the copes and ornaments to the poor, apart from a silver-gilt chalice, four table-cloths, the service books and a bell in the steeple which were entrusted to the safe-keeping of the chaplain. (fn. 36) In the latter half of the 16th century many of the hospital's lands were leased out for very long periods by a succession of unscrupulous masters and in 1601 a commission was appointed to visit and reform the hospital. (fn. 37) The commissioners found that the master, Richard Young, had not visited the hospital for over three years as he had been imprisoned for debt in Chester castle; nor could he produce his letters of appointment and it was suspected that he had pawned them. He and his wife had taken bribes to admit alms-women and he had accepted payments to make long leases of hospital property at low rents. He was also accused by the hospital chaplain of removing the silver chalice used in the church and chapel as a communion cup. Young was immediately removed from the office of master. (fn. 38) A description survives of the constitution of the hospital a few years after the incident. Prayers were read daily in the chapel by a chaplain paid by the master and the revenues of the hospital were collected by a bailiff who was in charge of repairs to the chapel and to the hospital building which was shared by six poor widows. Each widow had a bedroom, a small chamber, and a garden as well as an annual stipend. (fn. 39) The chaplain was allowed a room and a garden and an annual stipend of £5. (fn. 40) In February 1644 all the stone buildings of the hospital and the surrounding wall were demolished to prevent them giving cover during the siege of Chester. (fn. 41) No trace is left of the original hospital church or other buildings and nothing is known of their appearance.
In June 1658 Oliver Cromwell granted the site and the lands of the hospital and the office of keeper or warden to the corporation; the mayor was to act as warden and use the revenues to relieve the poor and rebuild the hospital. (fn. 42) At the Restoration the corporation petitioned the Crown for the continuation of that arrangement to relieve the increasingly numerous poor in the city but the wardenship was granted for life to Colonel Roger Whitley who is said to have rebuilt the hospital. (fn. 43) In the charter of 1685 the corporation secured the reversion of the wardenship with all the hospital lands but, although Whitley died in 1697, the corporation did not obtain the hospital seal and records until 1703. (fn. 44) In 1717 new buildings were erected on the site: a chapel and charity school facing Northgate Street and, at the back, six singlestoreyed almshouses. The almswomen, or 'chapel-yard widows', (fn. 45) were supported from the revenues of the hospital lands but the bulk of the considerable income of the hospital was diverted by the corporation for other purposes. In 1835 it appeared that the corporation had grossly mismanaged the property: only £85 of the annual income of £600 was applied to the purposes of the hospital, which included the repair of the buildings, the stipend of a chaplain, and small allowances to the inmates. An action alleging misappropriation of funds was brought against the corporation in Chancery and in 1836 the Lord Chancellor ordered the appointment of a body of independent trustees to administer the hospital estates, a move which the corporation strenuously opposed until 1848. (fn. 46) The almshouses have since been administered by trustees under successive schemes of management. A scheme of 1892, still in operation in 1926, provided for the support in the almshouses, with the assistance of a chaplain and a beadle, of thirteen poor of either sex and over 50 years of age who had been reduced by misfortune from better circumstances; the numbers and qualifications were thus similar to those found in the 14th century.
Priors, Wardens, Masters or Keepers
Roger, occurs about 1200. (fn. 47)
Thomas of Pontefract, occurs 1239-40. (fn. 48)
Ralph of Smithdown, occurs 1245-6. (fn. 49)
Roger of Garston, occurs about 1255-6 and 1258-9. (fn. 50)
Hugh of Aston, occurs about 1285-6 and 1295-6. (fn. 51)
William, occurs 1304, 1306. (fn. 52)
William de Bache, appointed 1309, dismissed 1311. (fn. 53)
Thomas of Burton, appointed 1311, dismissed 1316. (fn. 54)
The prior and convent of Birkenhead, 1316 to 1341. (fn. 55)
Richard of Wilton, or Wolveston, appointed 1341, occurs 1345. (fn. 56)
John Brunham the younger, occurs 1349-50, dead by 1379. (fn. 57)
William Walsham, occurs 1379, dead by 1389. (fn. 58)
Thomas Marton, appointed 1389. (fn. 59)
John Maidenhith, appointed 1390. (fn. 60)
William Ashton, appointed 1391. (fn. 61)
William Hebden, appointed 1393. (fn. 62)
Thomas Marton, re-appointed 1394, resigned 1398. (fn. 63)
Robert Rothbury, appointed 1398, suspended and reappointed 1400, occurs 1414. (fn. 64)
John Thornton, appointed 1426, occurs 1448. (fn. 65)
John Massey, appointed 1449, occurs 1470. (fn. 66)
William Thomas, appointed 1476. (fn. 67)
John Tesedale, appointed 1484. (fn. 68)
Thomas Crewe, appointed 1485, occurs 1523. (fn. 69)
Robert Johns, occurs 1535. (fn. 70)
Walter Buckler, appointed 1540. (fn. 71)
Richard Lyell, D.C.L., occurs 1553, died 1556. (fn. 72)
Thomas Haward, M.A., appointed 1556, resigned 1559. (fn. 73)
Thomas Huicke, LL.D., appointed 1559, resigned 1562. (fn. 74)
William Hayworth, appointed 1562, resigned 1564. (fn. 75)
David Phillips, appointed 1564, occurs 1566. (fn. 76)
Richard Young, appointed 1571, dismissed 1601. (fn. 77)
Peter Sharpe, B.A., B.D., appointed 1601, died 1616. (fn. 78)
George and William Hope, appointed 1616. (fn. 79)
The mayor and corporation of Chester, appointed 1658. (fn. 80)
Colonel Roger Whitley, appointed 1660, died 1697. (fn. 81)
The mayor and corporation of Chester, from 1697 to 1836. (fn. 82)
A seal in use from the early 13th century (fn. 83) is a pointed oval depicting the standing figure of St. John the Baptist in a hair-skin cloak; he holds in his left hand a scourge of thistles and in his right a roundel containing the lamb and cross. Legend, lombardic: SIGILLUM SANCTI IOHANNIS HOPITALIS CESTRIE.
The trustees of the charity possess the matrix, dated 1730, (fn. 84) of another seal. It is a pointed oval 3¾ by 23/8 in. and depicts St. John the Baptist standing on a platform with radiant nimbus and hair-shirt; he holds a roundel containing the lamb and cross in his left hand and points to it with his right. On each side of the figure is a kneeling angel holding up a thistle and in the base, under a trefoiled arch, is a tonsured half-figure in prayer. Legend, lombardic: SIGILLUM HOSPITALIS SANCTI IOHANNIS BAPTISTE CESTRIE.