A History of the County of London: Volume 1, London Within the Bars, Westminster and Southwark. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1909.
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10. ST. MARY OF BETHLEHEM
In 1247 Simon Fitz Mary, one of the sheriffs of London, made over his land west of Bishopsgate Street, near the church of St. Botolph without Bishopsgate, to Godfrey, bishop of Bethlehem, to found there a priory of canons, brothers and sisters, of the order of St. Mary of Bethlehem, (fn. 1) whose duties were to be prayers for the souls of the founder, of Guy de Marlowe, John Durant, Ralph Ashwye, and others, and the reception of the bishop of Bethlehem, and the canons and messengers of that church when they came to London. The house was to be subject to the bishop of Bethlehem, who was to receive from it an annual pension of a mark, to be increased as its wealth grew, and who had the right of visitation and correction. Fitz Mary also provided that the members of the house should wear on their copes and mantles the distinguishing sign of the order, a star, according to Matthew Paris, (fn. 2) red with five rays inclosing a circle of blue.
The institution was perhaps never very large. It was certainly of much less importance than the other house outside Bishopsgate. The respective spheres of St. Mary Spital and the rector of St. Botolph's had had to be determined within a few years of the foundation of the priory, (fn. 3) but it was not until 1362 that the building of a chapel (fn. 4) in honour of the Virgin and the Nativity of Jesus by the house of St. Mary of Bethlehem made an agreement between the rector and this hospital necessary. By the arrangement then made the master and brethren were permitted to complete the chapel, have bells rung there, celebrate divine service, and receive offerings; they might also bury any who wished to be buried in the chapel or precincts, and have the oblations or obventions, except in the case of parishioners of St. Botolph's, when half the offering was to go to the rector. Considering that at this time their fixed income was only 33s. (fn. 5) per annum, and that the proceeds of the collection, which by royal licence (fn. 6) they made throughout the kingdom, had probably fallen off after the plague of 1350, (fn. 7) this settlement was important, and in order to swell the flow of offerings they obtained from the pope in 1363 a special indulgence, extending over a period of ten years, to those who at Christmas, the Epiphany, and the five feasts of the Virgin Mary, with their vigils, visited and rendered material aid to the hospital. (fn. 8) In 1389 it benefited, presumably to the extent of £100, (fn. 9) by the will of Ralph Basset of Drayton (fn. 10) who erected two chantries there. It must also have reaped some advantage from a gild called the Fraternity of St. Mary of Bethlehem established in the church in 1370. (fn. 11)
The connexion of the house with the bishopric of Bethlehem doubtless came to an end in the latter part of the thirteenth century, when the Holy Land was lost to Christendom, but how or when the king obtained the patronage it is impossible to say. The corporation of London in 1346 took the hospital under its protection, (fn. 12) and had certainly some kind of right over the place in 1350, for on the death of the master, John de Nortone, the serjeant was ordered to take possession of the house in the name of the City, (fn. 13) though the order was afterwards rescinded because the hospital had been let to a certain Robert Aaunsard, fishmonger, for a term of years. In 1381, when the king appointed William Welles as master, the City disputed his right, asserting that the hospital was in their gift. (fn. 14) At first they were successful, (fn. 15) but in the end the crown gained the day, and appointed (fn. 16) as in the case of a royal free chapel, which the hospital resembled also in another point, viz. its exemption from the jurisdiction of the ordinary.
Some very interesting facts about the house were disclosed during a visitation by two of the king's clerks in March, 1403. (fn. 17) It had already become an asylum principally, though not exclusively, for the insane, and at that time there were six lunatics and three sick persons there. These people, or their relatives, contributed something to their support, but the amount varied, the highest rate mentioned being 12d. a week paid by a merchant of Exeter, who was there for six weeks. The hospital had a little property, (fn. 18) but was chiefly maintained by voluntary contributions, and it was calculated that the collections throughout England brought in about 40 marks a year, the obventions in the great and small chapels 52s., those on the great feasts another 52s., the box at the door of the house and the two boxes carried about London and the suburbs similar amounts, and the offerings for the poor on the day of the Parascene 20s. A collection throughout the diocese of London for the sick poor amounted roughly to 4 marks annually, and gifts of meat, ale, fish, salt, and candles were also made.
The management of the hospital appears at this time to have belonged to the office of porter, and Peter Taverner, who had received the post for life, had abused his trust in every way. He had rendered no accounts of the money accruing from the various collections, in some cases for four years, in others for fourteen, nor of bequests and payments made for the inmates. He had not distributed the alms, but with the money had bought fuel and made the poor pay for it, while his wife had taken the best of the contributions in kind. Not content with this, he had disposed of the beds and other goods, causing a loss to the hospital of about £40, and through him robbers had caused even worse damage. In spite of the remonstrances of the master he persisted in playing at dice and draughts, and in selling ale at his house within the close. It is incredible that Taverner's conduct would have been so long unchecked if the master had been constantly resident or really interested in the place, and it may be noted that the statement of one of the inmates that divine service was sometimes withdrawn by the default of the master or his curate was found to be true, and that the chapel was but poorly provided with books and plate, (fn. 19) while it was also said to be his fault that there were no brothers and sisters in the hospital. (fn. 20)
The distinctive dress of the order had been abandoned, (fn. 21) and with it seems to have vanished most of the character of the original foundation. Some kind of reconstitution must have been effected, since in 1424 brethren and sisters were associated with the master in sending a proctor or quaestor to seek alms in the archdeaconry of Oxford. (fn. 22) But it is evident that in one important respect the hospital developed in the direction it had already taken in the fourteenth century, the office of master tending more and more to become a sinecure. Proof of this may probably be found in the hospital being let to farm by its head in 1454, (fn. 23) but there can be no doubt of the significance of the appointment of George Boleyn, a layman, in 1529, and on his forfeiture of a gentleman of the privy chamber.
In 1523 Stephen Gennings, a merchant-tailor, gave £40 to the City Corporation towards the purchase of the patronage of the house, (fn. 24) which, however, was not effected until 1546. (fn. 25) As there is no Valor there are no means of ascertaining what property the hospital had at this date, but the income derived from it seems to have been less than £40, (fn. 26) and was so inadequate to the demands upon it that recourse was had in 1551 to the old practice of soliciting alms of the charitable, in this instance within the counties of Lincoln and Cambridge, the isle of Ely, and the city of London. (fn. 27)
In 1632 commissioners were appointed to inquire into the state of the hospital, (fn. 28) which was found to be very unsatisfactory. (fn. 29) A sum of 2s. a week was allowed for each patient, but as the master, Dr. Crooke, spent most of it on himself, and the steward appropriated the gifts in kind, the unfortunate inmates, unless they bought of the steward at extortionate rates, were almost starved. It need hardly be added that no measures were taken to cure them of their malady. The income of the house was £277 3s. 4d., but this did not include the weekly donations of food from the Lord Mayor, sheriffs, and other persons.
There appears to have been some idea of enlarging the hospital in 1644, (fn. 30) a project made impossible by the Civil War, which diminished its revenues and caused it to be converted to other uses (fn. 31) for the time being. In 1675, however, the increased number for whom admission was requested (fn. 32) made larger quarters a necessity, and as the situation of the house was not a good one for the purpose, (fn. 33) a new hospital was built in 1675, at a cost of nearly £17,000, on ground in Moorfields granted by the City. (fn. 34)
At that time it formed one corporation with Bridewell, and the superior officials were common to the two institutions, but each had a committee of its own, and a subdivision of this went to the hospital once a week to check the accounts and inspect the food. (fn. 35) The building was much enlarged in 1734, when accommodation was provided for 100 incurable cases as well as for more patients not supposed to be hopeless. (fn. 36) The inspecting committee evidently worked well, and the management of the place was excellent. Care was taken to make the charges on friends of the patients as small as possible, (fn. 37) and the welfare of the lunatics was the chief consideration. (fn. 38)
Masters of St. Mary of Bethlehem
Thomas, occurs 1293 (fn. 39)
John de Norton, occurs 1346, (fn. 40) died 1350 (fn. 41)
William Titte, occurs 1370–1 (fn. 42) and 1380 (fn. 43)
William Welles, occurs 1381–2 (fn. 44)
John Gardyner, appointed 1381, occurs 1389 (fn. 45)
Robert Lincoln, appointed 1388, (fn. 46) occurs 1399 (fn. 47) and 1403 (fn. 48)
Robert Dale, appointed 1423 (fn. 49)
Edward Atherton, appointed 1437, (fn. 50) occurs 1454 (fn. 51)
Thomas Arundel, appointed 1457 (fn. 52)
Thomas Hervy, appointed 1459 (fn. 53)
Thomas Browne, appointed 1459 (fn. 54)
John Smeathe or Sneethe, appointed 1470 (fn. 55)
John Davyson, removed 1479 (fn. 56)
Walter Bate and William Hobbs, appointed 1479 (fn. 57)
Thomas Maudesley, occurs 1485 (fn. 58)
John Cavalary, appointed 1512 (fn. 59)
George Boleyn, appointed 1529 (fn. 60)
Peter Mewtys, appointed 1536 (fn. 61)
Dr. Crooke, occurs 1629 (fn. 62) and 1633 (fn. 63)
The seal of the priory is said to have represented the Assumption of the Virgin. (fn. 64)