A History of the County of Stafford: Volume 3. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1970.
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29. THE HOSPITAL OF ST. JOHN THE BAPTIST, FOREBRIDGE, STAFFORD
The hospital of St. John the Baptist, Stafford, lay in Forebridge, a southern suburb of the town within Castle Church parish. It was probably founded by one of the Stafford family, to which the patronage belonged until the 16th century. (fn. 1) The hospital is first mentioned in 1208 when Hugh, son of Ralph, granted 40 acres of land in Castle Church to Eudes, Prior of the Hospital of St. John at Stafford. The hospital seems then to have been run by a religious brotherhood, for Hugh gave the land in return for the prayers of the prior and brethren. (fn. 2)
Other benefactions during the 13th century were evidently few and consisted for the most part of properties situated in Castle Church parish; none of these seems to have been of any great value and many were the subject of litigation. (fn. 3) It is thus not surprising that by the close of the 13th century poverty had almost brought the hospital to an end. In 1300 its endowments, together with those of the Hospital of the Holy Sepulchre, Radford, (fn. 4) were said to be worth only £5 a year, and the brethren and sisters of the two hospitals had apparently left because of the poverty of their houses. Edmund de Stafford, patron of both hospitals, wished to grant them to the Trinitarian friars of Thelsford (Warws.), probably because of that order's special responsibilities towards the poor. (fn. 5) A jury, summoned to an inquisition ad quod damnum, found that Edmund's proposal would be to the detriment only of the Prior of St. John's and the Warden of St. Sepulchre's. There seems, however, to have been some resistance to the plan. The first sign of this is probably to be seen in the holding of a second inquisition in 1301. It was then found that the prior and warden had not been bound to keep hospitality but had done so only of their own free will, and that they had in fact been driven from their houses by poverty.
The findings of the second inquisition were doubtless convenient for the patron's plans, and St. John's Hospital seems for a time to have been subjected to the friars of Thelsford. In 1304 John de Haseleye, claiming to be master of the hospital, sued Edmund de Stafford and Brother Simon of Thelsford (fn. 6) among others for disseising him of a messuage, a carucate of land, and 40s. rent in the suburb of Stafford. Edmund, however, claimed that John had been deposed from the mastership by the ordinary and one Richard had then been admitted at his presentation; Richard too had been deposed and Roger was now master. A jury found that John had never been master and fined him for a false claim. (fn. 7) How long the hospital remained subject to Thelsford, however, is not known. The assessment of the Prior of St. John's, Forebridge, for the subsidy of 1327 (fn. 8) and an assize of novel disseisin brought against the prior in 1343-4 (fn. 9) suggest that the house was again independent. A confirmation of the possessions of Thelsford Priory, granted by the Crown in 1329, makes no mention of any Staffordshire property. (fn. 10)
In 1352 Ralph, Earl of Stafford, was licensed by the Crown to grant to the master and brethren of the hospital rents in Stafford to the value of £5 for the support of a chaplain who was to celebrate daily in the hospital chapel. (fn. 11) The earl's son-in-law, Sir John de Ferrers, seems to have granted the hospital two messuages in Stafford. (fn. 12) In 1438-9 Humphrey, Earl of Buckingham, gave the hospital arable land in the Green Field near Rowley and the herbage of certain land near Stafford Pool in exchange for rents and other land. (fn. 13) The obit in St. Mary's, Stafford, founded in 1469-70 by William Moore, William Dentith (then master of the hospital), and John Cradock, may have been appropriated to the mastership of St. John's Hospital from its foundation. (fn. 14)
In the later 15th century the hospital, though poorly endowed, was still an effective eleemosynary foundation. (fn. 15) During Dentith's mastership three almsmen (one of them with his wife) were lodged in the hospital and fed every day from the master's table. Dentith himself supplemented the slender revenues of the hospital by collecting alms: many years later his former servant reported that he 'did use commonly, when gentlemen came to the town, to go to them and gather their alms for the . . . poor people'. The almspeople, had their own seats in the chapel, every seat having 'a great pair of beads hanging'. The chapel, however, was not used only by the almspeople but evidently by the public also, for christenings and burials took place there. Mass was said daily during the masterships of Dentith and Colwich.
During the minority (1483-99) of Edward, Duke of Buckingham, the mastership of the hospital was bestowed by the Crown on pluralists and absentees, (fn. 16) and it was probably during these years that its revenues ceased to be used for the poor. (fn. 17) This was certainly the state of affairs during the mastership of Richard Egerton, who was appointed by Buckingham. (fn. 18) Egerton was an absentee, (fn. 19) and in 1511 he leased the hospital and its revenues to his nephew and niece, Randle Egerton of Betley and Ellen Bassett of Lichfield, for £6 13s. 4d. a year. (fn. 20) The public services, however, seem to have been maintained, presumably because they were a source of profit: (fn. 21) in the 1530s there were many burials at the hospital, and Egerton paid a friar 4 nobles (£1 6s. 8d.) a year to sing mass there once a week. (fn. 22)
In 1535 the patron, Lord Stafford, sued Egerton for misusing the hospital 'contrary to the foundation'. (fn. 23) Stafford alleged that the hospital chapel was in ruins, with only the walls still standing, and that the graveyard had been ruined by swine. He also stated that the master's house, 'which I think cost 200 marks', was so decayed 'that I know no man of any reputation that will dwell therein'; the houses where the almspeople had once been lodged were occupied by 'very unthrifty persons which may not be suffered to dwell in other places'. Finally Stafford complained about Egerton's non-residence. On the same day that his bill was presented in Chancery, Stafford wrote to Cromwell (fn. 24) asking him to use his influence to secure 'some speedy reformation' of the hospital. These allegations seem well founded: a carpenter and a tiler, appointed to survey the buildings of the hospital, certified that £40 'would not re-edify it in such condition as it was in Colwich's days'. The result of the suit is not known, but it seems probable that some repairs were carried out, and some decree may have been made concerning the finances and charitable responsibilities of the hospital. (fn. 25)
On Buckingham's attainder in 1521 the patronage of the hospital passed to the Crown. (fn. 26) By 1524 it had been restored to Buckingham's son, Henry (later Lord Stafford), who in that year granted the next presentation to Mary, Queen Dowager of France, and her husband Charles, Duke of Suffolk. (fn. 27) The grant was possibly an attempt by Stafford to secure political goodwill in influential circles. This motive seems likely to have inspired a later grant made to Thomas Wriothesley and two others, (fn. 28) for Wriothesley, who was on friendly terms with Lord Stafford, (fn. 29) was a channel of communication with Cromwell. (fn. 30) Wriothesley's son William succeeded Egerton as master and like him seems to have been an absentee. (fn. 31)
In 1521 the hospital was valued at £10 a year. (fn. 32) In 1535 its annual income was £10 10s. a year; a fee of 10s. was paid to the bailiff, William Hethe, the rest of the income apparently being enjoyed by the master. (fn. 33) The chantry commissioners of 1546 gave the net income as £9 16s. 10d., of which £2 was paid to the master as his salary and £6 12s. 6d. was used for the poor. It seems likely, however, that the commissioners had been given a false account of the hospital's charitable activity rather than that Lord Stafford had secured any enduring reformation. In May 1548 the commissioners reported that the hospital possessed 5 ounces of plate, parcel gilt, ornaments worth 3s. 6d., and 2 bells in the chapel, (fn. 34) and that its net income was £10 0s. 2d. They also stated, however, that no poor had been maintained in the hospital for a long time. In June the commissioners reported that the whole of the net income, then given as £8 12s. 2d., was paid to the incumbent. Although the chantry commissioners considered that Stafford was one of the four towns in the county 'where most need is to have hospitals for relief of the poor', the hospital was suppressed at this time, the master receiving a pension of £6. (fn. 35)
In 1550 Edward VI granted the possessions of the suppressed hospital to the burgesses of Stafford as part of the endowment of a free grammar school. (fn. 36) This grant, however, seems to have been frustrated by Lord Stafford's attempts, temporarily successful, to revive the hospital of which he had been patron. Stafford was evidently supported in his efforts by the tenants of the former hospital lands, for in 1552 the burgesses sued William Tully and others, (fn. 37) whom they described as their tenants-at-will in the property of the former hospital. They alleged that for the 18 months since the royal grant the tenants had detained rents and profits to the clear yearly value of some £10, though they had paid these to the Crown after the hospital's suppression. (fn. 38) The tenants, however, maintained that the king had had seisin of the hospital property only 'by the unlawful exaction of His Majesty's officers and ministers', as foundations for the poor had been excepted from dissolution by the Act of 1547. (fn. 39) The burgesses rested their case on the royal grant of 1550 and on their allegation that the hospital was not an eleemosynary foundation (fn. 40) but simply a free chapel for a priest to celebrate mass for the founder's soul and say divine service on holy days for the inhabitants of Forebridge. The burgesses would admit only that three or four people had long been 'lodged in certain little cottages adjoining to the said chapel and had their lodgings there freely and were relieved of the charitable alms partly of the said priest and partly of the inhabitants of the said borough and of others resorting to the same and were not found of the revenues belonging to the said chapel'. They added that the chapel's annual income, although recently increased from £6 13s. 4d. to £9 4s. 10d., (fn. 41) was plainly insufficient for the support of poor people in addition to a priest.
The burgesses were unsuccessful in their plea for in 1556 Thomas Chedulton was presented to the mastership of the hospital by Lord Stafford. (fn. 42) In 1560, however, Chedulton was deprived of the mastership, (fn. 43) and although he evidently maintained his claim to it for some years (fn. 44) this was the end of the hospital. At the same time the burgesses compensated Lord Stafford for his loss of the patronage by granting him the right to appoint the master of the grammar school. (fn. 45) A compromise also seems to have been reached over the lands of the former hospital; these were granted in fee to Lord Stafford by the burgesses for an annual rent of £9 14s. (fn. 46)
The master's house, and presumably the chapel which stood next to it, were still held of Lord Stafford by Thomas Chedulton in 1584. (fn. 47) He died in 1589, (fn. 48) but what was described as the Free Chapel of St. John the Baptist, with all its lands and tenements, had been granted by the Crown in the previous year to Edward Wymarke of London. In 1592 a similar grant was made to William Tipper and Robert Dawe. These grants were probably made simply in order to compel Lord Stafford to pay for the confirmation of his title to the property, (fn. 49) and in 1592 Stafford sold the chapel and its site to Richard Foxe, a Stafford gentleman. (fn. 50) By 1611 the house and chapel, with some other properties formerly belonging to the hospital, had passed to the Cradock family. (fn. 51) In 1638 house and chapel were both still standing, being included in a sale of lands by George Cradock as 'one messuage . . . called St. John's House . . . and one chapel called St. John's Chapel'. (fn. 52)
The site of the hospital has been supposed to be that of the White Lion Inn at the junction of Lichfield Road and White Lion Street, (fn. 53) some 320 yards from the Green Bridge over the Sow. Leland, however, described the hospital as 'a free chapel on the Green at Stafford hard by Sow river'. (fn. 54) Leland's words, 15th-century descriptions of the site, (fn. 55) and a 17th-century rental of grammar-school lands (fn. 56) all suggest a site near the Green Bridge, on the west (fn. 57) side of the present Bridge Street and perhaps including the site of the present 'Grapes'. (fn. 58) The building shown on the seal of the hospital (see below) may be an approximate representation of the chapel as it was when the matrix was cut.
Priors or Masters
Eudes, occurs 1208. (fn. 59)
William, occurs 1248. (fn. 60)
Peter, occurs 1270 and 1283. (fn. 61)
John de Haseleye, probably master 1295, deposed by 1296-7. (fn. 62)
Richard, deposed by 1296-7. (fn. 63)
Roger de Baggeworth, occurs 1296-7 and 1304. (fn. 64)
John, occurs 1352-3 and 1370. (fn. 65)
David Fissher, resigned 1397. (fn. 66)
William Marche, presented 1397. (fn. 67)
William Draper, resigned 1409. (fn. 68)
Elias of Woore, instituted 1409, died 1418. (fn. 69)
Robert Wright, collated 1419, occurs 1438-9. (fn. 70)
Simon, occurs 1442-3. (fn. 71)
William Dentith, presented 1459, occurs 14751476. (fn. 72)
Richard Colwich, died 1485. (fn. 73)
Master Edmund Chaderton, presented 1485. (fn. 74)
John Menwaryng, presented 1485, occurs 14971498. (fn. 75)
Master John Brown, presented 1486. (fn. 76)
Master John Denbye, resigned 1502. (fn. 77)
Richard Egerton, M.A., occurs 1511 and 1535. (fn. 78)
William Wriothesley, probably master in 1538, master at the suppression in 1548. (fn. 79)
Master Thomas Chedulton, presented 1556, deprived 1560. (fn. 80)
The seal of the hospital is circular with a diameter of 21/8 ins. (fn. 81) It depicts what is evidently a cruciform building of the 13th century. Above the door of the west front is a window of three lancets beneath a trefoil. What appears to be a low wall surrounds the church. Legend, lombardic: