Hospitals: Reading

A History of the County of Berkshire: Volume 2. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1907.

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, 'Hospitals: Reading', in A History of the County of Berkshire: Volume 2, (London, 1907) pp. 97-99. British History Online [accessed 30 May 2024].

. "Hospitals: Reading", in A History of the County of Berkshire: Volume 2, (London, 1907) 97-99. British History Online, accessed May 30, 2024,

. "Hospitals: Reading", A History of the County of Berkshire: Volume 2, (London, 1907). 97-99. British History Online. Web. 30 May 2024,

In this section


Abbot Hugh II, the eighth abbot of Reading, founded a hospital, dedicated in honour of St. John Baptist about the year 1190. Tanner, followed by the extended Dugdale's Monasticon, and others, has made the mistake of naming a hospital dedicated to St. Laurence, as though there were three and not merely two hospitals at Reading dependent on the abbey. The mistake obviously arose through the headings in the different chartularies naming the church or chapel of St. Laurence in conjunction with the founding of the hospital.

The charter of Hugh II, the eighth abbot of Reading, recites that the foundation of the abbey by Henry I was not merely for the sustenance of the monks, but also for the reception of poor guests and wayfarers, and then proceeds to state that he (the abbot) had founded a hospital outside their gates for the double purpose of relieving the distress of the (local) poor, and for the help of needy wayfarers. With the consent of Bishop Hubert Walter (1189-93) he had assigned the church of St. Laurence (fn. 1) to this hospital, for the support of thirteen poor persons (resident) in food and clothing and all necessaries, and for the supply of the daily wants in food and customary alms of thirteen other poor persons. (fn. 2)

The bishop, in confirming this grant of the church of St. Laurence to the hospital, provided for the establishment of a perpetual vicar for the church, who was to receive yearly 20s. for his clothes; bread and beer the same as a monk; 7d. weekly for meat; suitable lodging, and legacies not above 6d. The vicar was not only to serve the parish church, but to act as chaplain to the infirm and poor of the hospital, giving daily and assiduous attention to their souls. The monks were to find the vicar a horse when he had to journey on the affairs of the church. (fn. 3)

On one of the last folios of the chartulary there is the entry of the appointment of Philip as chaplain of the hospital and vicar of St. Laurence's, in accordance with the ordination of Bishop Hubert. This occurs towards the end of long entries as to the rentals and property administered by the almoner. Towards the bottom of the same page is an estimate as to the clothing required by the almoner for the poor, apparently for the year. The amounts are large, namely, 300 ells of woollen cloth, 124 ells of linen, 100 ells of canvas, and 24, or at least 15, yards or serge. This estimate has been assigned by Coates and Dugdale to a hospital of thirteen inmates, not realizing the extraordinarily extensive wardrobe that this amount would provide for so small a number. The fact is that the amount was that which the almoner of the monastery required for the whole of his important department. (fn. 4)

This hospital stood close to the church of St. Laurence, and the north chancel aisle served as the chapel for the inmates, and is still known as St. John's or St. John Baptist's chapel.

The sex of the poor inmates is not mentioned in the foundation charter, but probably from the beginning (as in some other houses of thirteen) the accommodation was divided between seven men and six women, the senior brother having certain authority under the chaplain as subwarden. They were all under celibate vows, the sisters being often widows of those who had held some office in the town and had fallen into poverty. The senior sister was termed the prioress. Both brothers and sisters were admitted by a religious formulary in the chapel. The one to be admitted said certain prayers and the Veni Creator kneeling before the altar, was anointed with holy water and given the habit, with a veil in the case of the sisters. (fn. 5)

The allowance for the brethren and sisters differed somewhat from time to time according to the terms arranged with the almoner of the abbey. A brother who had been a shoemaker in the Sartuary (afterwards Cobbler's Row) of Reading, and who was admitted in 1337, received weekly seven loaves of white flour, called de chopyn de abbatis, and three of black wheat (blakwythe, probably rye); he had also half a mess of meat daily from the kitchen. He was allowed 3½ ells of russet cloth for his habit in the year, and 12d. for his shoes. In the same year there were six sisters at the house; they received amongst them twenty-four white loaves and nineteen chopin weekly, and a farthing each daily for meat. At each of the festivals of Easter, Pentecost, All Saints, and Christmas, and also on Shrove Tuesday, the sisters received a whole dish of meat or a penny. The oldest sister was termed the prioress; at Easter and Christmas she received a penny for an oblation, whilst the other five only received a halfpenny each. At the feast of the Purification she received a good candle. Two shillings and sixpence was the yearly allowance for their habit. The sisters had a maid servant, who was provided with seven miches (fn. 6) weekly. The almoner was responsible for keeping the building and chapel in repair, and he provided oil for the lamp in the hall. Any brother or sister guilty of incontinence was to be expelled. (fn. 7)

Joan Grome, who was admitted to the hospital in 1376, was to receive daily a loaf called 'prikkedlof,' and a pottle (two quarts) of beer, but in other respects to be provided like the rest of the sisters. Matilda, who became a sister in 1380, had a weekly allowance of four founders' loaves and three chopynes. (fn. 8)

In the fifteenth century, laxity of administration suffered this interesting foundation to lapse into the general fund of the almoner, and the buildings were let at an annual rent. An instance occurs in 1368 of Joan Derby, a widow, covenanting to pay to Robert Uffington the almoner an annual rent for her life, together with a fine on taking possession, for a chamber in St. John's Hospital. (fn. 9)

When Edward IV was at Reading in 1479 he gave ear to the various complaints as to neglects on the part of the abbey, and caused an inquiry to be made. In a report that was consequently drawn up it is stated that:—

Also there was without thabbey-gate a place called Seynt Johnys Howse wher in were founde and kepte certeyne relygyous women wydowes in chast lyvynge in Goddes servyce praying nyght and day for the Kyng's estate, and for the sowles of their founders and benefactors, wherin was a feyr chapell of Seynt John Baptyst, for the seyd women to sey their prayers in certain seasons of the day and nyght, and wher also massys were seyd many tymes in the yere, and other devyne servyce also; whyche women wont to have out of thabbey every weke certeyn of bred and ale and also money; and as yt ys seyd oons in the yere, a certeyne clothyng; and thys was ordeyred for such women as had been onest mennys wyvys that had borne offyce in the towne before, and in age were fall in poverti, or that purposed no more to marye. And now ther ys nother Goddservyce nor prayour, nor creature alyve to kepe hyt. But thabbot takethe the profytts ther of and dothe no suche almes nor good deds ther wyth. (fn. 10)

This was in the days of Abbot Thorne I, who was succeeded in 1486 by Abbot Thorne II: King Henry VII, as Leland tells us, visited Reading in the year of the new abbot's appointment. The king desired the abbot to convert the hospital, which had been suppressed several years previously, to some pious uses; and the abbot desiring that it might be made a grammar school, the king assented to his wishes. (fn. 11) Leland adds:—

One William Dene, a riche man and servant in the abbey of Reading, gave 200 marks in mony toward the avancement of this Schole; as it apperith by the Epitaphie on his Grave in the Abbey Chirch of Reading. (fn. 12)

There is a cast of a seal of this hospital at the British Museum, (fn. 13) wrongly assigned to the imaginary hospital of St. Laurence in the Catalogue of Seals. It is pointed oval, bearing a mitred abbot. In the place of a legend is a wavy scroll.


A hospital was founded for twelve lepers and a chaplain at Reading by the second abbot, Ausger, who ruled from 1130 to 1175. It was dedicated to St. Mary Magdalen. The abbot provided that each inmate of the hospital was to receive as a daily supply half a loaf of bread and half a gallon of middling beer (cervisie mediocris); also 5d. a month for buying meat. In Lent the bread was to be of barley. The scale of clothing was generous; each one was supplied with hood, tunic and cloak, and with two woollen vests and under-linen. The hood or cape was to contain three ells of cloth, the tunic three, and the cloak two and a quarter; these were supplied as often as required. Each inmate also received ten yards of linen yearly, and one yard of serge for shoes. Fifteen yards of linen were supplied every second year for covering the tables. On giving out new table linen the old was to be returned. The chaplain was supplied with six ells of russet and ten yards of linen every Michaelmas; he also received all oblations made by the brethren of the house, but other offerings he divided with the brethren. The almoner of the monastery was to undertake any new building or repairs that might be required. The clothes-mender (sartuarius) of the monastery was to supply them with leather girdles at Michaelmas and with shoes at Easter. Their carter was to receive bread daily from the granarian and 32d. a year from the almoner. The woman servant was to be supplied with bread and 2s. a year in like fashion. The chamberlain was to supply the hospital with provender for a horse, with four loads of hay, and with the milk of four cows.

The rules of the house were strict. For incontinence or striking a brother the punishment was expulsion; for defamation or disobedience to the master, fasting on bread and water in the midst of the hall, the culprit's portion of meat and drink being placed on the table and distributed by the master. No one was allowed to leave the house or stand at the gate without a companion. Anyone desirous of leave of absence for one, two, or three nights had to obtain permission of the master and of the whole convent, but if for longer the master's consent was necessary, and then only with a companion. The brothers were to prepare to rise at the first ringing of the bell, and when it rang for the third time to enter the church. If anyone found anything on the premises it was not to be concealed, but shown to the brethren and placed in the common fund; but if it was found outside it might be considered the finder's if he so willed. Alms given by anyone to an inmate on the roadside for infirmity were to go to the common purse. No one was to enter the wash-house without a companion, nor was anyone to send the servant of the house any long distance without leave. (fn. 14)

The administration of this lazar-house was so intimately connected with the general administration of the abbey by the founder that it required no separate endowment. In later and laxer times, however, the house had endowments of its own. Coates cites the Wollascot MSS. to the effect of the hospital owning a house at Arley Whiteknights, of which they received the rents and a heriot when due and also two acres of land in Spittlefields, the gift of one of the abbots. (fn. 15)

In 1413 an inquisition was held showing that 200 acres had been assigned to this hospital, but that the abbot was not supporting it. Henry V in the following year assigned the wardenship of it to John Beck by letters patent; this trust was apparently hereditary, for the free chapel of Arley Whiteknights was in the hands of the Beck family in 1547, according to the chantry certificates return. (fn. 16)

The history of this leper-house seems to be similar to the majority of such foundations, namely that as time went on and leprosy became unusual the house was neglected and the master or warden usually absorbed the funds.

An inquiry set on foot by Edward IV when he was at Reading in 1479 as to alleged neglects by the abbey produced the following memorandum respecting this hospital:—

Moreover an other chapell ther was in the est syde of the towne callyd Mary Magdelyn Chapell, and lyvelod therto for to releve therin syke folks, as lazarrs, and an house for them to dwell in besyde wt feyr londs perteynyng therto; wherof thabbot takethe the profytts, and hathe taken downe the seyd chapell and all the howsys therto apperteynyng. And so ther be no poor people relevyd therby as now, nother were not many days. (fn. 17)


There was a third hospital at Reading of late but pre-Reformation foundation. It is thus described by the College and Chantry Commissioners at the end of the reign of Henry VIII:—

One hospitalle or Almeshouse there founded by William Barnes to thentent to have certayne pore people there lodged, and for that purpose he dyde endowe the same house with certen londes and tenementes, howbeit they have not showed any foundacion or graunte.

The hospital is reported as being in the parish of St. Mary, and having an income of £7 6s. 4d., employed in lodging poor folk and maintaining the building. (fn. 18)


  • 1. It is stated by Coates and repeated in the revised Monasticon and elsewhere, that the church of Thatcham and other properties were settled on the hospital of St. John Baptist and confirmed to it by Bishop Hubert. But reference to the chartularies shows that this is an error. For instance, the church of Thatcham was merely appropriated to the general hospitality of the monks (ad hospitalitatis onera supportanda), its revenues being administered by the almoner of the abbey and forming part of the large funds appropriated to that office. Vesp. E. v, fols. 20, 20b; Harl. MS. 1708, fol. 179.
  • 2. Cott. MS. Vesp. E. v, fol. 19b.
  • 3. Ibid. fol. 20; Vesp. E. xxv, fol. 3; Harl. MS. 1708, fol. 178.
  • 4. Cott. MS. Vesp. E. v, fol. 79; Coates, Reading, 279; Dugdale, Mon. iv, 31.
  • 5. Cott. MS. Vesp. E. v, fols. 8b, 11a.
  • 6. Mica or micha (cf. manchet) was a small loaf.
  • 7. Cott. MS. Vesp. E. v, fol. 80b.
  • 8. Ibid. fol. 6a.
  • 9. Ibid. fol. 62.
  • 10. B.M. Add. MS. 6214, fol. 14.
  • 11. Leland, Itin. ii, 4, 5; Collectanea, iv, 185.
  • 12. It must not be imagined that this was the beginning of the connexion of the abbey with scholastic work at Reading. It was of far earlier origin. Bishop Hubert (1190–93) granted and confirmed to the abbey the school of Reading in express terms: Vesp. E. xxv, fol. 110b; B.M. Harl. MS. 1708, fols. 99b, 91. Bishop Roger (1315–30) issued his mandate to the archdeacon of Berks, to the rural deans and all the clergy of the county prohibiting anyone from governing the schools at Reading save with the consent and at the appointment of the abbot and convent. B.M. Harl. MS. 1708, fol. 190.
  • 13. B.M. lviii, 53.
  • 14. Cott. MS. Vesp. E. v, fols. 38, 38b. Details of the ordination of this leper hospital are also set forth in Sar. Epis. Reg. Beauchamp (2nd Nos.), fol. 70b.
  • 15. Coates, Reading, 278.
  • 16. Ibid. Tanner, Notitia, xvii, 4.
  • 17. B.M. Add. MS. 6214, fol. 14.
  • 18. Coll. and Chant. Cert. 51, No. 73.