Hospitals: St John the Evangelist, Cambridge

A History of the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely: Volume 2. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1948.

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'Hospitals: St John the Evangelist, Cambridge', in A History of the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely: Volume 2, ed. L F Salzman( London, 1948), British History Online [accessed 13 July 2024].

'Hospitals: St John the Evangelist, Cambridge', in A History of the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely: Volume 2. Edited by L F Salzman( London, 1948), British History Online, accessed July 13, 2024,

"Hospitals: St John the Evangelist, Cambridge". A History of the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely: Volume 2. Ed. L F Salzman(London, 1948), , British History Online. Web. 13 July 2024.

In this section



The tradition that this hospital was founded by Bishop Niel of Ely in the reign of Henry I appears to have been started by Archbishop Mathew Parker (fn. 1) and to have no foundation. (fn. 2) The earliest direct reference to the hospital is a grant of protection to 'the house and brethren of the Hospital of St. John' in 1204. (fn. 3) In 1207 the king claimed the advowson of the church of St. Peter (later known as Little St. Mary's) against Herbert the chaplain, Reynold son of Alfred, William de Caldecot, and Ives de Pipestre; they showed that the church had descended to Henry son of Segar, who had given it to the Hospital of Cambridge, and the verdict was that the hospital should have it. (fn. 4) Presumably Herbert was the master and the other three were brethren of the hospital. According to an inquiry (fn. 5) made in 1274 the hospital was founded on a valueless piece of waste ground belonging to the commonalty of the town of Cambridge, with whose assent Henry Eldcorn erected a wretched hovel to lodge paupers. He later obtained from Bishop Eustace (1197-1215) leave for the paupers to have an oratory and burial-ground. Eustace himself conferred the church of Horningsea upon the hospital, and in return the burgesses gave the patronage to the bishop. The jury add that it happened so long ago that they do not know whether it was in the time of King Richard or King John. As the site of the hospital was within the parish of All Saints, which belonged to the nunnery of St. Radegund, Bishop Eustace ordained that every master appointed should swear not to receive any parishioners of All Saints to the sacraments, or to take oblations from them, to the damage of that church. At the same time three burgesses gave the nuns rents to the value of 3s. in recompense for the loss of the land, and for the right of the brethren to bury members of the hospital. (fn. 6) According to another return, made in 1279, the site on which the hospital and chapel stood had been given for that purpose by one Henry Frost to the burgesses, who ought to have been patrons but had been deprived of the right of appointing the master by Bishop Hugh de Northwold some 30 years previously. (fn. 7) The two Henries (if they are not identical) may have been acting on behalf of the inchoate commonalty.

The hospital may therefore be said to have been founded about 1200. It soon received endowments, mostly small gifts of messuages and crofts from members of burgess families. (fn. 8) At the head of the roll of benefactors (fn. 9) stood Bishop Eustace, who not only gave them the church of Horningsea, reserving a vicarage of £5, but also allowed them to appropriate the church of St. Peter. (fn. 10) Next stood the family of Mortimer: one of them, Robert, received from King John land to the yearly value of £5 in Newnham in 1206, (fn. 11) which he or his son William had given to the hospital before 1212, when the men of Cambridge were paying the £5, as part of their fee farm, to William for the land 'which the brethren of the hospital have'. (fn. 12)

A remarkable instance of the endowment of beds in the hospital is found when Hervey [Dunning] son of Eustace, who died c. 1240, gave to St. John's 7 acres in the fields of Chesterton, in return for which the master and brethren granted to him and his heirs two beds, with the necessary bedclothes, for the use of the sick in the stone house of the hospital. (fn. 13) Hervey's son Eustace gave the brethren his lands in Madingley, for which they agreed to maintain a chaplain of their house to celebrate yearly for his soul and those of his ancestors. (fn. 14)

In 1250 the hospital obtained a bull from Innocent IV (fn. 15) taking them, with their possessions and privileges, expressly under papal protection. The bull contains the usual clauses against violence within the inclosures or granges, of exemption from certain tithes and exactions, right of sanctuary, burial, and the saying of low mass with closed doors during an interdict, and another, important at this juncture in the history of the house, that the 'prior' must be elected according to the Rule of St. Augustine, which Rule, instituted in the church of St. John, was to be inviolably observed there for ever. This may be the Rule preserved in the college muniments, upon which the Rule of the Hospital of St. John Baptist at Ely (q.v.) was based.

The Rule begins by laying down that all the brethren, clerical and lay, are to live as Regulars, to eat together, and to sleep in one dormitory, if the accommodation of the house allows of this, otherwise the priests are to sleep in one building, and the laymen in another near it. There is to be silence in the chapel during celebration, and no one is to absent himself from mass or the Hours except for evident necessity. Every chaplain is to have 20s. a year for clothing money; each layman 13s. 4d., and the prior or master 40s. The master is also to receive a double portion of food and drink. All are to wear a habit of the same colour, and not to appear in choir or outside the gates without it. Sick brethren are to be used with all kindness, assigned a separate room where they can eat meat, and to enjoy such comforts as the means of the house allow. All occasion of acquiring private property is to be avoided. Quarrels are to be punished according to their degree. No one is to eat or drink outside the house without the prior's licence, and the bishop 'most strictly commands, upon their obedience' that they receive the sick and infirm with all kindness and mercy, except only pregnant women, lepers, the wounded, the paralysed, and the insane. The beds and bedding of the sick are to be inspected by the prior, or by some one deputed by him, and their food is to be as good as the house can afford. Above all, clerics as well as lay brethren are to obey the prior in all things concerning the good of the house, according to this Rule and the constitution of their Order. A chapter is to be held once a week: the brethren each and all are to go to confession to their own prior, unless they have an indult. (fn. 16) The Rule is to be publicly read in chapter twice or thrice in the year. Lay brethren are to say 20 Paternosters and 20 Aves for Matins, wherever they may be, 7 Paters and 7 Aves for each of the other Hours, and one Pater and one Ave for grace both before and after meat.

About the year 1267 Bishop Hugh de Balsham allowed the hospital to appropriate the vicarage of Horningsea and have the church served by a suitable chaplain sent out from the congregation of the hospital 'or elsewhere', because the house had suffered from depreciation of its property and from a fire, but also because of 'the great confluence of the sick and poor to your place'. (fn. 17) On 24 December 1280 he obtained the king's licence to make his famous experiment of introducing into 'his Hospital of St. John studious scholars living after the rule of the scholars of Oxford called of Merton', in place of the secular brethren. (fn. 18) Either because the hospital, to which there was constant resort of sick and poor, was found to be an unsuitable residence for scholars, or because his ideas had expanded, the bishop in 1284 took steps to remove his scholars to two hostels outside the Trumpington Gate adjoining the church of St. Peter, and thus inaugurated the first Cambridge college, Peterhouse. (fn. 19) The site of the college and the church, which he bestowed on his new foundation, belonged to the hospital, to which he assigned other lands and rents in compensation. There seems some evidence that the hospital occasionally received scholars as boarders, as in 1327 an order was made that food seized from forestallers and regraters should be given to the Master of the Hospital of St. John for the support of 'poor scholars and sick persons' there; (fn. 20) and this order was repeated in 1378. (fn. 21) The lay brethren displaced by Balsham do not seem to have been reintroduced and their place was apparently taken by boarders. Thus in 1377 when John de Stanton, rector of Rampton, died in the hospital, one of his executors was Richard Trukke, commorans in domo; and in the following year Christine de Luyton corrodiaria et prehendinans infra domum, and one Robert, formerly servant of John Segeirle, also described as prehendinans et commorans infra domum, died there. (fn. 22)

Although, as already mentioned, the Bishops of Ely had for many years appointed the masters, when William de Gosefeld resigned in January 1333 the brethren of the hospital, John de Shelford, John de Berton, Robert de Sprouston, and Alan de Hemmyngeston, announced to Bishop John de Hotham their choice of Alexander de Ixnyng, one of their number, and asked him to institute him as master. (fn. 23) This he did and took the opportunity to issue a letter, or ordinance, concerning future appointments, which was confirmed by John Crauden, Prior of Ely, and the convent, and on 2 March by King Edward III. In this, after denouncing the injuries done to the hospital and the cause of charity by some of the clerks who had ruled it, he laid down the rule that in future, on a vacancy occurring, the brethren should nominate one of their own number to the bishop. If it so happened that there was no member of their body suitable, then they should choose one of the brethren of the Hospital of St. John at Ely. If neither body could produce a fit candidate, then the bishop should appoint, but on future vacancies the presentation should revert to the brethren. (fn. 24)

The hospital seems to have been in a flourishing condition at this time, as in 1341 when assessment was made in Cambridge for the subsidy of a ninth of the value of movable chattels the master was rated at £9, (fn. 25) a sum only exceeded by the Prior of Barnwell (£13 10s.) and only approached by the Gilbertine canons of St. Edmund (£8 4s.). On 15 December 1341 the Bishop of Ely (fn. 26) gave a licence to Brother Alexander, Master of the Hospital of St. John, and to each of the brethren to say mass 'in a suitable part of the Hospital', a permission which suggests that the chapel may have been under repair; and on 16 February 1347, Thomas de Lisle, Bishop Montacute's successor, licensed Brother Alexander (fn. 27) to hear the confessions of the parishioners of Horningsea from the beginning of Lent to Easter. In April 1349 the Black Death fell upon the hospital. On 2 May Brother Robert de Sprouston (fn. 28) was nominated, admitted, and inducted upon the death of Alexander de Ixnyng. (fn. 29) The brethren named as taking part in this election are Alan de Heningeston, William Beer, Roger Broom, and Richard de Schetlyngton. Robert de Sprouston seems to have died at once, and Roger Broom was elected by the other three. (fn. 30) Early in June he too died, and on 28 June William Beer was admitted to the mastership, being elected by Richard de Schetlyngton and John de Swaffham. (fn. 31) It seems probable that Alan had also died, leaving only two of the brethren alive, and that John de Swaffham had joined the community during June. The Chancellor of the diocese, as one of Lisle's vicarsgeneral, installed William with all speed, seeing 'how much danger threatens the hospital through lack of a Custos'.

William Beer was master in 1362, when he and the brethren were licensed to receive from John de Seggewelle and Robert de Wynpole, rector of Kirtling, 3 messuages, 11 cottages, and 3 acres of land in Cambridge and some 30 acres in neighbouring villages. (fn. 32) This was probably a purchase for investment and not a pious gift.

On Friday 29 July 1373, Thomas de Wormenhale visited the Hospital of St. John. The chief comperta as regards discipline were that the brethren did not make their confessions to the master, as they were bound to do. It was also reported that the buildings were falling down for lack of repair. The master at this time was still William Beer. (fn. 33) It was not long after this that one William Potton entered the hospital, was professed as of the Rule of St. Augustine as a brother of the house, (fn. 34) and received sub-deacon's orders. After he had been there rather over a year, it was found that shortly before his entry he had married Agnes Knotte, widow of Ralph Clerk, at whose suit he was discharged of his religious profession and restored to her as her husband. (fn. 35)

In 1393 Pope Boniface IX granted a relaxation of penance to penitents who on the feast of St. John visited and gave alms to the church of the hospital; (fn. 36) and about 1470 Thomas Rotherham, Bishop of Lincoln, and Chancellor of the University, in view of the injuries often done to the hospital by laymen, extended to its brethren and servants the privileges of membership of the University. (fn. 37) At the end of 1477 the Pope commissioned the Archdeacon of Ely to deal with a petition of the master and brethren (here definitely said to be of the Order of St. Augustine) that masses for the souls of Sir John Moreys and his parents Stephen and Denise Moreys, for which the said John had given them lands producing 100s. yearly, might in future be said in their own church of St. John instead of in St. Botolph's. (fn. 38)

As a result of the extension of the privileges of the University to the hospital St. John's House ranked as a college, and as such was exempted from the subsidy of 1500. (fn. 39) By this time, however, the hospital was falling into decay; the brethren were few in number and lax in character, and the estates were in danger of being dissipated. (fn. 40) The Lady Margaret, Countess of Richmond, mother of Henry VII, having founded Christ's College, projected another scholastic foundation and was persuaded by John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester, to place it here. (fn. 41) On 10 March 1509 she and James Stanley (her stepson), Bishop of Ely, agreed upon the conversion of St. John's into a college, (fn. 42) and although after her death, on the following 29 June, the bishop held matters up for more than a year, (fn. 43) when a papal bull suppressing the hospital had been obtained he gave his consent and wrote to 'the fellows of St. John's House in Cambridge' advising them to resign and promising that they should each have an annuity of 8 marks for life. (fn. 44) There were at this time, besides the master, William Tomlyn, only three brethren— Sir Christopher Wright, Sir John Ketenham, and Sir William Chandeler, none of whom, judging from the title 'Sir', was a graduate. (fn. 45) On 20 January 1511 the bishop's commissary handed over the hospital to the executors of Lady Margaret. (fn. 46)

Masters, or Priors (fn. 47)

?Herbert the chaplain, 1207 (fn. 48)

Anthony, occurs 1239-40 (fn. 49)

Richard, occurs 1246, (fn. 50) 1256 (fn. 51)

Ralph, occurs 1257, (fn. 52) 1261 (fn. 53)

Geoffrey de Alerheth (fn. 54)

Hugh de Stanford, occurs 1271 (fn. 55)

Guy, occurs 1274 (fn. 56)

Robert de Huntindone (fn. 57)

Richard Cheverel, occurs 1284

William, occurs 1299 (fn. 58)

John de Colonia, occurs 1321

William de Gosefeld, resigned Jan. 1333

Alexander de Ixnyng, elected Feb. 1333, died 1349

Robert de Sprouston, inducted 2 May 1349, died

Roger de Broom, elected May, died June 1349

William Beer, elected 28 June 1349, occurs 1362, 1373

Henry Brown, occurs 1377, (fn. 59) 1379 (fn. 60)

John de Stanton, resigned 1400

William Killum, elected Jan. 1401, resigned 1403

John Burton, elected May 1403

John Dunham, occurs 1426, died 1458

John Dunham, the younger, elected 17 Feb. 1458, died Dec. 1474

Robert Dunham, elected Jan. 1475, died 1498

William Thomlyn, admitted 19 Nov. 1498, last master

The 13th-century seal of the hospital (fn. 61) displays an eagle rising to sinister with its head turned back and supporting a cross-headed staff between its uplifted wings. Legend: SIGILL' OSPITALIS S' IOHĀNIS DE CĀTE.

The 14th-century seal has a similar eagle rising to dexter but without the cross-staff. Legend: IN PRINCIPIO ERAT VERBVM.


  • 1. Acad. Hist. Cantab. (ed. S. Drake, 1729), p. xxiv. Followed by Dugdale, Tanner, Wharton, &c.
  • 2. Thomas Baker, Hist. of the Coll. of St. John (ed. Mayor), 16–17.
  • 3. Rot. Litt. Pat. (Rec. Com.), i, 47.
  • 4. Curia Regis, v, 39.
  • 5. Abbrev. Plac. (Rec. Com.), 263; J. W. Cooper, Annals of Cambridge, v, 247–8.
  • 6. J. W. Cooper, Annals of Cambridge, v, 248–9; J. M. Gray, School of Pythagoras, 43.
  • 7. Rot. Hund. (Rec. Com.), ii, 359.
  • 8. Cartulary of the Hospital, at St. John's College. The family of Hervey Dunning, the first mayor of Cambridge, is particularly prominent. For information drawn from the College muniments we are indebted to Mr. Hugh Gatty.
  • 9. Quoted by Baker (op. cit. 17), but since lost.
  • 10. Ibid. 19, 20.
  • 11. Pipe R. Soc. N.S. xx, 160.
  • 12. Ibid. N.S. iv, 56; Pipe R. 14 John.
  • 13. J. M. Gray, School of Pythagoras (C.A.S.), 42–3.
  • 14. Ibid. 58.
  • 15. C. H. Cooper, Margaret, Countess of Richmond, 171.
  • 16. See below, p. 306.
  • 17. Confirmation by Bishop Montacute, in muniment room, drawer 4, no. 1.
  • 18. Cal. Pat. 1272–81, p. 421.
  • 19. Cooper, Annals, i, 60.
  • 20. Cal. Pat. 1327–30, p. 60.
  • 21. Ibid. 1377–81, p. 264. A reference to the 'master and scholars of St. John's Hospital' in a dispute about the bounds of Fen Ditton and Horningsea in 1412 (Ely Epis. Reg. Fordham, fol. 227; E.D.R. (1901), 179) is probably a scribal error.
  • 22. Cole MS. xli, fols. 79, 97.
  • 23. Documents in muniments of St. John's College.
  • 24. Ibid.; Cal. Pat. 1330–4, p. 411.
  • 25. Non. Inq. (Rec. Com.), 216.
  • 26. Ely Epis. Reg. Montacute, fol. 16.
  • 27. Reg. Lisle, fol. 9 v.
  • 28. Some kitchen accounts for 17–18 Edw. III rendered by Robert de Sprouston now form folios 89 and 90 of the Hospital Cartulary, into which they were bound by Nicholas Spierinck c. 1525: ex inf. H. Gatty.
  • 29. Reg. Lisle, fol. 20 v.
  • 30. Ibid.
  • 31. Ibid.
  • 32. Cal. Pat. 1361–4, p. 259. This property was seized into the king's hands in error in 1380 (Cal. Fine R. ix, 216), but released shortly afterwards: Cal. Close, 1371–81, p. 417.
  • 33. Reg. Archbp. Witleseye, fol. 153.
  • 34. He was one of the five brethren, in addition to the master, who contributed to the clerical poll tax in 1378: East Anglian, xiii, 103.
  • 35. Cole MS. xli, fols. 33, 43.
  • 36. Cal. Papal Letters, iv, 455.
  • 37. Hospital Cartulary, fols. 23 v. and 42 v.
  • 38. Cal. Papal Letters, xiii, 614-15. The chantry had been founded and endowed in 1392: Cal. Pat. 1391–6, p. 99.
  • 39. Cooper, Annals, i, 254.
  • 40. Baker, op. cit. 49–50.
  • 41. Ibid. 50.
  • 42. C. H. Cooper, Margaret, Countess of Richmond, 135–6.
  • 43. Ibid. 137.
  • 44. R. F. Scott, Notes from the Records of St. John's Coll. Cambridge.
  • 45. Baker, op. cit. 50. Christopher Wright was subsequently curate of Horningsea: Cole MS. viii, fol. 17.
  • 46. C. H. Cooper, op. cit. 144.
  • 47. Baker, op. cit. 52–3; and above.
  • 48. See above, p. 303.
  • 49. Rye, Cambs. Fines, 23. Cf. Gray, School of Pythagoras, 42.
  • 50. Rye, op. cit. 26, 28.
  • 51. Gray, op. cit. 44.
  • 52. Ibid. 44.
  • 53. Ibid. 46.
  • 54. Baker, op. cit. 52.
  • 55. Assize R. 84, m. 14d.
  • 56. Palmer, Camb. Borough Docts. 3, 7.
  • 57. Baker, op. cit. 44; Peterhouse deeds, 'Collegii Situs', A. 19.
  • 58. Cartulary, fol. 37; Assize R. 96, m. 14.
  • 59. Clay, Horningsey, 17.
  • 60. East Anglian, xiii, 103.
  • 61. Gray, School of Pythagoras, 43, 45. There are casts of this and the later seal in the Fitz William Museum.