Hospitals: Sturbridge

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: Sturbridge', A History of the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely: Volume 2, (London, 1948), pp. 307-308. British History Online [accessed 16 June 2024].

. "Hospitals: Sturbridge", in A History of the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely: Volume 2, (London, 1948) 307-308. British History Online, accessed June 16, 2024,

. "Hospitals: Sturbridge", A History of the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely: Volume 2, (London, 1948). 307-308. British History Online. Web. 16 June 2024,


From the architectural features of the 'Leper Chapel' still standing at Barnwell it is probable that the Hospital of St. Mary Magdalene of Sturbridge for lepers was founded in the first half of the 12th century; but the earliest known reference to it is during the vacancy of the see of Ely after Bishop Niel's death, from 1169 to 1172, when a payment of 20s. yearly to the Hospital of Barnwell was recorded under the 'customary alms' of the bishop. (fn. 1) It seems to have been established, as a sanitary precaution for the health of the town, by the joint action of a number of Cambridge burgesses, as in 1279 it was stated that the Warden of Sturbridge Hospital held 24½ acres in the fields of Cambridge of the gift of many persons (plurimorum) and that the advowson, or right of presenting and removing the warden, properly belonged to the burgesses of Cambridge. (fn. 2) Unfortunately we do not know how the inchoate borough exercised this right, which had been usurped by Hugh Northwold, Bishop of Ely (1229-54), and his successors in spite of frequent protests by the burgesses. (fn. 3)

In 1199 the lepers recovered against Walter de Bruneford a freehold in Comberton, (fn. 4) and the Master of the Lepers of Sturbridge recovered another freehold there from three Jews and their tenant Alan of Barton. (fn. 5) King John, probably in 1210 or 1211, (fn. 6) granted to the hospital a fair on the eve and feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, (fn. 7) and this developed into the famous Sturbridge Fair, for some centuries one of the greatest centres of trade in England.

Thomas, Warden of the Hospital of Sturbridge, in 1271 claimed 3 acres in Chesterton as having been given by Geoffrey de Steresbrigge to maintain a lamp in the chapel. (fn. 8) It is probable that by this time the hospital had ceased to serve that purpose, as in 1279 it was stated that the warden no longer supported any lepers, as he ought to do. (fn. 9) After this date, although 'hospital' was often used as an alternative title, it is usually, and more correctly, termed the Free Chapel of St. Mary Magdalene.


  • 1. Pipe R. Soc. xv, 96; xvi, 116; xviii, 116.
  • 2. Rot. Hundr. (Rec. Com.), ii, 359.
  • 3. Ibid. Cf. Maitland, Township and Borough, 60.
  • 4. Rot. Cur. Reg. i, 329.
  • 5. Ibid. ii, 62.
  • 6. The Charter Rolls for these years are lost.
  • 7. Rot. Hundr. (Rec. Com.), ii, 360.
  • 8. Assize R. 84, m. 9.
  • 9. Rot. Hundr. (Rec. Com.), ii, 360.