Hospitals: St Mary Magdalene & St John Baptist, Ely

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 Mary Magdalene & St John Baptist, Ely', in A History of the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely: Volume 2, (London, 1948) pp. 308-310. British History Online [accessed 29 May 2024].

. "Hospitals: St Mary Magdalene & St John Baptist, Ely", in A History of the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely: Volume 2, (London, 1948) 308-310. British History Online, accessed May 29, 2024,

. "Hospitals: St Mary Magdalene & St John Baptist, Ely", A History of the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely: Volume 2, (London, 1948). 308-310. British History Online. Web. 29 May 2024,

In this section


The Hospital of St. Mary Magdalene at Ely probably owed its foundation to the same 12thcentury movement for the care of lepers as the Hospital of St. Mary Magdalene at Sturbridge. The accounts of the revenues of the bishopric during the vacancy of the see in 1171-2, after the death of Bishop Niel, show that the 'hospital of Ely' was receiving regular alms of £8 8s. out of the issues of the episcopal manors. (fn. 2) About 1225 the Bishop of Ely, to whom the valuable rectory of Littleport had been apportioned when the property of Ely was divided between bishop and priory, gave the church of Littleport to the Hospital of St. Mary Magdalene. Hugh Northwold (bishop from 1229 to 1254), seeing that St. Mary Magdalene was endowed beyond its needs (and probably that the urgent need which it had been founded to meet was past), united it with another hospital, that of St. John Baptist, which had been founded in close connexion with the Cathedral Priory.

The earliest reference to the Hospital of St. John is in an undated charter, (fn. 3) witnessed by Salomon the Goldsmith among others, by which John de Beverand gave land in the fields of Ely to the hospital in support of a chantry chaplain to minister there for its benefactors. The land was held of the almoner of the priory at a rent of 6d. Another piece of land given to the hospital, possibly before the union, was 3½ acres in Downham held by the brethren of the Hospital of St. John of Ely in 1251, which in 1222 had been held by a tenant who was bound to do certain work on Aldreth causeway and in the vineyard, and to lodge the bishop's messengers. After the union of the hospitals Littleport Church (fn. 4) was appropriated to the master; a vicarage was endowed there at £6 13s. 4d. which had fallen to £5 by 1291 and was reduced in 1414, by order of the Archbishop of Canterbury, to £4. The master and his vicar at Littleport were always exempt from the payment of tenths. The buildings of both hospitals may have remained in use, but the existing fragments, which have been tentatively identified as belonging to the chapels of St. Mary Magdalene and of St. John respectively, (fn. 5) are all, perhaps, remains of the latter hospital; nothing is left of an earlier date than the beginning of the 13th century. For the community housed in the hospital, which stood about 570 yards west of the cathedral, Bishop Hugh Northwold drew up a simple rule on collegiate lines. (fn. 6) The chaplains and brethren were to sleep together in one dormitory and eat together in one refectory; they were to wear a clerical closed gown or cassock, not strictly a religious habit, and were put under obedience to the Sacrist of Ely as the bishop's deputy, in all things touching the hospital. The sacrist must see to it that all their rents and profits were spent on the maintenance of the brethren and on the poor, taking nothing for himself. The whole number of the community was not to exceed thirteen, and every chaplain or brother admitted was to be appointed by the bishop, or by the sacrist acting for him. No real property was to be sold or granted away without the consent of bishop and sacrist. The sacrist might punish offenders, clerical or lay, with any penalty short of expulsion, and in him the chapel of St. John Baptist and its disposal were vested. The chaplains were to be sworn not to take any offerings from parishioners, nor to divert legacies from the parish church, in whose cemetery the poor who died in the hospital were to be buried; the chaplains and brethren were, however, to be buried in the graveyard of the hospital.

In 1319 the master and brethren had licence to acquire land to the value of 10 marks a year. (fn. 7) Mary Bassingbourn gave them, in 1323, a messuage in 'Patiz lane' adjoining the hospital, for her soul and the souls of her two husbands, Humphrey and John [de Lisle] and that her anniversary might be kept by the annual distribution of a farthing's worth of bread to each of 144 poor people at the hospital's expense; (fn. 8) she was received into the confraternity, and in 1327 her name appears together with other benefactors, as licensed to give lands, houses, and rents in Ely and Downham to the total value of 28s. 4d. (fn. 9) The master and brethren also obtained licence in 1358 to acquire, in completion of the 10 marks, 14 messuages, 3 shops, and ploughland and fen in the neighbourhood, free fishing in Stanmere and the moiety of a weir at Benwick, all of the value of 48s. 8½d. (fn. 10) Later they exceeded their licence, and in 1376 forfeited a messuage, 5 acres, and 3 roods in Haddenham, which was granted to the king's squire, Thomas Hauteyn, 'because they acquired the same in mortmain by Richard Tyd and Robert Hykelynton, brethren of the house, without the King's license.' (fn. 11) In 1383 they had another licence up to £10 a year, (fn. 12) and in 1392 were buying property in Ely and Downham to the extent of £5. (fn. 13)

The early statutes of the hospital were revised and expanded by Bishop Fordham in 1303. (fn. 14) The brethren, clerical and lay, were to eat and sleep together, if space permitted, or if not the clerks should sleep in one building and the laymen in another, and the master was to dine in the refectory. All were to be present at the divine offices and the lay brethren were to say for matins 20 Paternosters and Aves, and for grace before and after dinner a Paternoster. All were to wear clothes of the same colour and cut and not to go out without such costume. The usual orders were given for silence, avoidance of taverns and evil amusements, and so forth, with a curious order that all should be shaved together, none separately. There was to be a separate house for the infirm, who should be attended by one or two of the brethren, and remnants of food from the common table were to be distributed to the poor, without favour. It is noteworthy that whereas Bishop Northwold had limited the brethren to thirteen, Fordham had to insist that the full number of thirteen should be kept up, for which he declared that the endowment was ample.

Although these rules state that admission to the hospital is to rest solely with the sacrist, the actual procedure was for the master and brethren to present a candidate to the bishop, who admitted him and instructed the sacrist to install him. (fn. 15) Sixteen such admissions are recorded in the bishops' registers between 1342 and 1402, (fn. 16) of whom ten were certainly clerks at the time of their admission.

At a visitation of the hospital by Hugh de Seton in July 1345 orders were given that the church long since built in honour of St. John the Baptist and St. Mary Magdalene should at once be consecrated, and that a burial ground for the brethren and sick poor should also be consecrated. (fn. 17) It does not appear whether this was necessary from negligence in the past, or from reconstruction of the building, or from some ceremonial desecration as happened in 1349, when the brethren were licensed to have their cemetery, polluted by bloodshed, reconciled by any Catholic bishop. (fn. 18) The Clerical Poll Tax of 1379 names John Cardinal as master and five brethren, (fn. 19) presumably all clerks; whether there were still lay brethren does not appear. John Cardinal, who had been admitted to the fraternity as a deacon in 1350, (fn. 20) is probably the John son of Geoffrey Cardinal of Downham, a villein tenant of Bishop Montacute, who manumitted him and bestowed the first tonsure on him in 1340. (fn. 21) He resigned the mastership in February 1391 and was assigned the use of a chamber and an allowance of food, &c., for himself and his servant. (fn. 22)

John Fordham, Bishop of Ely, in 1425 bequeathed £5 to 'the house of St. John in our city of Ely'. (fn. 23) By 1454 the hospital had by the neglect and maladministration of its masters fallen into poverty and ruin. Bishop Bourchier then bestowed it upon William, Bishop of Dunkeld; (fn. 24) and similarly Bishop Gray in 1458 collated his domestic chaplain, Robert Norman, to the mastership. (fn. 25) Any efforts that they made to improve matters were fruitless, and by 1500 the hospital seems to have become a sinecure free chapel. (fn. 26) As such it should have fallen to the Crown under the Act of 1547, but it was apparently overlooked until early in Elizabeth's reign. The Queen in 1562 arranged that it should be granted, through the agency of Edward Leeds the titular master or warden, to the college of Clare Hall, Cambridge, to endow ten scholarships, the presentation to two of which was given to the Bishop of Ely. (fn. 27) The property was then worth about £28 15s. (fn. 28)

Masters (fn. 29)

Roger, occurs 1295, (fn. 30) 1299 (fn. 31)

John de Walcote, occurs 1340, (fn. 32) resigned 1344

John de Cotone, admitted 12 Apr. 1344

John Cardinal, occurs 1379, 1384, resigned 1391

Thomas de Brampton, admitted 14 Feb. 1391

William [Gunwardby], Bishop of Dunkeld, collated 4 Apr. 1454

Robert Norman, M.A., collated 9 Oct. 1458

Thomas Rowfote, died before July 1478

James Frost, collated 8 July 1478

John Fyssher, collated 15 May 1500

William Graunt, Bishop of Pavada, occurs 1513

John Holt, Bishop of Lydda, in commendam 17 Apr. 1528; occurs 1531, 1538

Robert Blyth, Bishop of Down, collated 7 Jan. 1541, occurs 1544

Richard Wilkes, S.T.B. collated 5 Oct. 1547, occurs 1555

Edward Leeds, surrendered 1562.


Walter the Chaplain, vicar of Longstow, acquired from Aubrey de Stowe land, on 2 acres of which he founded an almshouse in honour of the Blessed Virgin Mary for the support of poor persons, and established there a community of maidens (ordinem puellarum) who wore robes of russet. (fn. 33) This was probably not long before 1250, when 'the Sisters of Stowe' were holding 12 acres, worth 10s. (fn. 34) In 1274 the holding of the Hospital of St. Mary was said to be 10 acres; (fn. 35) and in the same year the Master of the Hospital of Longstow brought an action against Stephen son of Baldwin concerning land in the parish. (fn. 36) The 'Sisters of the Chapel of Stowe' in 1279 held a messuage and 14 acres from John de Caxton, (fn. 37) and 3 roods of land in alms of Martin le Freman, (fn. 38) as well as the 2 acres on which their house stood. (fn. 39) In February 1338, the poor sisters were granted exemption from payment of the subsidy (fn. 40) and in 1352 directions were again given to the Exchequer that they should not be taxed. (fn. 41)


  • 1. The documentary history of these hospitals is dealt with very fully by the late Dr. W. M. Palmer in C.A.S. xxxvi (1936), pp. 76–108, on which article our account is based. In the same volume (pp. 58–75) is a description of the architectural remains by Dr. L. Cobbett.
  • 2. Palmer, no. 2. A reference (no. 1) on the Pipe Rolls for 1162–4 to payments of 5s. alms to the Bishop of Ely in quietantia hospicii sui can hardly refer to the hospital, as Dr. Palmer supposes (pp. 77–8). The 'customary alms' from the bishop had by the time of Henry III been increased to £11 14s. 1d., to which amount the brethren proved their right in 1337 and 1357 (nos. 15, 29).
  • 3. Palmer, no. 4: 'Thirteenth century or earlier'.
  • 4. Dr. Palmer's statement (p. 80) that the rectory of Littleport is given in the Norwich valuation of 1251 at 20 marks is incorrect; it should be 15 marks (Lunt, Valuation of Norwich, 539), but in a later valuation (?1276) it was raised to £20 (Ibid. 553).
  • 5. Cobbett, 60–1.
  • 6. Palmer, no. 5.
  • 7. No. 11.
  • 8. No. 12.
  • 9. No. 13.
  • 10. No. 30.
  • 11. No. 31.
  • 12. No. 36.
  • 13. No. 43.
  • 14. No. 9.
  • 15. Cole MS. xxiii, fol. 157.
  • 16. Palmer, pp. 93–5.
  • 17. Palmer, no. 20.
  • 18. No. 24.
  • 19. No. 34.
  • 20. No. 26.
  • 21. Ely Epis. Reg. Montacute; E.D.R. (1890), p. 379.
  • 22. Palmer, no. 42.
  • 23. Cant. Reg. Chichele (Cant. and York Soc.), 327.
  • 24. Palmer, no. 46.
  • 25. No. 47.
  • 26. No. 51.
  • 27. Nos. 58–63.
  • 28. No. 65.
  • 29. Palmer, p. 108.
  • 30. a He agreed with Bishop William de Luda about a corrody to be granted to Maud, widow of William de Tawell: Assize R. 96, m. 69.
  • 31. Palmer, no. 7.
  • 32. a He and the brethren nominated Sir William de Hauvyle, priest, as a brother: Ely Epis. Reg. Montacute; E.D.R.
  • 33. Rot. Hundr. (Rec. Com.), ii, 538.
  • 34. Bk. of Fees, pp. 1181, 1233.
  • 35. Rot. Hundr. i, 54.
  • 36. Dep. Keeper of Recs. Rep. xliii (1), 484 (Cal. Pat. 2 Edw. I).
  • 37. Rot. Hundr. ii, 536.
  • 38. Ibid. 537.
  • 39. Ibid. 538.
  • 40. Cal. Pat. 1338-40, p. 19.
  • 41. Memo. R.K.R. 27, Edw. III, Mich. 16d.