Hospitals: St Nicholas, Carlisle

Pages 199-203

A History of the County of Cumberland: Volume 2. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1905.

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The vicissitudes of the hospital of St. Nicholas, Carlisle, the best known house in the county, display many features of great interest in the history of eleemosynary institutions. It was of royal foundation at some period before the reign of King John, but the name of the founder or the date of the foundation has not been preserved. Hugh Todd, a former canon of Carlisle, ascribed the foundation to William Rufus, (fn. 1) the most unlikely of all the kings. As its records and muniments perished after the outbreak of the wars of Edward I. with Scotland, when the hospital was plundered and burnt, its early history must remain in comparative obscurity. Only two deeds of endowment, which are of any value, are known to exist, and these are on record in the register of Bishop Kirkby.

The first reference to the hospital that has as yet come to light is a letter of protection from King John sent in 1201 to the lepers of Carlisle. (fn. 2) About the same date we have a charter from Hugh de Morvill endowing the hospital of St. Nicholas outside the city of Carlisle with a ploughland of his demesne in the village of Hoff near Appleby, the land and goods of Richard the smith of Burgh, his villein, 40s. of land in Thurstonfeld, and other lands and rents elsewhere on the condition of finding one chaplain to celebrate divine offices for the souls of the faithful, and maintaining, with the consent of the master and brethren, three infirm brothers (tres fratres infirmos) on his presentation and on that of his heirs for ever. (fn. 3) At a later period perhaps, while Bernard was bishop and Geoffrey his archdeacon, Adam son of Robert, the true patron of a moiety of the church of Bampton near Carlisle, gave to the hospital and the sick people (infirmis) there serving God a moiety of the tithe sheaves of Little Bampton, with the proviso that two sick persons should be maintained on the nomination of himself and his successors. If these nominations were not made, five skeps of meal should be distributed to the poor on the Feast of St. Nicholas. In any other eventuality, the bishops of Carlisle were authorized to dispose of the tithe as they thought best for the good of the donor's soul. (fn. 4) It is evident from the tenor of these charters that the advantages of the institution were not exclusively confined to lepers at the opening of the thirteenth century, for though it had been originally founded as a leper-house, the qualifications for admittance must have been modified to some extent by the conditions attached to successive endowments. That such was the case we shall presently see.

The early history of the hospital was the subject of an inquest before a royal commission in 1341, when all the available evidences were brought under review and a verdict was returned on the oath of the jurors. (fn. 5) It was ascertained by this commission that the institution was founded by some king of England, long before the time of memory, for the sustenance of thirteen lepers, men and women, a master in Holy Orders who should be resident and sing mass at his will, and a chaplain who should sing mass daily for the benefactors of the hospital. This king, whose name the jurors knew not, endowed the institution with great possessions of lands for the perpetual support of the master and lepers as well as the brethren and sisters, appointed for them a chapter and a common seal which should remain in the custody of the master and of two or three or four of the lepers, and ordained that the lepers should always be clad in clothes of russet and live under the rules of the hospital for ever. It was also appointed at the foundation that the master as well as the brethren and sisters should have commons together within the precincts, saving this, that the master might appoint a temporary substitute if he had to attend to the business of the hospital elsewhere.

The original constitutions of the hospital were observed until by lapse of time the greater part of the lepers died, (fn. 6) when by common consent of the master, brethren and sisters, their places were filled by poor, weak and impotent folk (pauperes, debiles et impotentes), which led to a modification of the existing rules. We have already noticed how the bequests of Hugh de Morvill and Adam son of Robert contributed to this change. Other donations followed with similar conditions. The commonalty of the city of Carlisle granted to the hospital on every Sunday for ever a pottle (potellum) of ale from each brewhouse of the city, and a loaf of bread from each baker exposing bread for sale on Saturday, in return for which the master should receive into the hospital, on the presentation of the mayor and commonalty, all the lepers in the city. By virtue of these grants, the donors and their successors possessed the right to present lepers and other poor persons for maintenance in the institution.

In 1292 a dispute arose about the patronage of the hospital. (fn. 7) The Bishop of Carlisle claimed the right of instituting the master on the presentation of the brethren who made choice of a fit person for that purpose. The Crown denied the right of the inmates to elect a master from their own body, and challenged the jurisdiction of the bishop over the hospital for any purpose whatever. When the matter was referred to the judges of assize, the jury found that the patronage was in the king's hand, for though Bishop Ireton made the last appointment, the king's ancestors always conferred it till the time of Henry III. Besides, the brethren were never in the habit of electing any one. The gross value of the hospital was returned at that time at £35 13s. 4d., out of which twelve sick persons (languidi) were maintained with a master and a chaplain to celebrate divine offices, which chaplain had the assistance of a clerk.

The verdict of the jury, by which the Crown recovered the patronage, had a momentous effect on the internal observances of the hospital. The master nominated by the bishop resigned or was dispossessed. Hugh de Cressingham, a justice in eyre and 'an insatiable pluralist,' according to Prynne, before whom the case was decided, was appointed in his place. The new master drew up a code of rules, formed no doubt on the old model, for the government of the house. (fn. 8) These constitutions are of considerable interest and may be summarized as follows: All the brethren and sisters on their first entry should take an oath of obedience and fealty to the master and to live chastely and honestly within the cloister and without when sent on business of the hospital; that they should rise in the morning at the ringing of the bell and come in person to the church or chapel to pray for the faithful departed, all the benefactors of the hospital, and specially for the royal family; that they should have a cloister, the gates of which should be closed with iron bars both day and night, and specially by night; that a general porter should be specially appointed and sworn to guard the gates according to rule, whose business also it would be to keep the well (fontem) and the court within and without the cloister clean from all defilement; that the brethren should sleep in one house and likewise the sisters in another by themselves; that none of the brethren or sisters should go out of the cloister wandering about the country or city without special leave of the master; that the brethren should work as long as they could for the common benefit of the hospital; that no brother or sister should go out of the cloister under penalty by night by the walls or the gate, or by day from the ringing of the bell in the hall until the ringing of the bell in the church; that the brethren and sisters should be obedient to the precepts of the master or his deputy in all things lawful and honest, and any brother or sister found refractory or disobedient, for the first offence should lose his or her livery and be admonished, for the second should lose the two next liveries and be admonished to amend, otherwise on the third offence he or she should be expelled from the cloister and be entirely deprived of his or her corrody without hope of return; that the master should not permit any married man or woman staying within the cloister to pass the night with wife or husband, brother or sister, within the cloister, to commit fornication or other offence on pain of expulsion; that a brother or sister making a quarrel or charge unjustly, whereby public or private scandal should arise, should suffer similar penalties; and that none should usurp any office or power within the hospital without the assent of the master and the more discreet part of the chapter.

When the war broke out in 1296 between the two kingdoms, the hospital from its position without the walls of Carlisle was open to attack and soon became impoverished and almost ruined. It was found next to impossible to observe the rules laid down a few years before. Whereupon Richard Oriell, the custos during the absence of Hugh de Cressingham the master, managed as best he could in the altered state of political affairs. It was arranged by him that each of the brethren and sisters should receive yearly from the hospital by the hands of the master for sustenance two skeps of barley, two skeps of oats, two skeps of flour, three strikes of wheat, if there was wheat enough from the wainage of the hospital, two cart and two wagon loads of wood, a portion of the bread and ale received from the commonalty of Carlisle, and 4s. out of the rents of the hospital for clothing and other necessaries till the house was relieved. (fn. 9)

The procedure introduced by Oriell and followed by some of his successors was a great benefit to the house, whereby it was much enriched, and many poor persons other than foundationers were participators in its alms. When Edward II. bestowed the custody on Thomas de Wederhale, the good governance of the hospital began to decline. The new master was not a chaplain and did not observe the rules of the foundation or the constitutions made by his predecessors. He wasted the goods in many ways and kept the common seal in his own possession, and charged the hospital with corrodies to divers people without the assent of the brethren and sisters. The chapter of the hospital soon ceased to exist under his methods. When an inmate of the hospital died, no other was admitted to residence according to the rules of the foundation, those being non-resident who were admitted on the presentation of benefactors like the heirs of Hugh de Morvill and the commonalty of Carlisle. During the mastership of Wederhale the number of lepers and other poor persons was curtailed, and divine worship and works of piety were wholly withdrawn, except that he retained a chaplain to sing mass daily and eight poor persons who dwelt elsewhere and lived on the goods of the hospital. The affairs of the house went from bad to worse. Each succeeding master was no better than the last. The hospital became the perquisite of the master and was farmed for his own profit. (fn. 10) Nor did that official cease to forward his own interests. In 1336 the royal tax gatherers were forbidden to assess the goods of the hospital, as it had been founded by the king's progenitors, and was so slenderly endowed that there was scarcely a sufficiency for the maintenance of the master and brethren and other poor persons who resorted there. (fn. 11)

The condition of the hospital became a public scandal, and reports on its dilapidation and mismanagement were laid before the Bishop of Carlisle and the Crown. The king prohibited the bishop from visitation, no doubt on the representation of Thomas de Goldyngton, the master, as irregular and inconvenient in institutions of royal foundation or patronage. (fn. 12) Commissions of inquiry into the misrule of the hospital became the order of the day. In 1335 an inquisition ad quod damnum found that the rules had not been observed as they ought to have been for thirty-six years and more, because the said place was burned and totally destroyed, first by the Earl of Buchan's war and afterwards several times by the Scots, so that the constitution had not been and as yet could not be observed. (fn. 13) Matters dragged on till the summer of 1340, when a visitation of the hospital was made by a commission consisting of the bishop and prior of Carlisle, Robert Parvyng, and Robert de Eglesfeld, parson of Burgh under Stainmore. The whole history and management of the institution was probed to the bottom and a sweeping report on its condition, as already detailed, was made. The master was ordered to appear before the king in his chancery at Westminster, the common seal was taken from him, and the corrody holders were delivered to the custody of the prior of Carlisle. (fn. 14)

The internal condition of the hospital was again an anxiety to the authorities in 1380. It was the duty of Simon, Archbishop of Canterbury, to visit it, but as he was unable through urgent business to do so personally, he commissioned the prior of Wetheral, Hugh de Westbrook, and Adam, parson of Bolton, to undertake the inquiry. The terms of reference extended to divers defects in respect of its houses, books, vestments and other ornaments, the diminution of its chaplains, the alienation and waste of its lands, and quarrels among its ministers. (fn. 15) As a new master was appointed a few months afterwards, it may be taken that a reformation had been effected by the visitation. The hospital lingered on as an independent institution till 1477, when Edward IV. transferred it with all its lands, tenements, rights, liberties, franchises, commodities, and emoluments to the priory of Carlisle, the grant to take effect on the death or cession of the master. For this concession the priory was obliged to find a canon who was a priest, to be called the king's chaplain, to celebrate masses and other divine services in the monastery for the good estate of the king and his consort Elizabeth, Queen of England, and their children, and for their souls after death. (fn. 16) It should be remembered that the change in the constitution of the hospital did not impair the right of those who had a legal interest in its endowments. The Dacres continued to exercise the privilege of presentation of poor men to corrodies as the lords of Burgh had done since the days of Hugh de Morvill. On the death of Humphrey Lord Dacre in 1484, the nomination to a corrody in the hospital of St. Nicholas, Carlisle, at that time worth 13s. 4d. a year, was reckoned among the Dacre possessions in right of the barony of Burgh-by-Sands. (fn. 17)

One feature of the endowments of the hospital deserves a special mention inasmuch as it appears to have been a common appurtenance of leper houses, that is, a thrave of corn was due from time immemorial from every ploughland in the county of Cumberland. In 1358 a jury reported a long list of defaulters in various parishes who had detained their contributions for the past eight years. These dues ought to have been delivered in the autumn of each year to the bailiff of the hospital. (fn. 18) Bishop Appleby was obliged to denounce the practice in 1371. The sheaves were called 'thraves of St. Nicholas,' and were due, in the bishop's opinion, by grant of the kings of England. (fn. 19)

In 1541 the possessions of the hospital were included in the endowment charter of the dean and chapter of Carlisle, (fn. 20) whose estates were charged under the letters patent to maintain a chaplain to celebrate divine offices in the hospital in presence of three 'bedells' and the lepers therein, with a pension for the said poor 'bedells.' There is now no trace of the buildings of the hospital in existence; nothing is left of the institution but the name of the district of St. Nicholas in Botchergate to the south of the city. From the parliamentary survey of 1650 we learn that the hospital was altogether destroyed during the siege of Carlisle in 1645, and that the churchyard belonging to it abutted on the highway on the south and east. Evidences of burial have been found in that district during the last century. The whole site is now covered with streets and modern dwellings.

Masters of the Hospital of St. Nicholas, Carlisle

William, chaplain, circa 1200 (fn. 21)

Robert son of Ralf, temp. John (fn. 22)

William, rector, circa 1240 (fn. 23)

John, rector, circa 1245 (fn. 24)

Symon, master, 1270 (fn. 25)

Hugh de Cressingham, 1293-7 (fn. 26)

Richard de Oriell, custos, 1300 (fn. 27)

Henry de Craystok, master, appointed in 1303 (fn. 28)

John de Crosseby, 1309-27 (fn. 29)

Thomas de Wederhale, temp. Edw. II. confirmed in 1327 (fn. 30)

Ralf Chevaler, 1328 (fn. 31)

William de Northwell, 1332 (fn. 32)

Thomas de Goldyngton, 1334 (fn. 33)

John de Appleby, 1369 (fn. 34)

William de Cotyngham, 1380, (fn. 35) resigned in 1388

Nicholas de Lodal, warden, 1388, (fn. 36) resigned in 1389

John de Grysedale, warden, 1389 (fn. 37)

William Hayton, clerk, resigned in 1423

John Canonby, 1423 (fn. 38)

John de Thorpe, last independent master, circa 1477 (fn. 39)


  • 1. Notitia Eccl. Cath. Carl. (Cumb. and Westmld. Arch. Soc.), 35.
  • 2. Rot. Chart. 2 John (Rec. Com.), 101b.
  • 3. Carl. Epis. Reg., Kirkby, f. 303.
  • 4. Ibid. f. 482. J. Denton says that Gilbert son of Gilbert de Dundraw gave the hospital a portion of Crofton called Gillmartinridden (Cumberland, 83).
  • 5. Pat. 15 Edw. III. pt. i. m. 49, 48.
  • 6. The disease of leprosy was not extinct in Cumberland in the fourteenth century. In 1357 the Bishop of Carlisle had learned with sorrow that Adam, rector of 'Castelkayrok,' was besprinkled with the spot of leprosy (lepre macula est respersus), insomuch that by reason of the horror and loathsomeness of the disease (morbi deformitatem et borrorem) he was unable to minister the sacraments and sacramentals to his parishioners. The rector was cited to appear personally in the bishop's presence at Rose and show cause why a coadjutor should not be appointed to assist him (Carl. Epis. Reg., Welton, f. 43).
  • 7. Plac. de Quo. Warr. (Rec. Com.), 122.
  • 8. Pat. 15 Edw. III. pt. i. m. 49.
  • 9. Ibid.
  • 10. Pat. 15 Edw. III. pt. i. m. 49.
  • 11. Close, 10 Edw. III. m. 14.
  • 12. Carl. Epis. Reg., Kirkby, f. 329.
  • 13. Inq. a.q.d. 9 Edw. III. No. 6; Pat. 9 Edw. III. pt. ii. m. 14d. The hospital was burnt in 1337 by the Scots (Chron. de Lanercost, 292).
  • 14. Pat. 15 Edw. III. pt. i. mm. 49, 48. To the researches made in 1340 and to the exemplification of the results of the inquiry on this patent roll we are indebted for much of what we know of the history of this hospital. The roll has been printed in full by Dr. Henry Barnes of Carlisle (Trans. Cumb. and Westmld. Arch. Soc. x. 11423), and an excellent summary has been given in the Calendar prepared by Mr. R. F. Isaacson of the Public Record Office. To this inquiry, no doubt, we owe the record of the two ancient deeds in the register of Bishop Kirkby.
  • 15. Pat. 3 Ric. II. pt. ii. m. 20d.
  • 16. Ibid. 17 Edw. IV. pt. i. m. 16.
  • 17. Cal. of Inq. p.m. Henry VII. i. 157.
  • 18. Inq. p.m. 31 Edw. III. pt. ii. No. 53.
  • 19. Carl. Epis. Reg., Appleby, f. 212. It is said that King Athelstan endowed in 936 the hospital of St. Leonard, York, with a thrave of corn, called Petercorne, from every plough in the bishopric of York (Dugdale, Mon. vi. 608-9). Certainly Bishop Appleby issued a monition in 1378 to his subjects of Carlisle not to neglect the payment of the blada sancti Petri to the same establishment (Carl. Epis. Reg., Appleby, f. 306). A similar mandate had been issued by Edward III. in 1333 to the sheriffs of Cumberland and Westmorland to aid the proctors and bailiffs of the hospital of St. Leonard, York, in levying one thrave of corn for every plough in these counties taken by virtue of charters granted by former kings (Pat. 7 Edw. III. pt. i. m. 11).
  • 20. Ibid. 33 Henry VIII. pt. ix. mm. 11-5; L. and P. Hen. VIII. xvi. 878 (11).
  • 21. Reg. of Wetherhal (Cumb. and Westmld. Arch. Soc.), 114.
  • 22. Plac. de Quo Warr. (Rec. Com.), 122.
  • 23. Reg. of Wetherhal (Cumb. and Westmld. Arch. Soc.), 276.
  • 24. Ibid. 176-9.
  • 25. Ibid. 180-1.
  • 26. Pat. 21 Edw. I. m. 13.
  • 27. Carl. Epis. Reg., Halton, f. 46.
  • 28. Pat. 31 Edw. I. m. 17. It is stated in the letters patent that the office was vacant through the death of Cressingham, an event which took place in 1297.
  • 29. Ibid. 2 Edw. II. pt. i. m. 17. This master was instrumental in the rebuilding (refeccione) of the chapel of the hospital in 1319 (Close, 13 Edw. II. m. 21), and caused John de Culgayth, rector of a moiety of Bampton, to be arrested in 1310 for the non-payment of his dues (Carl. Epis. Reg., Halton, f. 138).
  • 30. Pat. 1 Edw. III. pt. ii. m. 22.
  • 31. Ibid. 2 Edw. III. pt. ii. m. 4; 3 Edw. III. pt. i. m. 37.
  • 32. Ibid. 6 Edw. III. pt. ii. m. 18.
  • 33. Ibid. 7 Edw. III. pt. ii. m. 3. In 1342 it is said that he, described as medicus, passed into Scotland with Johan le Spicer of Carlisle to give medical aid to the king's enemies (Pat. 16 Edw. III. pt. ii. m. 28d).
  • 34. Dugdale, Mon. vi. 757.
  • 35. Pat. 4 Ric. II. pt. i. m. 26.
  • 36. Ibid. 11 Ric. II. pt. ii. m. 20.
  • 37. Ibid. 12 Ric. II. pt. ii. m. 4.
  • 38. Ibid. 1 Hen. VI. pt. ii. m. 4.
  • 39. Ibid. 17 Edw. IV. pt. i. m. 16.