Medieval hospitals of Bath

My theme here is charity in concrete form. For me there is something appealing about almshouses. Some have great charm. But is there more to it than just good looks? They are comforting buildings. They stand there as solid, enduring testimony to the softer side of the human heart.

St Catherine's Hospital in Bath before its rebuilding in 1825The major source of charity in the Middle Ages was the Church. Matthew chapter 25 tells us to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and take in the stranger. And that is what medieval hospitals were for. Today we would probably call them hostels for the homeless, who might or might not be disabled. Other hospitals took in the stranger - they were hostels for pilgrims and other wayfarers. The leperhouses had their own rationale - segregation of the leper.

Churchmen building hospitals had a model ready to hand. Monastic houses dispensed charity as a bounden duty. They gave alms to the poor, often from a special almonry by the gate. They had guest houses for travellers and infirmaries for their own sick. What more natural than to create hospitals along monastic lines? The core elements were a chapel and an infirmary. The first infirmaries were open halls - like a hospital ward - with beds down either side. The chapel was central to the whole medieval concept of charity. Charity is linked with faith and hope as a Christian virtue. Hospitals cared for the soul as much as the body. Where suffering is constant and death close at hand, faith can be a powerful comfort.

In Bath the first bishop probably took the initiative. John of Tours was the man who made Bath a cathedral city. As an eminent doctor in Tours, John had been summoned the deathbed of William the Conqueror. The king was beyond medical aid, but this entree to the Norman court enabled John to gain the bishopric of Somerset in 1088. John moved the see from Wells to Bath, where the thermal waters were a lure to patient and doctor alike. Walter Hussey, a priory tenant, gave the bishop his house in Holloway with its chapel dedicated to St Mary Magdalen. One can imagine the physician in John seizing the opportunity to create a leper hospital.

The first hospital within the city we also owe to the Church. Reginald Fitzjocelyn, fourth bishop of Bath, founded the Hospital of St John the Baptist about 1180.

As the centuries rolled by, laymen began to look after their own. The model was less monastic and more like college lodgings or inns. A classic example is Bath's first municipal charity: St Catherine's Hospital. Soon after 1435 William Philips, a wealthy clothier, built a row of almshouses in Bimbury Lane (now Bilbury Lane). After his death in 1444, the hospital was passed to the mayor and commonalty of Bath. The open-plan infirmary had lost favour. Individual rooms gave more privacy. Unlike St John's, there were no communal buildings - no kitchen, no storehouse. Rather than being fed, the residents would be paid an allowance.

In Elizabethan times the medieval cloth town was transformed into a thriving spa. Grateful visitors gave generously to charity projects. One who did was a State prisoner. John de Feckenham, former Abbot of Westminster, had languished in the Tower for a while. He was too ardent a Roman Catholic for Elizabeth. But he was allowed out on bail and in July 1575 came to Bath for his health. He was evidently touched by the plight of poor visitors. The city accounts show that three tons of timber and four hundred laths were supplied free to Feckenham to build the house for the poor by the Hot Bath.

Bellott's Hospital before its rebuildingLord Burghley accompanied Queen Elizabeth to Bath in 1574. After Burghley's death in 1598, his steward Thomas Bellott was entrusted with distributing the money he had left to charity. Bellott lavished it on Bath. He built an almshouse specifically for poor spa visitors in what is now Beau Street. Bellott's new hospital for lame pilgrims is first mentioned in September 1608. He gave it to the Corporation three years later. Over the door was Lord Burghley's coat of arms. Below was inscribed (in Latin) Do not leave dormant in your store that which would relieve the poor. If the poor sleep soundly, so will you. Elizabethans were alarmed by the rising tide of beggars and feared social unrest if poverty was not alleviated. Charity could be seen as enlightened self-interest.

This almshouse survived largely unchanged until its rebuilding in the nineteenth century. The street entrance led into a quadrangle with ranges on all four sides - a popular plan for almshouses. It creates a sheltered area, an enclosed world where the residents can be undisturbed. There is a sense of community. It worked for monasteries and it carried on working for almshouses.

There were 14 rooms around the courtyard. 12 were for patients. The other two were for a keeper and his wife, who looked after the place, and for a surgeon, who visited to examine the patients before admission. The surgeon's records are fascinating, at least for a period in the 17C when the details of their ailments were noted, and whether or not they made a recovery. It is the first case-book for any hospital in Bath. With Bellott's we are edging towards the modern concept of a hospital.

Further reading