The crisis of care

In 1414 the House of Commons declared the hospitals of England now for the most part decayed. MPs accused those responsible of diverting hospital income to other uses, leaving the needy to die in misery. What had happened to the houses of care? Many of the hospitals founded with enthusiasm in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries declined after the Black Death of 1348-9. Leper hospitals lacked lepers. Others simply lacked funds. Perhaps one hundred had withered away by the time the Commons urged reform.

The Black Death cut down hospital inmates and their carers alike. But perhaps it bore down heaviest on those already weak, accelerating the decline of leprosy in these islands. As the leper hospitals gradually emptied, new uses could be found for some. Former leprosaria were well placed to become isolation hospitals for contagious diseases, or to house the mentally ill, or they could become almshouses, like Lanfranc's foundation at Harbledown. But some were simply allowed to decay.

Lord Mayor's Chapel, Bristol, once St Mark's HospitalLosses among the peasantry left labour scarce. Hospitals faced the same problems as other landowners. Their income fell and expenses rose. Yet when every excuse has been made, it has to be admitted that too many hospitals were failing in their function. The percentage of hospital income spent on the clergy had risen over the years at the expense of the poor. St Mark Bristol is a case in point. It was founded as an almonry to feed 100 of the poor a day, with a single chaplain to pray for the founder's soul. By the fifteenth century it had become a house of Augustinian canons feeding only 27 of Bristol's poor. Its master was even prepared to falsify charters to give its changed role a spurious legitimacy. Some small foundations had become sinecures for clerics who appropriated all the income.

Small wonder then that the Commons was boiling over. MPs petitioned the king to have all hospitals inspected and properly governed. Henry V agreed, but left the Church to implement the measure, with the result that nothing was done.

Trouble surfaced again in the 1460s. The struggles of St Leonard York to impose its increasingly unpopular levy of a thrave from every ploughland in the diocese triggered a revolt in Yorkshire in 1469. The rebels claimed that the thraves were feeding the rich rather than the poor and marched on York. The revolt was suppressed, but Edward IV abolished the levy.

Continue to A Room of One's Own.