A room of one's own

What was to become of the poor? The need for charity was never-ending and the Christian response never altogether failed. As some older hospitals declined, new ones sprang up to take their place. In Scotland the decayed Soutra was closed, but the devout Mary of Gueldres, widow of James II, founded and generously endowed Trinity Hospital for the poor of Edinburgh. The revenues which had once belonged to Soutra were transferred to her new hospital.

The foundations of the later Middle Ages tended to provide their inmates with more privacy and less communal living. Instead of an infirmary, there would be a row or quadrangle of individual almshouses. This reflected changes in domestic living. As houses began to provide more privacy, so did hospitals.

Richard Whittington, thrice mayor of London, forever endeared himself to Londoners by leaving his fortune in 1423 to a charitable trust administered by the guild to which he had belonged, that of the mercers. Whittington's Hospital for 13 poor was founded the following year. It gave preference to the poor freemen of the city and particularly mercers. Laymen were beginning to look after their own. Not all burgesses had the wealth of a Whittington, but through a guild they might collectively found and support an almshouse. In London and Bristol almshouses were built by and for several of the major trades and for mariners.

Ewelme Almshouses. Photograph by Henry Taunt (English Heritage)Outside the cities great landowners might found almshouses for the poor of the parish, or for retired household servants. At Ewelme, Oxon, the Earl and Countess of Suffolk created the charming God's House in 1448-50 for the poor of their local estates. It was run by two priests, one of whom was also to teach grammar to local boys. The timber-framed almshouses are built around a courtyard. The quadrangle plan that had served earlier hospitals well continued to remain popular.

Another continuing tradition was a chapel, but other communal buildings such as refectory, kitchen or storehouse were in the main dispensed with by paying residents an allowance and leaving them to cater for themselves.

Meanwhile the older hospitals still sturdily providing for the needy tended to replace their open-plan infirmaries, or at least partition them into separate cells like those at St Mary Chichester. At St Cross Winchester Cardinal Beaufort in 1443-6 added ranges of lodgings, each with a lobby, heated sitting room and bedroom, and a privy and store-rooms.

Continue to Divorcing faith from charity.