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Date updated: 17/05/2022

Commemoration and charity at the medieval Hospital of St Bartholomew


The Hospital of St Bartholomew was established in 1123 in West Smithfield. While it survives today as a major medical centre, its medieval role was primarily religious. Augustinian canons performed the daily liturgy and commemorated founders with prayers, while resident nurses and secular chaplains cared for the bodies and souls of poor and infirm patients, as well as for unmarried pregnant women. The Hospital also took in orphans and ran a grammar school.

Several Hospital residents left traces of their lives in London Metropolitan Archives’ Commissary Court of London will registers, massive volumes where their wills were copied for posterity. By the mid fifteenth century, a sizeable group of well-off Londoners, including lawyers, civil servants, and merchants, were renting tenements in the Hospital close, the area immediately surrounding the Hospital. Many spent their retirement there and chose to be buried in the Hospital’s church or one of its chapels. Retiring in the Hospital close allowed these Londoners to live near friends, to rub shoulders with regular religious, and to engage in charity in a direct way, for here they lived adjacent to the ill and the destitute.

The work of Nicole R. Rice of St John’s University in New York on the Hospital’s lay residents draws upon the research of London historians Caroline Barron, Euan Roger, and Anne Sutton while employing Guy Geltner’s theory of the medieval hospital as a ‘semi-inclusive community’: a place that, like the medieval urban prison, brought the well to do into productive proximity with the poor and unfortunate.

Lay retirees in the fifteenth century

London historians expert in Hospital documents and the relevant LMA wills have suggested that these lay retirees may have formed a reading community or literary salon. My major goal as a literary historian is to discern how residents might have used and shared literary texts copied at the Hospital by the resident scribe and bibliophile John Shirley. (Shirley’s will survives in DL/C/B/004/MS09171/5). In order to build up a picture of this community and its residents’ literary inclinations, I begin with their wills, considering these documents as a form of Hospital literature, produced in and influenced by the institution’s unique culture. Even within the limitations of a formulaic genre, we see fifteenth century testators expressing individual spiritual connections to the Hospital community, requesting commemoration from and promising charity to a wide range of members.

Thomas Gyvendale (d. 1456), Exchequer Clerk

Thomas Gyvendale’s 1455 will, written in Latin and also preserved in DL/C/B/004/MS09171/5, demonstrates personal piety centred on the Hospital and solicitude for the full spectrum of its residents. In his will Gyvendale directs his body to be buried in the Hospital’s Lady chapel and grants money to support a chaplain to perform memorial prayers for his soul and those of all the faithful for five years after his death. Having ensured robust liturgical commemoration, Gyvendale goes on to provide for members of the Hospital community including the most vulnerable. Two of his bequests endow modest scholarships for three poor students at Oxford or Cambridge and provide dowries for three poor maidens ‘of good and honest conduct’. These scholarships are not unique, for they participate in a wider effort within the Hospital to support higher education, which Barron has documented. Yet within the diverse Hospital community, poor scholars and maidens seem to occupy a special category of charity: they are not just poor, but also young and vulnerable. The Hospital plays a role in supervising their transition from boys to scholars and from girls to wives.

Supporting Hospital staff and the ‘decrepit’

Gyvendale’s will further establishes charitable reciprocity with both the powerful and the weak of the Hospital community. Gyvendale makes a series of gifts to Hospital master, servants, sisters, and those suffering in the Hospital. Barron has noted his special concern for the ‘decrepit’ of the Hospital. Gyvendale leaves money to the master and his servants and the Hospital sisters ‘to pray for the health of my soul and of all the faithful departed’. Placing the Hospital master, his servants, and the sisters within one clause implies a hierarchy of power but also a cooperation in prayer, by these staff members, for Gyvendale’s soul. The feeblest members of the community, the poor and ill dwelling in the infirmary, are also involved in this effort and receive support. He leaves money to one ‘Mariote the wife of Botiller’ to pray for his soul, as well as to each pauper, male and female, ‘who lie decrepit within the hospital’. In singling out Mariota Botiller, a Hospital close resident who may later have become a patient, Gyvendale evokes the continuum on which the Hospital’s residents lived. The same person might go in a short time from being a wealthy testator to an infirm patient.

Rahere's tomb
Tomb of founder Rahere. Used by kind permission of the Rector of St. Bartholomew the Great

Beatrice Lurchon (d. 1475), grocer’s widow

Some widows dwelling in the Hospital close had originally come there with their husbands, and others may have taken up residence alone after their husbands’ deaths. A few widows’ wills, while indicating the expected dutiful ties to their husbands, reflect independent spiritual connections to the Hospital. Beatrice Lurchon, wife of grocer John Lurchon, was one such widow. Her 1475 will, written in English, survives in LMA’s DL/C/B/004/MS09171/6. Lurchon did not elect burial in St. Bartholomew’s church, probably because she felt obliged to lie beside her husband in the Hospital church of St. Thomas of Acon in Cheapside, to which she also gave generously. Yet Lurchon’s will suggests that having lived with her husband in the St Bartholomew’s Hospital close and spent her widowhood there, she saw the place as a primary site for her devotion and postmortem charity. Like Gyvendale, she left offerings to the master, brethren, and sisters, the ill and poor of the house in varying amounts. She also gave attention to the particular populations served by the Hospital, funding bequests to students and dowries for poor maidens.

Supporting the vulnerable

Lurchon likewise grouped students together with another vulnerable population, prisoners, in conjunction with her bequest to poor maidens. Early in her will she offers a bequest to ‘euery chyld of the gramerscole and of the place of the Hospytall of Seynt Bartylmew that woll go with my body to Seynt Thomas of Acres and sey de profundis, ij d’. This gift rewards the pious act of accompanying her body to its final resting place: the more students who participate, the more merit will accumulate to Lurchon and the boys alike. This statement is followed by provisions of bread, ale and meat to the prisoners at the London prisons (‘Ludgate, Newgate, the Kynges Bench and the Marchalssy’). Her ‘residue’ clause directs that her remaining goods be sold, with the proceeds to fund intercessory masses and ‘pore pepyll most nedy, in mariages of pore maydenys of good name and fame, in redymyng and delyueryng of pore presoners out of prisons, in amendyng and repayryng of febyll and foule weyes, and in other dedys of charyte aftyr the good dyscrecion of my sayd executors as they will answere therfore to All Myghty God at the dredefull day of jugement’.

While these bequests are conventional, and the grouping of poor people, maidens and prisoners is often found in such clauses, I pause on this emphasis for a moment. By focusing multiple times on the vulnerable populations of students, maidens, and prisoners, Lurchon emphasizes the marginality that these groups share and suggests that she, who has lived and will die in the Hospital close, may be uniquely placed to help them. Not only is she acting within the framework of the bodily works of mercy, clearly on her mind as she contemplates the ‘dredefull day of jugement,’ but she also suggests that living beside the Hospital and participating in its rituals and friendships influenced how she understood her place within London’s complex system of civic charity.

The author

Nicole R. Rice is Professor of English at St John’s University in New York. She is the author of Lay Piety and Religious Discipline in Middle English Literature (Cambridge, 2008) and co-author with Margaret A. Pappano of The Civic Cycles: Artisan Drama and Identity in Premodern England (Notre Dame, 2015). Her research at LMA forms part of a book project entitled Hospitals and Literary Production in England, 1350-1550, which has received support from the US National Endowment for the Humanities.

Further reading

  • Caroline Barron, ‘The People of the Parish: the Close of St Bartholomew’s Hospital in the Fifteenth Century’, in The Harlaxton Medieval Symposium 34: The Urban Church: Essays in Honour of Clive Burgess, ed. David Harry and Christian Steer (Donington, 2019)
  • Guy Geltner, ‘Social Deviancy: A Medieval Approach’, in Why the Middle Ages Matter: Medieval Light on Modern Injustice, ed. Celia Chazelle et al. (New York, 2011), 29-40
  • E.C. Roger, ‘Blakberd’s Treasure: A Study in Fifteenth Century Administration at St Bartholomew’s Hospital, London’, in The Fifteenth Century XIII, ed. Linda Clark (Woodbridge, 2014), 81-109
  • Anne Sutton, ‘Alice Domenyk-Markby-Shipley-Portaleyn of St Bartholomew’s Hospital Close and Isleworth: The Inheritance, Life and Tribulations of an Heiress’, The Ricardian 20 (2010), 23-65
See images of St Bartholomew's Hospital on the London Picture Archive