This is possibly the oldest group of almshouses in England as it was founded by the first Norman Archbishop of Canterbury, Lanfranc, in about 1085. It was originally built for around 80 inmates, drawn from the lame, the weak and the infirm, who would have been cared for by the priests from the nearby priory of St Gregory the Great, no longer existing.
The splendid gatehouse fronting Northgate dates from Tudor times (images 1 and 2) and inside, the charming green is surrounded by four 19th century houses accommodating 24 residents (image 3).
It is an island of peace for the retired residents. There is also a chapel, parts of which date from the 12th and 15th centuries (image 4). This was built of flint, stone and brick; it is still used for worship twice a week. Also fronting the green is the original Tudor kitchen now used as a lounge and above is the Tudor refectory. At the far end of the site are the remains of the original hospital, mostly as standing flint walls with Norman semi-circular arches (image 5), but also the toilets, restored but no longer used. These very first buildings erected in the 11th century were damaged by fire three centuries later and abandoned but for the toilets and nothing is known of the replacement buildings until the Tudor period.
The Reformation in the 16th century left the hospital intact but the priory over the road did not survive and was dissolved so there were no priests to minister to the inmates.
What to see:
- The seven sided turret staircase with blocked up slit windows (image 6)
- The refectory has collections of pewter plates as well as wooden trenchers that would have been used by the residents in times past (image 7). The three medieval chests (image 8) as well as the ancient trestle tables and all add to the wonderful medieval atmosphere (image 9)
- The ‘oldest toilet in England’ was built in Norman times and was probably used for 800 years. There are several seats including one for ladies but it is in the same room as those for the gentlemen!
Access: restricted, application may be made to the Bursar (01227 781757)
Sources: Cantacuzino (1970); Hill (2004)