Almost a thousand years ago the hospital of St Mary Magdalen lay near the northern crossing of the river Ure. Today all that survives is the Chapel, a building of great nterest and importance.
The Norman doorway on the south side dates the original building as 12th century although there have been many alterations since. Set into the north wall is a low, narrow window through which, according to tradition, lepers received the sacrament. Inside the chapel is divided by a fine oak 15th century screen, and a mosaic pavement stands before the original stone altar.
The hospital is said to have been founded by Archbishop Thurstan who instructed that there should be sisters and a priest to take services in the chapel. Food, clothing and shelter were to be provided to any leper born or living in ‘Ripshire’ and lepers coming from elsewhere were to be given food and a bed for a night. Blind priests, born within the Liberty of Ripon, were to be cared for and alms were to be given to the poor.
As the population increased the ministrations of the hospital were in much demand. This usefulness attracted further endowments of land and manors and the hospital grew in wealth and importance.
Naturally the position of Master became a valuable piece of patronage for the current Archbishop and open to abuse and theft: in one instance Archbishop Corbridge had to recover tithes belonging to the hospital which had been wrongly taken by one of the cathedral canons; pilgrims and mendicants were sent away empty handed; a blind chaplain had his benefits withdrawn and was forced to beg and, in 1352, the current Master declared he had demolished the leper house ‘which was ruinous’.
Many attempts at reform were undertaken but it was not until the end of the middle-ages that life in the hospital settled down. Leprosy was less common, travellers had other places to stay, and the number of inmates was small. Endowments became focused on chantries, (masses for the dead), and were often lavish, enabling church officials to enjoy a pleasurable lifestyle on the profits.
At the time of the Reformation ‘that wisest monk in Christendom,’ Abbot Marmaduke Bradley, was Master and the Valuation of the Church in 1535 noted there were two priests receiving £4 a year and five poor laymen ‘oppressed with age and disease,’ each receiving six shillings and eight pence. The Master had a house, garden and orchard worth £9 6s 8d and the revenue was £27 5s 6d.
In 1544 the hospital (and its associated buildings) became alms-houses and was able to survive the resulting Tudor, Stuart and Hanoverian religious upheavals and in 1820 the Charity Commissioners found a hospital ‘with apartments for six sisters and a chapel at a little distance on the opposite side of the street’. £20 15s was available annually for the sisters and a chaplain was given £1 per annum’ (which he felt was just enough to take the service on the patron saint’s day!). The Master received all the income which was thought to be around £464 a year, although this was difficult to determine as lands were leased under an archaic system.
In 1864 management was put in the hands of 15 trustees (to include the Bishop of Ripon and the Master). The Master was to have 3/20th of the revenue and the chaplain was to receive £60 per annum. The six alms-women were to have three shillings a week and the dilapidated houses and chapel were to be repaired.
Whilst the ancient chapel was structurally sound, the Rev George Mason (a trustee) gave £1200 to build a new Victorian church across the road for, although the chapel was strictly for the worship of the inmates, it had begun to attract a loyal local congregation.
The Marquis of Ripon rebuilt the alms-houses at his own expense ‘in consideration of an exchange of lands with the trustees.’ The inmates were ‘to attend all services unless sick, not absent themselves at night without the Master’s permission, and not to be given to insobriety, or immoral, insubordinate or unbecoming conduct.’
Six new alms-houses were built but the chapel was allowed to fall into decay – it had been given into the hands of a tenant farmer who used it as a pig-sty!!!