Just over St Catherine’s Hill, beyond the River Itchen traffic flashes by bound for who knows where on the noisome, noisy M3, but less than a mile away it’s barely audible. Indeed, all that motorised mayhem seems a very long way from the gently ordered serenity of the Hospital of St Cross and Almshouse of Noble Poverty.
Founded in 1132 (probably), it is widely considered to be Britain’s oldest charitable institution and continues to provide accommodation for those in need. It was originally decreed that it should also feed up to one hundred poor people a day and although the site of the Hundred Men’s Hall where they once dined is now in use as a volunteer-run tea room, time was when travellers like those on the move just over the hill might well have stopped to rest and perhaps partake of the Wayfarer’s Dole – a horn of beer and a scrap of bread.
Ask at the Porter’s Lodge and you shall still receive it today for the Hospital of St Cross remains a place of welcome, of shelter. Calm comes as standard, peace is the default setting. Visitors noticeably relax on entering the medieval inner quadrangle with the Tudor cloister to the left and the distinctive medieval almshouse to the right where the resident Brothers in their gowns and hats of black or claret appear not in the least incongruous. It is, after all, their home.
‘I am intensely aware of the history here… I feel quite ancient too!’ laughs Brother John Hodges. He’s the Senior Brother, an unavoidable product of having lived here for 28 years, longer than any of his brethren. A former primary school teacher he’s 88 years old and as lively as his spirit and flesh will permit.
‘I’m not the oldest here and I didn’t want to be Senior Brother but if it comes your way there’s no dodging it. Not that it’s not an onerous position, but I’m no good on computers you see and I was worried I wouldn’t be able to do all the little notes and letters on the computer like my predecessor had done. I was told what every Senior Brother has been told – just be the Senior Brother you want to be.’
In the 1950s and 1960s John used to bring his pupils as well as his own children to the hospital. He felt in tune with the place so, following a career move to Cornwall that resulted in the break up of his marriage, when he returned to Winchester to retire and found he couldn’t afford a property he applied to the hospital and in 1988 was admitted as a Brother.
He’s a Brother of St Cross, the original foundation, and wears a black gown, black trencher hat and a silver Cross of Jerusalem, possibly from the crusading Knights Hospitaller who administered the hospital in the 12th century. Brethren of the Order of Noble Poverty, founded in 1445 by Cardinal Henry Beaufort for noblemen who had fallen on hard times, wear claret gowns and hats and a silver Cardinal’s badge.
‘They’re the ones who had it then lost it, whereas we’re the ones who never had it in the first place,’ offers John by way of explanation.
The hospital has warden-assisted accommodation for up to 25 Brothers in self-contained apartments built on Beaufort’s orders after his death in 1447. Each is typically let unfurnished and has its own sitting room, bedroom, kitchen, shower/wet room and separate WC. All Brothers pay a standard charge for heating and lighting – currently £45 a month – and those who have financial resources make a contribution based on their means and the technical rent value of their quarters. At the time of writing the hospital is full but there is no waiting list for vacancies.
‘Now that seems a terrible shame,’ says John, ‘but you see the thing is when I speak to visitors that come here to enjoy the beautiful gardens and these fine buildings I find that nearly all of them are on organised trips or have come from out of the area. There are one or two local people that come for the coffee and home-made cake, which are very good, but it would appear that many local people simply don’t know about us – or what they think they know is wrong.’
Brothers must be single, of retirement age and able to live independently as the hospital is not a nursing home. They are obliged to attend a matins service for 20 minutes every morning in the Church of St Cross, which is the hospital’s private chapel but unusually also serves as the parish church of St Faith’s. Otherwise they come and go as they please.
‘I used to walk to Winchester two or three times a week to meet friends, but it’s a bit much for me now so I take the bus,’ says John. ‘The hospital and gardens are open to the public most days but we also have personal visitors and there’s a guest flat if any want to stay – they can’t sleep overnight in the flats.’
As part of John’s role as Senior Brother is to interview prospective candidates and to guide new brethren through the admission process he’s quick to point out the way of life may not suit everyone.
‘This is a community and to be successful it needs everyone to contribute. For instance there’s no use grumbling that you can’t make friends if you’re not willing to make an effort to talk to people. It’s true that there is a structure of a sort, but in practice it’s quite flexible – for instance I’ve known a Roman Catholic brother who did his own thing on Sundays and going way back when they admitted married couples there was a husband and wife who were United Reformed Church.
‘They stopped admitting couples a long time ago as the two orders were both founded for men, so when wives became widows the hospital had to find them accommodation elsewhere. But I’ve got to say there’s a lovely atmosphere at present and a real camaraderie among us, it’s probably the best band of Brothers I’ve ever known.’
The story goes that Henri de Blois, papal legate, Bishop of Winchester, grandson of William the Conqueror and younger brother of King Stephen, founded the hospital after being stopped when out walking and begged for help by a milkmaid and her child on behalf of the starving villagers. Reminded of the Madonna and Child, Henri’s response was to build the hospital in the name of the Holy Cross on the site of an earlier religious house destroyed by the Danes.
He appointed a Master to manage the enterprise and having survived all manner of fiscal skulduggery in the Middle Ages the position still stands – the name of the incumbent Revd Reg Sweet being added to the role of honour in the church when he took up the post in 1999. A memorial stone to an earlier Master, William Lewis, in the pavement of the chancel records his two terms of office – he was appointed in 1627 but replaced by future regicide John Lisle in 1644 only to be returned to the post in 1660 upon the Restoration of Charles II.
‘We’re not a monastic order, we’re a charitable institution for the relief of the poor so that quite suited the Puritans I think and we also managed to survive the Reformation under Henry VIII, although putting an English Bible on display no doubt helped.’
In fact, Henry ordered the brethren to pray for the health of his queen, Anne Boleyn, in September 1535 only to execute her the following spring. Ironically, almost 500 years later, scenes showing Anne Boleyn at archery practice in the BBC adaptation of Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel’s Booker Prize winning novel of the period, were filmed in the hospital’s beautifully appointed gardens.
As a veteran of countless guided tours for visitors John needs little encouragement to revel in Hospital history. In the chapel he points out ornate Elizabethan graffiti in the Red Brothers’ stalls on the upper north side of the choir: ‘It wasn’t that the services were tedious,’ he explains, ‘but this was previously the top of a dining table carved by the Brothers as they waited for food. If you look closely you can see a little highwayman holding up a carriage.’
It transpires there’s no truth in the persistent local tale that the carved oak lectern was sawn in two and buried to prevent it falling into Puritan hands. The lectern – depicting a parrot’s head on an eagle’s body to remind us the word of the Lord should not be recited parrot fashion – in fact dates from the late 19th century and was probably delivered, if not flat-packed, then in at least two parts.
Also in the church, a cross on a column in the north aisle is angled so that sunlight from the nearest window only falls on it on 3 May (the day of the Invention of the Cross in the traditional Church calendar) and 14 September (Holy Cross Day).
‘The Hospital of St Cross has been here for almost 900 years and its history is remarkable, but there’s room for all sorts of mischief and stories to be made up – I think we’re allowed a few quirks,’ smiles John, mischievously.
Hospital of St Cross and Almshouse of Noble Poverty
St Cross Road, Winchester, SO23 9SD
Open: Mon-Sat: 9.30 – 5.00, Sun: 1.00 – 5.00 (until 31 October, Mon-Sat: 10.30-3.30 from 1 November until 31 March)
For information about becoming a Brother or to request an application form please call 01962 878218.