Travelling along Spitalfield Lane, you might expect to come across a hospital, as the word Spitel, in Old English, means ‘lands with a hospital’. The hospital referred to is the hospital of St James and Mary Magdalene.
On the corner of Spitalfield Lane and St Pancras there is a picture-postcard cottage in a modern housing development, which has a commemorative plaque on the wall with the following words:
“These are the sacred remains of St James’s Hospital which was founded in the reign of henry the first for the reception of persons afflicted with the leprosy.”
Part of the cottage dates back to 1118 when the leper hospital, ‘leprosarium’ or ‘lazaretto’ was founded. Queen Matilda, wife of King Henry I, is credited with establishing the hospital.
It was originally founded as a leprosarium for men but, as leprosy diminished, it became an alms-house for the sick poor. The hospital was well positioned for intercepting Pilgrims travelling from London to the shrine of St. Richard at Chichester Cathedral and relieving them of alms before reaching the suburbs.
Leprosy, or Hansen’s Disease, was a significant problem between the 11th-14th centuries, after which it declined. In the 13th century there were 200 leper hospitals in the UK with an average of 10 beds each. By the 18th-19th centuries, leprosy was confined to Scottish islands.
When the hospital was founded, leprosy was seen as a punishment for sins which might improve the sufferers’ subsequent chance of going straight to heaven.
The disease affects the face, hands, feet, eyes and nerves, causing loss of sensation. It is caused by a bacterium related to Mycobacterium tuberculosis, called Mycobacterium leprae. Nowadays, there are still more than 200,000 new cases recorded in the world each year and three million people live with disabilities because of leprosy.
In around 850BC, a Syrian General called Naaman was said to be cured of leprosy by bathing seven times in the River Jordan (2 Kings 5). The siting of the hospital of St James and Mary Magdalene next to the River Lavant allowed the patients to try this form of treatment.
A variety of other treatments were used, for example, earth from an anthill, water in which Christ had been washed, blood letting and drinking turtle blood. The hospital could offer sufficient food, clean surroundings, warmth and bed rest.
The hospital cemetery was rediscovered in 1947 during construction of houses in Swanfield Drive. The skeletal remains were removed for further examination, which failed to reveal signs of leprosy. The skeletons were reburied in the Litten Gardens on October 2,1947, and are marked with a memorial. In 1986, further burials were unearthed during archaeological monitoring of building works. Further development was stopped by Chichester District Council to allow the Chichester District Archaeological Unit to investigate.
More burials were discovered in 1993. Three hundred and eighty-four Medieval burial sites were excavated, including 319 (83 per cent) male and 51 (13.3 per cent) female, reflecting the early policy of the original foundation to admit only males. The original cemetery would have been twice as big and there may be another cemetery on the site where staff were buried separately from the chronically ill.
Leprosy is a chronic infection and commonly leads to bone changes which can be identified from skeletal remains. On this basis, at least 75 (19.5 per cent) had signs of leprosy.
One hundred children (27 per cent), mainly between one and seven years of age, were discovered. No children from Chichester had skeletal changes resulting from leprosy, possibly because, even if the children had the skin lesions, they did not have time to develop before they died. One had tuberculosis of the elbow and leg which might have been interpreted at the time as leprosy.
It is unclear why leprosy declined in England from the 13th century, becoming rare in the 15th century. Certainly, this was not due to the exclusion of lepers in hospitals. Infected patients would delay disclosing that they had leprosy before the signs were obvious, to avoid segregation from society.
The role of the patients in leprosaria was to pray for founders and benefactors and not to contain infection. Isolation was not enforced; patients could receive visitors and were allowed home.
Wealthy lepers frequently retired to their country houses. Those who misbehaved could be expelled back into the community.
The funds from St James and Mary Magdalene Hospital were finally transferred to the Dispensary for the Sick Poor, in Broyle Road in 1885, which in turn became the Royal West Sussex Hospital, a decision which would no doubt have pleased the founders of the 12th century leper hospital.
‘Lepers outside the gate’. Excavations at the cemetery of the Hospital of St James and St Mary Magdalene, Chichester, 1986-87 and 1993. Eds J Magilton, F Lee, A Boylston. Chichester Excavations 10 CBA Research Report 158, Council for British Archaeology 2008.
Compiled by Professor David Candy, volunteer at the Novium Museum