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A Medieval Almshouse–with a Hidden Treasure

Sherborne is a pretty little town with a ruined castle, interesting buildings including, an abbey, and a medieval almshouse. All are well worth a visit but the 15th century almshouse is of particular note as it is still in use in its original function. As the buildings are  residential, the Almshouse is not generally open to the public but the chapel  and adjacent room can be viewed on certain summer afternoons for a small fee (although due to the current pandemic it may be a long time before it opens to the public  again.)

The Almshouse first began as a House of Mercy in 1406, but what we see today is  from the New Foundation of 1437, where a house was built to Saint John the Baptist and Saint John the Evangelist. A licence was obtained from King Henry VI with the assistance of Robert Neville, Bishop  of Salisbury (a brother of Cecily Neville, mother to Edward IV and Richard III.) Robert owned the manor of Sherborne at the time, hence his  interest in the charitable project.

The licence granted by Henry gave the House the rights to hold the property, and permission for the use of a seal for an almshouse containing ‘poor, feeble and impotent’ men and women. To assist these aged tenants‘ needs was chaplain and a housewife‘ were obtained. A prior was appointed from the  residents too oversee the running of the house. The cleaning lady was paid  quarterly and got a new gown and hood thrown into the bargain every year. The tenants themselves received white, woolen, hooded gowns and food to the cost of ten shillings served twice a day–‘reasonable drinking’ was also permitted in the evenings! If times were hard, however, the residents were initially allowed to beg out in the town streets, although later this practice was forbidden.

A facsimile of the Almshouse  licence  hangs on a  wall inside the inside the building. Written in English, it is sealed by Robert Neville, Humphrey Strafford of Hooke, and others donors who gave sumptuous gifts, including a local lady called Margaret Goffe who gifted the Julian Inn. Below the facsimile lies the house’s original money coffer with its five sturdy locks–all five key-holders had to gather in order to open the chest, so there was no chance of anyone with light fingers dipping into the community’s funds!

During the Reformation, the little house‘s existence was threatened since it  was deemed  a place  used for ‘superstitious’ rites. However, in the end it was not destroyed or sold off due to it being a charity run by lay persons.

 What is particularly interesting about the Almshouse is its ‘little secret’, hidden from the later Tudor era right down to modern times. Secreted  away in one of the rooms was a stunning medieval triptych painting crafted in around 1480. Due to having been folded up and kept in a dark place, it has retained its medieval colours in full glorious vibrancy. Lazarus  rises from the dead; a sinister Satan is cast out of a dumb man; the son of the widow of Nain and the daughter of Jairus rise again, and Bartimaeus is healed of his ills.

The Triptych  is now restored to a position of prominence in the little chapel, overlooking by 15thc stained glass depicting the Virgin and Child, John the Baptist and John the Evangelist.

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