The the floods of last month, forced me to take an alternative route to our local supermarket in Ripon. As I entered the city over the ancient North Bridge, I spotted a building that I had last visited many years ago, when I was a student taking a course in Medieval Monaticism at Leeds University – I just had to stop and re-visit this unique and largely overlooked window into the past.
Small, humble, relatively unchanged since the 15th century, the Medieval Leper Chapel gives a fascinating insight into the lives of the people who lived hereabouts so many centuries ago. Located on the northern edge of the city near the river Ure, the chapel contrasts sharply with the magnificent Ripon cathedral – which is only a ten minute walk away. It is a very simple rectangular structure, built in lime-stone with a Norman entrance dating back to the 12th century, a large Perpendicular window and a bell turret. Inside there is an original Norman baptismal font (found in a local field), a 15th century oak choir screen, a Leper window that allowed Lepers to attend Mass from the outside and receive communion through it; the original Norman alter and some Roman mosaic flooring – thought to have come from a Roman villa in Ripon.
The chapel was part of the Hospital of St Mary Magdalen founded by Archbishop Thurstan of York around AD 1115. He provided funds for a priest to say Mass and nuns to give food, clothing and shelter to any leper born or living in ‘Ripshire.’ This horrible disease was probably brought here by Crusaders returning from the Holy Land. The hospital was also instructed to give food and a bed for the night to lepers from outside of Ripon; alms to the poor and care for blind priests born within the Ripon’s precincts. The name ‘Leper Chapel is somewhat misleading: the hospital had a remit to look after lepers, but in all liklihood they were actually cared for in a seperate building, which has now vanished. This plain little chapel is all that remains of the original hospital. Some time in the mid 1300s the seperate leper house was torn down because there were so few inmates (leprosy had almost died out) and the hospital was serving the sick and destitute of Ripon.
Later archbishops provided funds for monks as well as nuns, and a Master to be in charge. The hospital attracted gifts of land and endowments – the position of Master became very desirable and led to corruption – some Masters pocketed donations and turned away supplicants at the gates. Under the Tudors, the Master was living in a comfortable private house surrounded by gardens and orchards.
When Henry VIII supressed the monasteries, the hospital was converted to almshouses, these survived for the next three centuries. The position of Master continued to be regarded as a highly desirable sinecure – with a good income and duties that could be shuffled off to a chaplain. There were some famous names who held the post of Master – Dr. John Williams, Cromwell’s brother-in-law – who was co-founder of the Royal Society and in the 18th century, Heneage Dering – said to be the richest cleric in England. In 1820 the hospital was reorganised and came under the administration of the Bishop of Ripon. The chapel began to attract a large local congregation so the Marquis of Ripon stepped in and rebuilt the almshouses and a new church across the road. The little chapel was allowed to decay – a local farmer used it as a pig-sty. Thankfully it was rescured from the pigs and restored – still consecrated, the chapel today holds regular services. I spent a happy hour re-living my student days and being reminded of the history that exists on my doorstep.