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There are several references to a 'leper house at Hungerford' in the late 12th and early 13th century. Most notably, a Patent Roll of 1232 includes letters of protection from King Henry III to the 'leprous sisters' of the church of St. Lawrence in Hungerford, and conferred not only pledges of 'protection' against molestation, damage or harm to the institution, but also contained a clause urging financial support to be given to it - recommendatory permission to seek alms for their house sine termino. (Pat 16 Hen. III m.1.).
It is not possible to be certain about about the position of the leper house, but much evidence points to it being associated with The Priory of St. John the Baptist on the island that is now Bridge Street.
There are no firm references to the leper house by name after the early 13th century, perhaps because there were fewer victims of this serious illness.
What was leprosy?
Leprosy was prevalent in England in the last half of the 12th century; and in the 13th and 14th centuries there were said to be about 200 leper houses. After this the disease declined and only relatively isolated cases seem to have occurred. Originally attributed to infection which occurred during the crusades, the disease is now thought to have been due to dietary inadequacies . Burial entries in the Hungerford Parish Register almost certainly refer to its continued, though isolated, existence:
- 1589 John Drewe, ‘a poor boy that rotted away as he lay’;
- 1599 Edith Sandie who languished of the great disease 13 or 14 years which had eaten through her body ’.
The horrific effects of this disease, for which there was no cure known at the time, caused waves both of compassion and revulsion. Urged on by church and crown, wealthy patrons founded leper houses or hospitals in their own localities. Thus William Longespée, Earl of Salisbury (from 1198-1226) and lord of Avington and Denford amongst his other possessions, founded three such hospitals in Wiltshire, at Maiden Bradley, Wilton and Salisbury.
We do not know who was the founder of the leper house at Hungerford; but it is interesting that Robert Beaumont, 2nd Earl of Leicester (from 1168- 1190), was nicknamed Blanchmains (‘white hands’) and because of this nickname is thought to have been a victim of leprosy . As Earl of Leicester he held amongst his many lands the lordship of Hungerford and it would seem most likely that the foundation of a leper house at Hungerford was due to him.
Where was the leper house in Hungeford?
The traditional site of a leper house was at the town’s end, and this location was probably based not only on a fear of infection but also on the Levitical precept that the leper should dwell ‘without the camp’, that is to say, without the town limits . The Lateran Council of 1179 issued an instruction (confirmed in Westminster in 1200) that a leper should not mix with others, share their church or be buried with them. Those contracting leprosy were expected to remove themselves from the society of their fellow men and, both to encourage this and mitigate the effects of the disease, leper houses or hospices were provided by and attached to religious institutions.
The leper house was in effect a specialised religious foundation, its inmates consisting of ‘brothers or sisters’; with their own chapel, its own administrator or ‘prior’, a priest, and accommodation on average for about 10 lepers. Indeed, some of the smaller hospitals were little more than chantry chapels with an annexe for lepers.
There are several references to a ‘leper house at Hungerford’ in the late 12th and early 13th century. Of these the most significant, though not the earliest, is that in a Patent Roll of 1232 which contains letters of protection from King Henry III to the ‘leprous sisters‘ of the church of St. Lawrence in Hungerford. These royal letters patent were not only pledges of ‘protection’ against molestation, damage or harm to the institution, but also contained a clause urging financial support to be given to it .
Men and women lepers were usually segregated into separate fraternities and sororities . That this was so in Hungerford is indicated by the 1232 reference to the ‘leprous sisters‘. The other references to the leper house may be to a similar house for males.
Some of the smaller hospices were little more than an outside annexe to chantry chapels.
The site of the leper house in Hungerford is frequently mentioned in early 13th century documents. A Close Roll in 1228 describes the area of Savernake Forest as ‘an ancient forest except the woods and lands on the north side of the King’s Highway which runs from the Leper House of Hungerford towards Marlborough via the well of William le Putetal on the same highway ’.
Records of the forest bounds or perambulations as they were called, enable us to place the existence of the Hungerford leper house even earlier than this, however. When some centuries later King Richard III asked for an account of the bounds of Savernake Forest ‘before the perambulations of Henry III’, he was told that the bounds were said to have begun in those days ‘from the bridge of Elescote outside Marlborough ..... and so to the well at the west of Puttehalle, and so by the bottom of the valley to Puttehalle, and so by the highway to Hungerford to the house of lepers there ’.
An even earlier document at the Public Record Office gives among the perambulations of Savernake Forest in 1199 the bounds of that portion of it known as la Verne . These include a stretch which ran ‘to the Marlborough road, to Puttehalle (Puthall), and from Puttehalle by the road leading to the house of lepers at Hungerford, and so up the water which comes from the Bedwin’ and so on.
All these references have clearly stated that the leper house was outside the town of Hungerford and on the highway between Hungerford and Marlborough. We have other references besides the forest perambulations to ‘the great road which goes from Marlborough to Hungerford’, as it is described in a Charter Roll of 1216 , and we have a 13th century deed which describes certain lands in Froxfield as ‘adjoining the highway from Hungerford to Marlborough ’. A modern resident of Hungerford may therefore be tempted to visualise its location as on the A4, perhaps in Charnham Street which, he will know, was not part of the vill of Hungerford in those days. This is to assume that the modern A4 Hungerford to Marlborough road is the same as ‘the king’s highway’ mentioned in those early forest perambulations.
Before we assume this, however, we should consider an alternative route from Hungerford to Marlborough which is revealed by references in a 1513 terrier of the lands of the rectory of Hungerford . In this terrier there are three distinct references to ‘the king’s highway leading to Marlborough’. These references are in the context of lands situated respectively in or alongside Home Field, Westbrooks, and Middle Field. The location of these fields  and the description of the landholdings given in the terrier all point to the road which ran then, and runs today, from Church Street (to use its modern name) via Smitham Bridge and past North Standen Farm. At some point beyond this it must have crossed the river and then passed through Froxfield. In so doing it would link with the Marlborough - Hungerford road referred to in the early perambulations.
There is, however, reference to the leper house in one further perambuation which makes this alternative route less likely and the prototype A4 route very much more likely. An article in the Wilts Archaeological Society magazine  on the Meets and Bounds of Savernake Forest quotes a late 12th century perambulation of Hippenscombe bailiwick. According to this, about 1 mile north of Shalborne the bounds crossed the river Shalborne at what is later known as Six Acres Lane and continued down the stream ‘which flows under a bridge called Smythford outside Hungerford, and so from Smythford to the house of lepers of Hungerford, going down by the water; and so from the house of lepers as the water called Kennet flows to Cherleford Mill’. Smythford Bridge is either a mistranscription or a variant name for Smitham Bridge, which is about 3 furlongs above the present junction of the Shalborne and ‘the stream from Bedwyn‘ or as it is known today the Dun. It is this junction which enabled the bounds to follow the water down to the house of lepers. Whilst other perambulations quoted have shown the leper house to have been on the Hungerford to Marlborough road, this account shows it to have been also alongside the river.
Nowadays the Dun does not join the Kennet until just below Denford, but from Eddington onwards the two rivers are so close that only Bell Mead and then the narrow strip of Woodmarsh lies between them, and interlocking channels are numerous. Charlford, where there was once a mill and a weir, was another 2 miles downstream from Denford, just north of the present Home Farm .
In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries the maze of water channels, marsh and islands in this area would be even more extensive than now when both modern irrigation and the cutting of the Kennet and Avon canal have distorted the course of pre-existent streams. This maze of water channels etc., could well have resulted in the name Kennet being applied to all the waterways downstream beyond Eddington bridge in earlier times. The name Dun is a late usage.
If we seek a site for the leper house, then it must lie not only on the Hungerford - Marlborough road but also somewhere along the river below Smitham bridge; it must also have been at an extremity of the town. One site which fulfils all of these requirements is the site of the former hospital of St. John which was located almost exactly on the spot in Bridge Street where today a bridge crosses two branches of the Dun, at the rear of the Bear Inn in Charnham Street.
When was the leper house founded?
The date of the foundation of the hospital of St. John is, like that of the leper house, unknown, but in May 1232 the king issued it with letters of protection . Six months later, on 25th October, the king, issued two simultaneous letters of protection, one for Richard ‘chaplain of St. John’ and the other for the ‘leprous sisters’ of the church of St. Lawrence already quoted .
Who ran the leper house?
Both the hospital of St. John and the parish church of St. Lawrence were administered by the Abbey of Bec and it was the Abbey which presented its nominee to the vicarage of Hungerford as well as the chaplaincy of St. John’s . Sometimes the two posts were occupied by the same man; and since there was a vicar, named Richard, during the period 1220-1238  it seems likely that this was the case in 1232.
There was clearly a close connection between the hospital for the leprous sisters and the church of St. Lawrence and equally between the hospital of St. John and the vicar. It seems reasonable therefore to suppose that the leper house was, or was an annexe to, or became, the hospital of St. John, later called the priory.
When did the leper house close?
It is probable that the need for a leper hospital as such died out in Hungerford quite early, for I have been unable to find any further references to the leper house later than the early thirteenth century references already quoted (that for King Richard III, it must be remembered, was merely quoting the ancient bounds of the forest and does not imply that the leper house was still in existence). There is a reference in 1274 to a grant of free warren (hunting rights) to the Bishop of Salisbury, extending from ‘a house of lepers outside Marlborough to Hungerford bridge’, but it is presumed that this refers to a similar institution on the outskirts of Marlborough rather than on the outskirts of Hungerford on the Marlborough road . The absence of further references may well mean that the disease had ceased to claim more than perhaps an occasional casualty who could be taken care of in the hospital of St. John or one of its adjacent tenements where the work of caring for these unfortunates could be subsumed within the hospital’s other services.
1 P. Richards, The Medieval Leper (1977)
2 Hungerford Parish Register 1559-1619, transcript: Norman & Joyce Hidden
3 V.C.H. Berks. iv, 187
4 Leviticus ch.13 v.46
5 Calendar Patent Rolls (1225-32) p.507
6 P. Richards, op.cit.
7 Close Rolls, Wilts. 12 Henry III
8 Calendar Patent Rolls 2 Richard III
9 P.R.O.: E146/2/22
10 Record Commission: Rot.Chart. Vol.64 p.218
11 P.R.O.: C146/2645
12 St. George’s, Windsor: XV.31.61
13 see J. Roque, survey map of Berks, 1761
14 Wilts. Arch. Soc. Magazine vol.XLIX, p.401
15 ibid. P.402
16 Calendar Patent Rolls (1225-32) p.475
17 ibid. p.507
18 Marjorie Morgan, The English Lands of the Abbey of Bec.
19 British Museum, Harleian ms.50.I.46
20 Hundred Rolls for Wilts, vol.ii, p.260
- "The Leper House at Hungerford" in "Aspects of the early History of Hungerford", Norman Hidden, 2009.