A history of Halesworth, Suffolk, UK, through the ages.


Volume 2



During the later medieval period, there were over six hundred hospitals in England, with sixteen or seventeen in Suffolk, and five locally at Sibton, Beccles, Orford and Dunwich. These hospitals accommodated the travellers, fed the poor, provided a roof over their heads for the aged, and they also took in the sick. At that time the idea of hygiene, medicine and surgery was in its infancy, and at some monasteries an infirmary was usually set up to serve the guests who were ill, as well and the monks themselves. The physicians of the time believed illness was due to badness in the blood, so they would cut a vein in order to 'bleed' the patient and let some of the bad blood out. It seems the monks quite looked forward to this experience, as they were allowed three days in the infirmary, getting up late, enjoying richer food than their usual diet, and getting plenty of freedom. This became such a problem that the Cistercians were allowed to be 'bled' only four times in a year, the Carthusians five times and the Austin Canons eight times a year.

But when the Crusaders went to the Holy Land to free Jerusalem they brought back with them the disease of leprosy, and although it had been known back in the 11th century, by the 13th century it had become a problem. Lepers were ordered to live by themselves because of the risk of infection, and laws were even passed to prevent lepers passing through some towns. The leper had to wear distinctive clothes and carry a wooden clapper which he or she would shake to make a noise and cry 'Unclean, Unclean' to warn passers-by of their condition. They were forbidden to walk without shoes, to wash in a stream, to enter a mill, tavern or bakehouse, and were not even allowed into a church. At Beccles there was an outside pulpit on a small balcony which the priest could enter from an inside stairway, and from this pulpit he would preach to the lepers who were not allowed in the church.

St.James' Hospital at Dunwich was founded late in the reign of Richard I and was intended for both lepers and for the poor and sick of the town. All that remains now is part of the Chapel built for the inmates. St. James' lost its last leper in 1536. The remains of St. James' Hospital lie at the rear of the more recent Church of St. James, which now serves the town of Dunwich. The other Hospital was The Maison Dieu (The House of God) which acted as more of an almshouse, serving the poor and mentally ill. It stood near the site of the café on the beach car-park and was still standing in 1690. Both hospitals had survived the Reformation and so continued to act for the poor and sick long afterwards, with St James' being closed in the nineteenth century and Maison Dieu sometime before that, but funds from both passing to the Dunwich Town Trust.

Also at Dunwich was a preceptory (House) of the Knights Templar whose function was to protect pilgrims venturing on the pilgrimages. The order was suppressed in 1308, after which their property was granted to the Knights Hospitallers who acted for the sick until the Reformation when their affairs were wound up in 1540.


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