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Rushden Echo, 23rd February 1923, transcribed by Kay Collins
Vanished Chapel and Hospital of St James
Rushden’s Hospital for Lepers - Some Interesting Facts of Ancient History
By Dr Charles R Fisher

There is abundant historic proof that leper hospitals were usually dedicated to St James. Here are a few from numerous instances. A notable case is that of St James, Westminster. The Palace of St James is on or near the site of an ancient Leper House. The whole of St James’s Park was the garden belonging to the abbey of St Peter, the church of which is now known as Westminster Abbey. It was in this Abbey garden that the monks benevolently established a St James’s hospital for leper. Covent Garden was also a Westminster Abbey garden, the present word “Covent” being a corruption of “Convent”, hence the convent garden. All these lands were taken from the Abbey by Henry VIII., part being given to favourites, the rest kept for personal use—and now £200,000 is called for, for the most necessary restoration purposes, to preserve the Abbey Church. Comment is, surely, superfluous.

There is a St James’s End as part of Northampton. Our County Town had an important St James’s Abbey, fully officered from Abbot down, but this does not seem to have been, in any sense, a leper hospital. Canterbury, our first of ecclesiastical cities, had its leper hospital of St James.

The location of the Rushden hospital is more than a tradition, for record states that the Northern boundary of its land extended to Higham township, though the exact site of the building is unknown. It is a reasonable surmise, however, that it was located on the crest of the hill that is still known as Spital Hill. Even these facts were not given by the earlier local historians, a vague statem,ent only being recorded that it was situated in Higham Town. The 20th Century Victorian Counties History, even, makes no record of its locality, whilst Coles’s surmises are outside recorded fact. It was not until “Beta Kappa” gave the public some facts concerning the Rushden St James’s in a letter to the “Rushden Echo”, gleaned from the Court Rolls of Higham Ferrers, that this most interesting item of Rushden’s past history was made known.

The earliest historic statement made with regard to St James’s, that has been gleaned, is that recorded in Clay’s “The Hermits and Anchorites of England”, and is as follows:-

“Rushden Hermit at Chapel of St James, before 1190 Licenced by Peterborough Abbey name uncertain”, here meaning the name of the hermit.

This is an exact statement of fact, and this first record places the chapel or hospital in Rushden parish. Very possibly the hermit obtained his licence for the special purpose of ministering to the inmates of the hospital. It may be stated that the term “chapel” was often used to describe any place where daily service was held, if other that the main portion of the Parish Church. Here it would mean the part of the hospital used for Divine service.

As ecclesiastical rule dominated St James’s Hospital the Court Rolls probably did not fully record its happenings, but the assize roll for 1234-5 states that attempts were made to alienate certain lands from the lepers, but these were not upheld at Assize. Then, from 1314, the year when Bannockburn and Scotland were lost to the Second Edward, and on to the time of Henry VIII, quit rent is spoken of in the Court Rolls as having been remitted to the master of the Lepers.

A Vicar of Rushden, before 1230, was Master of St James’s Hospital; unfaithfully he endeavoured to convey some of its lands to his relatives, but did not meet with the success he hoped for, only that which he merited.

The earliest known record speaks of a “hermit” having been licenced to St James’s Chapel at Rushden. Towards the end of St James’s ecclesiastical existence, the Rev R M Sergeantson shows that the person in charge was called a “hermit”, for here Henry Pomfret, of Rushden, made a bequest to “the hermit of St James’s Chapel”, in 1537. In this case the word hermit refers to the fact that a single preiest officiated at St James’s and that its use as a leper hospital had probably ceased to exist. Leprosy was fast dying out at this time, thanks to healthier modes of communal life. About 1550, some three years after Henry VII’s death, the hospital was suppressed, or ceased to exist, as its usefulness had become a thing of the past, though Sely, the last Master, drew a pension until within a year of the Armada. In 1588, the Armada year, Queen Elizabeth gave the Spital lands to Edmund Downing and to Miles Dodding. This is quite in accord with that Tudor habit of giving so much of England away that did not belong to them, in exchange for servile support of their high-handed methods.

This short account of St James is by no means a full description. For this the interested reader must refer to the Higham Ferrers Court Rolls, so ably brought to modern access by the late rev R M Sergeantson. Yet, even so, one is tempted to take from that source the case of Gabriel Throckmorton, who was, in 1547, dismissed from his office of warden of St James’s, because of indiscretions where feminity was concerned. This is evidence at least that clerical propriety was called for at that time in our Rushden district. Perhaps “Bluff King Hal’s” methods, in dealing with ecclesiastical affairs, may have had its awakening effect upon authority in connection with such offenders.

Improved sanitation is the usual explanation for the disappearance of leprosy from England. Leprosy is a cutaneous malady, and such vegetables as turnips, carrots, parsnips, cabbages and celery, used as food, were powerful agencies in the eradication of the disease. With the coming of these vegetables into general use, the leper-bell ceased to ring, for lack of the face-covered leper to ring out such melancholy warning.

The following accounts from the Court Rolls are of special interest, if only because they help to fix the locality of St James’s Hospital. Among the very varied forms of nuisance that received the attention of the Rushden Court Leet, were a couple of convictions of considerable moment in their relationship to this hospital of St James. Both were represented at the Rushden Michaelmas Court, in 1439. One was an order for John Parys, junior, “to amend the Spital hedge which was growing as a nuisance to the king’s highway”, whilst in the second case William Chicheley was fined 2d. for “allowing a certain bridge near the hospital of St James to become a serious nuisance.” This offender was further ordered to repair the bridge within fifteen days under penalty of 12d.—evidently a bridge over the stream that forms the boundary between Higham and Rushden lordships is here meant.

These references to the land of St James fairly clearly locate the hospital land as running alongside the road on its western side, from Spital hill to the little stream at the bottom of the hill northward.

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