By Dan Shamaun

Canterbury is a city rich in history. Many of the buildings within the city walls have long and interesting stories to tell. The Eastbridge hospital and the accompanying Greyfriars Chapel were built and founded in c.1180. Though a hospital in the old sense of the word – a place of hospitality, it still tells a history of medical epidemics. The city was struck by the Black Death; on a longer time-scale, pilgrims with leprosy were continually arriving, and this hospital is a good prism through which to view that history. Though people with leprosy were not accepted by Eastbridge Hospital, medicine was administered to people who suffered from other illnesses. Although the Eastbridge Hospital does not share the grandeur of buildings in Bruge, Edinburgh and Seville, it has an extremely rich history. The architecture, though not stunning, is also very interesting and compelling.

Canterbury - Eastbridge Hospital of Saint Thomas the Martyr

Canterbury – Eastbridge Hospital of Saint Thomas the Martyr, by ABrocke. Image licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.

As soon as you see the front door you are looking at a piece of technological history. The door to the building is very low and has a large step down. This is because as the road has been improved since the twelfth century the ground level has risen. Once you walk in there is a great amount of history to be seen; which can be surprising considering the small size of the place.

When entering the building you are greeted by a very kind and elderly staff member. The hospital doubles as accommodation for the retired, some of which also work on the reception. There is an entry charge but it is very low, and is well worth it. As you enter you are directed to visit the Undercroft where there are a large number of plaques describing the history of the building.  Then you can go upstairs to the refectory where you can see the list of previous masters and some artwork which is impressive both because of its antiquity and its artistic merit. Past the refectory are the entrance to the accommodation and the chapel on the top floor. The chapel, though small, maintains the ability that all chapels have to reduce any person’s voice to a whisper.

It is important to appreciate the building for its history. When Thomas Becket was killed in Canterbury Cathedral by the knights of King Henry II, he became a martyr in the eyes of Europe’s Catholics. By 1172 people of all kinds, from the poor to Kings and Queens, were travelling to Canterbury in their hundreds. All these pilgrims needed a place to stay and multiple hospitals were founded in Canterbury (mostly in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries). Some catered to the wealthy, some to whoever could pay. The Eastbridge Hospital was the only hospital that took pilgrims in without charge; however, they did not accept sufferers of leprosy.

Pilgrims could stay at Eastbridge for one night if they were in good health but were allowed to stay for longer if they were sick. The pilgrims would stay in the Undercroft, a room typical of Britain’s older buildings. It has gothic arches, a low ceiling, and mould on the stone wall in the corner. Being a naturally curious historian, I was compelled to touch the mould and suffered immediate regret. It was much more moist to the touch than it looked and left a green mark on my finger for some time. It did however help me to understand some of the problems of upkeep that seem so prevalent in this building’s history. At times it feels quite possible to understand what it may have been like to stay in this room, but that is of course up to personal imagination and fantasy. It is very hard to believe that someone from the modern world could accurately put themselves into the shoes of a sick 12th century pilgrim.

The monks or friars would sometimes administer medicine to the sick people. Pilgrims would also come expecting healing miracles from the masters; roughly a hundred of which are recorded at the Eastbridge hospital. This was at times, very bad news for the masters themselves. As we know now leprosy is one of the least contagious infectious diseases. It was the Black Death that the masters (and other residents) of the Eastbridge Hospital needed to protect themselves from. The Black Death peaked in Europe around 1348-51. Sufferers of the Black Death came to visit the shrine to Thomas Becket in Canterbury. They would also meet and be touched by the master of Eastbridge hospital in hopes of a miracle cure. In doing this they would give the disease to the master himself.

A list of all the masters of the hospital can be seen on a large plaque in the refectory (which also contains a 13th century mural of Christ). At closer examination it can be seen that in each century there have been roughly seven or eight masters. In the fourteenth century however, there were fourteen masters. In the years 1349-51 alone there were a total of four masters as they kept contracting the Black Death from pilgrims. Masters tended to only last a few years if they were lucky around this time. This is one of the reasons that Eastbridge Hospital is an interesting historical prism through which to view the Black Death in Canterbury. It also helps to bring to contagious nature of the Black Death into understanding and shows that the Black Death affected different facets of society.

Depending on your personal preferences, you may want to visit Canterbury at different times of the year.  If you like peace and quiet in the evening you may want to visit in the summer when the weather is better and the city is more serene. Visiting during term-time will result in a more vibrant and lively atmosphere in the day time. This becomes very noticeable as the front door is open and the sound of people and buskers in the streets can be heard in the Undercroft. It has brilliant acoustics of a kind that can only be found in stone buildings.

Further information

For details on some of the architecture: Julian Munby, Margaret Sparks and Tim Tatton-Brown, 1983, “Crown-post and King-strut Roofs in South-East England” in Medieval Archaeology 27, pp. 123-135