By Susannah Gibson
Address: Newmarket Road, Cambridge (at the Barnwell Junction)
To arrange a visit, contact Janet Cornish on 01223-243830
The Leper Chapel (or, the Chapel of Saint Mary Magdalene, to give it its proper name) is one of the oldest surviving buildings in Cambridge. It is thought to have been built around 1125 and is the only remaining structure of a leprosy hospital that once stood just outside this fenland market town. It was common at that time to build such hospitals on a main road on the outskirts of a town; this allowed for isolation, but also gave the lepers a source of income as they could beg reasonably profitably along the road (in this case, the main road between Cambridge and Bury St. Edmunds). Although the chapel retains its evocative name, the leprosy hospital ceased to admit new patients after 1279 and most of the residents moved to a colony outside nearby Ely.
The chapel is most famously associated with Stourbridge Fair – the largest medieval fair in Europe. Permission for the fair had been granted by King John in 1199 so that the lepers might supplement the income they received from begging and farming. It took place every September on Stourbridge Common, which runs between the chapel and the nearby River Cam, and attracted merchants from all over England and Europe. The fair died out in the 1930s, but has recently been revived by Cambridge Past Present & Future which owns and maintains the site.
The chapel, tiny and intimate, was originally built in Romanesque style. Due to re-building work from the 13th century onwards, the present chapel contains remnants of several different architectural styles, but it is still possible to see many of the original features of the chapel, especially along the east wall. During the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, the chapel was rarely used for religious services instead it was used variously as a shed, a store and a pub for Stourbridge Fair. Early in the 19th century, the chapel was bought and restored by Thomas Kerrich who then gave it to the University of Cambridge. In 1951, the chapel passed into the hands of the Cambridge Preservation Society (now Cambridge Past Present & Future) and is currently used as a place of worship and a centre for the arts.