Anglo-Saxon Leper Hospital discovered in Winchester

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 The University of Winchester’s archaeological excavations at St Mary Magdalen, on the outskirts of Winchester, have revealed evidence for what may be Britain’s earliest known hospital. Recent radio carbon analysis at the former Leper Hospital has provided a date range of AD 960-1030 for a series of burials, many exhibiting evidence of leprosy, on the site. A number of artefacts, pits, postholes also relate to this phase including what appears to be a large sunken structure underneath the medieval infirmary as well as evidence for an earlier building, now thought to be an Anglo-Saxon chapel.

“This is an important archaeological development,” said Dr Simon Roffey who has been directing the excavations with his colleague Dr Phil Marter. “Historically, it has always been assumed that hospitals were a post-conquest phenomena, the majority founded from the late 11th century onwards. However our excavations have revealed a range of buildings and, more significantly, convincing evidence for a foundation in the 10th century.

The discovery may redefine history and could suggest that the hospital was designed as a ‘blueprint’ model in a period that witnessed widespread religious reform with England’s capital, Winchester, and its bishop, Aethelwold, at its heart.

“This was a reform that included the enclosure of monastic spaces in the city and the tighter regulation of religious life,” explained Dr Roffey. “It is possible that such changes also led to the foundation and enclosure of a religious community of lepers, or the foundation of a monastic hospital on the outskirts of the city. If so, the hospital could reflect a more altruistic and outward-looking aspect of national monastic reform.

“Our excavations at St Mary Magdalen offer an intriguing insight into a little known aspect of the history of both Winchester and England. It is undoubtedly a site of national importance.”

According to the official report on the find, the site is first referred to as a community of lepers in the twelfth-century Winton Domesday and it was likely (re)founded by Henry de Blois, Bishop of Winchester (1129-71), as a leper hospital sometime around 1148. It was still functioning, to some extent, as a leprosaria during the fourteenth century, as it is referred to as such in the Bishop’s Register of 1325. By the mid-fourteenth century the hospital was reported as being ‘slenderly endowed’.

“I have only studied the documentary evidence but I could not find any such evidence for a hospital before 1066 except perhaps as an activity within a monastery or minster,” said Professor Nicholas Orme, a leading historian and one of the foremost researchers and writers on medieval hospitals. “A late Anglo-Saxon hospital would surely be a ‘first’ for archaeology and indeed for history.”

Click here to read the archaeological report

Source: University of Winchester

Sharan Newman