A residence of the Bishop of Lincoln converted into an almshouse offers a unique insight into the realities of grand domestic life in England in 1500, as John Goodall explains.

By a deed dated November 6, 1600, Sir Thomas Cecil, Lord Burghley (and later 1st Earl of Exeter), founded an almshouse called the Jesus Hospital at Lyddington. The new institution, governed by a warden, was to support a community of 12 poor men and two women in perpetuity. According to its regulations or ‘Ordynaunces’, issued in March 1601, the community members were to be selected by their patron from among those of good character.

The men and women had to be over the ages of 30 or 45 respectively and were to receive small weekly allowances of money and fuel besides a livery of blue gowns and black caps. They were to occupy themselves appropriately during the day and observe a regular regimen of prayer, including all baptisms and funerals in the parish church.

The English nobility had been founding almshouses constituted in broadly the terms of the Jesus Hospital since the early 15th century. These institutions characteristically accommodated communities of symbolic size — in this case, 12 being the number of the Apostles — and were governed by a master or warden according to written statutes. The Reformation had caused an almost complete cessation of such foundations, but in the early 17th century, there is apparent a remarkable resurgence of interest in institutions of this kind. Where the Jesus Hospital strikingly differs from its peers, however, is the way in which it was accommodated.

Most hospital foundations were provided with purpose-built premises, usually a courtyard of small houses with a hall and an attached chapel. These could be ambitiously conceived, as in the case of the Hospital of the Blessed Trinity founded in 1619 by George Abbot, Archbishop of Canterbury, at his birthplace of Guildford, Surrey (Country Life, May 20, 2015). However, at Lyddington, the new foundation was given the remains of a former residence — popularly entitled a ‘palace’ — of the Bishops of Lincoln that had been surrendered to the Crown in 1547.

Lyddington: The imposing parish church and the palace range

Lyddington: The imposing parish church and the palace range

By 1600, it is likely that this once-prized, medieval residence was a shadow of its former self. There is no clear evidence of how it had been used since the Bishops had been forced to relinquish it, but the likelihood is that the whole had already been greatly reduced in architectural terms. In particular, the great hall, formerly the entrance and centrepiece of the building, had almost certainly been demolished.

What did survive, however, was a long, two-storey range that accommodated, on its first floor, the Bishop’s withdrawing chambers. These were the rooms to which he retired either with select company or to be by himself.

Accordingly, this range was now adapted at a minimum of cost to accommodate the community of almsfolk. The principal rooms at first-floor level were luxuriously appointed and the largest — the great chamber, intended for the formal reception of the Bishop’s visitors — became, without any material alteration, the hospital hall.

The extravagant decoration must have seemed extremely dated, but it was functional and the poor did not require fashionable rooms to live in. The trestles and tables installed for their use, not to mention a lectern for a copy of the Bible and a common chest, are all almost incongruously rugged by comparison.

To contrive the necessary number of chambers for the almsmen, the ground-floor rooms of the range were fragmented to create a series of tiny cells, each warmed by its own fireplace. The new fires required the construction of a small forest of new chimneys within the range.

These alterations aside, however, the changes of 1600–2 effectively preserved the withdrawing chambers they cannibalised. They are today the most complete set of medieval domestic apartments to survive in England. Nowhere can you come so close to an impression of life on the grand scale of about 1500.

Lyddington: The Bishop’s inner chamber, probably his bedroom.

Lyddington: The Bishop’s inner chamber, probably his bedroom.

The Bishops of Lincoln had interests in Lyddington from the late 11th century, although it is not clear exactly when they came into possession of the manor (which was first confirmed as being in their ownership in 1126). From the same period, they exercised authority over a huge see that extended from the eastern seaboard of Lincolnshire right down to Oxfordshire. Across this vast territory, there emerged a network of residences that they used for business or pleasure.

Lyddington stood in an area celebrated for its hunting, close to the Forest of Rockingham, which might explain why it quickly became a favoured resting place. A lodge or residence, enclosed by a broad ditch, was certainly in existence from the early 13th century and, in 1227, the Bishop was given permission to construct a deer leap here, clear evidence for a park on the site. This stood in the north-west corner of the parish and was originally hedged and fenced around. In 1262–3, an unfortunate Robert was hanged for the theft of ham from the Bishop’s larder at Lyddington.

The manor grew further in importance during the reign of Bishop Henry Burghersh. He received permission to bring more land at Lyddington under cultivation in 1329 and enlarged the park by 60 acres, encircling the whole with a stone wall. Then, on November 16, 1336, he received a licence to battlement his residence at Lyddington (along with his dwellings at Stow St Mary and Nettleham, Lincolnshire). This licence indicates that Lyddington was now a residence of sufficient architectural pretension to be ornamented with the trappings of fortification like a castle.

He also constructed nearby fishponds, a valuable source of fresh food, and possibly also constructed the parish church on its present site immediately beside it.

Archaeological excavation of the site in 1976 and 1980 has provided some evidence about the medieval development of the residence. Latterly, it was enclosed by walled gardens and a small gazebo from these still survives overlooking the main village street.

From the first, the principal buildings in the complex were laid out on a T-shaped plan with a great hall set at right angles to the surviving range of withdrawing apartments. The hall, first built in the 12th or 13th century, was reconstructed on a greatly enlarged plan in the 14th century, probably by Bishop Burghersh in the 1330s. Fragments of ornamental green-glazed cresting tiles from its roof have been discovered as has an internal area of green and yellow tiles laid in a chequerboard pattern.

Lyddington: A detail of the richly carved cornice that survives in the two rooms. Note the remaining traces of colour.

Lyddington: A detail of the richly carved cornice that survives in the two rooms. Note the remaining traces of colour.

The present withdrawing range is a vastly complicated architectural palimpsest built up in stages from the late 12th century. As it presently survives, the upper floor is approached up a flight of stairs that originally connected the withdrawing apartments to the dais and high table of the hall. At the head of the stair is the principal room in the building, almost certainly the Bishop’s great chamber, where he would have received privileged visitors.

Its huge windows preserve the extensive remains of re-set stained glass, including windows inlaid with the arms, inscriptions and mottoes of several Bishops, including Bishop Alnwick’s ‘Delight in the Lord’ (reigned 1436–49) and Bishop Smith’s ‘Lord my exaltation’ (reigned 1496–1514).

The whole room is covered by a low timber ceiling supported on a richly carved cornice. Clearly visible on the carving are traces of painted colour. This ceiling was probably inserted in the late 15th century — most authorities suggest it is the work of Bishop John Russell (reigned 1480–94) — to close in an interior that had previously been open to the roof. Beneath the cornice of the roof, there used to exist iron spikes for hanging tapestries, the most valuable form of internal decoration in England until the 17th century.

A window at one end of the great chamber looked into what was probably a chapel, now a much reorganised interior. It was common from the 13th century for there to be a squint that allowed those in the great chamber to see the chapel and hear its services. At the opposite end of the room was a doorway into another richly appointed interior that was again covered by a finely carved ceiling (Fig 3).

The entrance itself was covered by an internal porch, intended to keep drafts to a minimum, and the stained glass in the windows incorporates the image of a kneeling bishop.

Lyddington: A detail of the bedchamber glazing showing the kneeling figure of a bishop, probably Bishop Alnwick, with his crozier

Lyddington: A detail of the bedchamber glazing showing the kneeling figure of a bishop, probably Bishop Alnwick, with his crozier

This room has been variously interpreted, but it is probably the Bishop’s bedchamber. Beneath the windowsill are two medieval cupboards, possibly for the storage of books (this arrangement is otherwise documented in other 15th-century residences). Opening off it is a very intimate series of three spaces, almost certainly a study for the Bishop, with a basin and a closet or stool chamber for his latrine.

If these interiors seem rather rugged today, it is because they unintentionally illustrate another aspect of life in a great medieval household. The Bishop travelled all the time, so his possessions — from his bed and clothes to his writing desk and personal effects — had to be portable in order to travel with him from place to place. They were kept and carried in chests or standards and then unpacked to dress the Bishop’s room wherever he settled for the night.

Thus, what we are seeing at Lyddington is, in fact, a set of apartments as they might have appeared between visits with only the fixtures — such as the glass and ceilings — in place.

The hospital at Lyddington underwent a few further modest changes in the 18th century. A lean-to walk was built along the north side of the building in 1745 and repairs were made to the range in 1767 (according to a date stone).

Lyddington: The lean-to corridor added in 1745 to connect the almsmen’s rooms

Lyddington: The lean-to corridor added in 1745 to connect the almsmen’s rooms

It was also described and engraved in The Gentleman’s Magazine as an antiquarian curiosity in June 1796. In 1860, ‘only two women and the warden’ were reported to occupy the building, which was rapidly falling into decay. It was likewise described in The Rutland Magazine in 1912 as being home to only two nurses, although it was explained that the other members of the community lived in the village ‘as the old folks have an idea that the lower rooms are haunted’.

In the 1930s, the almshouse was finally closed and its interior was slightly modernised, with boards being laid in the great chamber for example. The building was accepted into the guardianship of the State in 1954 and further repairs have continued since that time. The floors, for example, are either re-created or repaired versions of the original reed-and-gypsum surfaces.

Today, the building — like some Sleeping Beauty’s castle — remains one of the most perfect survivals of a late-medieval residential interior on a grand scale in England. It deserves to be much better known.