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Leper Chapel's healing journey engraved in city's DNA


By Mike Scialom


The Leper Chapel remains in use after a tumultuous story that is not far off 900 years long. Picture: Mike Scialom
The Leper Chapel remains in use after a tumultuous story that is not far off 900 years long. Picture: Mike Scialom

Cambridge's first hospital and one of its earliest buildings, the Leper Chapel of St Mary Magdalene, may have a secret tunnel, according to current guardians Cambridge Past Present & Future.

The revered 12th century site - St Bene't's Church spire, thought to have been built between 1000-1050,is the city's oldest extant building - has been opening its doors with a programme of visiting days, service and performances for the summer months.

The recent open day (July 20) allowed visitors to explore the grounds and see the interior of the chapel which has, tree-like, got the city's history engraved into its DNA.

"During the summer we try to open it up," said duty custodian Cortney Gjesfjeld. "It's too cold and dark in winter but we will probably continue to open it until October.

"People are most curious about the history and use of the chapel through time and is the source of intrigue because it is said to have a tunnel connected to a priory further down the street. People living further down the road ask a lot about that, so we'd be happy to hear from local historians - people find the history of the chapel fascinating."

The Leper Chapel, sanctuary for the generations. Picture: Mike Scialom
The Leper Chapel, sanctuary for the generations. Picture: Mike Scialom

The next performance at the chapel is on Saturday (July 27), when 'Ghost Stories' will be performed by In Situ Theatre. A reenactment of Stourbridge Fair will take place on September 7.

"There's also expected to be a performance of 'Hamlet' by the Julius Caesar Project at some point," added Cortney.

The chapel continues to hold services on the first Sunday of every month, at Easter and over the Christmas holidays.

The diversity of cultural opportunities reflects the astonishing historical narrative baked into its walls. The chapel, Cambridge's first hospital, has been on the site since first opening some time between 1125 and 1150. Initially known as Stourbridge Hospital, it was dedicated to St Mary Magdalene, the patron saint of lepers. The sanatorium - one of more than 150 leper hospital created in England between 1150 and 1250 - cared for sufferers of syphilis, among other diseases probably brought back from the Crusades but misconstrued as the result of a life of sin.

The site was located some way from the city centre because "it was accepted that lepers should not live among the healthy", according to Barry Pearce, the modern-day chronicler of the chapel, whose narrative was displayed on boards in the grounds of the chapel on Newmarket Road for Saturday's open day. The visibility of the healing premises beside the Cambridge-Newmarket road was so that "passers by may witness the exhibition of divine justice and admire the piety of the hospital's benefactors".

Portal to secrets - local historians are invited to contribute to the tunnel debate. Picture: Mike Scialom
Portal to secrets - local historians are invited to contribute to the tunnel debate. Picture: Mike Scialom

But the metaphorical road would not always be smooth. By 1245 the right to appoint the hospital's warden was usurped by Hugh de Northwold, the Bishop of Ely. The ensuring row between the Bishop and the burghers meant that by 1270 the hospital had effectively ceased to function. In 1289 the organisation of Stourbridge Fair - which to this day remains on the Leper Chapel's doorstep - was taken over by the Corporation of Cambridge and funds for the hospital dried up.

Students of history will note that these stand-offs can continue for hundreds of years... Finally, in 1544, the then-Bishop of Ely agreed to lease the chapel lands to the Corporation of Cambridge for 60 years. By then the chapel was only occasionally being used as a place of worship: the 50-acre site was most useful as a source of farm rent. In 1606 the chapel was transferred into private hands. By 1725, Stourbridge Fair was one of the biggest fairs in Europe, but this success had no trickle-down for the chapel. In 1750 it ceased to be a place of worship and by 1816 it was effectively a ruin and only saved from complete destruction by the Reverend Thomas Kerrich, a Fellow of Magdalene College, who acquired it for £160.

Duty custodian Cortney Gjesfjeld at Cambridge's oldest building - and its first hospital. Picture: Mike Scialom
Duty custodian Cortney Gjesfjeld at Cambridge's oldest building - and its first hospital. Picture: Mike Scialom

In 1843-5 the chapel was restored and once again in use as a place of worship, serving 200 people living in adjacent brickfields - and by the way, for those who fret about the prospect of the Cambridge United ground moving further down the Newmarket Road to the Marshall site, it should be noted that the Abbey stadium used to be the local burial ground, so a change in venue might be a shot in the arm?

Nevertheless disaster was beckoning once again and the roller-coaster history of the chapel took another turn for the worse in 1865, when it was dilapidated. This time the saviour/benefactor was the famed architect Sir George Gilbert Scott, whose £500 restoration made all the difference.

During the First World War the site was lent to nurses of the Army Ordnance Corps and it was used as per its original, healing, role for the sick and wounded, but that was short-lived and by 1925 there was more cause for concern until Canon BK Cunninngham, principal of Westcott House, stepped in.

Chapel, theatre, historical artefact - the Leper Chapel endures. Picture: Mike Scialom
Chapel, theatre, historical artefact - the Leper Chapel endures. Picture: Mike Scialom

The modern-day story of the Leper Chapel - part place of worship, part living history, part theatre stage - saw a period of reevaluation and restoration. By 2000 the chapel was in use as a place of worship again under the auspices of the Holy Cross Church, and the Friends of the Leper Chapel was established.

Local historians are invited to contribute to the tunnel discussion via admin@cambridgeppf.org.

The next open day is on August 10.



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