St Leonard’s Hospital

The ruins of St. Leonards Hospital only hint at the significance of the Hospital in medieval York.

Founded soon after the Norman Conquest, it was believed to be the largest medieval hospital in the north of England. The hospital also fed the poor and the condemned, providing meals for the prisoners in York Castle.

Remains of the hospital’s undercroft, next to York Central Library, can be accessed from the Museum Gardens, to the right of the Museum Street entrance, and contains some of the museum’s Roman and Medieval stonework collections.

The hospital was erected on the site of the former hospital St. Peters – founded by King Aethelstan – which was severely damaged in a fire in c.1100. It was closely associated with the Minster, sharing the same grounds because it was so large. It was a self-sufficient building until the Reformation (c.1522-1552) resulted in the religious aspects of hospitals being victimised and consequently St. Leonards was largely destroyed. This left York without a hospital from the time of Henry VIII to 1740.

Overall, the main function of a medieval hospital was to care for the sick, the poor, the old and the infirm. Nurses performed acts of care which included cleaning, feeding, clothing and housing the sick, however medieval men and women also had their spiritual health to contend with.

At first glance the remains of St. Leonards looks like the ruins of an old church and to an extent this is true. Religion was very dominant in the middle ages. In return for following the Church’s recommended way of living, religion promised medieval folk the joy of being sent straight to Heaven. The sick were not allowed to be treated for any physical illness until they had confessed all their sins and as a result have their soul cleansed. The daily routine of the hospital included religious rituals like regular prayers.

The high-ceilings and large windows of St Leonard’s were there for a reason. Illness in the middle ages was thought to be caused by ‘bad air’ and therefore high ceilings and windows were important to circulate fresh air.

St Leonard’s Hospital also ran a grammar school for choirboys, boys from the hospital’s orphanage, as well as boys who lived on the lands owned by the hospital. Parish schools existed, for example at St Martin’s Coney Street, open only to the boys of that parish. Sometimes individual teachers or clerics might teach out of their home, and boys might be sent to the homes of relatives or family friends to receive an education.

Religion was a fundamental part of medieval education. The many York residents who could not afford to go to school took their only learning from sermons, church services and the annual religious plays.