Read LAZAR HOUSES of The Leper in England: with some account of English lazar-houses , free online book, by Robert Charles Hope, on

The period from its introduction into this country, as far as we know, to its final or nearly final extinction, may be embraced within the 10th and 16th centuries. It was at the zenith of its height during the 11th, 12th, and 13th centuries. As early as A.D. 948 laws were enacted with regard to Lepers in Wales by Howel Dda, the Good the great Welsh King, who died 948.

The enormous extent to which it prevailed during that period may be gauged from the fact, that there were above 200 Lazar Houses in England alone, probably providing accommodation for 4,000 at least, and this, at a time when the whole population of England was only between 2,000,000 and 3,000,000 of persons; being something like two in every thousand.

I have been enabled to compile the following English Lazar Houses, which is however far from being a complete one. These Lazar Houses were founded by the charitably disposed, and were usually under ecclesiastical rule:

1 Berkshire. 1 Herefordshire 4 Oxfordshire.
2 Buckinghamshire. 6 Hertfordshire. 2 Shropshire.
2 Cambridgeshire. 1 Huntingdonshire. 6 Somersetshire.
3 Cornwall. 15 Kent. 3 Staffordshire.
1 Cumberland. 1 Lancashire. 10 Suffolk.
4 Derbyshire. 2 Lincolnshire. 1 Surrey.
6 Devonshire. 4 Leicestershire. 6 Sussex.
3 Dorsetshire. 7 Middlesex. 3 Warwickshire.
2 Durham. 22 Norfolk. 4 Westmoreland.
4 Essex. 5 Northamptonshire. 7 Wiltshire.
6 Gloucestershire. 3 Northumberland. 1 Worcester.
2 Hampshire. 3 Nottinghamshire. 20 Yorkshire.

                           Total: 173

They were presumably under the rule of S. Austin or Augustine.

Chalmers’ Caledonia states 9 hospitals existed in the County of
Berwick alone.

It is said that, by a Bull of Alexander III., exemption from the payment of tithes was granted to all the possessions of the Lazar Houses; this, however, does not appear to have always been acted upon, at least in this country, as at Canterbury, etc.

A Prior usually a Leper and a number of Priests were attached to each house.

Where a chapel was not attached, the inmates appear to have attended the parish church for service.

There was a special order of Knights founded very early, in Jerusalem, united to the general order of the Knights Hospitallers, whose especial province was to look after the sick, particularly Lepers. They seem to have separated from the Knights Hospitallers at the end of the 11th, or beginning of the 12th centuries. They were at first designated Knights of S. Lazarus, or, of SS. Lazarus and Mary of Jerusalem, from the locality of their original establishment, and from their central preceptory being near Jerusalem. The Master or Prior of the Superior Order was a Leper, that he might be more in sympathy with his afflicted brethren. They were afterwards united by different European princes, with the Military Orders of Notre Dame and Mount Carmel, and, in 1572 with that of S. Maurice. We first hear of them in England, in the reign of King Stephen, when they seem to have made their headquarters at Burton-Lazars, near Melton Mowbray in Leicestershire, where a rich and famous Lazar House was built by a general subscription throughout the country, and greatly aided by the munificence of Robert de Mowbray. The Lazar-houses of S. Leonard’s, Sheffield; Tilton, in Leicestershire; Holy Innocents’, Lincoln; S. Giles’, London; SS. Mary and Erkemould, Ilford, Essex; and the preceptory of Chosely, in Norfolk, besides many others, were annexed to it, as cells containing fratres leprosos de Sancto Lazaro de Jerusalem. The house received at least 35 different charters, confirmed by various sovereigns. Camden in his Britannia, , says that “The masters of all the smaller Lazar-houses in England, were in some sort subject to the Master of Burton Lazars, as he himself was, to the Master of the Lazars in Jerusalem.”

The rules of these Lazar-houses were very strict. The inmates were allowed to walk within certain prescribed limits only, generally a mile from the house. They were forbidden to stay out all night, and were not on any account permitted to enter the bakehouse, brewhouse, and granary, excepting the brother in charge, and he was not to dare to touch the bread and beer, since it was “most unfitting that persons with such a malady, should handle things appointed for the common use of men.” A gallows was sometimes erected in front of the houses, on which offenders were summarily despatched from this world, for breach of the rules.

The comforts in these houses varied greatly as the house was richly, or poorly endowed. At some of the smaller ones, the inmates would seem to have depended almost, if not entirely, on the precarious contributions of the charitably disposed for their very sustenance. At Beccles, in Suffolk, one of the Lepers of S. Mary Magdalene’s, was by a royal grant empowered to beg on behalf of himself and his brethren. Sometimes, these poor and wretched outcasts would sit by the roadside, with a dish placed on the opposite side, to receive the alms of the good Samaritans that passed by, who would give them as wide a berth as possible. The Lepers were not allowed to speak to a stranger, lest they should contaminate him with their breath. To attract attention, they would clash their wooden clappers together.

In the larger and richer houses, the inmates were well provided for. The account of the food supplied to the inmates of the Lazar House of S. Julian, at S. Albans, -1349, is very curious: “Let every Leprous brother receive from the property of the Hospital for his living and all necessaries, whatever he has been accustomed to receive by the custom observed of old, in the said Hospital, namely Every week seven loaves, five white, and two brown made from the grain as thrashed. Every seventh month, fourteen gallons of beer, or 8d. for the same. Let him have in addition, on the feasts of All Saints, Holy Trinity, S. Julian, S. John the Baptist, S. Albans, The Annunciation, Purification, Assumption, and Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, for each feast, one loaf, one jar of beer, or 1d. for the same, and one obolus which is called the charity of the said Hospital; also, let every Leprous brother receive, at the feast of Christmas, forty gallons of good beer, or 40d. for the same; two qrs. of pure and clean corn which is called the great charity; also at the Feast of S. Martin, each Leper shall receive one pig from the common stall, or the value in money, if he prefer it.” The pigs were selected by each leper according to his seniority in having become an inmate; also, each Leper shall receive on the Feast of S. Valentine, for the whole of the ensuing year, one quarter of oats; also, about the feast of S. John the Baptist, two bushels of salt, or the current price; also, on the feast of S. Julian, and at the feast of S. Alban, one penny for the accustomed pittance; also, at Easter, one penny, which is called by them ‘Flavvones-peni’; also, on Ascension Day, one obolus for buying pot herbs; also, on each Wednesday in Lent, bolted corn of the weight of one of their loaves; also, on the feast of S. John the Baptist, 4s. for clothes; also, at Christmas, let there be distributed in equal portions, amongst the Leprous brethren, 14s. for their fuel through the year, as has been ordained of old, for the sake of peace and concord; also, by the bounty of Our Lord the King, 30d. have been assigned for ever for the use of the Lepers, which sum, the Viscount of Hertford has to pay them annually, at the feasts of Easter and Michaelmas.

At the Lazar House, dedicated in honour of “The Blessed Virgin, Lazarus, and his two sisters Mary and Martha,” at Sherburn, Durham, which accommodated no less than 65 Lepers, a more varied, and at the same time less complex dietary was in vogue. The daily allowance was a loaf of bread weighing 5 marks and a gallon of ale to each; and betwixt every two, one mess or commons of flesh, three days in the week, and of fish, cheese, and butter, on the remaining four. On high festivals, a double mess, and in particular on the Feast of S. Cuthbert. In Lent, fresh salmon, if it could be had, if not, other fresh fish; and on Michaelmas Day, four messed on one goose. With fresh flesh, fish, or eggs, a measure of salt was delivered. When fresh fish could not be had, red herrings were served, three to a single mess; or cheese and butter by weight; or three eggs. During Lent, each had a razer of wheat to make furmenty, and two razers of beans to boil; sometimes greens or onions; and every day, except Sunday, the seventh part of a razer of bean meal; but on Sundays, a measure-and-a-half of pulse to make gruel. Red herrings were prohibited from Pentecost to Michaelmas, and at the latter, each received two razers of apples. They had a kitchen and cook in common, with utensils for cooking, etc.: A lead, two brazen pots, a table, a large wooden vessel for washing, or making wine, a laver, two ale and two bathing vats. The sick had fire and candles, and all necessaries, until they became convalescent or died.

Each Leper received an annual allowance for his clothing, three yards of woollen cloth, white or russet, six yards of linen, and six of canvas. Four fires were allowed for the whole community. From Michaelmas to All Saints, they had two baskets of peat, on double mess days; and four baskets daily, from All Saints to Easter. On Christmas Day, they had four Yule logs each a cartload, with four trusses of straw; four trusses of straw on All Saints’ Eve, and Easter Eve; and four bundles of rushes, on the Eves of Pentecost, S. John the Baptist, and S. Mary Magdalene; and on the anniversary of Martin de Sancta Cruce, every Leper received 5d. in money.

This luxurious living was not without its leaven. The rules of the House were strict, and enforced religious duties on its inmates, of a most severe and austere nature. All the Leprous brethren, whose health permitted, were required daily to attend Matins, Nones, Vespers, and Compline.

The bed-ridden sick were enjoined to raise themselves, and say Matins in their bed; and for those who were still weaker, “let them rest in peace.” During Lent and Advent, all the brethren were required to receive corporal discipline three days in the week, and the sisters in like manner.

From the rules of the Lazar House of SS. Mary and Erkemould, at Ilford in Essex, which accommodated 13 Lepers we learn, in 1336, that the inmates were ordered “to preserve silence, and, if able, to hear Mass and Matins throughout, and whilst there, to be intent on prayer and devotion. In the hospital, every day, each shall say for morning duty a Pater-noster and Ave Maria thirteen times; and for the other hours of the day 1st, 3rd, and 6th of Vespers; and again, at the hour of concluding service, a Pater-noster and Ave Maria seven times; besides the aforesaid prayers each Leper shall say a Pater-noster and Ave Maria thirty times every day, for the founder of the Hospital the Abbess of Barking, 1190 the Bishop of the place, all his benefactors, and all other true believers, living or dead; and on the day on which any one of their number departs from life, let each Leprous brother say in addition, fifty Paters and Aves three times, for the soul of the departed, and the souls of all diseased believers.” Punishment was meted out to any who neglected or shirked these duties.

Some of the Leper Houses in France excited the jealousy and avarice of Phillip V., who caused many of the inmates to be burned alive, in order that the fire might purify at one and the same time, the infection of the body and that of the soul, giving as an ostensible reason for his fiendish barbarity, the absurd and baseless allegation, that the Lepers had been bribed to commit the detestable sin and horrible crime of poisoning the wells, waters, etc., used by the Christians. The real cause being a desire, through this flimsy excuse, to rob the richer hospitals of their funds and possessions, this is clearly manifest in the special wording of his own edict, “that all the goods of the Lepers be lodged and held for himself.” A similar persecution was renewed about 60 years afterwards, in 1388, under Charles VI. of France.

As soon as a man became a prey to the disease, his doom on earth was finally and irrevocably sealed. The laws, both civil and ecclesiastical, were awful in their severity to the poor Leper; not only was he cut off from the society of his fellow-men, and all family ties severed, but, he was dead to the law, he could not inherit property, or be a witness to any deed. According to English law Lepers were classed with idiots, madmen, outlaws, etc.

The Church provided a service to be said over the Leper on his entering a Lazar House. The Priest duly vested preceded by a cross, went to the abode of the victim. He there began to exhort him to suffer with a patient and penitent spirit the incurable plague with which God had stricken him. Having sprinkled the unfortunate Leper with Holy Water, he conducted him to the Church, the while reading aloud the beginning of the Burial Service. On his arrival there, he was stripped of his clothes and enveloped in a pall, and then placed between two trestles like a corpse before the Altar, when the Libera was sung and the Mass for the Dead celebrated over him.

After the service he was again sprinkled with Holy Water, and led from thence to the Lazar House, destined for his future, and final abode, here on earth.

A pair of clappers, a stick, a barrel, and a distinctive dress were given to him. The costume comprised a russet tunic, and upper tunic with hood cut from it, so that the sleeves of the tunic were closed as far as the hand, but not laced with knots or thread after the secular fashion of the day. The upper tunic was to be closed down to the ankles, and a close cape of black cloth of the same length as the hood, for outside use.

A particular form of boot or shoe, laced high, was also enjoined, and if these orders were disobeyed the culprit was condemned to walk bare-footed, until the Master, considering his humility said to him “enough.” An oath of obedience and a promise to lead a moral and abstemious life was required of every Leper on admission. The Bishops of Rome from time to time issued Bulls, with regard to the ecclesiastical separation and rights of the afflicted.

Lepers were excluded from the city of London by Act 20 Edward the III., 1346.

The Magistrates of Glasgow, in 1573, appeared to have exercised some right of searching for Lepers.

Piers, the ploughman, makes frequent allusions to “Lepers under the hedges.”

The Lazar Houses were often under the authority of some neighbouring Abbey, or Monastery. Semler quotes a Bull, issued by one of the Bishops of Rome, appointing every Leper House to be provided with its own burial ground and chapel; as also ecclesiastics; these in the middle ages were probably the only physicians of the body, as well as of the soul some appear to have devoted themselves as much to the study of medicine as to that of theology.

It was customary in the mediaeval times to address the secular clergy as “Sir.”