York’s Medieval Hospital

In the medieval period York was home to one of England’s largest hospitals. Dedicated to St Leonard, its foundation can be dated to the 11th century, and like Fountains Abbey it had its own infirmary for residents. It was not a hospital in the modern sense of the word. As hospitals were associated with religious houses, their focus was on the wellbeing of the soul rather than the body. They were run by teams of priests or nuns who prayed for, housed and cared for people who were too poor, ill or elderly to look after themselves.

The funds for running St Leonard’s Hospital would have been donated to the church by wealthy patrons. Other income would have come from paying residents who received accommodation and care in an arrangement similar to that of modern retirement homes.

While the original hospital buildings were likely timber structures, there is evidence that they were later expanded and rebuilt in stone. Evidence from archaeological excavations suggests these later buildings would have been grand and imposing, designed to impress visitors and potential benefactors.

The worked fragments on display were found during excavations on the hospital’s former grounds.

Column shaft

Short columns, composed of blocks like this, made up the supporting structure of the undercroft of St Leonard’s Hospital. Tool marks show where the stonemason worked on this piece. Undercrofts were generally used for storage, but may have had a different purpose in the context of the hospital: archaeological deposits suggest that metalworking and food production took place there.

Door jamb

The hospital precinct would have consisted not only of the main infirmary and chapel, but also the services which supported them, including kitchens, dormitories, and workshops. This block, possibly from a door jamb, may have formed one of the entryways into these buildings.

Window mullion

This mullion fragment would have framed a glass window in the hospital. Part of the iron glazing bar which held the glass is still visible. Many medieval hospitals had stained glass windows, reflecting their dual role as houses of medicine and worship. Visualisations of Biblical stories were particularly important for communicating with a largely illiterate public.

Springer

This springer formed part of an archway. Its elaborate decoration suggests that it came from an important doorway, perhaps between the infirmary and the chapel. The style of the carvings suggests it dates to the late 12th or early 13th century, when a large stone infirmary and attached chapel were built.