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The Chapel of St. Mary Magdelan - a Medieval Hospital and Leper Chapel in Ripon

I had read about a Leper Hospital in Ripon, so last summer having dropped off some overseas visitors at The Old Deanery next to Ripon Cathedral, I set out to find the historic building.

The location was at the junction of Stonebridgegate and Magdelan Road, only about 500m from the Cathedral.

What I found was a simple rectangular Chapel with a bell tower over the west gable. The building uses local limestone and is particularly squat with a low pitched roof.

There is an old Norman round arched doorway dating back to the 1100’s but much of the building apparently dates back to a rebuild in the 1400’s including the perpendicular gothic large four light east window.

A plaque from Ripon Civic Society explains a brief history about The Chapel of St.Mary Magdelan, but I felt there needed further investigation.

It turns out that in 1115 AD with leprosy rife in the local area, Archbishop Thurstan decided to found a Hospital close to the Cathedral and a crossing on the River Ure to care for the local infirm. The Hospital also had a separate Leper House and Chapel. Funds were donated to pay a priest to say Mass each day to the patients.

Monies were also provided for Sisters to provide food, clothing and shelter to any Leper living in the local area.

Whilst the Chapel would have been used by the patients and part of a hospitals remit was to pray for the ill, it is understood that there was a separate hospital and another building close by which no longer exists which is where the Lepers would have been housed.

But as well as the care of Lepers the other role of the Hospital was to care for the poor and needy of the area as well as blind priests who were born in the locality.

The work that the Chapel was doing attracted donations of money and land from wealthy sponsors who believed it would speed their paths through purgatory. This meant that the hospital grew in wealth and importance. There is evidence that with wealth came corruption and records show that Ripon’s Archbishop Corbridge had to recover funds that had been stolen by the Cathedral Canons.

A Master was appointed to run the Chapel and Hospital, and as well as Sisters, Lay brother were also recruited to help run the hospital. Again some Masters were recorded as using the Hospitals wealth to live in luxury, the job coming with a house, garden and orchard.

Towards the end of the 1300’s, the Leper House became less important as leprosy had become less common. This also tied in with a drop in donations.

Around 1352, the separate Leper House was torn down as there were not enough patients but the Chapel and hospital continued to provide care and alms for the needy.

After the dissolution of the monasteries, the last Abbot of nearby Fountains Abbey – Marmaduke Bradley was made Master of St Mary Magdelan Chapel and Hospital. Bradley was at the time known as “the wisest monk in the Christendom”. Other Masters included Dr John Williams, Oliver Cromwell’s Brother in Law in the 1600’s.

The Chapel continued in a similar vein until the 1820’s when a new hospital was built across the street with living accommodation for six sisters. A new chapel was built for inmates at the hospital, as whilst St.Mary Magdelan Chapel was originally built solely for use by hospital inmates it had started to attract a large local congregation.

The Marquis of Ripon at the time also paid for new Alms Houses for the poor next to the new Chapel.

Eventually the Chapel we see today fell into disrepair and for a time was used to house pigs by a local farmer. Eventually it was rescued, and now is still consecrated holding regular services. The building is Grade 1 listed by Historic England.

So in a nutshell if you are in Ripon, it’s worth a detour to take a look at this little hidden gem with an interesting back story.


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