Queen Philippa’s ordinances: A View Into Medieval life

[Originally written for the St Katharine’s blog] Of all the different rules and regulations that have guided the Royal Foundation of St Katharine over the years, Queen Phillipa of Hainault’s (1314-1369) ordinances from 1351 are by far the most fascinating. In all of their glorious detail, they offer an extraordinary glimpse into medieval life and day-to-day Christian belief.

Found in full in Catharine Jamison’s The History of the Royal Hospital of St Katharine by the Tower, they detail the life and customs of this growing community of Brothers, Sisters, scholars and alms-women.

They did not emerge from nowhere of course, in 1147 Queen Matilda founded St Katharine’s as ‘My hospital next to the Tower of London’, establishing a community of 13 ‘poor persons’ to pray for her soul and that of King Stephen and their children.

In 1273 Queen Eleanor established a more detailed set of instructions for St Katharine’s by the Tower, specifying the community of 13 as a Master, three sisters, three brothers and six poor scholars.

But Phillipa took a greater interest in St Katharine’s and more actively regulated the life of those who lived here. Her portrait is found carved in the remaining misericords still present in the chapel. At the same time she opened up a window that we can look back through and imagine what life here might have been like.

It is therefore ordained that there shall be in the Hospital three Brothers, who shall be priests of good behaviour, virtuous and of holy life, and that they shall every day perform divine service in the church of the Hospital of St Katharine, assisted by six or more Poor Scholars, who shall be supported daily with food and clothing from the alms of the Hospital. Item, it is appointed that there shall be Sisters and Poor Women, according to the Charter of Queen Alianor, formerly Queen of England and foundress of the Hospital.

The rules lay out an austere way of life for the brothers and sisters, free from the burden of possessions (unless by permission of the Master, Keeper or Warden – how did they exercise this power and were they harsh or lenient?). They wandered St Katharine’s cloistered halls in dark monastic habits and cloaks:

Item, a Brother or Sister shall not own any property without permission from the Master, Keeper or Warden. Further, they shall wear the habit of religion and over it a cloak, black or dark in colour, bearing the emblem of St Katharine’s wheel; they shall not wear any green or all red or striped stuff, which might tend to dissoluteness.

I am wearing a green jumper even now, it is a bit startling today to think it would have once been seen as a particularly dissolute item of clothing by virtue of its colour.

The duties of St Katharine’s occupants were also proscribed, particularly the men:

They are to visit the sick or infirm staying there, both saying divine service and doing other works of charity for them. Item, the Brothers shall proceed from the refectory or chamber to the church with humility and devotion, and conversation between them shall be holy, quiet, pleasing to God and pious, so that it may not only instruct but refresh those who see it.

The early history of St Katharine’s was punctuated by complaints of drunkenness and unseemly behaviour, and clearly such was on the Queen’s mind as she laid out her rules. There is in fact a lot of emphasis on the chaste and proper behaviour of Brothers, Sisters and Bedeswomen, and a request that they not talk to each other in a way that gives rise to scandal.

There is also a focus on money, ensuring that this remain a charitable venture – another early cause of complaint. All income from lands and goods were to go to upkeep and support of the community of thirteen, and any moneys above that were to have been distributed as alms to the growing numbers living around St Katharine’s or to improvements in the area.

It is hard to tell, now, just how much was going to upkeep despite the details – yet how fascinating to find out the diet of the sisters:

Food for each sister: two loaves a day, one white weighing 60 sol. and the other black of the same weight, one gallon of ale or 1 den. instead, two dishes of different meats, of the value of 1 den. and 1 ob. or fish of the same value and a pittance of the value of 1 den.

Wheat and white bread, ale (this is from the days when water was dirty and dangerous to drink you must remember), two kinds of meat and fish! I suppose fruit and vegetables were included as a matter of course, perhaps being provided from St Katharine’s own gardens and orchard these were not seen as an expense. At least I hope so.

There was also a system of checks and balances in place giving the brothers AND sisters some level of control over big decisions.

Item, no letter, concerning any important or prejudicial business, shall be sealed with the common seal of the Hospital, without the assent of the Brothers and Sisters of the Hospital: but from now on, the said seal shall be kept and preserved under three different keys, one of which shall be in the custody of the Master, Keeper or Warden, the second in that of the Eldest Brother and the third in that of the Eldest Sister. (31)

What is perhaps most extraordinary is that the women received the same allowance as the men – an equality of pay many of us have not yet regained seven hundred years later.

There is also an attempt to ensure that the Master remain as part of the community and to keep his focus on a Christian and charitable mission. Later history shows this was not always successful given the patronage systems of crown and church where such livings were often seen as simply sources of income. But there were a few early Masters who made names for themselves through their work and adherence to this rule:

Whoever shall be elected or appointed by us or by succeeding queens of England to be Master, Keeper or Warden, and admitted to the charge of the Hospital, shall be a priest and shall assume the ordinary habit of the Brothers and dine with them in the refectory, unless prevented by sickness or the necessary business of the Hospital. And it is ordained that he shall dwell there and have a suitable room for himself near the rooms of his bretheren, residing there continuously; he shall be present at the celebration of the divine offices and at the saying of the canonical hours by the Brothers, unless he is reasonably occupied by the necessary business of the Hospital. (31-32)

These ordinances tell us so much – and yet obscure so much.

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