God’s House: Part II

William and Alice de la Pole’s Foundation at Ewelme[i] – Statutes and Community

The second part of this series of blogs is dealing with life of the community in the almshouse.  Most of the information on this can be deducted from the Statutes, which have survived.

The legal groundwork for the establishment of an almshouse, began shortly after William and Alice de la Pole’s marriage in 1430.  It is not clear, whether they had always planned that their foundation should be at Ewelme.  However, at least after the death of Alice’s father, Thomas Chaucer, in November 1434, they decided on that location.  Its focus was to serve as a chantry for Alice’s parents.

To set up a foundation such as this was a lengthy process.  It involved three steps:

The first step was finding suitable endowments, which provided sufficient income and were relatively easy to manage.  In the case of God’s House this was sorted by 1435.

The second step was getting royal permission to make the donations to a religious foundation, a process that was both time consuming and expensive.  William and Alice received the royal licence to found an almshouse at Ewelme only on 3 July 1437.  That was less than two weeks after the death of Alice’s mother – presumably not by coincidence.

And the last step was actually building whatever was needed.

The Almshouse Quadrangle

The Statutes

By the time the statutes were completed, the almshouse quadrangle had already been built and 13 poor men and a master were in residence.  The statutes, though they were a legal document between the patrons and the community, are for us the main source to find out about life in the almshouse.

They can be dated to the period between June 1448 and May 1450, because William is referred to Duke of Suffolk (he was elevated to Duke on 2 June 1448) and as living (i.e. before 2 May 1450).

It is interesting that the Statutes were written in English rather than the traditional Latin.  They are among the earliest examples of such a document in English.  It seems likely that the founders wanted to ensure that these regulations were understood by the almsmen.

The Community

The head of the community of God’s House was the Master.  He was responsible for the possessions of the house as well as the running of it.  He was to be a priest and had to lead the daily worship that was part of the of the life of the community.  In their job description in the Statutes, the de la Poles were looking for a “learned man of the University of Oxford passed thirty winters of age”.[ii]

However, the first Master, John Seynesbury (1437-1454), was not a graduate, but had other qualifications to offer.  He had been rector of Ewelme when the almshouse was founded.  He had probably been closely connected to Thomas Chaucer.  When becoming Master, he had to relinquish his post as rector, as the Statutes insist on a strict separation of parish and foundation.  Seynesbury was clearly a very important man in the creation of the almshouse as he was the overseer of the building work at the church and of the almshouse.  He died on 27 August 1454.

After his death, there was a six months’ gap.  The reason might have been the political instability caused by Henry VI’s mental state, which resulted in an upswing of Alice de la Pole’s Yorkist enemies (her husband had been killed four years previously).  Seynesbury’s successor, William Marton, only took up his appointment on 1 February 1455.  He was an Oxford graduate and an experienced bureaucrat and financial administrator, which was exactly what the new foundation needed.

The Master had a deputy, who was primarily the teacher of grammar at the school.  Like the Master, he received a salary and was to teach without charging the students. The Statutes stipulated that the  grammar school was free to all the children of the tenants of Ewelme and to supply both elementary and advanced education.

Among his responsibilities as set out in the Statutes was to ensure that his pupils were not “tedious, noisome or troublesome to the said place or any inhabitants therein”.[iii]

When the Master was absent, the Teacher of Grammar had to lead worship in addition to his teaching duties.

The first teacher was apparently only appointed in 1454 or 55.  He was John Clifford (1454/55 – 1462), who was also an Oxford graduate.  Oxford records mention a John Clifford who had rented a school in Oxford previously.  It’s very likely that this was the same man.

The 13 almsmen had to be worthy, poor and single men.  They received a weekly wage and were not allowed to supplement this by working or begging.  Preference for the appointments to the limited places was to be given to men from the lands of the de la Poles in Oxfordshire and Berkshire.  Excluded were “lepers, madmen” or anyone suffering from a contagious disease,[iv] which makes sense, when you think that this was a group of people who were supposed to live closely together.

From among the 13 men, one was to be chosen as senior almsman, called the Minister.  He had various practical duties, like ringing the bell to call the men to services, and locking the doors and gates at night. The first Minister was a John Bostok, who witnessed the inventory when the second Master, William Marton, took over in 1455.

The daily life of the almsmen resembled to a certain extent a monastic routine.  They had a daily structure of prayer based on canonical hours, starting at six in the morning.  This would continue with a mass at 9 o’clock and further prayer sessions throughout the day.  In public, they would have been easily identifiable as they were required to wear a red cross sewn on their gowns.  They were given a tabard with a red cross on the chest and a hood, which they had to wear in church, again resembling a monastic setting.

However, they also had some private time.  According to the Statutes they were to spend this time “reading or hearing of virtuous living, praying or performing honest manual labour”.[v]  I found the mention of “reading” interesting, as I doubt many of the poor men would have been able to read.  Nor would there have been too many books available, as at this time books were still very expensive luxury items.  However, the inclusion might reflect Alice’s own interest. Fitting for the granddaughter of Geoffrey Chaucer, she is known to have had an extensive library.[vi]

The almsmen would also have needed some time to prepare their own food, as there is no evidence that they ate or prepared food communally, unlike in some other foundations.

They were supposed to live quietly and not quarrel with their neighbours.  Swearing and telling tall tales of their youthful exploits were also out, as was gossiping with outsiders about what went on in the house.  Should an almsmen transgress against any rules or be late for church services, they were punished by having their wages reduced.

The Master’s Accounts (June to October 1456) mention a barber, Jacob, whose room stood empty.  Though the Statutes do not include the position of a barber, it is not unlikely that God’s House had one, as other comparable houses did.  The barber would not only have been there to shave the almsmen, but was also a surgeon and provided medical care.[vii]


[i] The main sources for this series of posts are Goodall, J.A.A., God’s House at Ewelme: Life, devotion and architecture in a fifteenth-century almshouse. Ashgate Publishing, 2001; Guide to St Mary’s Church Ewelme and to the Almshouse and the School.  St Mary’s Church Ewelme, n.d.

[ii] Statute LXIX, quoted in Goodall, p.110

[iii] Statute LXIV, quoted in Goodall, p.111

[iv] Statute LXXVI, quoted in Goodall, p.113

[v] Item 885, Goodall, p.240

[vi] Jambeck, K.K., ‘The Library of Alice Chaucer, Duchess of Suffolk:  A Fifteenth-Century Owner of a ‘Boke of le Citee des Dames’, in: The Profane Arts (1998), pp.106-135

[vii] Goodall, p.136

This is the second part of a four-part series on God’s House in Ewelme:

Part I: Family Background and Ewelme Manor

Part III: St Mary’s Church

Part IV: Domestic Buildings & School

3 thoughts on “God’s House: Part II

  1. Pingback: God’s House: Part I | Dottie Tales

  2. Pingback: God’s House: Part III | Dottie Tales

  3. Pingback: God’s House: Part IV | Dottie Tales

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