William and Alice de la Pole’s God’s House at Ewelme[i] – Domestic Buildings & School
This fourth and last part of the series about God’s House in Ewelme will look at the domestic buildings and the school.
The domestic quarters
At the western end of St Mary’s church is an impressive wooden door. This leads down some steps to a covered passage connecting the church and the almshouse quadrangle. In each of the external walls of the passage there is an archway, opposite of each other. Originally, they probably had wooden doors, which could be opened on feast days to allow processions to walk around the church. Normally they would be kept closed to allow the almsmen to get to church without getting wet and being blown away by the wind. The passage is built in brick with stone details and can be linked architecturally to the later building period of the church.
Construction of the domestic quarters probably began soon after the royal licence of 1437 and was finished five years later, when the almshouse was first endowed in 1442.
The almshouse quadrangle survives to this day, with some minor changes. The Victorian pump in the middle replaces a well. The quadrangle incorporated 13 almsmen’s cottages, the Master’s lodgings and a common hall. Renovations in the 1970s resulted in some quite significant changes to details, like additional and larger windows, dismantled chimney-stacks and instead of the 13 cottages there are six modern flats. However, the general look is still that of the 15th century.
Each of the 13 almsman had a cottage for himself, which consisted of two rooms, one downstairs, one upstairs. There were probably fireplaces in each room. Both rooms had windows. On the ground floor one each to the cloister and one to the outside, upstairs there was a dormer. It is not quite clear what access to the upper floor would have been like. One suggestion is that a deep semi-circular recess, which extended from the ground to the ceiling, might have held a spiral staircase.
The Master’s lodgings were larger, but unfortunately we don’t have much information of what they were like before extensive renovations in the 1970s. It seems likely that there was a kitchen on the ground floor with a large fireplace. The Master’s rooms were on the upper floor. As there were two fireplaces, it is assumed that the upstairs area was divided into a larger and a smaller room.
In addition to these individual lodgings, there was a common hall for formal assemblies of the community. It was also located on the upper level and still exists. At one end, there was a strong room where the community’s records were kept.
The almshouse had a garden and the inhabitants were expected to keep the quadrangle and the gardens free from weeds. Both the Master and the Teacher of Grammar had their own gardens, the rest was either subdivided into something like allotments or communally farmed.
For a poor man in the 15th century, a cottage at God’s House must have been a very attractive option indeed.
The school, the Grammar Master’s House, the almshouse porch and the main gateway
In addition to the almshouse quadrangle, there are a number of other buildings: the school, the Grammar Master’s House, the almshouse porch and the main gateway. They are all constructed of brick. It seems likely that these buildings were constructed later than the almshouse quadrangle, as a kind of afterthought, when in the mid-1440s it was decided to incorporate a school as well. There are architectural similarities with what is known of the manor house, which makes it likely that they were built at the same time, i.e. after 1444. As mentioned in Part I, it seems likely that brick works were set up locally.
The almshouse porch is built against the northern outside wall of the quadrangle and served as the main access to the cloister and the Grammar Master’s house. It is an elaborate structure built of bricks. The 1821 drawing of Ewelme Manor by J.C. Buckler shows an identical arch for what then remained of the de la Pole’s “palace”. The style is very similar to that used in Flemish architecture.
Grammar Master’s House
The building at the north-west corner of the quadrangle was probably right from the beginning the Grammar Master’s House. To judge from the internal wooden frame of the house, this was added at a later stage to the finished quadrangle. The house itself has changed to a certain extent, but the Statutes say that the Teacher should have “such chambers, hall kitchen and garden with other assigns as at this time is edified for him within the precinct of the said house of alms…[ii]
Next to the north-west corner of the Grammar Master’s house is the main gateway. It is also constructed of brick and with its buttresses on either side reminiscent of the almshouse porch.
The first building a visitor to God’s House will see is the two-storied school house, which faces to the road. Its west façade was meant as an architectural showpiece with its chimneys and the figures of angels bearing heraldic shields. It was originally a free-standing building and the low range connecting it to the other buildings is of a later date.
Like the Grammar Master’s House, the porch and the gate, it is built of brick, though there are structural differences. It does not have the castellated gables and moulded brick of the other buildings. It has been suggested that William de la Pole might have been the driving force behind including the school into the complex and that after his murder it was finished rather quickly.
The building was changed in the 19th century, after it had been standing empty and falling into disrepair. Then the school was re-opened and the building renovated, which involved various alterations.
God’s House in the 21st century
You might be interested to find out what the buildings are used for now. As mentioned before, very little evidence of the 15th century manor house remains. However, it won’t come as much of a surprise to find out that St Mary’s is still the local parish church.
Much more interesting though is that both the almshouse and the school still function under their original endowment made to the foundation 580 years ago. It is not clear how the foundation escaped suppression at the Reformation. It might have had something to do with the fact that the manor was at the time in royal ownership. After Henry VIII had executed the last de la Pole Earl of Suffolk, Edmund, in 1513, the de la Pole estates were appropriated by the crown. Edmund’s only child, a daughter, had become a nun.[iii]
While the Reformation left the foundation intact, it did take away, however, its original devotional purpose of offering prayers for its founders.
Today, both the almshouse and the school are independent institutions under the protection of the Ewelme Trustees.
There have been certain changes. Instead of just single men, the almshouse these days accepts both men and women, married, single, and widowed. The 13 units have been remodelled into six flats and a larger flat in the Master’s Lodgings. There is additional accommodation in another building in the village.
The school is still a primary school, making it “the oldest functioning maintained school building in the country”. It still does not charge school fees. While it has been extended to additional buildings, the old school building houses Class 4 as well as the school hall.[iv] It is a Church of England school with a ‘voluntary aided’ status. This means it is state-funded, but a foundation or trust owns the premises and contributes to building costs. The trust also has a say on staff employment and student admissions.[v] The headmaster of the school still lives in the Grammar Master’s House.
To our modern eyes, the display of all the heraldic signs may seem rather pretentious. However, we have to remember that that was exactly the point: one of the purposes of a foundation was to show “dynastic power that pointedly proclaimed status, wealth and Christian nobility”. The heraldic shields of the Chaucer and Burghersh families framing the de la Pole one on the school emphasise that this was the place for Alice to proclaim her dynastic status. Even though the Statutes are in both their names, there can be little doubt who was the driving force behind the creation of God’s House: Alice Chaucer with her life-long connection to Ewelme, as well as her family’s before her. This is where she is buried on her own, and her tomb states proudly that she was “patron of this church and first founder of this almshouse”.
[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] Statues quoted Goodall, pp.100-101
[iii] Sean Cunningham, “Pole, Edmund de la, eighth earl of Suffolk (1472?–1513)”, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 23 Sept. 2004; online edn, 3 Jan 2008 [last accessed online 6 June 2018]
[v] ‘What is a Voluntary Aided School?’, Child Law Advice. URL: http://childlawadvice.org.uk/tag/voluntary-aided-school/ [last accessed 6 June 2018]
This is the fourth part of a four-part series on God’s House in Ewelme: