WEIRD SUFFOLK: Strangely-shaped shadows drifting at the old Leper Hospital in Dunwich
Do the ghosts of Dunwich’s unfortunate lepers still visit the ruins of their hospital at St James’ Church in the village?
These fragments of stone, a small section of a medieval hospital, have borne witness to unimaginable suffering: at this spot in Dunwich, the lepers were housed. The medieval remains of Dunwich’s leper chapel stand in the graveyard of the village’s St James Church, which was built in the 1830s. This corner of a village which is gently succumbing to the ravages of the sea was once where patients suffering from the horrors of leprosy were cared for before death.
In 1175, law was passed which stated that lepers should be houses in hostels on the outskirts of towns where they could be cared for by the Church and not mingle with the population. In the 12th century when lepers were cared for at St James, Dunwich was a mile larger than it is today and covered an area similar in size to London with eight churches, three chapels, five houses of religious orders, including Franciscan and Dominican monasteries and a preceptor of the Knights Templar, two hospitals and possibly a mint and a guildhall. All that changed in 1286, the year the storm came.
Huge swathes of the town were washed away and repeated storm surges battered the coastline claiming more and more land every year: the town’s harbour was lost in 1328, by the end of the 14th century Dunwich was a shadow of its former self. The sea marched to the market place in 1540 and by 1587, half the town was gone – the last of the medieval parish churches to fall was All Saints Church in 1919.
By the 11th century, leprosy was endemic in England. Leprosy, also known as Hansen’s disease, is a chronic infectious disease which in its extreme form could cause the loss of fingers and toes, gangrene, blindness, collapse of the nose, ulcers, lesions and weakened bones. Its disabling consequences were very visible and some people believed that those who suffered were being punished for sin while others thought the suffering of lepers was similar to that of Christ and that enduring purgatory on earth ensured a faster route to heaven.
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Similarly, it was believed that those who risked their own safety looking after lepers or making charitable donations towards their care would accelerate their own journeys to God: in the Bible, Jesus tends to lepers, despite the peril to his own health. (In fact, we know today that the disease is not instantly contractable unless you have repeated contact with those suffering without taking preventative measures)
Leper, or lazar, houses were built from 960AD onwards. Care in such houses would have been as much about people’s spiritual needs as their physical ailments and most hospitals were built around a detached chapel. Places in such houses were hugely popular as without a place to be cared for, lepers had to rely on street begging in order to survive and were often forced to comply to humiliating laws, such as carrying and using noisemakers to warn the public to avoid them. The most common noisemakers were wooden paddles which made a clapping noise, although some lepers rang bells as they made their way through towns. Lepers might wear clothes with a large heart sewn to the chest to announce their presence and they were expected to walk downwind of anyone they passed as it was believed that ‘miasma’ (breathing in bad smells) could infect the healthy.
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Dunwich’s St James’ Hospital was probably established during the reign of King Richard I, although the earliest account is a charter of 1205 when a benefactor, Walter de Riboff, granted land and various gifts of food and drink to the Church of St James and the House of Lepers at Dunwich. Those who died would be buried in the graveyard at the nearby mother church of Brandeston. The design of the building was such that as the lepers lay in their beds, they would have been able to see the east end of the chapel so they could say their prayers even if they were too weak to rise.
The last leper at Dunwich was buried in 1536 at which point the building became a general hospital for the disabled and chronically ill until it was abandoned in 1685.
It will come as no surprise to Weird Suffolk readers that there are plenty of sightings of ghostly lepers attached to these atmospheric ruins, now far closer to the sea than when the hospital was functioning. Strangely-shaped shadows have been seen drifting here at night and of course this is also a regular prowling spot for Suffolk legend Black Shuck. Something else to look out for in the graveyard at St James is the buttress of All Saints, the last medieval church in Dunwich which was claimed by the sea in November 1919. It joined seven other village churches that have been taken by the waves. A villager was told an old book had foretold that a ruined tower on Dunwich’s cliffs would fall at the end of the greatest war in history: the tower of All Saint’s fell four years after the First World War ended and a year after the Armistice was signed.