Above: Part of a panorama from 1543 by Wyngaerde looking at the river bank around Westminster. It shows the site of the leper hospital (above Westminster Abbey). The large building towards the left is Westminster Abbey. Towards the right, a short distance inland from the Thames can be seen Charing Cross which was in the form of a pointed obelisk.
About a quarter of a mile to the west of the medieval site of Charing Cross (which is now part of Trafalgar Square) there stood a hospital for lepers known as the Hospital of St James the Less. Leper hospitals were situated around the City of London and of Westminster.
The disease had been brought to Britain – possibly by the Vikings who brought squirrels with them and the disease was carried in the fur of the animals. By the time of the Normans, cases of leprosy are believed to have increased. Leprosy is a contagious disease but it is not as easy catch as was believed in medieval times. Lepers were ordered to live apart from the community of a town or city. In the 11th century, Lazar houses – named after the international hospital order of St Lazarus of Jerusalem – began to appear in various locations to care for those with the disease. Lazar houses were often sited just outside the gates of towns to isolate lepers from the rest of the community but were also situated on main thoroughfares or close to town bridges or gates, so that the lepers could easily beg for alms. Leprosy gradually died out in England by the 15th century, due to the fact that Britain is an island and, with no lepers coming to England, the disease was gradually eradicated.
The Hospital of St James the Less was founded before 1189 and named after the Bishop of Jerusalem. It was an institution for 14 ‘maidens that were leprous’. There were also eight brethren, living in a separate house nearby who followed the Rule of St Augustine. The brethren solemnised the religious services.
Because of the fear of catching leprosy, the hospital was built some distance from Westminster, surrounded by fields which are now occupied by St James’s Park, Green Park and the land extending north up to the line of the street called Piccadilly. Most of the land was open and swampland. Those who were well enough used to raise hogs and other animals on the open land, as a source of food. Few people who did not suffer from the disease would have ever ventured onto that land because of the fear of catching leprosy.
It is said that those who lived in Westminster used to take food daily in a large basket and walk half the distance to the leper hospital. They would leave the basket there and it was picked up by the inmates of the hospital who had walked from their hospital to pick it up. In that way, there was a minimum of contact between the nearby residents and the lepers.
In 1289 Edward I granted a fair to be held on the eve of St James’s and on the following six days. It is claimed that the area known as Mayfair today was where the ancient fair was held.
It was demolished in 1531 for the construction of St James’s Palace. Excavations in 1925 and 1990 have located burials and parts of the hospital including a possible chapel.
Excavations in 1925 and 1990 located graves of those buried beside the hospital. Excavations in 1990 in and around Marlborough House recovered architectural fragments spanning the 13th-19th centuries. This included pottery from the mid-12th century onwards plus fragments of 14th century decorated floor tiles. Much of this material is regarded as possibly deriving from the hospital.
Above: Further enlargement of the same panorama shows a group of buildings above Westminster Abbey. It is often claimed that it is a representation of the leper hospital but, since the panorama was made in 1543, it is much more likely that the buildings were the beginnings of St James’s Palace.
Various maps and panoramas are often captioned with information that the pictorial representation shows the hospital but most of the pictures are too late to show it and, in fact, they actually show the early stages of construction of the palace built on the site. There are no known prints of the leper hospital.