Pages of Brick and Stone

Edited by Humanities professor Charlotte Stanford, The Building Accounts of the Savoy Hospital, London, reveals the details of the now destroyed building, giving researchers new insight into daily life and building practices of medieval England.

PROVO, Utah (Mar. 16, 2016)—On the north side of the River Thames, tucked in the borough of Covent Garden, lies the area known as Savoy. Today it is known for its elaborate theater and hotel, but the name of the area is derived from the medieval hospital that once stood on the site.

The Savoy in a rare etching from 1650.

Built by Henry VII, the hospital was intended to fulfill the medieval adherence to the seven corporal works of mercy. These works, based on Christ’s Sermon on the Mount, included feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, healing the sick and giving shelter to the homeless.

Though the Savoy Hospital was nearly destroyed by fire in the late 1700s, and then finally demolished in the 19th century, Stanford’s new book is helping scholars rebuild the hospital in their minds through its building records.

Stanford discovered the Savoy building accounts in Westminster Abbey while researching in England for a seminar on medieval medicine. “I’ve always been interested in little glimpses of people’s daily lives, and I’ve always been interested in the medieval period,” she said. Having spent a large amount of time translating Latin manuscripts, Stanford decided to take on this new challenge: “Wouldn’t it be fun to do one in English for a change?” she thought, though she also notes the manuscript was “written in an awful, crabbed English handwriting.”

Hospitals in medieval times, Stanford explained, were not the institutions we know today. “They were charity institutions,” she said, and their purpose was to “give people a bed to sleep in and a warm bath and good food and hope that they would get better.”

The Savoy was the best of these institutions. Extra care was taken to ensure that the finest handiwork was used and that the needs of those seeking refuge in the hospital would be met. The Savoy could take in 100 people per night; unlike other institutions, only one person was allowed per bed. Two fireplaces were set in the main dormitory so heating was even throughout the room, and the people were given slippers and robes to warm themselves.

Beyond providing physical aid to the poor and ill of London, the hospital also served a particular purpose for the king. “It was part church organization, part a private charitable institution, and the whole thing combined to make a propaganda statement,” Stanford explained. The hospital served as a way for Henry to gain the prayers of the poor for his family and himself, as well as a way to establish his care for his people in the eyes of other European monarchs, giving his reign (won by battle and not by birth) authenticity.

However, today, without the building itself to examine, scholars know little about the Savoy Hospital. Stanford said, “All of the illustrations we have are from when the hospital was no longer being used as a hospital,” and that is why the building accounts are so important. Based on the time period it was built, the hospital would have looked something like the famous Westminster Abbey or King’s College Church at Cambridge University, but the building accounts help scholars more accurately estimate the particulars of the hospital.

The Building Accounts of the Savoy Hospital, London, 1512-1520_Page_1
The Building Accounts were found in the records of Westminster Abbey in London.

The accounts are split into two parts, with supplementary material included. The first part of the manuscript details the paychecks given to workers, listing names, jobs and how much they were given for their work. Though not much information is known about the individuals listed, the information gives insights into patterns of medieval building practices.

The second half of the book is what Stanford said was her favorite. Detailing the types and amounts of materials that were used on the building, this information, according to Stanford, gives the researcher “comparisons . . . to other buildings in the area that gives some idea how much more the king was spending on this than other churches could afford to spend in their budgets,” illustrating the grandeur of the building.

From this part of the accounts, we see that the building was structured from prestigious stone materials, including imported stone from France for the fine architectural carving, and the brickwork of the chimneys was treated with red coloring to make it especially vivid. “You get these little glimpses of building and construction practice and daily lives and . . . to me that was the real gold in . . . the project was just these little bits of daily life,” Stanford said.

According to Stanford, these small details are why preserving this work is so important. The volume brings a new resource to scholars interested in the Middle Ages. With a full glossary of terms used in the accounts as well as a detailed, cross-checked index, this newly available information will give greater access to the information in these accounts while preserving the original manuscript, already hundreds of years old, from further wear and tear.

“It’s a pleasure to be able to create something I know other people will be able to use and it will help them in their work,” Stanford said of the book. “It can help fill in our image and give us more of a basis to understand the past.”

—Alison Siggard (B.A. English Education ’17) 

Alison covers the English department for the College of Humanities. She is a senior studying English teaching with a minor in music.