Leper Chapel


The chapel acted as a leper hospital during the Middle Ages, earning income from the annual Stourbridge Fair, which they were allowed by a grant from King John of Magna Carta fame! The Fair was so popular that the chapel became immensely wealthy, but towards the end of the 13th century, the leper colony closed and so the chapel was handed to Cambridge town. During the 18th century, the chapel was used as a pub for a while but come the mid 19th century, it was restored to the original chapel. This unique structure (at over 800 years old) is the oldest building in Cambridge, centuries older than the more famous King’s Chapel in the historic centre, so a building which Abbey is very proud of!

Do please download the pdf or full powerpoint presentation illustrating this subject which you will find  useful to use for a class:


Though the centre of Cambridge is the site of some of the world’s most spectacular chapels—from the magnificence of Kings to the awe-inspiring St Johns—out here, the modest chapel of St Mary Magdalene at Stourbridge (also known as the Leper Chapel) outdates them all.  In fact, the Chapel is Cambridge’s oldest complete surviving building, constructed around 1169. 900 years ago, this chapel was part of a hospital, and you would have seen monks and nuns scurrying around, tending to the needs of some very sick people. Although it is hard to imagine today with busy Newmarket Road behind you, back then this was a secluded and peaceful area, far away from the bustle of the city. The hospital was here to keep sufferers of a horrible disease away from the rest of the town. This disease was Leprosy, an infection which affected the skin and often caused the sufferer to become severely disfigured.

Although leprosy has been all but wiped out today, in the Middle Ages the disease swept across Britain, Europe and beyond, eventually claiming thousands of lives. Cambridge was particularly badly affected; per head, East Anglia had the third highest number of lepers in the country. As well as the physical horrors of the disease, lepers would have to deal with social exclusion. Leprosy was seen not only as a physical threat, but also a reminder that God would punish those who had lived evil lives. Sufferers were therefore forced by law to leave their homes, friends and family. Taking a few treasured possessions, they would have to leave their former lives behind and join new communities in which groups of lepers lived together.

The Church often set up hospitals for these communities in which they could eat, work the land, and pray together. If the lepers ever needed to leave the hospital grounds, they had to wear clothes that marked them out. They were also required to shout ‘Unclean!’ or ring a bell to warn others that they were approaching!  Some lepers even had special wooden clappers to alert anyone in the area of their presence. It was also decreed that lepers must hide their faces and stand downwind from anyone with whom they spoke!

Lepers were usually very poor, and survived by begging for alms to supplement the small income they made from farming.  The Stourbridge Lepers certainly started off this way, as they had only 50 acres to farm between them. This is why the Chapel was built on the road leading from Cambridge to Newmarket and Bury St Edmunds, in the hope that travellers and pilgrims might show charity towards the leper community.

Thankfully, some leper hospitals attracted the attention of the wealthy, who may have wanted to prove their piety by helping the afflicted lepers.  The Stourbridge lepers even had royal help. King John decreed in 1211 that the lepers could use the hospital grounds to hold a fair and keep the profits for themselves. Stourbridge Fair was born! Once a year, at the beginning of September the hospital lands became the meeting place for local traders looking to sell their wares. Although they stayed away from the hustle and bustle of the fair, the lepers could charge entry and make money from selling goods and renting out spaces for stalls.

The leper community at Stourbridge continued to live in this way until the middle of the 13th century, when the hospital was dissolved. Historians aren’t sure why this happened, but it may have been the result of a temporary decline in the number of leprosy cases in England.  Nevertheless, even without the lepers, Stourbridge Fair continued to develop and soon became the biggest fair in medieval Europe! In the space of just a hundred years, it grew from a local three-day event to an international three-week bonanza, which carried on until its swan-song in 1933.

The fair at its peak must have been a truly amazing sight. Picture the scene. Silks all the way from Italy float in the breeze. Horse-drawn coaches bringing flocks of excited merrymakers from London and the Continent. The musky scent of oxen carrying spices from exotic locales. Spanish iron clinking across the meadow, as dancers prance and jesters joke.  People everywhere sampling gourmet goods--pungent cheeses, oysters the size of horses’ hooves, wine and mead ladled into tankards. Try to imagine the excitement that the locals, many of whom may never have left Cambridge, got to experience the tastes, sounds and smells of different lands.

With the lepers gone, the University and town tussled over control of the fair and its growing income. Eventually, in 1589, Elizabeth I granted the town access to the profits, but insisted the University should organise the event and control its quality. Over time, the chapel itself became less important as a place of worship, and was increasingly used for secular purposes. For a time it was used a pub, and later as a store room for the fair’s traders. The building was even advertised as a shed for hire in 1783.

Nowadays, the Chapel is used for a variety of local events, including art exhibitions, theatrical performances and re-enactments. Visitors today can easily forget that it was once a site of international trade, but maybe the tranquillity of the Chapel will evoke memories of its use as a place of worship, reflection, and sanctuary.

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 Leper Chapel, Barnwell Junction on Newmarket Road, Cambridge, CB5 8JJ (opposite Cambridge United)

 Access to the chapel can be arranged for groups by calling the office on 01223 243830


King John (of Magna Carta fame) granted permission for Stourbridge Fair to be held: CBBC Horrible Histories Episode and Song about King John https://horriblehistoriestv.wordpress.com/series-6-episode-1/


Has images of the Chapel, including sketches from when it was in disrepair, and black-and white photographs from the interwar period.

Leper Chapel


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