Chapel of St James' Leper Hospital, Dunwich


Heritage Category:
Scheduled Monument
List Entry Number:
Date first listed:
Date of most recent amendment:
Statutory Address:
Churchyard of St James Church, Dunwich, Suffolk, IP17 3DX


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Statutory Address:
Churchyard of St James Church, Dunwich, Suffolk, IP17 3DX

The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.

East Suffolk (District Authority)
National Grid Reference:


The upstanding and buried remains of a chapel of the medieval leper hospital of St James.

Reasons for Designation

The chapel of St James’ Hospital, dating from the C12, is scheduled for the following principal reasons:

* Rarity: as a rare surviving example of a medieval leper hospital chapel;

* Survival: the leper chapel includes a significant proportion of upstanding fabric with well preserved architectural details and evidence for phases of later alteration;

* Documentation: St James is well documented in historical and archaeological terms, which provide a valuable contribution to our knowledge and understanding of the site;

* Group value: the chapel holds group value with Greyfriars, the Pales Dyke and the west side of medieval Dunwich, as surviving remains of the medieval town and its associated monuments.


St James’ Hospital was a C12 leper hospital located just to the west of the medieval coastal town of Dunwich, which has largely fallen off the cliff edge or been inundated by the sea. A Roman fort and settlement may originally have existed near this site. A civitas (town) called Dommoc is recorded in Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica (completed c.731) and served as the seat of St Felix, first bishop of East Anglia (Haslam 1992). In the Saxon period a wic (trading centre or emporium) was established, which subsequently became the medieval settlement known as Dunwich. It is recorded in the 1086 Domesday Survey with three churches and 236 burgesses, although a large part of land (one carucate) had already been lost to coastal erosion. The settlement nonetheless continued to expand into a sizeable town and important seaport. Its growth was linked to the development of the North Sea fishing industry, being well-placed to harvest near-shore herring shoals.

The core of the medieval town was situated on a range of low hills, with the harbour just to the north where the river Blyth then entered the sea. The Pales Dyke; a ditch and bank with a palisade on top, formed part of the town defences. By 1225 Dunwich is considered to have extended approximately a mile from north to south, covering an area similar in size to London. The town possessed eight churches, three chapels, five houses of religious orders, including Franciscan and Dominican monasteries and a preceptory of the Knights Templar, two hospitals, and possibly a mint and a guildhall. However a series of storms in the C13 and C14 silted up the harbour mouth and flooded the quays, effectively ruining the town as a port. Many of the inhabitants left in search of a livelihood elsewhere. The sea continued to erode the coastline, reaching the market place in 1540. The inhabitants stripped the churches and other buildings of their lead roofs and valuables as the sea reached them. An Elizabethan surveyor, Radulphus Agas, was commissioned to survey the town in 1585. A copy of his map survives and indicates that by 1587 approximately half the town had been lost. The process continued and the last of the medieval parish churches to fall to coastal recession was All Saints Church in 1904-19.

St James’ Hospital was located to the west of Dunwich in order to isolate the lepers from the rest of the community. A medieval hospital is a group of buildings housing a religious or secular institution which provided spiritual and medical care. Although these institutions probably originated in the Anglo-Saxon period, the majority were founded from the late C11. Documentary sources indicate that by the Dissolution in 1538, there were approximately 1,100 hospitals. A few escaped suppression or were re-founded soon after, while many became almshouses. Relatively few exact sites of medieval hospitals have been determined. A small number of hospitals were established solely for the treatment of leprosy. These leper houses differ from other hospitals in that they were specifically located and arranged to deal with contagious disease. Their main aim was to provide the sufferer with permanent isolation from society. In contrast to other hospitals they were normally located away from population foci, as was the case at Dunwich. The common hospital plan was characterized by an infirmary hall with a chapel to the east, both buildings arranged on an east-west axis. Dunwich is considered to have followed this plan (Godfrey 1955), although many leper hospitals had a detached chapel and individual dwellings for the inmates.

The leper hospital at Dunwich was probably established during the reign of King Richard I, although the earliest detailed documentary account is a charter of c.1205. By this charter a benefactor, Walter de Riboff, granted land at Brandeston and elsewhere, the tithes of his mills, and various gifts of wheat, bread and ale to the ‘Church of St James and the House of Lepers’ at Dunwich, as well as a pension for Hubert the chaplain. The deceased were to be buried in the graveyard of the mother church at Brandeston. By the mid-C13 the masters of the hospital were said to have embezzled its funds and plundered its assets, and in 1252 Henry II ordered the mayor and bailiffs to investigate. In 1312 and several following years, Edward II allowed the inmates to beg for alms to supplement the hospital income. The C13 and C14 storms at Dunwich, and the Black Death, probably had a further impact on the fortunes of the leper hospital. In 1631 the antiquarian John Weever recorded that the church was ‘a great one, and a faire large one after the old fashion’ with tenements, houses and land belonging to it but ‘lately, greatly decaied and hindred by evil Masters… and other evilly disposed covetous persons’. St James’ Hospital was not suppressed at the Dissolution because the lay residents did not belong to a religious order, and it therefore continued as a charity in the following centuries. The chapel ceased services in about 1685. Thomas Gardner recorded in 1754 that a master and three or four poor people resided in ‘one poor old house, being all that remains of the buildings, except the shells of the church and chapel’.

The roofless east end of the C12 hospital chapel is now all that remains upstanding. It was originally a building over 30m long and of three cells, comprising an infirmary hall and adjoining chapel with a rectangular chancel and an eastern apse. It is shown in an increasingly ruinous state in drawings of c.1748 and c.1753 by Joshua Kirby, c.1797 by T. Hearne and c.1824 by Henry Cavy. These indicate that it originally possessed interlaced arcading in the chancel, a chancel arch of three orders and a domed roof over the apse. St James Church was built in a classical style to the north of the chapel in c.1830, apparently uncovering a plague pit according to local accounts. In 1845 the church was substantially altered and Gothicised, and in 1881 a new chancel was added. The ruin of the leper chapel appears to have been repaired and consolidated at about the same time. It included the infilling of a hole in the north chancel wall, the rebuilding of the south chancel wall, and in-filling of two V-shaped gaps in the apse wall. The repairs are similar to the facing of the adjacent church. They were probably carried out when a Barne family mausoleum was excavated within the apse of the leper chapel in the later C19. On the 1884 Ordnance Survey map the ruins of the chapel are shown, and ‘Hospital Farm’ is marked to the south. The remains of the chapel were consolidated and repaired in the mid-C20 by the Ministry of Works and in 2008-9. The mausoleum was in-filled and grassed over in 2002.

INVESTIGATION HISTORY A ground plan of the leper hospital was first published in the journal Archaeologia in 1796, together with drawings of three capitals, which variously retained foliage, scalloped and fishscale decoration. In 2008 a photographic and measured survey was undertaken by Suffolk County Council prior to conservation repairs.


The chapel of St James’ Hospital is situated on a north-facing slope within the churchyard of St James Church. The upstanding remains comprise part of the east end of the infirmary hall, the chancel and the eastern apse, all of which are now roofless. Originally the hall was 18.3m long by 7.5 wide, the chancel is 6.6m long by 6.2m wide and the apse is 5.5m wide by 4m deep. It is built of Caen stone and septaria with a part-exposed random-rubble core, and C19 repairs in random-rubble, including limestone, brick, flint and beach cobbles.

EXTERNAL WALLS: From north to south, anticlockwise. The north wall survives up to 4.5m high and includes a 3m length of the eastern end of the infirmary hall and the 6m long chancel. It is obscured at the east end by a 1.85m wide C20 concrete buttress, erected to support the north-east corner of the infirmary hall. The original fabric includes a basal plinth and a facing of Caen stone ashlar or squared septaria blocks. However parts of the wall, particular to the east, include C19 patching in random rubble. Near the upper centre of the elevation is a round-headed C12 window of two moulded orders; the first plain and continuous but the second order resting on square imposts supported by nook-shafts with cushion capitals and cushion bases. The moulded cill of the window is continuous with a string course that originally ran around the apse and the east part of the chancel. The apse (east) wall has lost most of its original facing, exposing the random rubble wall core. There were originally three round-headed windows in the apse but only the north window opening survives. It has lost its original facing, leaving only the exposed relieving arch. Set into the wall are the scars of three pilasters, the base for a shaft and part of a blind window or niche. Several put-log holes are set into the north and east walls of the chapel. The south wall stands to 3.5m high externally and 4.5m high internally, due to the building being terraced into the slope. It has largely been rebuilt in random rubble but appears to rest upon the original wall footings.

INTERNAL WALLS: From north to south, anticlockwise. The north wall includes the stubs of two 1m thick cross walls that originally supported arches dividing the infirmary hall and chancel and the chancel and apse. At the west is a 3m length of the infirmary hall wall, which stands to 4.5m high. It has largely been re-faced in random rubble but a lower 2m high section includes the original coursing. Beyond the cross wall is the internal face of the chancel wall. It retains the cushion base, shaft, cushion capital, impost block and three voussoirs of a round-headed arch that once formed the western end of an interlaced blind arcade extending along the full length of the chancel. The lower parts of the wall are largely of Caen stone ashlar with a basal plinth. However there are two areas of rebuilt or patched wall at the east and west. Near the upper centre is the north window; a round-headed arch of two orders, which has lost its supporting nook-shafts and bases but retains a cushion capital. The internal wall of the apse includes the remains of a twelve bay arcade of round-headed arches, surviving 2m high from the foot of the wall. Ten arches survive, together with eight cushion capitals and impost blocks, eight bases and two shafts at each end of the arcade. At the south end is a rectangular niche, which has been inserted into the original fabric. Above the arcade is a string-course and the surviving north window of an original three. It is a round-headed arch of two orders, which retains the imposts, capitals, bases and one nook-shaft. The first order of the arch is constructed of chalk rather than Caen stone. There are two large V-shaped gaps in the apse wall, which appear to have been in-filled in random rubble in the C19. Most of the south chancel and south infirmary hall wall is a C19 random-rubble rebuild. However at the east end of the chancel it retains the shaft, capital with fishscale ornament, and impost block of what was probably an interlaced arcade, matching that to the opposite wall. It also retains the wall stubs of the arches that separated the three cells of the building.


The contents of this record have been generated from a legacy data system.

Legacy System number:
SF 76
Legacy System:


Books and journals
Chant, K, The History of Dunwich, (1986)
Godfrey, W, The English Almshouse, (1955)
Parker, R, Men of Dunwich: The story of a vanished town, (1979), 48-52
Wilkins, W, 'An Essay towards a History of the Venta Icenorum of the Romans, and of Norwich Castle; with Remarks on the Architecture of the Anglo-Saxons and Normans' in Archaeologia, or, Miscellaneous Tracts Relating to Antiquity, , Vol. 12, (1796), 166-167
British History Online – Victoria County History: A History of the County of Suffolk Volume 2 (edited by William Page) – Hospitals: St James, Dunwich, accessed 10th April 2015 from
The Corpus of Romanesque Sculpture in Britain and Ireland: St James's Hospital Chapel, Dunwich, Suffolk, accessed 10th April 2015 from
Boulter, S, Suffolk Councty Council Archaeological Service Report: St. James Leper Hospital, Dunwich (DUN 005) Building Recording Report (2008)


This monument is scheduled under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979 as amended as it appears to the Secretary of State to be of national importance. This entry is a copy, the original is held by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.

End of official listing

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