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Almshouse Patent, 1698

Written by Judith Curthoys, posted on Thursday, March 1, 2018

Document of the month - March 2018

Patent granting John Wilkins a place in the almshouse, 18 March 1698
Christ Church archives lxi.a.6

From the foundation until the late nineteenth century, Christ Church had an almshouse across the road from Tom Gate.

Now the lodgings of the master of Pembroke College, the almshouse once accommodated 24 retired soldiers or sailors who had served the Crown.

Their patents, the formal documents signed by the monarch, which granted the men their places, are preserved in the archives. Beginning in the sixteenth century, these often indicate the campaigns in which the men had served; in France or the Low Countries, in Spain, and later in the Crimea.

During the English Civil War the Dean and Chapter struggled with the changes in regime, and the almshouse was just one more problem: until the execution of Charles I, the almshouse was filled with those who had faithfully fought on the side of the King but during the Interregnum the Crown nominees were thrown out, and soldiers of Parliament were installed in their place.

At the Restoration in 1660, it was all change again.

Patent granting John Wilkins a place in the almshouse, 18 March 1698 - Christ Church archives lxi.a.6One of these old soldiers was John Wilkins who, according to his patent, was blown up during the Anglo-Dutch bombardment of Dieppe on 6 July 1694.  He evidently was injured severely and must have found it difficult to manage, so King William signed Wilkins’s patent in March 1698. He was to have a place in the almshouse for the rest of his life, as soon as a place fell vacant. Click the small image on the right to view a large version.

Life for the occupants of the house seems to have been one of relative leisure. In other cathedrals, almsmen were put to work as caretakers, precinct constables, cleaners, organ-blowers, doormen or bellringers. But here, the Dean and Chapter seem to have been at a loss to find a role for 24 retired soldiers. They were required to go to the cathedral regularly, to be obedient to the Dean and his officers, and under no circumstances were they to be idle.

But the rules were not kept. As early as 1561, Queen Elizabeth had to write sternly to the Dean and Chapter telling them to deal with the almsmen’s misuse of their places; some had sold their privileges and were living out of the lodgings, often in some style. Soon after, an oath was introduced for new almsmen to swear on admission by which they promised good behaviour. It seems to have been less than successful, and the Chapter still had to respond to individual difficulties. One resident had ‘fraudulently procured his daughter to be married to one Mr Hacker, a Commoner of the House’, and in 1723, parts of the building had been sub-let by the almsmen as a brewery.

By the early nineteenth century, the building was collapsing about the almsmen’s ears, nearby residents were complaining about its condition, and the Treasurer was bemoaning the uselessness to the college of 24 ‘old and worn-out soldiers’.

The link between cathedral and almshouse was effectively severed with the change in constitution in 1867. The men were moved out of their lodgings and compensated with a rise in pension.

The house briefly became the Treasurer’s residence, but was eventually sold to Pembroke College in 1888.

Although there is no almshouse, almsmen are still appointed - usually now long-serving members of college staff rather than retired military personnel - and still receive a formal patent from the Queen.