The entrance to the Hospital of St Cross, next to the St Cross Symondians Cricket Club on the outskirts of Winchester, is tucked away down a narrow lane that reminds me of Merton Street in Oxford. Indeed, the ancient pilgrims’ hospital and Almshouse of Noble Poverty resembles an Oxbridge college in so many ways; only instead of accommodating rowdy or earnest young undergraduates, the cloisters and gardens house up to 25 elderly “brothers” lucky enough to live in the grounds – which include a croquet lawn, kitchen garden and a tree planted by the Duchess of Cornwall – of what may well be England’s most famous and appealing retirement home.
The pandemic has created an unusual situation in the institution’s 900-year history. In short, Holy Cross almshouse is looking for some new suitable members.
“We have room for 25 but only have 18 at the moment, including one brother who will turn 100 in August,” says the Master of Holy Cross, the charming Rev Terry Hemming. “Recruitment during the pandemic has been a problem.”
I was greeted at the Porter’s Lodge by the Master, who has only been in the role for a year. For most of it, the brothers in his care have not been allowed out of the gates. Local parish members – who share the St Cross church – have been helping with their shopping. The Master is wearing a large silver cross and is an ordained priest – he was brought up in St Cross and has a special academic interest in Orthodox faith – although he makes it clear that one does not have to be religious, or even a Christian, to become a brother (he thinks there is perhaps one Roman Catholic).
“This is not a religious community and we’re not like lay monks, which people sometimes think,” he says as we sit on a bench in the Master’s Garden. “It’s more like supported housing.”
And how very comfortable it is with brothers being given a set of rooms with views through leaded windows out over the striped English lawns of the quadrangle below. It is a sublime setting. John Keats was inspired by a walk in the Holy Cross meadows in 1819 to write his ode “To Autumn”. Brothers usually eat together at lunch – the Irish chef, Paddy, serves up traditional English food, with chicken and bacon pie on the menu on the day I toured – and tend to retire to their rooms to cook and eat dinner. Discipline is rarely a problem. “We don’t have many wild parties, although we will be celebrating our brother who is turning 100.”
The only requirement is that brothers attend matins every day (some assist with the service) in the fine Norman church (which the Master refers to as a “chapel”) which is decorated with various Jerusalem crosses, the emblem of the Hospital with the cross being based on the badge of the Kingdom of Jerusalem that was created after the First Crusade. The cross is cut into the stonework of the church as well as evident in a 19th-century stained glass window. The Jerusalem silver cross potent is also the badge worn by the “black” brothers who are the older class of brothers (and traditionally recruited from noble or at least genteel birth), reminding the visitor of the foundation’s ancient and distinguished religious origins.
After being founded in 1132 by Bishop Henry de Blois, grandson of William the Conqueror, in 1151 it was handed over to the care of the Knights Hospitaller of the Order of St John of Jerusalem, the chivalrous religious military crusader order that protected pilgrimage routes to the Holy Land. Alas, their priorities seemed to have been fighting the infidel and building crusader castles rather than completing the building of Holy Cross. In 1204, a Papal Commission handed the estate back to the Bishop of Winchester and building began again. But the Hospitallers clung on to the foundation and its lucrative rental estates until at least 1379.
The beautiful Noble Poverty almshouse was founded several centuries after the hospital and is associated with the red brothers, who wear a silver cardinal’s badge. The Christian foundation is set in idyllic meadows on the River Itchen outside Winchester, at the start of the 140-mile Pilgrims’ Way to Canterbury. It’s easy to see why Holy Cross rarely needs to advertise for new brothers when a place becomes free after a brother dies.
The Hospital of Holy Cross was originally founded, according to its charter, to provide shelter for “Thirteen poor men, feeble and so reduced in strength that they can scarcely support themselves without other aid, and shall remain in the Hospital constantly.”
These were the original black brothers, and it is presumed that the number 13 was chosen to symbolise Christ and the 12 apostles. I’m glad to report that the admission criteria has considerably changed. Today, there is no class distinction between black and red robe-wearing brothers, an antiquated form of class apartheid – essentially the red brothers were the “officer” class – that resulted in the red brothers expecting the black brothers to clean their shoes and essentially serve them.
This ended around 21 years ago when the former Master Tony Outhwaite – their roll-call names are listed back to the 13th century in the church – decided to make an old Etonian a black brother and a former bulldozer driver a red brother. Ever since, there has been no (official) distinction between the two, although, at lunch, the 20-year veteran brother Bevis Hillier – a member of the Garrick Club and former Spectator reviewer – hinted very heavily to the Master in his admission interview (he was only 59, entering at the unusually early age of 60) that he would prefer to be a red brother.
The current community of 18 brothers includes an old Etonian (a former Guards officer) who found himself without a home after returning from years in Australia, a former teacher (or don) at Winchester College, a former policeman with the Hampshire Constabulary, and a naval officer who fought in the Second World War and will mark his centenary in the summer. When the war film Sink the Bismarck! was shown one evening, the brother showed little interest. “I was there,” he told his fellow brothers at lunch. “I don’t need to go through it all again.”
“We have a complete cross-section of society,” says the Master. “We have a few musicians. We have one who was a choirmaster and organist. During the pandemic, we haven’t been able to leave so we have been having cultural afternoons, where brothers have provided music or a talk. They are all distinguished in their own way. One brother who lived all his life in Birmingham gave us a recital of Spanish guitar music. He is an expert at flamenco music.”
As we walk around the garden, I can see the full magnificence of the Master’s sweeping long black cassock – the sort you see in the window of ecclesiastical outfitters and wonder who on earth still wears such magnificent garments. The Master – in charge of the welfare and discipline of the 25 brothers – could have walked out of the pages of an Anthony Trollope novel from the Barsetshire Chronicles.
It’s only later that I learn that Trollope did actually base his novel The Warden on the opaque financial goings-on at Holy Cross in the 19th century when Francis North was Rector of St Cross from 1829 and the almshouse (turned by Trollope into “Hiram’s Hospital”) drew large rents.
Today, as the Master explains, Holy Cross relies on a variety of other forms of income, including filming, weddings, events – the 14th-century Brethren’s Hall was used in the BBC adaptation of Wolf Hall – guided tours and a wonderful gift shop that sells Holy Cross jams, books, beer and even “Noble Poverty” fudge. If you are on a walking pilgrimage – either the Pilgrims’ Way or the Clarendon Way – the shop is where you will be served your “Wayfarer’s Dole” – a morsel of bread and a deer horn of beer – a tradition going back centuries.
The hospital’s charter stated that not only would it provide for 13 “feeble” men, but also provide food for 100 men and their families (hence why one of the dining halls is called the Hundred Men’s Hall). Today, you do not need to be feeble and “poor” to be “gowned” – which is the name for the traditional admission ceremony –
after serving your six-month probation. Quite the opposite – you must pay your own way.
When 81-year-old author Bevis Hillier took off his smart navy wool overcoat after lunch, I noted the label was from Turnbull & Asser. At lunch, he gave me a copy of his latest book, a wonderful critique of how he has solved the mystery of the tune that inspired Edwin Elgar’s Enigma Variations. Over scampi and chips and a gin and tonic –his first for a while – the distinguished John Betjeman biographer explained how he worked out that the hidden melody is the Welsh song “Men of Harlech”.
Genteel need would probably characterise the most important qualification to be elected as a brother. You need to be able to show that you don’t own property, says the Master,
as well as have sufficient means to sustain yourself and pay for your own lodging and food, although admittedly it is only a very modest stipend and the hospital helps those who need to to apply for housing benefit.
So how does one become a brother, I ask. With six or seven places to fill, how do you apply? The interview process involves filling in a form and being invited along for what is known as “the 48”. That is a 48-hour stay in which a prospective new brother meets all the other brothers. And then there is an election. ‘The idea is to see if they will fit in,” says the Master. “But we haven’t been able to do that during the pandemic.”
Word of mouth, he adds, is quite a part of the recruitment process. “We have one lovely brother who lived in the same house for 72 years, until he moved here. His parish in Birmingham had a trip to Winchester Cathedral, and in that trip they came here. And in that trip, he said: ‘I want to live here.’ Another brother heard about us at his local pub, and another had once come here as a young man. So when he retired, he applied.”
Before lunch with two brothers, Bevis Hillier and former policeman John Switzer, we sat and talked in the Master’s Garden in the spring sunshine as the gardener fed bread to the giant Japanese carp thrashing around in the Master’s Pond. Originally, the fish supplied food for the community and the Master used to entertain in the grand Master’s Lodge.
Today, the Master lives in a rather more modest flat. John says that living in the community had ironed out a dose of depression he had suffered after retiring from the force. Despite the average age being not far off 80, it is a thriving community.
As we walked back from lunch towards the little shop in the Porter’s Lodge – where I bought some jam and was given my Wayfarer’s Dole of a horn of beer (alas no bread) –Bevis noted solemnly that the lodge door was half-open. “It means a brother has died,” he says. “We enter a period of mourning and his name is typed up and pinned to the door.” How wonderfully medieval. If anybody reading this is interested in applying to be a brother, write to the Master. Someone with a love of cricket might have an inside advantage.
William Cash is the acting editor of the Catholic Herald.
This article first appeared in the June issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe now.
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