Wayfarer’s Dole – 1000 Years of Tradition in Winchester

The Wayfarer’s Dole Hospital of St. Cross in Winchester is one of the oldest almshouses in England that is still standing. Founded in the 1130s, its walls whisper tales of England’s first attempts at social housing and the fundamental role religious orders played in its establishment.


What is an Almshouse?

Wayfarer’s Dole Hospital of St. Cross, among other purposes, was an almshouse, the official definition of which, according to the Almshouse Association, is:

‘a unit of residential accommodation (usually a house or flat) which belongs to a charity and is provided exclusively to meet the charity’s purpose such as but not limited to the relief of financial need or infirmity and is occupied or is available for occupation under a licence by a qualified beneficiary who may be required to contribute a weekly sum towards its maintenance’ (Source)

"Wayfarer's Dole" Hospital of St. Cross in Winchester
The primary set of two-storey lodgings can be found on the north-west and west sides of the quadrangle. These lodgings accommodate the 25 residents and are distinguished by their tall chimneys and evenly spaced doorways, each leading to four sets of apartments.

St Cross Hospital would have been one of many almshouses in medieval England.

These were institutions most commonly owned by religious orders and set up to provide shelter and food not only for the poor and elderly but for travellers and pilgrims too.They could be impressive, large buildings or more simple houses and cottages.


Read More: The Harsh Life of the Medieval Commoner 

They were commonly situated within green spaces and, because of the religious influence on their establishment, they were often built alongside a chapel or church and staffed by religious people.

Almshouses quickly became important institutions in early modern England and by the 1500s there were 800 of them in the country.

Over time the nature of almshouses, particularly their management, changed as English society did.

As the merchant classes grew and as individuals had more money to contribute to charitable institutions, almshouses no longer had to rely solely on the church for funding.

"Wayfarer's Dole" Hospital of St. Cross in Winchester
It was founded by Henry of Blois, Bishop of Winchester, grandson of William the Conqueror and younger brother to King Stephen in 1136

Many were taken over by merchant/craft guilds with the intention of providing somewhere for members to live when they could no longer work.

In the Victorian period, almshouses became an even more integral part of English society as cities grew and living conditions for the urban poor declined. Many struggled to survive as jobs became oversubscribed and cities became overcrowded and pay decreased.


To cater for these people, a large number of almshouses, as well as workhouses were built. The former remained popular because they provided a less brutal alternative to the latter.

Read More: What Are The Anglo-Saxon Charters?

Whilst almshouses could be strict and harsh environments to live in, they were still a step away from the workhouse where inmates were required to work long hours, be separated from their families and live in horrendous conditions.

Despite their prevalence in history, many almshouses did not stand the test of time.

The vast majority of them were either abandoned and left to crumble, sold and repurposed or destroyed during the dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII in the 1530s.

What was Life Like in Almshouses?

The rules at almshouses often differed because they were written up by whoever was in charge at the institution in question.

In order to step through the doors of an almshouse, it was common that inmates had to be over the age of 60 and too poor or elderly to live on their own.

"Wayfarer's Dole" Hospital of St. Cross in Winchester
Upon passing beneath the tower, one arrives at the Inner Quadrangle. The northern range of buildings encompasses the 14th-century Brethren’s Hall, a spacious structure designed to accommodate both the Brethren and a hundred impoverished individuals.

They had to be ‘good’ people, local, and in some cases, all of the same sex (in some almshouses, both men and women were accepted but they were segregated).

Then, whilst they lived within the walls of these institutions, inmates were often subject to strict rules which if broken resulted in eviction.

Some required their inmates to attend church, they were responsible for keeping their own rooms clean, and some prohibited them from swearing and drinking in excess.

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Whilst almshouses were less ruthless than the workhouse, they could still be unpleasant places to live. There are accounts, for example, of elderly women being evicted after the death of their husbands.

What is St. Cross and What Does it Contain?

St. Cross, originally named The Hospital of St Cross and Almshouse of Noble Poverty, is a medieval almshouse located in Winchester, England and is one of the oldest almshouses in the country that still stands.

Today, the building is Grade I listed and much of its grounds and buildings are open to the public.

The hospital was founded all the way back in 1136 by a man named Henry of Blois who was not only the Bishop of Winchester but also the grandson of William the Conqueror. At the time, the area was in particular need of an institution like St Cross.

"Wayfarer's Dole" Hospital of St. Cross in Winchester

Stephen of Blois and Empress Maud were fighting a civil war against each other for the throne of England and, in the process, villages were sacked, crops were destroyed and armies littered the land.

Despite these societal conditions and according to legend, Henry did not set out to construct a hospital. Instead, he stumbled upon the idea by chance when taking a stroll through the Itchen Meadows.


He was minding his own business when he encountered a peasant girl in one of the fields. She begged him for help explaining that the local families were starving and in desperate need of food.

Read More: Uncovering the Fascinating Origins of Rural Place Names

Despite being touched by the girls suffering he continued his walk until he came across a ruined building which he assumed had once been a religious house.

Upon seeing the crumbling building Henry decided he should establish a monastic house in its place.

No one is certain about how accurate this legend is but we do know that Henry established a monastic house and a hospital on this land.

It was intended to look after 13 elderly men in need of care as well as to provide food to anyone who turned up at its doors in need. 

The site was to be run by a Master and when the almshouses were added two centuries later, its intake was increased to 25 men who were referred to as the ‘Brothers.’

wayfarer's dole
There are places for twenty five Brothers in total and they belong either to the Hospital Foundation (Black Brothers) or the Order of Noble Poverty (Red Brothers). They come from a wide variety of backgrounds, and are usually single, divorced or widowers. Credit: Hospital of St. Cross and Almshouse of Noble Poverty.

12th century

The site is comprised of a selection of stone buildings each built for a particular purpose. The oldest on the site is the church which dates from the 12th century. Said to have been constructed with stone from as far away as Normandy, it is all that remains of Henry’s original hospital.

The brewhouse and the Brethren’s Hall were both constructed in the 14th century.

In the 15th century, the site was expanded by Cardinal Beaufort who constructed the Beaufort Tower, the porter’s lodge and the almshouses. The guest wing and the kitchen were constructed in the 16th century.

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The Brethren’s Hall was one of the most important buildings on the site as it was the room where everyone ate.

Almshouse Buildings

It contains an upstairs gallery with a timber screen, boasts an impressive timber roof and is complete with a hearth and dais which would have been where the Master dined. The Hall would also have contained the Master’s rooms which were accessed via a staircase.

The almshouse buildings are a row of very regular-looking two-storey cottages with evenly spaced chimneys and doorways.

"Wayfarer's Dole" Hospital of St. Cross in Winchester
The Hospital of St. Cross and Almshouse of Noble Poverty stands as one of the oldest charitable institutions in England.

There was once another collection of these cottages on the site but they were demolished in 1789.

The 12th-century church of St. Cross is also an integral part of the site and is often described as a miniature cathedral. The building is of a Transitional Norman/Gothic style with thick, metre-wide walls and impressive stone vaulted ceilings.

The round-heaped windows of the church are typical of the Norman style but the arches in the arcade and central tower are more Gothic.

The big tracery window as well as the clerestory windows were added at some point between 1383 and 1385 but most of the stained glass is from the 19th century.

On the floor of the church, there remain some original medieval tiles as well as some medieval paintings on the walls.

Today the site is still occupied by 25 brothers who live there permanently.

What is a Wayfarer’s Dole Hospital and Who Founded Them?

As mentioned above, the Wayfarer’s Dole Hospital of St. Cross is a type of almshouse, but what makes it particularly interesting is the service it provides.

Named the ‘Wayfarer’s Dole,’ this service is an old religious tradition which states that a small cup of beer and a small slice of bread would be given to anyone who knocked on the door of the Porter’s Lodge and requested the ‘Dole.’

"Wayfarer's Dole" Hospital of St. Cross in Winchester
The Wayfarer’s Dole is still given to all who request it at the Porters Gate.

The custom was created by a monk from Cluny, France who belonged to an order which had a tradition of always providing bread and wine to needy travellers.

The tradition travelled all the way across the English Channel and still exists in some places today, including at St Cross.

Wayfarer’s Dole Hospital of St. Cross, like many of the almshouses in medieval and early modern Britain, played a crucial role in the care of society’s most vulnerable.# Providing shelter and comfort for the elderly who were unable to live by themselves and operating under the teachings of Christianity, these institutions became crucial to many people’s survival.