'There was an ancient hospital of lepers at Chesterfield, dedicated to St Leonard, which existed before the year 1195, when a rent-charge of £6 per annum, payable out of the manor, was assigned to the brethren in lieu of their fair… We suppose the site of this hospital to have been at a place called Spital, near the Rother, about half a mile south-east of the town'. (1)
William Senior's map of Chesterfield dated 1633 depicts a quadrangular block of buildings marked 'SPITTLE' on the northern side of the road to Calow, as well as an unmarked building on the southern side of the road. (2) Sanderson's map of 1835 names the area as Hady, and shows 'Spital House' and Spital Lane further to the south. (3)
Late 19th century (eg source 4) and early 20th century Ordnance Survey maps mark 'St Leonard's Hospital (site of)' on the south side of Hady Hill, immediately east of the junction with Spital Lane (although this junction has since been altered). According to the Ordnance Survey's Object Name Book, the published site and name was authorised by 'Mr Stanton, Market Hall' and 'Applies to the site of an antiquity'. 'South side of Hady Hill' was interpolated at the 1914 Revision. (4, 5)
'On the south-east side of the old borough of Chesterfield, at a place near the Rother, which still goes by the name of Spital Bridge, there was founded in the twelfth century a hospital for lepers. It was dedicated to St. Leonard ... The hospital was originally endowed by John, when count of Mortain, with the dues from the markets and fairs of the borough…'. Cox gives an account of the historical references to the hospital; for example in 1228 Henry III granted oaks from the royal forests for the repair of the hospital chapel and two years later he assigned six acres of pasture in Peak Forest to the hospital. In 1276 a warrant for begging alms was granted by Edward I to the master and brethren of the hospital of St Nicholas, Chesterfield, which Cox suggests is an error for St Leonard. A reference in 1334 to the 'leprous men of the hospital of St John, Chesterfield' to enable them to seek alms for the support of their house is also interpreted as a scribe's error for St Leonard. Cox suggests there may have been altars to St John and St Nicholas in the chapel or that there were two chapels within the precincts. Alternatively there could have been another small unendowed lazar-house at the gates of Chesterfield, entirely dependent on alms. In 1535, when the Valor Ecclesiasticus was drawn up, it was found that the annual income of the hospital could not be estimated; it would appear that the hospital's income had become estranged from its original object and was in the main held by non-resident pluralist masters. On the extinction of hospital chantries in the reign of Edward VI, the property of St. Leonard's was seized by the crown. (6).
The Hospital of St. Leonard, Chesterfield, is listed as a leper hospital, founded before 1171 and dissolved c. 1547. (7)
Spital occurs as a name from 1403 onwards and may be identified with the "fratiribus leprosis de Cestrefeld" mentioned in 1196. (8)
There is no evidence of the medieval hospital at the Ordnance Survey siting, which is regarded by informed local opinion (including the Librarian, Chesterfield Public Library) as an error. The area of the siting on the 1633 map (Authy. 4) is occupied by a large modern brick house. A row of cottages and outbuildings at its rear have stone rubble walling but no identifiable remains of the hospital were found. (9)
The exact site of St Leonard’s hospital for lepers is not known at present. The hospital is said to have been in existence by 1171, with a reference of 1195 making it clear that it was founded as a leper hospital. The hospital chapel was repaired in the first half of the 13th century, as indicated by a grant from Henry III which provided oaks for the purpose. The hospital was dissolved in c. 1547. A document in Nottinghamshire Archives records the sale in 1590 of the ‘free chapel or hospital of St Leonard’s’ together with all its property (information from the catalogue of Portland papers). Later leases refer to a farm called Spittle. One supposed tradition connected with the hospital has the religious buildings ‘on the site of the present Spital House’ and the hospital proper ‘some little distance away’ occupying the piece of ground later covered by the cemetery lodge: ‘Certainly an ancient building which was known by the name of the old Leper House was pulled down about 1857 when the cemetery was formed. It had for some little time previously been used as a cotton-doubling works’ (11, 12).
In June 2000, during some landscaping work in a garden on the northern side of the road in this area, a burial structure was uncovered which contained the skeleton of an adult male. The body had been buried with a paten and probably also a chalice, indicating he may have been a priest. A substantial, albeit truncated, wall was located on the same east-west alignment as the burial and tentatively identified as part of the southern wall of a chapel within which the body had been buried. Radiocarbon dating of a bone sample provided a date range of the 11th to the 13th century, most probably falling between the late 12th and the early 13th century (13).