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History of the Master's House

Masters house roof

The Master's House is a late medieval timber-framed open-hall house with cross wings at each end. Tree-ring dating has shown it is built from timber felled in 1487, so it would have been erected either in the same year or the following year. The beautiful medieval timber frame of the Master's House is largely intact which is one of the reasons that it is a Grade II* listed building.

It is part of the wider St Katherine's hospital site which includes St Katherine's Chapel, Hall, Barn and Almshouses. It is a rare example of a medieval hospital complex that is still intact. The Master's House is owned by Herefordshire Council. The Almshouses (rebuilt in 1822 and 1866) and St Katherine's Chapel and Hall are owned by the Dean and Chapter of Hereford. 

Why is it called The Master's House?

St Katherine's Hospital was founded in 1232 by Bishop Hugh Foliot to provide for the spiritual as well as the material well-being of the poor and the aged, the sick and the distressed, travellers and pilgrims.

The hospital was housed in St Katherine's Hall and Chapel. The hospital was set among a range of service and farm buildings and was the centre of a considerable estate which, by 1316, covered an area of 606 acres.

The Master was chosen initially from amongst the brethren of the hospital to be in charge of the hospital and to manage its estate.

In the 15th century, the Master removed himself from the dormitory and hall to live in a newly completed 'Mansion House', known as the Master's House. There have since been extensive additions to the north and west of the building. The principal facade to the south was rebuilt forward of the line of the original hall and service wing in the 18th century.

Who was the Master?

When Bishop Hugh Foliot founded St Katherine's Hospital in 1231, the brethren chose one of their number to be in charge. He was called the Master, sometimes also referred to as the Custos (from the Latin word for warden, protector or master - from which we now have the word custodian).

As time passed some rather less than appropriate masters were appointed, misbehaved and were sacked. This happened at the end of the 14th century, when as a result of the Black Death, so many priests had died that there was a shortage of suitable people for the position. 

Who was he answerable to?

As a result the Dean and Chapter of Hereford Cathedral began choosing the Master from among their number at the cathedral, as they already knew about these priests, who may have already served the cathedral for many years. The new statutes issued by Elizabeth I in 1581 decreed that the Dean and two members of the Chapter made an annual visitation at Michaelmas (29 September) to check the accounts and inspect everything. This certainly happened in Edward Cowper's time as master but later rather fell by the wayside. 

Edward Cowper's accounts show that he took his salary from the rents paid to St Katherine's by the farmers who rented the hospital's lands. £90 was taken each year to pay not only the Master but also the brothers and sisters of the hospital. 

The role of Master was not a paid retirement role requiring little work. The Master had to run the whole St Katharine's Hospital estate, not just the farmyard, which is now a carpark. He had up to 1600 acres of land to deal with in the 14th century, which takes some organising.

When Bishop Hugh Foliot founded St Katherine's Hospital in 1231, the brethren chose one of their number to be in charge. He was called the Master, sometimes also referred to as the Custos (from the Latin word for warden, protector or master - from which we now have the word custodian).

As time passed some rather less than appropriate masters were appointed, misbehaved and were sacked. This happened at the end of the 14th century, when as a result of the Black Death, so many priests had died that there was a shortage of suitable people for the position. 

Any similarities to the master in the Barchester Chronicles?

Yes, Anthony Trollope spent some time in Salisbury and founded St Nicholas' Hospital there. He based the first of the six Barchester Chronicles, The Warden, on that hospital. Hiram's Hospital was a charity like St Katherine's Hospital, and in the book seems to have been run on similar lines and the master to have had similar duties.

How many masters have there been?

There have been more than 60 masters in almost 800 years and some served for decades.

Edward Cowper served as master 1562-74 and 1580-96 and Canon Arthur Bannister more recently from 1909-1936.

Yes, Anthony Trollope spent some time in Salisbury and founded St Nicholas' Hospital there. He based the first of the six Barchester Chronicles, The Warden, on that hospital. Hiram's Hospital was a charity like St Katherine's Hospital, and in the book seems to have been run on similar lines and the master to have had similar duties.

How many masters have there been?

There have been more than 60 masters in almost 800 years and some served for decades.

Edward Cowper served as master 1562-74 and 1580-96 and Canon Arthur Bannister more recently from 1909-1936.

Explore the History of the Masters House

Explore the Masters House