The Hospital of St Cross and Almshouse of Noble Poverty has been described as England's oldest and most perfect almshouse. The name dates back to the original meaning of a hospital: “a place where weary travellers could rest before pressing on with their journey”. This is where we get “hostel” and “hospitable”.

It comprises two ancient charitable foundations.

The Order of the Hospital of St Cross (The Black Brothers)

Legend has it that this Order, and the Hospital, originated when Henry of Blois, a grandson of William the Conqueror, was stopped by a young peasant girl, who begged him to help her people who were starving because of the civil war - the so-called "Anarchy". Henry was so moved, that in 1132 he established the hospital.

Daily Echo: Henry Blois.

The hospital had to support thirteen poor men, and feed one hundred men at the gates each day. The men became the Black Brothers of St Cross. Brothers from this order wear a black robe, a black trencher hat, and a silver badge in the shape of the Cross of Jerusalem.

The Order of Nobile Poverty (The Red Brothers)

This Order was founded 300 years later in 1445, by Cardinal Henry Beaufort, Bishop of Winchester, who added the Almshouses to the existing Hospital buildings. Brothers from the order wear a claret robe, a claret trencher hat, and a silver Cardinal’s badge, in memory of their founder.

The road to the Hospital from St Cross Road, leads to the Outer Gate, which gives entry to the Outer Quadrangle, where you can find the brewhouse (now a tea room), the guest wing, a kitchen and the Porter's Lodge.

The Inner Quadrangle is reached by passing beneath the three-storey Beaufort Tower. The buildings on the west side house the 25 Brethren, and are notable for the tall, regularly-spaced chimneys, and doorways leading to four sets of apartments; a corresponding range on the south side was demolished in 1789, and is now an ambulatory.

Daily Echo: Cardinal Henry Beaufort.

The North Range includes the 14th-century Brethren's Hall, which had to be large enough for the Brethren and the one hundred 100 poor men to dine. There is a splendid timber roof, a dais where the Master dined, and a staircase leading to the Master's rooms.

The 12th- and 13-century Church, in the south-east corner, is more like a miniature cathedral than an almshouse chapel. Started in 1135, the Chancel was the first part, typically Norman, with round-headed windows, and much chevron ornament. But the main arches, in the arcade and beneath the central tower, are slightly pointed in the Gothic manner. The three-bay aisled nave and transepts continue that style. Several medieval encaustic tiles survive on the floor; there are also traces of medieval wall paintings. The stained glass however, is mainly from the 19th century.

The hospital continues the ancient tradition of the "Wayfarer's Dole”, consisting of a small cup of ale and a piece of bread. which can be obtained by anyone who asks at the Porter's Lodge.

Daily Echo: St Cross Brothers.

The tradition 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 idea crossed the English Channel, and still exists in a number of religious foundations today.

The hospital now has places for twenty-five Brothers, who should be either single, widowed or divorced, more than 60 years of age, and no longer employed. Preference is given to those of low or limited income, but others are not excluded. Brothers are expected to wear their robes, and attend daily morning prayers in the Church. Anyone interested in applying should see the Hospital website at

The Hospital is open to visitors from 10.30am to 3.30pm, Monday to Saturday; hours are a little longer in the summer. See for more details, and prices of entry.

Daily Echo: SeeSouthampton logo.

Jack Wilson is a tour guide with .