Medieval building and timber roofs
The Poor Priests Hospital, which houses Canterbury Heritage Museum, is one of England’s finest surviving medieval buildings, with flint exterior and magnificent oak-beamed roofs inside. It was built around 1200 by Alexander of Gloucester and was an almshouse, or home for elderly, sick and poor priests.
On the ground floor is the former Chapel of St Mary (room 2 on the plan). Here the Master and Priests of the Hospital worshipped in their private chapel. The focus was at the east end, with an altar before the great east window. The room was open from floor to rafters, without heating. Archaeologists excavated details of the early thirteenth-century chapel during building restoration in 1982. They recorded the pattern of floor tiling, and the position of altar and central screen. Some way below floor level they found traces of a Roman street.
A reconstruction view is displayed, showing the Poor Priests at a service in their Chapel about 1450. You can see a stone basin or ‘piscina’, where the priest washed his hands and the communion vessels, in the wall at the far end.
After the priests left in 1575 (when religious houses were closed down during the Reformation), two new floors were inserted. The traceried windows were replaced, to give light to each floor, and a chimneystack built, improving the space for new secular uses. Part of the inserted first floor was removed during restoration in 1982 to show the outline of the great east window full height. The dormer windows and attic floor have completely gone, except for the joist beam still in place down the centre. One of the window frames dating from about 1600 was uncovered and preserved in the north wall.
Going up to the first floor (room 3 on the plan) you can see the splendid oak roof of the chapel, one of three oak-beamed roofs in the Poor Priests Hospital, created during rebuilding work in 1373. The roof is carried on crown posts, which help distribute its weight to the two cross beams (the tie-beams) and so to the massive walls of chalk and flint.
Further along (room 5) is the medieval Solar, the private room of the Master or Syndic, who looked after the Hospital. Solar comes from the French word meaning upper floor. The Solar was reached by an external stair from the lower floor (the Undercroft). The room survives much as it was in 1373, when Thomas Wyke was Master. There is a splendid oak-beamed roof and a window with stained-glass panels.
A balcony takes you round the medieval Great Hall (room 6 on the plan), with magnificent oak-beamed roof. Look down to see traces of the stone hearth, where an open fire was used for cooking food and providing warmth. There was no chimney and smoke escaped through the roof: you can see smoke-blackened timbers if you look up.
Medieval oak-beamed roof. © Tim Stubbings.