In little over a month’s time an extraordinary Medieval building in central Canterbury will once again open its doors to visitors.
Compared to the other prized historic buildings in Canterbury – the Cathedral, the Norman keep and the Westgate Towers – little spoken about the Eastbridge Hospital.
And that for no good reason. For this building in the High Street owes its very existence to that most dastardly act: the murder of Archbishop Thomas Becket in the Cathedral in 1170 by knights loyal to king Henry II.
Henry plunged into despair after the murder of erstwhile friend. Wearing a course hairshirt, he walked barefoot to Canterbury and allowed himself to be scourged by the priests at the Cathedral.
It would be a journey made by millions of pilgrims thereafter who would come to Canterbury to pray at the shrine of England’s greatest martyr.
And it was to meet the needs of the pilgrims that the Hospital of St Thomas the Martyr Eastbridge was built by 1176. Records show that Becket’s nephew Ralph was its first Master.
It fell into disrepair after 150 years, but was refounded by Archbishop John de Stratford in 1342 and was at peak usage by the 1380s when Geoffrey Chaucer, whose statue stands opposite the Eastbridge, was writing his Canterbury Tales.
Throughout its life it has provided shelter to those in need and still operates as an almshouse for the elderly.
Visitors to the Eastbridge today will find it consists of three elements: the hospital itself, the Franciscan Gardens and the Greyfriars Chapel.
Entered via Stour Street, the Franciscan Gardens are billed as “a haven of peace in an otherwise busy city”. They are the grounds of the first Franciscan settlement in the UK and a Scheduled Ancient Monument.
Sitting in the gardens is the chapel. It is the sole remaining English Franciscan friary and was built in 1267 some four decades after the death of the Franciscan movement’s founder, St Francis of Assisi.
The Eastbridge Hospital is open from 10.30am to 5pm Mondays to Saturdays from March 21 to October 31.