The History of Haverfordwest Leper Hospital

Chapel of St Mary Magdalene former Priory Leper House

Chapel of St Mary Magdalene former Priory Leper House

Anyone regularly travelling along Freemans Way will have seen, at the County Hall end, the ruins of Haverfordwest Augustinian Priory. It is quite remarkable how beautiful a total ruin can be. So peaceful - despite being only 500 yards from the town centre. Tucked away at the bottom of Union Hill, it is generally unnoticed... but it hides many secrets.

A long-forgotten and seldom seen addition to the Priory is the medieval leper hospital and chapel, named Magdalene’s Chapel, situated at the bottom of Merlin’s Hill in the garden of a property named Bryn Merlin

This house has for generations been in the ownership of the family of Chris Evans-Thomas and her brother John and within their memories was used as a nursery that boasted a vinery. The ruin is listed at the Records Office as Lazar Gardens.

It seems the chapel was built before 1246, when it appears in the Augmentation Rolls of Henry III, but interest in identifying the ruins started around 120 years ago.

An entry in the Pembrokeshire Archaeological Survey compiled between 1896 and 1907 suggests that the ruins consist of ‘part of the north wall (of the chapel) with three lancet openings.’

A later entry suggests that the surviving north wall became the south wall of a domestic residence. In among all of this vagueness, a belief is held that the building was originally a leper hospital, strongly affiliated with the Priory.

After the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1536, it was listed as having been in Priory ownership. A reasonable supposition is that the building took on a new life as a chapel rather than a hospital, remaining so until conversion into a residence centuries later.

But Mrs Evans-Thomas’ late son Adam, after whom the Bucketful of Hope charity shop in Haverfordwest is named, did considerable research having had unrestricted access to the whole area on which the ruins stand. His findings point to the hospital having been a separate building close to the chapel. Further information from Mrs Evans-Thomas state a path used to lead from the ruins to the Priory, on land now covered by Freemans Way.

The state of medieval medical understanding was such that skin complaints unrelated to leprosy might quite often have been diagnosed as such. As many as 300 leper hospitals were built in this country at roughly the same time and most seem to have been on the outskirts of towns or communities. This has to be due to an edict of the church in 1179 legislating that lepers were not to live among healthy people.

But recent archaeological research wonders whether the image of the leper as an outcast is more the idea of the Victorians, and suggests that the hospitals were on the outskirts of towns because that was where land was available.

All of these hospitals were called Magdalene after Mary Magdalene, the reason deriving from the name of her supposed brother Lazarus (described in the bible as, ‘a beggar full of sores’) a shortened form of which (Lazar) came to mean leprosy.

Leprosy remains an extremely unpleasant disease - prevalent in India and China - leading to permanent damage to skin, nerves and eyes but shortens toes and fingers rather than causes them to drop off according to popular, often darkly comic, belief.

Although there may be some vagueness about our local leper buildings we have far more certainty regarding the name of Merlin’s Bridge.

During the Middle Ages ‘Magdalene’ was corrupted into ‘maudlin’ which became the definition of a tearful, sad individual - which was how Mary Magdalene was seen as she stood close to Jesus’ tomb. The Magdalene colleges of Oxford and Cambridge Universities are both pronounced ‘maudlin’.

In 1738, the area around the ruin was referred to as Maudlin’s Bridge and Maudlin’s Hill. Over the next few centuries, this was in turn corrupted into Merlin’s Hill and Merlin’s Bridge, meaning the areas as we know them today are linked to the Leper Hospital rather than to Arthurian legend.

I do hope this hasn’t disappointed anyone.