Hagioscopes and Leper squints – How the church kept the sick out of sight

History is riddled with germs. The bubonic plague, cholera, tuberculosis, typhoid, influenza, leprosy, small pox, and goodness knows what else, have all ravaged our ancestors, filling the churchyards and scarring the living. Understandably, fear of contamination was widespread.

Wherever they went, the noticeably sick were shunned and even in church where the lesson to ‘love thy neighbour’ was preached, the ill were outcast. Realising the extent of the problem, and not wanting to lose any followers, church architects soon came up with a way for their more unwelcome worshipers to attend services but remain out of sight.

DSC_0086Hagioscopes, also known as leper windows or squints, are carefully angled holes-in-the-wall that were built to allow onlookers to watch a service from behind-the-scenes. Antony Millett, head of the Faversham Town Walks organisation, kindly showed me the squint within St Mary of Charity’s Church and explained that it had been so accurately placed that the priest conducting the Communion within the now lost chapel dedicated to St Thomas, could see the priest performing at the high alter and duplicate his actions to allow the segregated congregation to join in the service.

Fortunately, there are many examples of this bygone necessity still in existence and, according to a helpful list on Wikipedia, you can find some of them at the following locations. Perhaps there’s one close to you –

  • St James’ in Great Ormside, Cumbria
  • St Bees Priory, St Bees, Cumbria (now infilled)
  • St Mary’s Church, Easington, County Durham
  • St Nicholas’ Church, Berden
  • St Nicholas Church, Westgate Street Gloucester, Gloucestershire
  • St Martin’s Church in Wareham, Dorset
  • St Mary’s, Lytchett Matravers – A particularly large example of a hagioscope
  • St. Laurence and All Saints Church, Eastwood, Essex
  • St Andrew and St Bartholomew’s in Ashleworth, Gloucestershire
  • Church of the Holy Rood, Holybourne, Hampshire
  • Holy Trinity Church in Bradford on Avon, Wiltshire
  • St. Cuthbert’s Church, Aldingham, Lancashire
  • St James’ The Less in Sulgrave, Northamptonshire
  • The Church of St. James, Shere
  • St Mary’s Church, Grendon, Northamptonshire
  • St Cuthbert’s Church, Beltingham, Northumberland
  • St Aidan Bamburgh Northumberland
  • St Oswald’s in Sowerby, North Yorkshire
  • St Peter’s in Upton, Nottinghamshire
  • St Nicholas’ in Old Marston, Oxfordshire
  • St Nicholas’ in Kenilworth, Warwickshire
  • St Mary and St Cuthbert in Chester-Le-Street
  • St Marys Bridge Chapel, Derby

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