Legend has it that the Hospital’s foundation originated in a walk that Henry of Blois, a grandson of William the Conqueror, took in the Itchen Meadows. He was supposedly stopped by a young peasant girl who begged Henry to help her people, who were starving because of the civil war. The parallel with the Virgin Mary was not lost on Henry, who was so moved by the girl’s plight that when, a little further along the river, he discovered the ruins of a religious house, he resolved to use the site to establish a new community to help the poor. How much of this is fact is unclear, but we do know that Henry of Blois was young, wealthy and powerful: a monk, knight and politician in one. Appointed Bishop of Winchester in 1129 at the age of 28, he founded the Hospital of St Cross between 1132 and 1136, creating what is said to be England’s oldest charitable institution.
The Hospital was founded to support thirteen poor men, so frail that they were unable to work, and to feed one hundred men at the gates each day. The thirteen men became the Brothers of St Cross. Then, as now, they were not monks. St Cross is not a monastery but a secular foundation. Medieval St Cross was endowed with land, mills and farms, providing food and drink for a large number of people. However the water was unfit for drinking so copious amounts of ale and beer were needed.
In the fifteenth century, Cardinal Beaufort created the Order of Noble Poverty, adding the Almshouse to the existing Hospital buildings and giving St Cross the look that it has today. His image appears on the Beaufort Tower.
Because it is a charitable foundation, independent of the church, St Cross miraculously managed to escape both the architectural brutalities of Henry VIII with The Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1536 and the cannon-fire of Oliver Cromwell in 1644 during the Civil War when Winchester was besieged. The parkland, buildings and the gardens are open to the public nearly all year and are all of outstanding beauty. The Chapel also houses the congregation of the nearby Parish of St Faith since the parishioners could not afford to maintain their own church in 1507.