The date of the foundation of the Hospital of St. John Baptist at Bedford is somewhat uncertain. In the time of Henry Beaufort, Bishop of Lincoln, a Book of Memorandum records that in the year 980 the new Hospital of St John the Baptist was founded, but the correct date is believed to be around 1180, for the first mention of the hospital is found in 1216 when the brothers owned a mill in Bedford, and not long afterwards Bishop Hugh de Wells authorised the construction of a vicarage for the church of St. John, which belonged then to the brothers of the Hospital.
The founder's name was Robert de Parys; other benefactors being John and Henry St. John. The original endowment was intended to support two or three religious brethren, of whom one should be Master; it was to be a house of charity, where all needy persons free born of the town of Bedford (but from no other place), who had become poor by misfortune rather than by fault, might seek admittance and be maintained; no such persons could be presented by the Mayor and Burgesses except with the consent of the founder and his successors. The brethren were to live a religious life, having a common refectory and dormitory; they were to have the tonsure of a priest and to wear clothing of any sober colour, covered by a dark mantle. They were to remain in the Hospital for life, and, when admitted, to take an oath of obedience to the statutes and to the Master; they were every day to sing the canonical hours and celebrate the divine office for the living and the dead, praying especially for the soul of the founder and other benefactors. The Master normally corrected the brethren, but he might appeal to the Bishop in case of necessity.
In 1302 the master held one-twentieth of a knight's fee in Clophill
In 1306 Bishop Dalderby wrote a fuller rule for the brethren, which was practically an adaptation of the rule of St. Augustine to their particular circumstances. It is clear that though they were so few in number they were expected to live not quite as strictly as the religious inhabitants of large communities.
The church was rebuilt early in the fourteenth century, and the brethren then had a licence to beg alms on account of their poverty. The master of the Hospital, Robert Rous, was appointed in 1333 to hear the confessions of all the subjects of the archdeacons of Bedford and Huntingdon. He died in 1349, probably of the Black Death. In 1399 the Hospital was reconstituted on the old foundation by Bishop Beaufort, with the same number of brethren and the same rule as before.
In 1535 the revenue of the hospital, consisting mainly of small rents, amounted to £21 0s. 8d
When inquiry was being made at the end of the reign of Henry VIII into the condition of chantries and hospitals, it was said that no poor person was kept there, nor had been for many years. It appears also that there were no longer any brethren, but only a Master, who was also Rector of the church and the revenue amounted to £20.
The Hospital was not taken into the king's hand at that time, but in 1591 an attempt was made to prove that it had reverted to the Crown by the death of the Master and religious brethren. Oliver St. John and others were commissioned to inquire into the foundation and to find out who were the heirs of Robert de Parys. It was finally proved that it had been united with the parish church and was the property of the Mayor and Corporation, who in 1628 petitioned that there should be no further proceedings against them in respect of it, 'except only by course of law.' At the end of the eighteenth century the Rector of the church was still called Master of the Hospital, and ten beadsmen received ninepence weekly from the funds of the old foundation.
In 1653 and 1654 a Commission ordered that certain persons deliver up all land and possessions to John Gifford, the Master and Rector of the Hospital and Rectory and his successors. The income thereafter to maintain the ministry of the Master and Rector and provide clothing and relief of poor, aged men of the Town and Borough of Bedford and other good and charitable causes.
St John’s Rectory and the Hospital at the rear
painted by Thomas Fisher c.1820
In 1835 Henry Pearse became Master and Rector and it was then noted that the sum of ninepence per week was usually paid to 10 poor men and one shilling each on St John’s and St Thomas’s days in lieu of dinners. On affixing a seal to any lease, two of the poor men were always present and received two shillings and sixpence each from the Master and the lessee. The property of the Trust then consisted of the Master’s house and certain farms, fields and messuages in or about the Town of Bedford; the value was £56,284.00. The income had been taken principally by the Master and Rector, leaving only £19.10s amongst the then 10 beadsmen.
In 1860 the Mayor, Alderman and Burgesses of the Borough of Bedford, with the consent of the Rev Henry Pearse, promoted a bill in Parliament to authorise a sale of the Hospital lands and the application of all proceeds to certain ecclesiastical purposes in the Borough of Bedford
The opponents to the Bill proposed that all land and buildings belonging to the Master and co-brethren of the Hospital were subject to the Trusts of Robert de Parys. It was further proposed that all rents and income benefit the Hospital and be applied to the poor of Bedford.
In 1864 the Master of the Rolls decreed largely in favour of the opponents and ordered that a scheme for the future regulation of the Hospital and application of income should be established and that provision be made for the appointment of Trustees.
The Mayor and Alderman etc appealed against the decision of the Master of the Rolls but the Lords of Appeal hardly altered the Master of the Rolls earlier decision.
Following this promotion and failure of the Borough, the 1881 Act of Parliament was passed and in accordance with which the Trust still operates, although the gratuities have been regularly increased as have the payments to Charity