16.06.06, Stanford, ed., The Building Accounts of the Savoy Hospital, London, 1512-1520

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Katherine French

The Medieval Review 16.06.06

Stanford, Charlotte A., ed. The Building Accounts of the Savoy Hospital, London, 1512-1520. Westminster Abbey Record Series, 8. Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2015. pp. vii, 462. ISBN: 9781783270668 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Katherine French
University of Michigan-Ann Arbor

The Savoy Hospital, built on the site of the ruins of John of Gaunt's palace, was the ambitious project of Henry VII. Possibly founded as early as 1505, the building was completed under the oversight of Henry's executors by 1520, although it started admitting patients in 1519. The resulting building combined inspiration from both English tradition as well as Florence's Santa Maria Nuova Hospital. For all its Renaissance inspiration however, the foundation still owed much to medieval ideas of charity and spiritual commemoration. Henry's will states that as a hospital it was to fulfill the seven works of mercy: receiving the poor, quenching the thirsty, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick, visiting prisoners, burying the dead. Particularly the hospital was to serve poor men, no women and no lepers. As a royal foundation the project also celebrated monarchy and the Tudors, with all staff wearing Tudor livery badges. By the mid-sixteenth century, the Savoy Hospital was also a tourist attraction. It survived the initial Dissolution, but its continued financial troubles meant that the foundation was dissolved in 1553, reopened under Mary in 1556, finally being closed in 1702 after years of financial difficulty. Even before its final closure, many of buildings had been turned to other purposes including a military barracks, a debtors' prison, and space for two nonconformist congregations. Except for the heavily restored Queen's Chapel of the Savoy, the buildings were finally taken down in the early nineteenth century.

Despite its size, prominence, and royal favor, documents from running of the Savoy are largely absent. There is Henry's will, a set of statutes from 1524, fiscal records for one year, and building accounts, the focus of Charlotte Stanford's edition. The building accounts are not complete; they start in September 1512 and end in late July 1515, with additional entries for supplies and piecework up to early 1520. The accounts that Stanford has edited are the final clean copy, not the records kept on site. The records are held by Westminster Abbey, because that is where Henry deposited his money to finance building the hospital. As Stanford explains, the records were likely made to double check for errors. Despite their limitations, these building accounts provide a glimpse into the running and organization of a large, and in Stanford's estimation, well-run construction project. The accounts also add information to our sketchy understanding of the building's appearance. While archaeology and drawings show a Continental ground plan, the details and finishing as recorded in the accounts appear largely English.

The records start in the middle of the building project, and by this point 124 workers were on site. In running such a large project, the Abbey employed a variety of trades including masons, bricklayers, carpenters and joiners, and glaziers, along general laborers. Laborers were the largest category of employee, making up a third of the workforce. In addition to skilled and unskilled labor, the project required building materials, not only stone and lumber, but brick, lime, sand, tiles, and iron. While most materials were relatively local, with much stone coming from Surrey and Kent, some came from Caen in France and some lumber from the Baltic. Coming such a distance made the transport more expensive than the materials themselves. Taken together, materials and their transport was a bigger expense than wages, and while the Savoy's riverfront location helped in cutting the cost of transport, it still remained a significant percentage of yearly expenditures.

The accounts record the wages by day and individual. While perhaps tedious in the specifics, in the aggregate, this is a rich source for understanding not only how large-scale construction projects were run, but something of the pace and seasonality of work and the social make-up of the workforce itself. This alone makes this edition a valuable contribution to labor history. In the two full years of accounts (1513 and 1514), workers took over forty holidays in addition to Sundays. Late medieval/Early Modern workers, like their modern counterparts, often tried to turn a two-day weekend into a longer break. This kind of detailed daily wage information allows scholars to assess claims by employers that workers did not want to work hard, but only wanted to work long enough to cover their expenses. The records also make clear that work slowed down in the winter, when it was too cold and daylight too limited to actually lay stone and brick, but not usually too cold to cut and prepare materials for later use. While women did not work on the site, the wives of four workmen do appear as having brought in supplies to their husbands. Similarly, the names of the workmen demonstrate that families sometimes worked together and that most workers were relatively local.

Stanford's edition of the building accounts is a welcome addition to the Westminster Abbey Record Series. She has transcribed the complete account, and her introduction provides a variety of contexts for understanding the accounts. The index of last names also means that individual workers can be tracked, which would allow for further analysis of the work habits of skilled and unskilled laborers.

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