The reason for the erection of the fine old building which is the historic Bedehouse was originally to house the Bedesmen.
About the year 1422, when planning his College at Higham Ferrers, Archbishop Henry Chichele - Primate of All England from 1414 -1443 and a native son of the town, founded "In a place adjoining the Vicarage and the Churchyard", his Bede House or Hospital to be a dwelling place for 12 men over 50 years old to live "in close company" with one woman to look after them.
It consisted, as was the manner of those times, of a common open Hall, and was probably the finest dwelling in all Higham outside the Castle, Each man had his little cubicle with its locker, divided off by a screen from his fellows, and the rest of the Hall formed a common room with a fine open fireplace, itself a relic of even older times. On the South, a sheltered garden was added by taking part of the land of the Vicarage.
In those days, no old age pensions were provided by a welfare state, but Henry Chichele provided each old man and the woman with a pension of 1d per day, at a time when the working man’s wage was little more than 5 new pence a week, and the Bedesman’s silver penny was worth more than the modern pension. He could afford to buy meat for his Sunday dinner with enough to be put on one side to be "powdered up against Wednesday" by the Bedeswoman. Each Bedesman had besides "As much black frieze as will make every man a gown and the woman also". Five shillings was allotted for filling the lamp which was to hang in the midst of the Hall, and five shillings for a barber to come every Friday at noon to shave them and dress their heads and to make them clean. Every year they had nine loads of wood again at Christmas and 10 shillings for charcoal or other fuel for a brazier to heat water for washing.
Much was given to the old people, but much was expected of them, and each was required to be sworn upon the Gospels before the Warden or Sub-Warden of the College, to be "true to the house" and to observe and keep a long series of orders and statutes governing their daily lives.
One of their own sober and wise members was chosen to be Prior, and they were to be under his authority and must not "withstand" him. None of evil character could join the company, nor could the brawler, the drunkard, or the haunter of taverns hope to remain. For his first offence he would be warned; for the second fined 1d; for the third fined 2d and the last "explused".
The woman must be of good name and fame, quiet and honest; "no brawler or chider, but glad to please every poor man to her power, and if she will not be ruled, the Warden and Prior are to put her away and choose another".
Only men who could not "live of themselves" could be appointed Bedesmen. Any man who had lands or tenements was not to be admitted "except that he will give his land or tenement after his death freely to the said hospital for ever".
On his appointment the Bedesman must bring with him his bed and bedding; viz., a mattress, a bolster, a pillow, two pairs of sheets, a blanket and coverlet; also a brass pot of two gallons and a brass pan and pewter dish and a saucer. He must also give a dinner to the brethren or else pay each of them 4d. If a man had no such goods of his own, he could purchase what he needed from the store-house into which all the goods of those who died were taken by the Prior. If the newcomer had no gown of his own he could take the best gown of the man whose place he took. He had to pay "three shillings and four pence, for putting it on his back, to the others to make merry withal, and also sixpence for oatmeal and salt, and two pence for the woman for making his bed, and a penny to the barber".
Like most mediaeval foundations the basis of a charity is a rule of prayer; indeed the word "Bede" means prayer. Hence "Bedesmen" equals "Praying men". The twelve Bedesmen were not to be idle;. they lived by a definite Rule, and their time was divided into periods of prayer, and manual work in the garden South of the Hall. They began their day at 7am in the Summer and at 8am in the Winter with a morning office - Matins - and followed it with an hour’s meditation. On all Sundays and feasts there would be Mass either in Church or in the Bedehouse Chapel. They were to pray for the King’s Most Excellent Majesty, for the Royal Family, for the Faithful Departed, the Archbishop, and for the founders of the charity (Archbishop Chichele and his brother) and "all others that they shall fare the better for". The Chapel and the East end of the Hall was perhaps provided in order to relieve the sick and infirm members from the rigours of the long prayers across at the Church. It was indeed a general custom to provide a chapel at the end of all hospitals and infirmaries so that even the bedridden should be able to hear Mass. Whether the Bedesmen were required to assist at the Lesser Offices (Prime, Lauds, Terse, Compline, etc.), which were of course observed by the members of the College each day at the Church, is not clear. But after some work among the herbs in the garden, they certainly took part in the chief evening office of Vespers or Evensong, and closed the day with a further period of prayer.
At times the Foundation seems to have taken in men from outside Higham Ferrers. In some cases the parishes from which they came gave guarantees to ensure that their candidates would not become chargeable to Higham Ferrers Poor Rate if for any reason they had to leave the Bedehouse.
The choice of candidates for the Bedesmen’s fraternity seems originally to have been entrusted by Henry Chichele to the Warden of the College, and he had arranged for the money for the allowances to be paid our of College funds. The College ceased to exist after the Dissolution, and in 1543 its possessions were given to Robert Dacres. This gentleman, who was a member of the Royal Court, was charged with the payment out of these possessions of the 7d a week to each Bedesman and the woman, and with the provision of 5 yards of black frieze (at 8d per yard), together with the wood, the fuel, the lamp and the attendance of the barber as laid down in the Statutes, The King himself (Henry VIII) took over the right to choose the Bedesmen, and in 1556, when his daughter Queen Mary granted a new Charter to the Borough, she entrusted their appointment to the Corporation.
Robert Dacres also remained responsible for the maintenance of the Bede House itself, and in later years when his possessions had been sold to Lord Malton, from whom the Fitzwilliam family inherited them together with the responsibility for the fabric of the Bede House, Earl Fitzwilliam did in fact make extensive repairs in the mid 19th century which ensured the preservation of this fine building to our own times.
Earlier this century a lump sum was invested to provide for all these obligations and to discharge the Fitzwilliam estate. The charity then assumed its present form, but the amount invested does not provide anything for the maintenance of the fabric.
Within recent years, the people of Higham Ferrers have responded generously to an appeal for the restoration of the Bede House. Further work, including the East Window glass and the opening up of the fireplace and rebuilding of the chimney stack, has been made possible by private donations. By 1972 the restoration work was completed and an extension added on the South side to provide cloakrooms and kitchens. This work was made possible by the sale of the old Parish Rooms, in the Deeds of which conditions were laid down requiring the provision of suitable alternative accommodation for the needs of the Parish. This the newly restored and equipped Bede House fulfils completely.