The original founders of what are now known as the Ewelme Trusts were William and Alice de la Pole, the Duke and Duchess of Suffolk.
Alice’s father, Thomas Chaucer, son of the poet Geoffrey Chaucer, had acquired the manor of Ewelme when he married Matilda Burghersh, co-heiress of the Burghersh family. Alice was their only child. Alice married three times. Her first husband was Sir John Phelp, who she married when she was only ten, but he died just a year later. Her second husband was the Earl of Salisbury, who was killed in the Siege of Orleans in 1428, and her third husband was William de la Pole, the Duke of Suffolk. They had one son, John, who was born in 1442. Ewelme Manor was much extended by them from 1444 and subsequently became Ewelme Palace, a very large and impressive building surrounded by a moat. The existing Manor House was originally an outer part of the Palace and is the only part of it still remaining.
In 1437, King Henry VI had given the Duke and Duchess a licence to set up a Chantry Foundation and an almshouse for thirteen poor men at Ewelme. The income for running the Foundation and the almshouse was to come, as it still does today, from the endowment of estates owned by the de la Poles at Marsh Gibbon near Bicester, Ramridge near Andover, Conock in Wiltshire and Ewelme. The thirteen poor men were also expected to come from these estates. In exchange for their free board and lodging in the almshouse, the duties of the almsmen were to attend a number of daily services in the St John’s Chapel of the adjacent Ewelme Church in order to pray for the King, the Duke and Duchess and their successors, and all Christian souls.
One Chaplain, known as The Master, was in overall charge of the Almshouse and officiated at all the services in the Chapel. The second chaplain was the Grammar Master, who taught in the school, which was the third part of the Endowment to be built and is now the oldest primary school in England still in daily use. Boys were brought to Ewelme from the estates. They were fed, lodged, and taught Latin, hand writing, logic, philosophy and maths, in the hope that they would go on to Oxford to study. This was extraordinary in the 15th century when only the sons of the wealthy were able to go to Oxford.
The St John’s Chapel, built on the south side of the existing church during the same period as the Almshouses, contains the Duchess’s remarkable tomb. This is a very rare example of a cadaver tomb, and the only one in existence of a woman. Being part of the Endowment, the Chapel is maintained by the Trust and is used regularly by the Almspeople and the children attending Ewelme School.
The Ewelme Almshouse was named ‘God’s House in Ewelme’ and that remains to this day as the formal name of the charity which administers the Trust’s Almshouse and Estates activities. It is registered with the Charity Commisson as Charity No. 200581 and is governed by a Board of ten Trustees. The position of Master continues today, but is not vested in the Clergy.