St John’s has its origin in the 12th Century when, in 1129, Roger de Clinton was appointed Bishop of Lichfield. As well as building a cathedral, he built a defensive ditch and gates (or barrs) around the southern part of the city, and enrolled soldiers to guard it. Pilgrims and travellers who arrived late at night were not allowed into the city, and so he built a priory which included a hostel, just outside Culstubbe Gate. Completed in 1135, this was known as the Hospital of St. John Baptist Without the Barrs of the City of Lichfield. The word ‘hospital’, sometimes still used to describe St John’s today, can cause confusion; in this context it encompasses hospitality and living accommodation.
By the fifteenth century the need for a hostel outside the city gates had disappeared and, by 1458, St John’s has ceased to be a corporate institution led by a prior and had been declared by the bishop to be a benefice which could be held by a secular clerk. In 1495 Bishop William Smythe re-founded the Priory as a hospital for aged men, and a free grammar school. To accommodate this, the hall was enlarged into the three-storey house of the Master.
For the next five centuries St John’s continued its work of caring for older people, and, when Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries, St John’s remained untouched thanks to Bishop Smythe’s wise changes. More changes came in 1720 when Edward Maynard modernised the Master’s House, turning it from a Tudor building to a Georgian one.
The twentieth century brought radical change. In 1927 the administration of St John’s was transferred from the Master to a body of Trustees. Under this scheme, many improvements have been made. Accommodation has been maintained to a high standard and further building has increased capacity to provide accommodation for more residents. In 1984 a masterpiece of stained glass designed by John Piper was installed in the east window of the chapel, and in 2006 the sculpture “Noah and the Dove” commissioned from Simon Manby, was installed in the original courtyard.