28.4.12

A Gift for the Woman Who Has Everything

Saturday, 11 June 1881 - Warwick, England

I tweeted last week to you about how the Great Warwick Fire of 1694 devastated this medieval town. There were a few buildings that survived. Perhaps the most famous is Lord Leycester Hospital next to the Westgate (which also survived.) The hospital is a retirement home for wounded veterans and their wives, but that is not how it started. It started because of Westgate.

Lord Leycester Hospital with Westgate and St. James Chapel on far left
The Westgate was the city entrance through the long-gone city wall that once surrounded Warwick. Traveling back in the Middle Ages was tough, what with bandits, wild animals and exposure to the elements. So the first thing many people did when they reached their destination was to find a church or chapel and thank God they made it in one piece. Roger de Newburgh, 2nd Norman Earl of Warwick, wanted to make it easy for visitors. In 1126 he built a chapel right on top of the Westgate. The chapel was dedicated to St. James the Great, patron of pilgrims (the medieval equivalent of tourists.)

Westgate with
St. James Chapel on top
In the late 14th century, Roger’s descendant, the 12th Earl of Warwick rebuilt the chapel and then handed it over to the Guild of St. George to upkeep. In 1450 the 16th Earl of Warwick built them a very nice guildhall next to the chapel, complete with dining halls, living quarters and meetings rooms.

In 15394 Thomas Oakum, the Master of the hall, got wind of Henry VIII starting a state church, so he handed the guildhall over to the city, making it municipal and not church property, thus saving it from the clutches of the greedy king. For the next 30 years, the city used the Guildhall for meetings and a court of law.

Enter Lord Leycester, better known as Robert Dudley, First Earl of Leycester. He had a problem...well, actually he had a lot of problems, but this particular problem was he needed a building to create a “hospital” or refuge for wounded veterans. Queen Elizabeth had charged all her nobles to do more to help those injured in the “service of the Queen.”

Robert Dudley, First Earl of Leycester
Dudley wanted to jump on that bandwagon and impress his Queen. He did whatever she wanted, always in arm’s reach. He was hoping she would marry him. Indeed, Her Majesty fell in love with Dudley when they met at the Tower of London when hardly more than teenagers. At the time the two were “guests” of her sister, Bloody Queen Mary. They consoled each other as they waited to get their heads cut off. Fortunately they both escaped that fate. Unfortunately Dudley waited 18 years in vain for the marriage. Elizabeth might have love Dudley, but she loved her crown even more and was not about to share her power with anyone.

Anyway, Lord Leycester acquired the Guildhall in 1571 and set about creating 12 apartments for aged or wounded soldiers and their wives. Dudley presented it to Her Majesty. Queen Elizabeth was pleased and gave the hospital her royal charter. I'm not sure if poor Dudley even got a peck on the cheek.

They kept the dining hall which came in handy when King James I came to visit Warwick. His Majesty had a wonderful time, but the feast put the city in debt for the next ten years.

Lord Leycester Hospital is still a retirement home for veterans in 1881. I understand that tradition will continue for a couple of more centuries. The city is very proud of this survivor from the middle ages, and it is well maintained. They also don’t mind a tourist looking about if they are polite.

The building looks long and skinny from the front. However, in typical Tudor design, there is a gate in front which leads to an inner courtyard. No attempts have been made to modernize the appearance. I can see why film crews in the following centuries liked using this as a set for their productions.

Lord Leycester Hospital courtyard
I recorded as much of Lord Leycester Hospital and the St. James the Great Chapel as I could without being rude. After all, this is home to at least twelve brave men who fought for their Queen--Victoria I, rather than Elizabeth I. I think they deserve a little respect.

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