IN THE early afternoon of 5 September 1694, a young man thrust a stake into the blazing fire of the Anchor Inn, Warwick. He intended — as far as anyone can tell — to use the flame to kindle the fire in his own cottage as the long and hot summer began to draw to a close. As he carried his burning brand along the high street, it was stirred by the south-westerly breeze, and a few sparks floated gently up over the rooftops. Five hours later, medieval Warwick had burned to the ground: its doom sealed by timber frames, thatched roofs, overhanging floors, and a tightly packed medieval street plan.
The Commissioners appointed by Parliament to rebuild the town were clear that medieval Warwick would be replaced by wide streets of handsome houses, made of brick and stone; but the wind had driven the fire to the north-east; so the very west end of the town survived. Opposite the Anchor Inn stands a higgledy-piggledy complex of medieval and Tudor buildings, built against and into the town wall and the Westgate: the Lord Leycester Hospital.
Originally the home of the town’s ancient guilds, it comes almost as a surprise at the end of the Queen Anne high street: a sudden jolt back into the distant past, from the ashes of which rose modern Warwick. In 1571, this site had been acquired by Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, whose country seat at Kenilworth was only a few miles away.
Tony Grist/WIKIFirm foundations: Lord Leycester’s Hospital, Warwick
A charter of Elizabeth I set up a Corporation consisting of a Master and 12 Brethren, all of whom had to be housed in the buildings. The Master was to be a clerk in holy orders, “but such one as shall be an ordinary Preacher of God’s Word and of good life and conversation”; while the Brethren were to be made up of those “maimed or hurt in the Wars, in the service of the Queen’s Majesty, her heirs, and successors”, resident in Warwickshire and Gloucestershire, with particular preference given to those who had served under the Dudleys, or were their servants or their tenants.
Unlike in many almshouses, the Brethren did not need to be single or widowed, and could bring their wives with them; but the statutes pertaining to their daily life were strict. There was to be no going into the town without wearing the distinctive livery of the Hospital; and any Brother engaging in theft, or “adultery, fornication, or such like uncleanness” was to be expelled.
Anyone who was “an heretic or notorious blasphemer, or a drunkard, or a quarreller” was to be “sharply reprehended” before the Brethren for his first offence, fined for the second, and for the third to be “deprived for ever” of his membership of the Hospital. In return for this rigid rule of life, however, the Brethren were housed and fed, received a small income, and had their other needs met.
AS THE generations passed, the observance of the spirit of the original foundation underwent a gentle process of Barchesterisation: many of the original strictures were more observed in the breach than the observance. Dudley’s heirs continued to oversee the Lord Leycester Hospital as its hereditary patrons; by 1956, the head of the family was William Sidney, Viscount De L’Isle. A distinguished soldier himself (he had won a Victoria Cross at Anzio in 1944), Lord De L’Isle decided that reforms and renovations were urgently needed if the Hospital was to survive and fulfil more effectively its mission to care for elderly and wounded servicemen.
An Act of Parliament, and the help of a number of local benefactors and a grant from the Ministry of Works, enabled Lord De L’Isle to turn the Hospital into a charity, and to convert the basic facilities for 12 married Brethren (who originally lived in curtained-off quarters in the old Guildhall) into more suitable accommodation for eight. The allowance paid to the Brethren was replaced with their military pensions, and the Mastership was laicised. Lord De L’Isle invited Rear-Admiral Steuart Pears — himself an amputee, who had served with distinction in the Royal Navy — to become the first non-clerical Master of the Hospital, since when the Master has come from a military background.
Jeremy Pardoe/AlamyCheek by jowl: church and hospital
The present Viscount De L’Isle succeeded his father in 1991, and continues to work to maintain the Lord Leycester Hospital and its Brethren with a board of governors and local supporters. These include a cohort of Deputy Patrons, and members of a newly launched Friends scheme. Lord De L’Isle and his team have continued to ring the changes, and his vision for the Hospital is clear. “As a family”, he says, “we are very keen to see the Hospital continue in perpetuity; and — although it must move with the times — we are keen to maintain its long and venerable tradition of caring for warriors, as was intended by my ancestor Robert Dudley.”
The governors are committed to maintaining, as far as possible, the original ethos of the Hospital. Lord De L’Isle served with the Grenadier Guards, and the latest resident is a young guardsman from his regiment who suffered life-changing injuries in Afghanistan. Although historically the Brethren make a contribution towards their keep, Lord De L’Isle is keen to emphasise that the Hospital would never ask any of the residents to overreach their means. “We would never”, he says, “ask any of the residents to pay more than they could afford”.
VISITORS to the Hospital follow in distinguished footsteps: among other luminaries, the visitors’ book contains the names of Charles Dickens, Oscar Wilde, and Nathaniel Hawthorne. The thatched pavilion from which Hawthorne watched the Brethren working in their kitchen garden stands today; and each morning the Master and Brethren still file into the medieval chapel for prayers.
Preserving the buildings from the demands of time, weather, and gravity, however, requires greater resources than tourists or commercial events can supply; and a major fund-raising campaign is planned, to finance a programme of repair, renewal, and conservation which will allow the Hospital to look to the future with confidence, and, as Lord De L’Isle says, “to ensure its flourishing for the next 450 years”.
Alan Parr/WIKIFirm foundations: Lord Leycester’s Hospital, Warwick
Warwick’s popularity with tourists is not necessarily the answer to this, and so the Governors have launched a fund-raising campaign. “We don’t just want it to become a visitor attraction,” Lord De L’Isle says, “although it is, of course, open to visitors all year round. We no longer receive support from English Heritage, and so we now need to look to the future by raising an endowment to allow the Hospital to continue for the next 450 years.”
The new Master agrees. Heidi Meyer, who was installed on Monday of last week, is the first woman to hold the office, and, in the tradition of her immediate predecessors, comes with plenty of military experience. She previously served as an officer with the British Army; then as a US defence policy official, a diplomat, and a senior advisor to NATO. “This is an important time for the Hospital,” she says, “as we must now ensure a sustainable flow of revenue to pay for a major conservation effort. At the same time, we must also strive to uphold the finest traditions of this noble and ancient institution, and maintain the best possible standard of care for the Brethren, for whom it exists.”
THE Brethren seem to be taking the new momentum in their stride. Brother Greg Beal served in both the Army and Royal Navy in the Far East, the Mediterranean, Europe, and the UK, and enjoys his life at the Hospital. “I enjoy the camaraderie of the community,” he says, “and also the banter between the Brothers who have served in different branches of the Armed Forces.”
The historic kitchen, in which the Brethren cooked and ate until the 1960s, is still a focus — and now serves as a popular refreshment spot for residents and visitors alike. “We meet people from all over the world”, Brother Beal says, “and we try to make a good impression on them, of ourselves and the Hospital. Being here in retirement has given me a new perspective and purpose in life.”