A hospital without patients

BROTHER PETER IS one of six retired ex-servicemen who reside at The Lord Leycester Hospital, one of the oldest buildings in the town of Warwick apart from its famous, much-visited castle. He explained to us that the word ‘hospital’ in the name refers not to what we know as a medical establishment but to a place providing hospitality. The men, who reside in the Hospital are known as the ‘Brethren’.

The Hospital is contained in an attractive complex of half-timbered buildings that were erected next to Warwick’s still standing Westgate in the late 14th century. They are almost the only structures to have survived the Great Fire of Warwick that destroyed most of the town in September 1694. The buildings and the adjoining chapel that perches on top of the mediaeval Westgate were initially used by the guilds of Warwick, which played a major role in administering the town and its commercial activity. The ensemble of edifices includes the mediaeval Guildhall in which members of the guilds carried out their business. Between 1548 and 1554, it was used as a grammar school.

In 1571, Queen Elizabeth I’s favourite, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester (1532-1588), who lived in nearby Kenilworth Castle, was asked by the queen to clear the streets of Warwick of ailing, infirm, and disabled soldiers, by establishing a refuge (i.e., ‘hospital’) to shelter them. It is said that Dudley persuaded the town’s officials to give him their Guildhall to be used for this purpose. This ended the guilds’ use of the complex of mediaeval buildings, now known as Lord Leycester’s Hospital.

 Initially, Dudley’s hospital provided accommodation for The Master, a clergyman, and twelve Brethren, poor and/or wounded soldiers, and their wives. According to the excellent guidebook I bought, the original rules of the hospital include the following:

“That no Brother take any woman to serve or tend upon him in his chamber without special licence of the Master, nor any with licence, under the age of three-score years except she be his wife, mother, or daughter.”

 To accommodate them, modifications of the interiors of the buildings had to be made. Brother Peter, with whom we chatted, is one of the current Brethren. He introduced us to another of his fraternity, a young man with a scarred head, who had survived an explosion whilst serving in Afghanistan.

Dudley’s arrangement survived until the early 1960s, when the number of Brethren was reduced to eight. By this time, the Master was no longer recruited from the clergy but from the retired officers of the Armed Forces. What is unchanged since Dudley’s time is his requirement, established in an Act of Parliament (1572), that the Brethren must attend prayers in the chapel every morning. They recite the very same words chosen by Dudley when he established the hospital.

We did not have sufficient time to take a tour of the buildings that comprise the hospital, but we did manage to enter The Great Hall, which now serves as a refreshment area for visitors. This large room has a magnificent 14th century beamed timber ceiling made of Spanish chestnut. It was here that King James I was entertained and dined in 1617, an event lasting three days. We were also able to catch a glimpse of the Mediaeval Courtyard, which is:

“… one of the best preserved examples of medieval courtyard architecture in England.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lord_Leycester_Hospital).

The Lord Leycester Hospital is less well-known than the nearby Warwick Castle, which has become something of a costly ‘theme park’. However, the hospital is a far more interesting place to visit, However, you will need to go there before the 23rd of December 2021, when it will be closed for restoration for quite a lengthy period.

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