Monday, 19 June 2017
Warwickshire is not rich in castles as is the Marches area of Wales but Kenilworth is a star. On a windy sunny day it is unforgettable. Plus, walking round it leaves you hungry for CAKE, always a good thing.
Between 1122 and 1129, Geoffrey de Clinton built a castle here, probably a motte and bailey structure where the present inner ward is now. The mighty keep, called Clinton's tower, is later and its impressiveness as a Norman structure is affected by the enlarging of its windows by Dudley. The kings Henry II, John and Henry III (he was probably the one who added the lake) spent vast sums in making the castle a strong fortress with 5 mural towers: Mortimer's; the Water Tower; the Warden's Tower; the Swan Tower and Lunn's Tower. John of Gaunt's Great Hall was the architectural masterpiece of the castle and was the only part that Dudley left unaltered 200 years later, presumably because it suited the grand and powerful image he wished to project.
2 exciting stories
When Henry III had finished making the castle virtually impregnable, he unwisely gave it to Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester, and his wife Eleanor in 1254. Ten years later, de Montfort headed the opposition of the barons even though he was a previously unpopular foreigner. He became almost the ruler and held the king's brother, Richard, captive in the castle. Prince Edward escaped, marched his forces back overnight and, because he had reliable intelligence, fell upon the younger Simon de Montfort and his superior troops as they were camping, exhausted and without posting sentinels or sending out scouts. Simon the younger swam the lake in his night shirt to enter the castle. In 1266 the royalists besieged the castle - it was extremely violent, using the latest technology - and finally succeeded in agreeing the Dictum of Kenilworth and the castle was once again royal.
The Tudors are now a much worked-over family and we all know that Dudley was a "favourite" of Queen Elizabeth who gave him Kenilworth, one of her many indiscretions with this dashing, ostentatious beau. He lavished her bounty on the castle, demilitarising it and building Leicester's Gate-house, which is more of a house over a gate than the usual fortifying structure. He added Leicester's Building and entertained the queen on several occasions, the most noteworthy being a 19-day revelry in 1575 which cost Leicester £1000 a day in maintenance to say nothing of the incredible sum of £100,000 in entertainments which included masques, plays, tilting, sports, Morris Dancing, ceremonies and pageantry. Elizabeth was greeted by the Lady of the Lake, Mars, Apollo, Neptune and Bacchus and later enjoyed (we hope) fireworks, tumblers, Latin orations, bear-baiting and a laugh-a-minute drama about the massacre of the Danes. She never came back here. You can read an imaginative recreation of all this in Sir Walter Scott's novel, Kenilworth.
What you see and ramble round is a ruin which had begun to decline before it was slighted in the Civil War. The castle and manor were given to Colonel Hawkesworth and other officers who "pulled down and demolished the castle, cut down the king's woods, destroyed his park, and divided the land into farms for themselves." The lake was drained at this time by cutting the dam. Our pile is not a monument to democracy although it it represents one of the early stages in our slow progress towards that system. You can also see John of Gaunt's hall and chamber block and have tea and CAKE in the lovely café in the stable block. There is a path to what was Henry V's Pleasaunce (private pavilion) and a Tudor garden.
I visited Kenilworth the day after Warwick Castle and much preferred the ruin. The staff are particularly friendly, it is not in any way commercialised and there were groups of well-behaved school children with clip-boards and learned faces. There is a bus connecting the 2 and so both come under my heading of History on the Buses - although Monmouthshire has many more castles. Tee hee!
I have written about Caerphilly Castle and its great lake as well as Bodiam set in its ravishing waters. There is also a post about nearby Warwick Castle. To read about medieval siege engines click here. For opening hours of Kenilworth, click here.
Sunday, 4 June 2017
Pembroke Castle stands proud on the tip of a rocky limestone headland at the end of a town between 2 arms of the Pembroke river. The castle has always been more heavily fortified on the landward side - for obvious reasons. The site has been occupied for the past 12,000 years, although not continuously. In a cavern underneath the castle, called The Wogan, have been found stone tools left by Palaeolithic inhabitants and Roman coins. It might also have been an Iron Age fort and there have been suggestions that, in pre-Norman times, there may have been a palace or llys of a Welsh nobleman since the Normans went straight to it as if it were an existing stronghold. My camera chose to turn to sepia as I photographed the castle from the river but this only underlines its foreboding and unyielding aura.
The Normans soon turned their attention to Wales after 1066 and created a system of Marcher lords who had unilateral powers to aid them in subduing the unruly natives. Roger de Montgomery, cousin of William I, provided 60 ships for the invasion and was rewarded with the earldom of Shrewsbury in 1071. He headed to Pembroke after the death of King Rhys ap Tewdwr and founded an earthwork and timber fortification which did not have a motte. The defeat of his son, Arnulf, caused the castle to fall to Henry I.
He appointed Gerald de Windsor as sheriff and encouraged him to marry his own discarded mistress, Princess Nest: she was the beautiful and intelligent daughter of Rhys ap Tewdwr and this marriage symbolised the attempt at unification. Nest was also quite a gal and went on to have numerous affairs and offspring.
The county of Pembroke acquired Palatine status which gave it independence and the ability to make important decisions quickly. Of the de Clares who held the castle, the most famous is Richard "Strongbow" who also founded Usk town in his spare time. He successfully invaded Ireland from Pembroke and declared himself Lord of Leinster and Governor of Ireland. The castle's fortunes were greatly improved in 1189 when his daughter and heir, Isabella, married the renowned ideal knight, William Marshal, who, as soon as he had full control, started the rebuilding in stone, beginning with the huge cylindrical keep which may be the largest in Britain. This popular family was succeeded by the hated William de Valence who, though cruel, boastful and arrogant, continued the transformation of the castle into stone as did his son, Aymer.
Later the castle declined until a temporary reprieve by Jasper Tudor, whose nephew, the future King Henry VII was born here in 1457 to the young teenager Margaret Beaufort. Anne Boleyn was Marchioness for a brief period. The next excitement was the Civil War in which Pembroke was Parliamentarian, unlike the rest of Wales. Its mayor, John Poyer, strengthened the castle but changed sides along with disaffected soldiers who had not been paid and declared for the king. Oliver Cromwell arrived around 24th May, 1648 with 6000 troops and besieged the castle, also burning nearby houses, cutting off the water supply and offering safe conduct to the garrison. He commented: "The fire runs up the town still: it frights them." After 2 months the castle surrendered to the threat of heavy guns and Poyer was unlucky in the drawing of lots for execution, being shot in Covent Garden in 1649. The castle was then slighted as was the custom so that it could no longer act as a fortress. It had never fallen to the Welsh, not even to Owain Glyn Dwr. Only restoration in the 19th and 20th centuries by J.R. Cobb and the family who still own it, the Philipps, makes it the attraction it is today.
You enter via the restored barbican and are soon on the vast outer ward or enclosure over which loom the many towers and the massive keep which dominates the inner ward. A regular guided tour leads you throughout, up and down, but I am less than intrepid in my senior years and I stayed on the grass. There was a knight school for children who were dressed up and happily pretending to ride horses and give battle, accompanied by thrilling war-whoops, when I was there. There is every sense of trying to attract visitors, particularly the young, but it is done in a pleasantly uncommercialised fashion and, if they can enthuse modern kids with a love of castles, I am only too pleased.
No-one would claim that the castle has charm: it is a bastion of past French imperialism and uncompromising in its severity. So too, unfortunately, was the choice of CAKE in the agreeably situated cafe but I settled for small Welsh cakes and my waistline is the better for it.
I travelled by bus and rail, changing to a small train at Swansea which stopped every few minutes at tiny stations. Pembrokeshire seems to belong to another calmer, slower era - and don't expect too much of the sandwiches either: my plumping for smoked salmon with Philly was gradually transmuted into chicken and cranberries but it was freshly and willingly made.
For opening times click here. I have written about William Marshal as lord of Chepstow on this blog as well as Owain Glyn Dwr. There is an article about the founding of Usk Town and another on the creation and history of the Marcher Lords. Enjoy!
Monday, 29 May 2017
The Norman period.
In 1072, when there were only 2 monks and 8 novices, William the Conqueror appointed a Norman monk as Abbot of Gloucester. His name was Serlo and I imagine him as sturdy, inspiring and not a little bossy as he was responsible for invigorating and expanding the community as well as organising the building of the eastern part starting in 1089 with the nave, the crypt, its apse, its encircling ambulatory, its chapels and the choir above it. This section was dedicated on 15th July, 1100. Then he organised the building for the monks before dying in 1104. There was a serious fire in 1122 but the work on the nave was completed in about 1160. Further additions were made but the body of the building is largely Norman and its plan is excellent for allowing circulation between its various parts.
Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries and this one was changed into a house of secular clergy who lived as ordinary priests, not as monks. The old Latin services were replaced with the English Prayer book which meant that worshippers could understand what was happening - and I sometimes wonder if the minor clergy were not similarly aided in comprehension.
The nave has pillars 30 ft 7 inches high to the eye but are even taller since the present pavement was raised in 1740 by several inches. The glass is mostly modern. The South Transept is reputedly the birthplace of Perpendicular architecture as, in about 1330, the Gloucester builders placed straight up-and-down tracery over the old Norman work. The tower rises above the choir to the height of 225 feet.
The Effigies. I am always on the look-out for the Welsh connection when I go abroad and sought out the tomb of the eldest son of William the Conqueror, Robert Curthose, made from Irish bog oak a century after his death in Cardiff Castle in 1134, where he had been imprisoned by his younger brother, Henry I. More magnificent is the tomb of Edward II who was brutally murdered in Berkeley Castle in September 1327, but the reasons and the supposed method are not mentioned in any of the discreet guide-books I have read. The effigy is made of alabaster and rests on a tomb chest of oolitic limestone clad in Purbeck marble.
Of the many famous people and events connected with the cathedral, I warm to the story of the hasty coronation in 1216 of the boy King Henry III using, according to legend, his mother's bracelet.
After this I enjoyed my CAKE in the café garden and then I wandered outside, gazing again at the tower, realising that part of its stunning effect derives from the presence of smaller towers around it, imitating its proportions. The doorway is splendid.
I am indebted to 3 guides for my research: one written by the then Dean, Dr. Henry Gee who died in 1938; the Pitkin Guide and one by David Verey and David Welander. Opening hours and other information may be checked by clicking here and my articles on Cardiff Castle and Berkeley Castle might be of interest to you also. I do hope so. All readers are allowed a large piece of CAKE after a visit either to a historic site or to my blog!
Tuesday, 16 May 2017
When I first entered, I was struck by something odd in its proportions and attributed this to the delicate fairy-tale buildings on top of the motte but later discovered another reason during the excellent guided tour. Read on!
Motte, bailey and towers.
The mound you see is called Ethelfleda's motte after the doughty daughter of Alfred the Great, who founded a burh here in 916 to help defend Mercia from the attacking Danes, but it is Norman, not Anglo-Saxon. She was aided by a legendary Saxon earl named Guy who resolutely fought dragons and rescued distressed maidens and then married the daughter of Rohand, the first true Earl of Warwick.
In 1068 William the Conqueror made Henry de Newburgh an earl and he enlarged the mound and constructed a Norman motte and bailey fortification which was later rebuilt in stone to replace the timber. The open space is now dominated by Caesar's Tower (also called Poitiers Tower) and Guy's Tower (probably not after the monster-slayer, unfortunately), the work of the Beauchamps, father and son, both called Thomas. Caesar's Tower has an oubliette (thrillingly horrible thought!), the walls of Guy's are 10 feet thick and they are masterpieces of 14th century military architecture. Both were probably inspired by French models and are machicolated. Other towers, Bear and Clarence, each with its own well and ovens, were instigated by Richard III and unfinished at his death in 1485.
The State Rooms
Warwick Castle has several splendidly huge chambers including the The State Dining Room, The Great Hall, (62 x 45 ft and 40 feet high) The Red Drawing Room, The Cedar Drawing Room, The Green Drawing Room and others. There are paintings in most of these by famous artists such as Raphael, Van Dyck, Rubens and the castle is worth visiting for these alone. The armour in The Great Hall is considered by some to be second only to that in the Tower of London and includes a touchingly small suit said to have been made for "the Noble Impe", the young son of Robert Dudley, who died in early childhood. Here you can also goggle at "Guy's Porage Pot", made in the 14th century as a garrison cooking utensil, apparently holding 136 gallons which is reputed to have been refilled 4 times with punch at a coming-of-age party. There is also a massive Beauvais tapestry showing Marlborough's army on the march and the famous picture of Queen Elizabeth I in her coronation robes. In the Cedar Room is a fireplace made by the Adam brothers in Carrara marble with the symbols of life and death, the egg and the arrow, as well as an Aubusson carpet with the Warwick bear and staff in each corner and the Greville swan on the centre edge. I normally prefer the exterior of a castle to sumptuous domestic rooms but there is no burger tent in here and I found the waxworks, which might have been naff, quite appealing.
Other famous connections
Piers Gaveston, as we all learned in school, was the "favourite" of King Edward II and my shy history teacher never explained what that might have meant - I am also of modest disposition and will not illuminate the matter further. He flaunted himself and grew in power, was exiled but returned, until his presence became unsupportable: he nicknamed Guy, Earl of Warwick "the Black Hound of Arden" but Guy retorted that "one day the hound will bite him." Gaveston was tried in The Great Hall for stealing royal treasure by a committee of the Barons, was sentenced to death and beheaded by 2 Welshmen on 19th June 1312 on nearby Blacklow Hill.
I also emerged from my "O" level (shows how old I am!) history course having heard of Warwick the Kingmaker (22 November 1428 - 14th April 1471) but was unsure why he was so-called. Shakespeare said that Richard Neville, 16th Earl of Warwick, was "the proud setter up and puller down of kings" and he was a powerful leader in the Wars of the Roses, originally Yorkist but then switching to the Lancastrian side. He was by far the richest nobleman of the 1460's with a splendid household, retinue, fleet of ships and train of artillery. Thwarting the Duke of York's usurpation in 1460, he engineered the accession of Edward IV the following year and, falling out of favour, later restored Henry VI to the throne.
"Capability" Brown was employed in 1753 to beautify the courtyard and may have also helped landscape the gardens. I now regard him as a castle vandal since he destroyed ancient walls and Medieval buildings in the bailey at Cardiff Castle and here he did something even odder, as our guide explained. Thinking that the walls and towers were unduly looming and forbidding (that is the purpose of such items in my opinion) he was told that the cost of remodelling them was prohibitive and so he had the ground level raised ten feet. This was an immense undertaking and is the reason why the courtyard looks slightly disproportionate and why some of the windows (to the left of the entrance to the State Rooms) are half basement.
My Trip Advisor Hat
Take the family and enjoy all the attractions but please do NOT patronise the burger tent and encourage further monstrosities. Listen to one of the excellent history team on a tour and engage with all the fun things outside such as the Horrible Histories Maze, the Birds of Prey Arena and Mews, the peacocks, the Mighty Trebuchet (largest working model in the world) and The Castle Dungeon. There is plenty to do and I quite see why the owners need to attract visitors to pay for the ongoing building works but wish they would keep any modernity outside the walls. That's all - and toot if you agree. Then visit nearby Kenilworth, ruined, wild and magnificent. I shall write about that soon. Yes - you are right in thinking I didn't do all this on Monmouthshire buses but I managed on public transport which is the main thing! Yet my New Year's resolution is never to go through huge Birmingham New Street Station again although I loved little old Moor Street Station.
For opening times etc click here. For my article on Cardiff Castle click here. Another early fort founded on instructions of William the Conqueror is Chepstow Castle which is possibly even more forbidding but then, it was built to deal with the Welsh!
Sunday, 30 April 2017
However, I went early, as soon as it opened one July morning, and had the place virtually to myself for a while. I was suitably impressed.
I did all the enjoyable touristy things, goggling at Henry VIII's armour (just TOO much for first thing of the day!) and wondering why I do not particularly like gold and jewels (that's perhaps the reason I have never married a royal). Then I recalled afterwards that, near where one enters was perhaps the place where a variety of exotic animals was once kept. I thought a few stories about that would be less dog-eared (pun intended.) Nothing now remains of the Lion Tower, constructed by the Leopard Prince, when Edward I, but no CAKE prizes for guessing why it was so called, although we do not know exactly where the animals were housed. A small area here was excavated in 1999 but only domestic animal bones were found, some with (shiver) "gnaw damage". The wild creatures must have been buried elsewhere.
Two famous animals
We could guess that one of the earliest inhabitants, a pale or white bear, (probably a polar bear) was kept quite near the river because this gift from King Hakon IV of Norway to King Henry III in 1252 foraged for its own food. The cost of 4 sous a day (i.e. twopence) for feeding the animal for its first year had been felt by the Sheriffs of the City of London to be too great and so the people of the city were told by the king (safely in Windsor) to buy "one muzzle and one iron chain to hold that bear without [outside] the water, one long strong cord, to hold the same bear fishing or washing himself in the Thames." His keeper was also given a thick wrap to wear when he accompanied the fortunate creature to feast on the "far and sweet salmons" later recorded by Holinshed.
Another later cost was for wine for the elephant which arrived in 1623 for King James as a gift from the Spanish king. Its keepers claimed that, between September and April, the animal would drink nothing but wine, a gallon a day, to protect it from the cold in a foreign land. When it keeled over and died there was speculation that it had not been given enough - but its maintenance would have cost over £275 a year apart from that amount of its regular and abundant tipple.
During the more than 600 years of its existence, the Tower housed a huge variety of animals in a haphazard and unsystematic fashion, nothing like a modern scientific zoo. The list cannot be complete but there were also: leopards, tigers, panthers, hyenas, wolves, racoons, jackals, a lynx, camels, brown bears (used in baiting), a grizzly called Old Martin, eagles, a porcupine, owls, a rhino and an antelope. The monkey room is of special interest since, for a brief time, visitors were allowed in to wander about despite the damage they suffered from the inhabitants who could pull off their wigs or bite them. It is good to think that, in this case, humans amused animals. Some individual creatures were regarded with great public affection - as they are occasionally today.
The popularity of the Menagerie as a tourist attraction waxed and waned but there were periods when it was on most people's bucket list: they could either pay the admission cost or offer the family pet. I will spare my sensitive readers the reason for this and prefer the story of the lion which, encountering a spaniel dog in a baiting session, "cherished it, and contracted such a fondness for it, that he would never suffer it to be taken out again, but fed it at his table till he died, which was not till several years after."
Geoffrey Chaucer - yes, that one - was Clerk of the King's Works for a couple of years and would have had responsibility for the upkeep of buildings connected with the animals.
The creatures were threatened and terrified by the approach of the Great Fire: Pepys who watched the flames with tears in his eyes had taken the Crewes children to see the lions in 1662: they were so entertained that he described them as being "as pretty and the best behaved that ever I saw of their age." Or did they wonder what would happen to them if they misbehaved?
For nearly 75 years from 1698 an April Fool hoax was perpetrated: rumours and sometimes posh tickets were issued for the annual ceremony of Washing the Lions. People paid to be taken out in boats for a good view - and to be splashed by the merry oarsmen. That spaghetti harvest has a long tradition.
The fascinating book from which I have taken most of this information, The Tower Menagerie by Daniel Hahn, documents changing attitudes towards animals over the centuries, from the untutored belief that ostriches could digest iron, to curiosity coupled with an extreme and nauseating cruelty, to a more knowledgeable and enlightened approach. I sometimes think we have swung too far and view them anthropomorphically or value them for their perceived cuteness but that is so much better than the horrors or neglect inflicted on them in earlier eras.
Do visit the Tower when you are in London: go early and afterwards walk along the bank of the Thames to see if you can glimpse the pale ghost of that salmon-eating polar bear idling in the sun or swimming in the water. Do NOT frighten those ravens! You can, of course, get to the capital by bus - I use National Express from Newport and travel in inexpensive luxury, saving my money for CAKE - as always! For opening times click here. To read about another early castle, founded at Chepstow by William FitzOsbern, close ally of the Conqueror, click here.
Thursday, 20 April 2017
The feudal barony was granted to Robert FitzHardinge, a supporter of the Plantagenets, and he, amazingly, was the founder of the Berkeley family which still holds the castle today. Complex? It gets worse: his father, Maurice, had married Alice de Berkeley and from then on most were called Maurice. He received a royal charter from Henry II giving permission to rebuild a stone castle defending the Bristol/Gloucester road and the Welsh border. All this makes Berkeley Castle the 3rd oldest continuously occupied castle in England after the royal fortresses of the Tower of London and Windsor Castle, and the oldest to be continuously owned and occupied by the same family.
The original was a motte castle and, unusually, the keep was not strengthened in stone on top, but the sides of the mound were cut away to form a cylinder, revetted, and the keep constructed around it. Much of the rest is 14th century, built for Thomas de Berkeley (they had thought up another Christian name by then) and visitors can gaze at the battlements dropping 60 feet down to the lawn (all the surrounding area could be flooded in defence), trip steps to cause the enemy to fall over one another (this belies the idea that the door at the top was just large enough for a horseman), murder holes, portcullis slots and huge barred doors.
Inside, there are grand rooms: the dining room with its 18th century silver service on display was converted from a billiard room as can be detected from the lights and the Great Hall boasts a fine 14th century ceiling. The picture gallery, drawing rooms, buttery (nothing to do with butter of course) and kitchen are all of interest and it is well worth taking the guided tour to learn all the details about their history. I found particular interest in the tale of the bosomy Mary Cole, portrayed here, who could have altered the course of history.
The best known is the murder of Edward II in 1327, which took place here, committed by his gaolers, Sir John Maltravers and Sir Thomas Gurney, although Berkeley himself was probably absent, being, as Marlowe says, "so pitiful". The alleged method was considered appropriate for what was perceived as his sexual deviancy and also unlikely to leave incriminating marks on the outside of his body - I will say no more. Recently there has been a revisionist alternative to this gruesome bit of history, in which Edward successfully escaped, was not recaptured, and died much later elsewhere. A less well-known and pathetic incident is related in Sir Richard Baker's Chronicle: this concerns the means of making the king less recognisable by the shaving en route to the castle of Edward's head and beard "in a most beastly manner" with cold puddle water. The King said he must have warm water and so "shed forth a shower of tears. Never was King turned out of a kingdom in such a manner." What is generally accepted is that Edward was kept in insanitary conditions above a stinking pile of dead or diseased animals in the expectation that this would undermine his constitution and lead to his death.
Other royal visitors were: King John (the barons of the west convened here before Runnymede); Henry III; Margaret, wife of Henry VI; Henry VII, Queen Elizabeth I; George IV when Prince of Wales and William IV when Duke of Clarence. Horace Walpole came and was unimpressed! There is much ancient furniture including Sir Francis Drakes's cabin chest and Elizabeth I's bedspread.
It is said the A Midsummer Night's Dream was written for a Berkeley wedding.
Other points of interest
As you walk around you might notice a small breach in the wall, a customary bit of slighting during the Civil War: the family were allowed to remain provided they did not repair this damage and, to this day, all they have done is make the wall safe, since they are still under orders from the original Act of Parliament.
Gertrude Jekyll described the atmosphere of the castle: "The giant walls and mighty buttresses look as if they have been carved by wind and weather out of some solid rock-mass, rather than wrought by human handiwork". In some evening light "it cheats the eye into something ethereal, without substance, built up for the moment into towering masses of pearly vapour."
My readers have sharp powers of forensic analysis and always note when I go off the route of a Monmouthshire bus but I assure you that Berkeley Castle can be reached by public transport. (I was taken by car though on this occasion - cheat!) Do check opening times, however, as it shuts in the winter and hosts weddings towards the end of each week. Click here to find out. William FitzOsbern has already interested us as the founder of Chepstow Castle, which is not far away, and as a powerful Marcher Lord.
Saturday, 25 March 2017
She explained how there were 4 previous main chapters in the history of the site: a Black Death burial ground with a chapel; a Carthusian monastery; a Tudor courtyard house and then a school, hospital and almshouse
The Black Death in London in the mid-fourteenth century killed around 40% of its population of about 70,000 people, leaving one third of the land within the walls uninhabited for a decade. It was in 2014 that evidence of a large emergency burial pit here, outside the city walls, was discovered by workers on the Crossrail project: DNA and isotopes revealed that they were 25 victims of plague outbreaks in 1348-9: some sources add 1361 and the early 15th century. It had been believed that prayer would help the souls of these dead to enter heaven and the wealthy courtier and soldier, Sir Walter Manny, built a small chapel for this purpose - he was fittingly buried before the high altar in 1372 as requested in his Will.
The monastery was the largest Carthusian establishment in England and one of the best endowed: its 26 monks were greatly revered as this order was severe in its way of life, requiring poverty and solitude - although the range of cells testifies to personal space. They attracted large amounts in gifts. With its additional 40 priests and lay brothers, it was a significant presence in London for more than 160 years after 1371. Thomas More, later Lord Chancellor to Henry VIII, came here around 1500 to find his vocation, eventually deciding to become a lawyer. In 1537 the monastery was seized by the crown and dissolved. The Prior who led the resistance, John Houghton, was executed in 1535 for treason and his body was chopped into pieces. In all, 16 men from here died for their faith.
The most splendid chamber is The Great Hall, built by North but much embellished by Norfolk. The ceiling was largely damaged in the bombing and resultant fire of 1941. It has been beautifully restored as can be seen by comparing the modern with a small portion at the side. Here, intriguingly, Norfolk had placed a decorative thistle, emblem of Scotland and evidence of his treasonable support for Mary, Queen of Scots (and intention of marriage to her) for which he was executed in 1572: this was therefore a notably reckless piece of interior design, as our guide pointed out. It suggests a certain political naiveté on his part.
In the early 17th century, Thomas Sutton, a self-made man of huge fortune and a philanthropist, set up his charitable foundation here: an almshouse/hospital and a school. (The speculation as to who would inherit his wealth probably inspired Ben Jonson's play, Volpone). Football was important in the school and the fact that it was played in the cloisters may have led to the off-side rule and throwing in from the touchlines. In 1872 the school moved to Godalming: W. M. Thackeray was a pupil here so disliking it that he satirised his experience at "Slaughter House" in his fiction - a somewhat crude mocking name which might reflect real misery and the smashing of his nose by another pupil which left him permanently disfigured. He later softened his attitude.
The complex building is beautiful, calm and inspiring, having been sensitively restored (after the destruction in 1941 by an incendiary bomb during the Blitz) in the 50's under the direction of John Seely and Paul Paget. The tour is one of those valuable experiences that lives with you long afterwards. Access for the public is recent and demand for the tour is high - book ahead and enjoy it and the CAKE in the cafe!
The loyal followers of my blog will perceive with their sharp intellects that this trip cannot be taken entirely on Monmouthshire buses but the excellent National Express service from Cardiff or Newport will take you cheaply and efficiently to Victoria - I did warn you we would be going abroad in 2017! I intend to post more in the future about the plague and the historic characters connected with this fascinating building.
For opening times and details click here.