A Visit to Lord Leycester's Hospital, Warwick

Last week, as I was making the final edits to the manuscript for my next book, on the subject of the Tudors, I headed off to see one of the legacies left by one of the people I'd been researching.

The Lord Leycester's Hospital is about a 15-minute walk (maybe a bit less) from Warwick railway station, and not far from the tall tower of St Mary's Church. Its patron, Robert Dudley, was created Earl of Leicester by Elizabeth I in 1564. It was long-rumoured that the two of them conducted a secret love affair, although it apparently wasn't very secret, considering their relationship, flirtations and so-called illegitimate children were recorded in despatches sent all around Europe. (There is no evidence that the couple had children and their relationship status will probably never be fully known, although certainly their contemporaries believed they were a couple in some sense). Leicester was even tipped to marry Elizabeth, up until the mid-1570s.

Elizabeth rewarded Dudley with money, influence and a position of power and in return, Dudley was able to take steps to reform the universities, encourage writers and artists, and entertain dignitaries when Elizabeth was absent. Crucially too, he recognised the need for reform in the military. The Lord Leycester's Hospital, founded in 1571, was one of the ways Dudley contributed to the community of Warwick, providing a home for those injured in the queen's wars. This image was painted in around 1565, six years before the Lord Leycester's Hospital was founded by the earl.

Steven van der Meulen, Robert Dudley, first Earl of Leicester c1565,
Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection, B1981.25.445. Public Domain.

But it wasn't a hospital as we know it today. It wasn't a place where doctors and nurses cared for the sick, but a communal home with a kitchen, living quarters and a separate lodging for the Master, who was in charge of the other residents. The building also houses a chapel where the Brethren are expected to worship even today, where they have been since Dudley's time. The earl set out a number of rules that were expected to be followed, or the brother risked being excluded from the community. These included not keeping a dog on the premises or fighting. There were 32 rules in total, which are still kept and respected today. 

On entering the gateway, I was greeted by a man and shown the ticket office, situated on the right hand side as you walk in. Armed with ticket and guidebook I settled into the Great Hall for a cup of tea and a sandwich before exploring the rest of the building. In this hall, in 1617, Fulke Greville, Lord Brook, entertained James VI of Scotland and I of England, apparently because renovations were being carried out at Warwick Castle and this was the next largest place for a three-day party. They even have a chair that James was said to have sat on during the festivities. It was strange pouring myself a cuppa in the hall, and wondering at all the music and dancing that had taken place there, hundreds of years ago. The restaurant operates by table service, so you just sit down and someone will come over and take your order. The food and service was very good, so definitely stop for a bite to eat when you go. 

Exiting the hall, I explored the Medieval Courtyard, with its beautiful symbolism and timber-framed buildings. There are steps leading up to a gallery too, where you can look down at the yard. You'll see the symbols of Robert Dudley's 'Bear and Ragged Staff' emblem, as well as the porcupine of the Sidney family, later also patrons of the Brethren after Dudley's death. I loved how the bears and ragged staffs were arranged in different poses along the side of the property.

The Medieval Courtyard

Here, you can also visit the kitchen, the dining hall and the Guildhall. This last one was really significant to me, as one of the women I researched for Forgotten Women of the Wars of the Roses was condemned to death in this room. It was certainly a very strange feeling to stand in the room where she learned her fate, for a crime she almost certainly was not guilty of. The Guildhall was used to conduct town business from the fourteenth century, and the small table under the window (not in the picture below) is also said to date from that period, the very one the bigwigs of the town discussed business.

The Guildhall, Lord Leycester's Hospital

You then lead on into an information area all about Robert Dudley and the foundation of the hospital. Along with mannequins, audio, a video playing and information boards, you can also see Robert Dudley's signature on the last page of his will and the charter confirming the foundation was also on view, although I believe that was on loan and not a permanent part of the display. It was amazing to see Dudley's signature, as I was standing just inches from the paper he had signed with a flourish. 

After you've explored the courtyard, you can follow the signs to visit the chapel. This dates from the earlier Medieval period, and there were lions and bears with their ragged staffs carved into the pews. From here, you can walk along a little of Warwick's Medieval wall, which would have once stood as the town's defence and then explore the gardens, including the knot garden. This was beautifully maintained and buzzed with bees and butterflies, a really tranquil part of the day. Finally, you exit the hospital via the gift shop.

Dudley's emblem of the bear and ragged staff in the chapel

I had already written in my new book about Dudley's foundation of Lord Leycester's Hospital, but to be there and experience it for myself added a real, three-dimensional aspect to it. The displays and information really gave a feel for the legacy Dudley created, and how he worked in unison with Elizabeth I to attempt to reduce poverty on the streets of Warwick. Dudley showed sensitivity to soldiers during his time in the Netherlands in 1585-1588 and then at Tilbury in the summer of 1588, just before he died. He initiated reforms in education, teamwork and discipline to make the military a tighter and stronger force, which aided Elizabeth and her reputation. It was even said that he cooked meals for the troops himself when they were hungry, and ended up supporting them financially when money from Elizabeth was not forthcoming. It's not surprising then, that given the opportunity to assist Warwick's local community, that he looked to the safety and wellbeing of soldiers who had suffered life-changing injuries and were unable to work. 

It really was a great day out. I was hoping to do some sketching there but ended up spending such a relaxed time that I had to head off and catch my train! The staff were great, friendly and welcoming and I would absolutely recommend the restaurant, too. 

Have you been? Let me know what you thought in the comments below. 

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