The Lord Leycester Hospital is an outstanding, internationally important collection of buildings, constructed between the 13th and the 17th centuries for a variety of disparate purposes, not least to provide a home for Warwick’s medieval guilds. The main core of the site consists of two magnificent and highly decorated 15th century timber-framed guildhalls, and the chapel they shared, as well as further ranges of medieval buildings which together formed a courtyard with a two-story open gallery.
In 1571 they were re-purposed, with little physical alteration, by Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester and favourite of Elizabeth I, in order to house a community of alms folk known as the Brethren, who consisted of ex-military men deserving of support, and their Master who oversaw the running of the foundation. As such they epitomize two key aspects of Englishness – the first is ancient buildings still in active use; and the second is an enduring commitment to civic service and philanthropy.
The buildings, and the garden to the north, are a delightful and picturesque assemblage with their antique timbers and leaning roofs and have long provided hospitality to visitors ranging from medieval wayfarers to eminent Victorian tourists, all of whom have enjoyed this unique and historically enticing site. The Lord Leycester seeks to share its remarkable heritage with people from all walks of life, taking its place at the heart of the local community while welcoming increased numbers of visitors from further afield.
The endurance of Lord Leycester’s Hospital and its traditions, both as a collection of buildings and a community of Brethren is, by any measure, remarkable.
The Lord Leycester Hospital began with the Chapel of St James the Great, which was built over the West Gate of Warwick in 1126 by Roger de Newburgh, 2nd Norman Earl of Warwick.
By the 13th century, Guilds comprised the wealthiest and most influential people in the country. It was these very guilds led to the establishment of the buildings you see today. During this period, Warwick was the 2nd largest and wealthiest town in Warwickshire.
In the late 14th century, the chapel was rebuilt by the 12th Earl of Warwick. He granted the benefice of the Chapel in 1386 to the Guild of St George, a guild created on 20 April 1383 under license from King Richard II. Living quarters and public rooms were added to the chapel, including the Great Hall.
The Guildhall was built in 1450 by Neville "The Kingmaker", the 16th Earl of Warwick. It was primarily used as a private chamber where the Guild met to discuss business.
The 1st Earl of Leicester acquired the buildings in 1571, founding therein a hospital for aged or injured soldiers and their wives, under royal charter from Queen Elizabeth I, run by 12 resident "Brethren" (originally soldiers) under the charge of a "Master", and funded from the income of various estates.
In 1617 the Great Hall was used to entertain King James I on his visit to Warwick.
In 1694, the Great Fire of Warwick started at the Friends Meeting House in Warwick. Of all the ancient buildings, only the Lord Leycester Hospital and its near neighbours survived.
Reverend Charles Scottowe, Master of the Lord Leycester for 17 years from 1750-1767, received a Polish Saxon Sword as a gift from King Stanislaw II August (the last king of Poland).
The chapel was extensively restored by Sir Gilbert Scott in 1860.
In 1956 the Corporation of the Master and Brethren of the Hospital was abolished by an Act of Parliament and replaced with a board of Governors.
On 3 November 1966, a restored Hospital with modernised quarters was opened by Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother.
Today the Hospital is run by the Master, a retired officer of the Armed Forces. Eight ex-servicemen and their wives are provided with almshouses and carry out ceremonial duties and act as guides for visitors.
The Hospital is funded by visitor income, the original estates having been sold over the years. Heidi Meyer, the first woman to hold the office, was installed as the current Master in November 2017.