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Castle life & the birth of charity

This is a transcript of episode 9 of our podcast series A History of England in 100 Places. Join Emma Barnett, Amanda Lamb and Shrabani Basu as we begin our journey through the history of homes and gardens in England.

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Voiceover:
This is a Historic England podcast, sponsored by Ecclesiastical Insurance Group.

Emma Barnett:

Welcome to Irreplaceable: A History of England in 100 Places. I’m Emma Barnett and in this series we’re exploring the amazing places that have helped make England the country it is today. You’ve been telling us the locations you think should be on the list. We’ve had thousands of nominations already. You can go to HistoricEngland.org.uk/100places to nominate a place in one of our ten categories which include Music & Literature; Art, Architecture & Sculpture; and Industry, Trade & Commerce.

Our panel of expert judges, including Monica Ali, Tristram Hunt and Mary Beard, are revealing the hundred locations they’ve selected from your nominations to tell the story of England. Each judge gets to select ten places for their category and in these programmes we’re finding out why they’ve chosen their ten.

Today we begin our journey into our Homes & Gardens category, and we’ll look at two of the ten locations selected by our expert judge: the architect and broadcaster, George Clarke.

We’ll be featuring the grandest of gardens and stately homes. But that’s not all there is to England’s story. In these next four episodes we’ll hear how new discoveries and experiments have made new ways of life possible. We’ll also hear how war and economic flux have led to innovations and improvements to the way we live today. So settle in, we’re about to take a fresh look at the story of England’s homes and gardens.

Today, I’m joined in the studio by broadcaster and property expert Amanda Lamb; journalist and historian Shrabani Basu; and Louise Brennan from Historic England. Welcome everyone. It is wonderful to be surrounded by such knowledge and a range of expertise in our studio. And I’m looking forward to finding out what you make of Mr Clarke’s choices. So let’s get going.

Our first location dates back to 1132. The Hospital of St Cross and Almshouse of Noble Poverty are a collection of medieval and other buildings just outside Winchester in Hampshire. The almshouse is one of England’s oldest continuing almshouses and has provided food and shelter for hundreds of years. Louise Brennan from Historic England could I start with you? Why were these built?

Louise Brennan:
Well they’re a response to I think what’s a universal expression of our humanity, and that’s one of the interesting things about them, and that’s compassion. So the legend is that Henry de Blois who was the Bishop of Winchester, and also a knight, was walking through the fields in Winchester and met a starving peasant girl who asked him for help; and was moved by compassion for her; walked further on; found the ruins of what is now St Cross and decided that he was going to found an institution there to provide comfort for the needy. So that’s how it started, and grew from there. So it was really a movement that took over and a real expression of charity.

Emma Barnett:
Which is something to remember when looking at this. But it’s also just really beautiful. Amanda, I mean, the author Simon Jenkins has described this as England’s most perfect almshouse.

Amanda Lamb:
I think it is such a beautiful building to look at. And I think it’s very beautiful in its simplicity. And I love that story. It was such a serendipitous journey, wasn’t it? There he was, walking along. He meets a girl. It gets him thinking. And then further along the journey, he’s like: ‘Aha!’ It was literally a kind of light bulb moment. But I think the architecture of that building is just breath-taking. It’s stood the test of time. We’re talking what - over 900 years old? And it’s still there.

Emma Barnett:
The beautiful architecture here includes a Norman church with such delicate high transepts that it’s been described as a miniature cathedral. This is the only building that remains of the original 12th-century hospital. Louise, in the 15th century a later Bishop of Winchester, Cardinal Beaufort, added his own foundation to the site.

Louise Brennan:
Yes, he did, and he sort of reinvigorated the almshouses. He expanded them, created… Sisters were allowed to join for the first time - there were three sisters!

Emma Barnett:
Ooh - shocking!

Louise Brennan:
I know - women! Women could be poor and needy too. There were farms to make the foundation self-sustaining. And he really dedicated the last years of his life to sustaining that foundation obviously thinking that it was going to continue. And then of course we had the Dissolution of the Monasteries, and things take a different turn.

Emma Barnett:
Which is a huge moment.

Louise Brennan:
It’s a huge moment. It’s a huge moment in charity for England because a lot of charity and care for the poor, and care for the sick is provided by monastic institutions - and they’re all swept away. So what happens? It’s a huge vacuum in the social care system in England at the time.

Emma Barnett:

Well today it’s home to 25 male residents known as Brothers who live in self-contained flats; and wear black and red gowns and trencher hats for church, which they attend each day. However, the Brothers are not monks. Today, the institution is a secular foundation. And the very fact that this is still here today…

Louise Brennan:
…is a real testament to a) I think the enduring need - people will always be in need; but also that enduring feeling of “We must help them”. So there were still people willing, in that secular system, to keep investing in almshouses and help the needy poor - although I have to say they often had to be the worthy poor as well.

Emma Barnett:
Well that’s an interesting concept isn’t it, Shrabani - if I could bring you in here - welcome!

Shrabani Basu:
Yeah, I mean I find this absolutely fascinating because, you know, bring it down to the modern period now. How much are we looking after the homeless? I mean, you know, we are sitting here in London and we’re near homeless soup kitchens and homeless institutions that have come up - and also, interestingly, in the 19th century (you know, we’re talking about alms and looking after those who were homeless), I’ll just bring a little Indian angle into this - there were the ayahs who were brought by the memsahibs and those who were returning from India with the Raj. And very often they would bring them and then abandon them. So, in the 19th century, there were lots of ayahs who were abandoned and there were homes set up for the ayahs and abandoned servants and that became something like this. You know, a charitable institution.

Emma Barnett:
A fascinating insight: What we’ve done in the past and what we do today for our needy and how property can play a role Amanda, I mean, the idea of almshouses still being something that exist today. I’m not sure many people even know that they exist.

Amanda Lamb:
I know, and I’ve been reading a lot about it. 35,000 people still living in almshouses now in the United Kingdom. I think I, like a lot of people probably, thought they were something that had died out. But I still think the need, as we’ve said, the need now to help the poor and the hungry and the homeless is just as important as it was then. I think it’s probably - maybe if you go back in history, it was probably a more simplistic need. It was literally “I am hungry - I need shelter”. Nowadays I think it’s a little bit more complicated than that. But I think it’s great that it does show humanity, you know - that we are still there.

Emma Barnett:
A final word on this, Louise, if I bring you in - I mean, some of those people who are looked after today by almshouses, given accommodation for life, are people with limited financial support: the elderly, retired fisherman, miners, retail workers. There’s a lot of categories, aren’t there, now?

Louise Brennan:
Yes, there are and that’s one of the things about almshouses when I say they were often set up for the worthy poor. Particularly in the nineteenth century, there was a concept that you didn’t want to be the dissolute poor. So you were someone who’d fallen on hard times, maybe you were a mariner, maybe you were a textile worker, so you had to pass certain tests to be given the privilege of being in an almshouse and obviously there was a stronger link to going to church at that point. But they are still vibrant now and you will often notice them if you are walking around next to churches. So you’ll see a string of…

Emma Barnett:
Those are those sort of terraced houses. Almost like a church-like terrace.

Louise Brennan:
Yes, and they’re still there. There’s one in the town where I live - Matlock - there’s a little row of almshouses. But a lot of the rules now are relaxed, so I don’t think you have to go to church every day. Some of the uniforms etc. have been dropped.

Emma Barnett:
Well let’s move forward to our next location which is a rather grand one. It’s the oldest inhabited castle in the world. It’s been occupied by 39 monarchs since William Conqueror oversaw its construction in the decade after the Norman conquest of England in 1066. William himself enjoyed it for its access to nearby hunting forests, but the first royal to take up residence here was Henry I. It stands in the county of Berkshire and comprises an area of 10.5 hectares. There’s a palace, fortification and a small town. You’ve probably guessed where I’m talking about - Windsor Castle.

We know this is the place The Queen calls home, but what’s special about it beyond that fact today? Well, we met Dr Richard Williams, Learning Curator at the Royal Collection.

Dr Richard Williams:
Hello, I’m Dr Richard Williams of Royal Collection Trust. We’re standing in St George’s Hall right at the heart of the state apartments at Windsor. Dating back to its earlier history in the 14th century, it was the most important royal palace in the whole of Europe. It really was the envy of every monarch across the continent. But since then, it has been the site of many important events in our national history through the monarchs that have been in residence here. It continues though in that role. Important heads of state of foreign countries have been brought here. Diplomacy takes place here. The Queen and the members of the royal family are able to advocate the interests of Great Britain. It is also the seat of the highest order of chivalry, The Order of the Garter, which has always been based here at Windsor since its foundation in 1348.

And it’s also the private home of The Queen and the royal family as well. It’s the fact that it continues its traditional function as a working royal palace and what’s so wonderful is that the public are welcome almost all year round to come and visit. And you can see the rooms where the State Banquets take place, you can see the Changing of the Guard, you can visit St George’s Chapel where several monarchs from Henry VIII to Charles I are buried, you can soak in the history - but also see where modern ceremony and royal  events take place still today.

[Soldiers calls and sounds of marching]

Well the first thing that may strike you if you visit Windsor Castle is just how vast it is, and how potentially confusing it might be. The best way to understand it is that it’s built around three courtyards, or ‘wards’, to use the technical term for a castle.

The layers of history reveal themselves to you as you walk around, so when Charles II created his suite of kings and queens’ apartments, he followed the French model and had a series of smaller rooms to give greater privacy, one leading into another and ‘enfilade’ as it’s called. But then when you come to the 19th century, to George IV and Queen Victoria, the court culture had shifted very dramatically; and so what was required was very, very large spaces in order to have grand balls with many, many people participating. You can see how different monarchs have shaped the architecture of the building, often radically transforming it.

The other great glory of visiting Windsor is that you get to see the Royal Collection. And the Royal Collection is one of the world’s great collections of art. Paintings, sculpture, tapestry but also suits of armour, South East Asian porcelains, it really is incredible in its diversity.

Windsor Castle’s always had a very close connection with the local community. Old Windsor as it was called is where the first royal palace was, but when the castle that we know today founded by William the Conqueror was created around 1070, Windsor effectively moved. So, there is an old Windsor and the current Windsor. And the current Windsor, or New Windsor, grew up around the castle that the Normans introduced. But the relationship has been very, very close. The Royal Household has descended on Windsor for Easter Court in April for centuries. The castle was opened to the public for the first time in the 18th century. It was in George III’s reign that the public were invited to walk around the terraces taking in the spectacular views. And in the 1950s, I think it was, that a wall outside of the castle on the main street was demolished in order to create that visual link between the town itself, the townspeople, and their castle which has been on their doorstep for so many centuries.

Emma Barnett:
Amanda, can I come to you first on this? I mean, Windsor Castle, if you’ve had the joy of going there it is something you won’t forget.

Amanda Lamb:
No it’s just breath-taking isn’t it. It was… listening to that made me think - I have a godson who is in America at the moment - he’s over in a college there. And he’s fallen in love with an American girl, and she’s coming over to England for Christmas. And basically she’s just said: “I just wanna see old stuff!” and it’s like: “That’s where we’re going! We are going to go to Windsor Castle!”. It is simply breath-taking. I love the idea that The Queen hosts a ‘dine and sleep’ there where ambassadors and Heads of the Commonwealth nations can come and dine, and then they’re shown all the beautiful collections and artefacts, and then they can sleep there. It’s kind of like the ultimate Airbnb isn’t it?

Louise Brennan:
The ultimate sleepover!

Emma Barnett:
It is - I mean and that collection which was referred to there, Louise, it’s extraordinary what’s in there.

Louise Brennan:
Yes. Yes, no, there’s some absolutely world-class pieces of art in there. I suppose as you would expect with the monarchy - they have amassed an absolutely stunning collection of art. Of course, listening to that clip, the wonderful thing about it is that anybody can go and see it. You and I can go and see it tomorrow. So it’s not hands-off - it’s not inaccessible. It’s open to everybody because, in a way, we share in it all.

Emma Barnett:

I mean it’s very special as well – you can go into the huge chapel there Shrabani and experience what The Queen perhaps loves so much about it at special times in the year, at Christmas and the like.

Shrabani Basu:
Absolutely. It’s a magical place, actually. And the history, you just feel it as you walk through the doors. But what, to me, was absolutely fascinating is the part that (OK the public can’t really see unless they ask for permission) but it’s the archives which are there in the Round Tower. And it’s where I sat and I researched my book: Victoria and Abdul, because Queen Victoria’s journals, which are the Hindustani journals, which is where she learned Urdu from Abdul Karim - the last 13 years of her life - these are kept in the Round Tower. And they are absolutely amazing.

Emma Barnett:

What was that like, sitting in there, going through the archive?

Shrabani Basu:
Well, it was fabulous because nobody had really accessed these. And when they brought it in there were 13 volumes of these, and the blotting paper fell out. I sat there, I think I was the first to read many of these volumes (most of them I think) and it just took me to another world because there were daily entries from Queen Victoria written in Urdu. And just the most ordinary things like: “The Munshi’s cat has had kittens and I’m going to go and see the kittens today”. Just the simple things of life that this… I mean, she’s the Queen of England but she has this little private space.

Emma Barnett:
That’s one area that you can obviously request to have access to, but there’s also the most wonderful library there, isn’t there - this huge library?

Louise Brennan:
Yes. That is a stunning space. And I think that’s one of the things about the interiors. A lot of the interiors at Windsor are just breath-taking. And they’re really, they’re purposely designed to be breath-taking so the decoration, the plasterwork, the sheer amount of gilding when you walk into them, it’s all designed to impress and awe - particularly if you are trying to get a diplomatic relationship established with somebody, you want them to go: “Wow!” as they walk into that space.

Amanda Lamb:
And you really do, don’t you, when you go there? I often wonder as well, with the town of Windsor, how much that has grown because of the castle. You know, people go specifically to see the castle but then you’ve got all those industries and all those places that have sprung up around the sort of foot of the castle. It’s all down to that. I mean and it’s so close to London. We quite often when we’re driving out we go past and for my girls who are eight and four: “Mummy, Mummy, look it’s a real castle!” You know and, as you say, there’s something very magical about it.

Emma Barnett:
And the pull for tourists, of course, in and around the whole area means that the community is supported by an incredibly old and historic location that has political power, family power, and defines England for a lot of people.

Louise Brennan:
I think it’s really important for a lot of these great places that they can sustain themselves because of the costs associated with upkeep. So it’s really important that somewhere like Windsor can help to wash its own face through generating a really important economic contribution to the local economy. So, entirely, that’s right and proper that it should be doing that.

Emma Barnett:
I do love this detail about one aspect of the collection: the Queen Mary’s dolls house. There are cars in there made by Rolls Royce! That’s not really the dolls’ house I had access to!

Louise Brennan:
No, no - I can remember actually being very little and taken to see this by my nanny. And I must have been about six, something like that, and I can still remember it because I loved dolls houses big time. You probably did as well Amanda?

Amanda Lamb:
I did!

Louise Brennan:

And I was like: “I want this doll’s house!” but of course it was vast and on a different scale to, as you say, the sort of dolls house that I had at home.

Amanda Lamb:
Well that one had running water! And tiny books featuring writings from A.A. Milne and Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle. Not quite the one… I think mine was made out of several shoeboxes.

Emma Barnett:
Well we can all go and see the one at Windsor Castle. That is all we have time for in this episode, but do join us next time as we move forward through England’s history to visit two unique outdoor spaces and a breath-taking palace.

Do remember there is still time to nominate a place in our History of England in 100 Places. You can join the conversation by using the hashtag #100Places. We’d love to hear your stories about what these places mean to you.
And if there’s something we’ve missed, we will hear that - vote for it now at HistoricEngland.org.uk/100places

Thank you very much to my guests here in the studio: Amanda Lamb, Shrabani Basu and Louise Brennan. Make sure you rate, review and subscribe to this podcast on your podcast player of choice so you never miss an episode.

I’m Emma Barnett and we’ll be back next time for more of Irreplaceable: A History of England in 100 Places

Voiceover:
This is a Historic England podcast, sponsored by Ecclesiastical Insurance Group. When it feels irreplaceable, trust Ecclesiastical.

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