On 30th January 1649, King Charles I was beheaded at Whitehall and England became a Republic. At the time, what did this fundamental moment symbolise for not only Windsor Castle but the College of St George?
Windsor Castle had been seized by the forces of the parliamentarians in October 1642. During the English Civil War, as Raymond South concluded in his study Royal Castle, Rebel Town (1981), “It is impossible to escape the conclusion that the castle became little more than a military barracks.” However, South stressed that the Castle was given a dual function when the Parliamentarians made provision of accommodation for the wives and children of Parliamentary soldiers who had been “maimed or killed during the war”. By the dawn of the Protectorate, Windsor Castle had come to symbolise a fortress of Parliamentarian power. So what did this mean for the College of St George? The Deans and Canons of the College may have been expelled in 1643 but most crucially, an integral element of the College survived through the English Civil War and into the new Commonwealth – The Poor Knights of Windsor. Cromwell’s intention was always to preserve St George’s so it could survive as a place of prayer and worship for his soldiers at the very least.
So what exactly was Oliver Cromwell’s vision for the future of St George’s? This is a question that will never be satisfactorily answered. Nevertheless, an Ordinance passed in 1654, a copy of which survives in the St George’s Chapel Archives [SGC M.40], provides a tantalising and fascinating glimpse into the vision Cromwell was formulating for the future of the College. The full title of the Ordinance is “An Ordinance For the Continuance and Maintenance of the Alms-Houses & Alms-Men Called Poor Knights, And Other Charitable and Pious Uses, Whereof the late Dean and Canons of Windsor were Feoffees in Trust, Thursday 15 February 1654.” The Ordinance states that it was “Ordered by His Highness the Lord Protector and the Council …. being passed by His Highness the Lord Protector, with the Consent of His Council”. It was published by Order of the Lord Protector and the Council, 2 September 1654, and printed in London in 1655. Cromwell had become Lord Protector in 1653 following the collapse of the short-lived Rump Parliament resulting in the Commonwealth resorting to the temporary measure of “government by one person.” The Ordinance with its pronouncement of Cromwell as “His Highness the Lord Protector” pinpoints us to the ultimate irony of Cromwell’s monarchical style rule. Interestingly, this irony boded well for the future of St George’s. Cromwell’s determination to preserve the Poor Knights of Windsor, regarding them as fundamental to the future of St George’s is by no means surprising. Cromwell owed his power to the New Model Army therefore the theory of rewarding courageous fighting-men for their valour irrespective of their wealth or social status fitted perfectly with the ideals of a Commonwealth forged by the Army. Indeed, the symbolic value he saw in the institution of the Poor Knights is evidenced by the fact that he approved their increase in number from thirteen to eighteen and the enlargement of their accommodation.
Cromwell ensured that Sir Francis Crane’s plans to build a new row of alms-houses that had been derailed by his death and the outbreak of Civil War were finally manifested. This image, taken from Tighe and Davis’ Annals of Windsor, 1858, shows the houses of the Poor Knights in the Lower Ward.
Through the Ordinance of 1655, Cromwell introduced an important innovation. It was stipulated that the Poor Knights should be “such persons as have faithfully served the Commonwealth as Commission’d Officers in the Army, and are now out of Commission, and uncapable [incapable] of doing Service, either by Reason of Age, or for want of some Limb lost in their Service.” Under Cromwell, the Poor Knights were to receive £40 apiece per annum in order to buy a gown every two years, of 4 yards of cloth, at 13s 4d per yard. Cromwell’s interest in the Poor Knights can be seen by the concoction the Royalist Chronicler Heath used to describe them of “Cromwell’s old Trojans.” When the Protector died in 1658, the gratitude the Poor Knights must have felt towards Cromwell for his protection and renewal of their institution can be evidenced by the fact that all of the Knights went up from Windsor to attend his funeral at Westminster.
Cromwell was determined not to restore the Dean and Canons of Windsor on the basis of their Royalist allegiance. Nevertheless, Cromwell wanted St George’s to survive so this posed a very important question. What was the alternative by which St George’s would be governed? The Ordinance attempted to tackle this issue head on and the result is that we receive an intriguing glimpse of how different the future of St George’s could have been. The Ordinance proclaimed that the Dean and Canons of Windsor were to be replaced by the creation and installation of Governors, men of distinct secular identity “for the better ordering, managing and disposing of the said Revenues to those charitable and pious Ends and Purposes.” The new secular government of St George’s Chapel was to include the Lord Commissioner Bulstrode Whitelocke, Lord President of the Council and also the Constable of the Castle along with a number of representatives of the military such as Colonel Sydenham, Colonel Mountague and Colonel Mackworth. Interestingly, Eton College was to be represented and given a voice with a nod of recognition to its national scholarly significance with Francis Rous, the Provost of Eton College and a number of “fellows of Eaton College” being appointed as Governors. Additionally, the town of Windsor itself was to be represented with the appointment of “The Mayor of Windsor for the time being, Matthew Day” along with various “Aldermen of the said town of Windsor”. The Ordinance specified and clarified that these gentlemen would be around five in number and that their “usual places of habitation shall be at New-Windsor or Eaton, or within Thirty miles of the same … the most part of them shall be governors.” Last but certainly not least, Cornelius Holland, the Member of Parliament for Windsor throughout the Civil War, was to be one of the Governors. The body of Governors was to be in “Name and Deed… a Body Politique and Corporate, to have Continuance forever by the name of The Governors of the Alms-Houses of Windsor Castle.” It is reinforced throughout the document that the sons of the Governors would be their successors. This demonstrates poignantly how ingrained the idea of monarchical succession was in England therefore this would quite naturally be the template that Cromwell and his Council would first turn to. The ultimate responsibilities of the Governors and their successors would be the welfare of the Poor Knights and the maintenance of their Alms-Houses as well as the establishment and overseeing of a new, alternate clergy for the College of St George.
So what do we know of the plans for this new clerical establishment? The Ordinance proclaimed that the Governors would be directly responsible for the overseeing of a body composed of “a Minister, a weekly Lecturer, a Register, a Chappel-clerk, a Sexton, a Clock-keeper and Bell-ringer, a Porter belonging to Windsor Castle; and also of four scholars, whereof two in the University of Oxford, and two in the University of Cambridge.” The function of the alternate clergy was to preach in the Castle and Town of Windsor and the “Relief of the poor there; in relation whereunto the late Dean and Canons of Windsor, were feoffees in truth of the Lands, Tenements and hereditaments…” This pinpoints us to the importance the Ordinance stresses on continuity. The Ordinance makes it crystal clear throughout that the Governors were to govern St George’s in exactly the same way as the Dean and Canons of Windsor had done in the preceding centuries. This is a classic example of a highly sensible recognition on the part of Cromwell and his Council of a precedent we now think of in the colloquial terms of “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” The Governors through being granted the privileged use of the Common Seal would continue to draw the substantial revenues from the multitude of rectories and parsonages that the Dean and Canons of St George’s had acquired. The rectories and parsonages of St George’s spanned from St Germans in Cornwall and across Wales to Aberguilly in the County of Carmarthen and Llangarth in the County of Brecon. Back in England, the influence of St George’s spanned through Cambridgeshire and Oxfordshire to the rectories of Ikleton and Shiplake right to Twickenham just outside London. Like the Deans and Canons before them, the Governors were to be empowered to bring an action of debt against those tenants and their heirs from these rectories and personages who refused or failed to pay their arrearages, concluding such matters at the Court of Westminster. Importantly, this emphasises Cromwell’s determination to maintain the building of St George’s so that it could survive into the future. This is indicative that Cromwell regarded St George’s as a powerful symbol of the English nation that he believed needed to be restored so the Chapel could be appreciated and used for worship by future, successive generations.
In 1658, Oliver Cromwell died. Inevitably, the Ordinance did not have sufficient time to even get off the ground with the Governor and Constable of Windsor Castle having asserted fundamental control. In 1660, the Monarchy was restored and it did not take long for Charles II to restore the Dean and Canons of Windsor. As South has underlined, during the Civil War St George’s Chapel itself had been stripped bare by the puritans. Fortunately, deliberate damage to the fabric of the Chapel itself was not conducted compared with many other far less fortunate cathedrals and churches throughout the country. This was in part down to Cromwell’s determination to preserve the Chapel to ensure that the College of St George could survive and even flourish in his Commonwealth. The Ordinance of 1655 acts as an intriguing insight into a possible personal vision that Cromwell had for the future of St George’s but most importantly, it illustrates Cromwell’s profound respect for the Poor Knights of Windsor and a recognition that continuity is required as a vital counterbalance to change.
Andrew Munro (Archives Volunteer)