The absent commander

The institution of the Naval Knights of Windsor was founded in 1728 in the will of Samuel Travers, MP for New Windsor. The will stipulated that the seven Naval Knights were to live devout lives, attend daily divine service, and live and eat together near the castle. They were not to take more than 10 days leave without licence from the Visitors, who were the Chief Governor of Windsor Castle, the Dean of Windsor, and the Provost of Eton.

In practice, the Visitors were willing to grant quite lengthy periods of absence and in 1839 they agreed that each Naval Knight could have up to four months’ leave in a year, provided there were at least four Knights in residence at Windsor at any one time.

In 1873, however, they came up against a Naval Knight with such a liberal attitude to his leave allowance that serious action had to be taken. On the death of Governor John Roberts O’Reilly, Commander Frederick Henslow became the senior Naval Knight and therefore the Governor. Unfortunately, having been appointed a Naval Knight in 1841, he had been absent from Windsor since 1852, when he had been granted a three year leave of absence for the benefit of his health. Still absent by 1863 he wrote to Windsor every six months from Hobart, Tasmania, requesting extension of his leave and providing medical certificates as evidence that he could not return to England.

This left the Visitors in a quandary. The senior Naval Knight must become the Governor according to the statutes of the institution. The Governor must be resident at Windsor to oversee the other Naval Knights. But Henslow was not – and apparently had no intention of being – resident at Windsor and therefore could not perform the duties required of his new office.

On 12 November 1873, Dean Gerald Wellesley wrote formally to the Home Secretary for advice. Should Henslow be made to resign both the Governorship and his status of Naval Knight, or could a deputy of some sort be appointed in his place?

In a private letter written a few days later, the Dean made it quite clear that he believed that Henslow was a fraud:
I should be sorry to be hard upon Henslow but the impression here respecting him is that he has been shamming there… with got up certificates. It is scarcely credible that going out there at 54 he should never have been able to come back and yet have lived there for 21 years…

The Dean believed Henslow to be “totally and ridiculously” incompatible with the duties now expected of him, but he was wary of creating a precedent for the shirking of duties by simply appointing another man as Governor. The Home Office sent a telegraph to Henslow, demanding that he either return home to take up his office or resign from the Naval Knights. Henslow replied that undertaking the journey to England would be “wilfully suicidal”, but he refused to resign.

In December the advice of the Law Officers of the Crown was sought and, to the Dean’s outrage, it was proposed that Henslow be allowed to retain his Naval Knighthood and remain in Tasmania while the next Naval Knight in seniority was appointed Governor. Having consulted such powerful adjudicators, the Visitors could only accept their decision, but letters to the Dean from his colleagues show that they had all hoped the absentee Governor would be treated less leniently.

Henslow would ultimately live a further seventeen years as a Naval Knight in Tasmania, outliving Wellesley himself by eight years, despite being nearly a decade his senior. The full correspondence concerning this extraordinary case can be found in SGC XI.O.27.

Kate McQuillian, Archivist and Chapter Librarian

The Queen's Free Chapel. The Chapel of the Most Honourable and Noble Order of the Garter. The Chapel of the College of St George.