I’ve always felt a strong connection to the Commandery. It’s history runs deep. As you can imagine, speaking before the Battle of Worcester Society in the Great Hall of the Commandery was an unparalleled thrill. If you missed reading about the occasion, click here for the post.
Some buildings are more than just the wood and timber that makes up their frame; more than the collection of rooms that make up their space. They occupy a place in history. Imagine a thousand year old building, with its use and purpose changing with the tides of history. Worcester’s Commandery, with its millennium of social, political, religious and industrial history, is such a place.
The Commandery is situated just outside the old city of Worcester, where once the Sidbury gate once stood. The Commandery started out as a monastic hospital, founded by the Order of the Knights of the Hospital of Saint John of Jerusalem (the Order of Hospitallers), offering relief and shelter to travelling pilgrims. The Knights Hospitallers had many such hospitals scattered throughout the world which were centres of administration and healing. They were specifically built outside the city gates to be able to greet pilgrims who arrived after nightfall, long after the gates were shut.
It’s very likely that the original site was originally occupied by an 11th century chapel dedicated to St. Godwald (possibly a Welsh hermit bishop also known as Gulval), but in the year 1203, the chapel was rededicated to St. Wulfstan, who had been canonized the same year. St. Wulfstan was an Anglo Saxon bishop who had been given the bishopric of Worcester a few years before the Norman conquest and who had managed to hold onto the diocese in the years following the conquest.
St. Wulfstan had been associated with healing which suited the purpose of the Commandery. One maimed man claimed that St. Wulfstan had healed him, even to the extent of regenerating dear body parts. The image of the saint was also one of the elements of King John Lackland’s tomb, pictured riding the shoulder of the king’s effigy.
During the 13th century until the early 16th century, the Commandery served as an important centre of healing and prayer. The monastery housed a Master, two chaplains and several lay people. Between the years 1480 and 1540, the Commandery was completely rebuilt and expanded into its present Tudor daub and wattle design. Two of its famous features date back to the this time: the Great Hall with the minstrels’ gallery above, and the Painted Chamber.
The Great Hall occupies the centre of the Commandery and opens up off the main courtyard. Most of the floor is a black and white chequerboard pattern while a smaller section is red brick cobbles (at one point used as part of a carriage driveway); both design elements date back to the Victorian era. There is a special medieval stained glass window known as the Oriel window, which depicts plants, a peacock and camel. Given that the building was once owned by the Knights Hospitallers, one could imagine that these exotic images were a fond nod to their travels in far away lands.
The Painted Chamber is one of my favourite rooms in the Commandery. There’s a feeling of calm and peace when you stand inside and look at the paintings on the wall, which is where it gets its name. The chamber dates back to the end of the 15th century, and is considered to be either a sick room or a quiet place for prayer. I’ve no doubt that during the Commandery’s history, the room was used for both. The paintings include images of St. Erasmus, the patron saint of abdominal pain, and St. Thomas a Becket, the patron saint of priests. There is also a scene of weighing of the souls, a painting that suggests contemplation; on the ceiling there is a painting of the Trinity. No doubt, recuperating invalids would gain comfort when they stared at the ceiling.
The Commandery would have likely continued as a monastic hospital were it not for King Henry VIII and the Reformation. With the Reformation came the dissolution of the monasteries, courtesy of Thomas Cromwell. Plum church properties and lands were now handed out to loyal supporters. One close friend and protege of Thomas Cromwell, Richard Morrison, was given the mastership of the Commandery and other monastic hospitals in 1540. Morrison eventually became an ambassador to the German court of Charles V during King Edward VI’s time.
A few short years after being given the Commandery, Morrison sold the Commandery to a Thomas Wylde in 1545. Wylde was a prosperous Worcester clothier whose fortunes were on the rise. A short time after purchasing the Commandery, Wylde served as bailiff, a councillor and eventually became a Member of Parliament for Worcester. It was during this period that the old chapel would have been demolished and the house expanded to include a new kitchen. It was also at this time when the Painted Chamber was plastered over. The paintings would have to wait to be discovered four centuries later when the Commandery underwent a refurbishment.
The Wylde family continued to own the Commandery through it’s most turbulent period—the English Civil War and one chapter of this engagement rage immediately outside the Commandery’s doors. Ironically, it also involved another Cromwell.
The first two civil wars were from 1642 to 1648 and ended when King Charles I was executed on Jan 29, 1649. His son and heir, Charles Stuart, launched a bid to reclaim his father’s throne and made an alliance with Scotland. On August 22, 1651, King Charles II and his Scottish army of 12,000 – 14,000 strong marched into Worcester, the end of a nearly three week trek into England. The Parliamentarian army, led by Oliver Cromwell, were closing in on them and the Royalists knew they wouldn’t be able to reach London as they had at first hoped. Worcester had always been a loyal royalist town and it had a number of natural features to make it defensible, including Fort Royal Hill which was immediately behind the Commandery. While Charles II may not have been quartered in the Commandery, it was most likely that many of his senior officers, such as the Duke of Hamilton, had been.
On the morning of Sept 3, 1651, the battle began and some of the hottest fighting occurred just outside the Commandery. The royalists were outnumbered two to one and by the end of the day, they were in retreat. The king managed to escape into the city through the Sidbury gate and joined other fleeing fugitives to escape from the city. The Duke of Hamilton took a shot to the leg and was carried back to the Commandery. They tried to treat his injuries in one of the main floor rooms, but his wounds were grave. He refused to accept the assistance of Cromwell’s surgeon and died nine days later. His final resting place is in Worcester Cathedral. To find out more about who is buried there, read my post, Worcester Cathedral.
The Commandery was thankfully not destroyed or ruined during the battle and remained in the Wylde family until the mid-18th century. In 1764, the Wyldes sold the estate to John Dandridge, a Worcester lawyer and land developer. He didn’t need the entire sprawling estate and had the clever idea of subdividing the property and leasing it out in parts, an arrangement that continued into the 20th century. In 1866, the College for Blind Sons of Gentlemen leased out some of the premises until 1888. At that time, the last owner, Joseph Littlebury purchased it, a publisher who ran his business out of the Commandery. I’ve managed to find a few postcards produced by Littlebury Press around 1910 that featured interior pictures of the Commandery. The publishing house continued until 1973 when the last owner decided to retire.
The Commandery was converted into a museum run by the city of Worcester and while for many it’s associated with the English Civil War, the depth and richness of its history transcends this period. The museum has an excellent audio tour that allows you to explore every part of the building and step back into time as you explore each room. Take a wander through the kitchen gardens and remember that at one time, this was a place where people prayed, loved and died.
This article was originally written for the English Historical Fiction Authors Blog (EHFA) and posted January 23, 2017. If you haven’t yet visited the EHFA blog, I encourage you to check out their website (click here) for high quality articles pertaining to English history.