To the west of Windsor the land rises to
the hill which takes its name from the medieval hermitage of
St. Leonard. It is understandable that this hill, with its spring
of water on the edge of Windsor Forest, might draw a man wishing
to retreat from the world. A hermit lived a solitary life though
he was not enclosed in his cell as an anchorite would be. His
primary work was prayer but he might also undertake some other
task such as guiding travellers through waste land. Though a
religious he was not necessarily a priest, though he was one
in the case of St. Leonard's.
We do not know when the chapel was established but St. Leonard, a 6th century frankish nobleman who became a Christian and a hermit, was a popular dedication in the 11th and 12th centuries. We do know that at the beginning of the 13th century William de Braose held the right to appoint the priest, for it was in this connection that we have the first known reference in official records to St. Leonard's. In February 1215 the presentation of a priest to the chapel was made by King John (Footnote 1) because all William's possessions, including this advowson (right to appoint) had been seized by the King. To explain the circumstances it is necessary to look at the background.
William de Braose is one of the personalities of the Middle Ages who catches the imagination. He was the most famous member of the de Braose family, a great lord who played an important part in the local as well as the national scene. The possessions he inherited and acquired by marriage in England and Wales were immense. His great-grandfather, another William, was Lord of Braose (or Briouze) in Normandy, whose castle lay not far from Falaise where William the Conqueror was born. He must have been one of the Conqueror's favoured commanders judging by the grants of the land he received after the Conquest; according to the Domesday Survey he had 61 manors in Berkshire besides many more elsewhere.
William, the 4th Baron, succeeded his father in about 1187. On John's accession to the throne in 1199 William, who was a leader among those urging that he should be crowned, became John's close companion in Britain and Normandy; John made him various territorial grants and it was the non-payment of dues on these lands which was the ostensible reason for William's later downfall. However it seems likely that the trouble between them arose from the King's loss of confidence in the discretion of William and especially of his wife, Maud (sometimes called Matilda). It appears that William was one of the few people to know what happened to John's nephew, Arthur of Brittany, who was John's only serious rival for the throne, being the son of John's elder brother.
This boy had been captured by John in 1202 and put in the charge of Hubert de Burgh at Falaise. It was said that Hubert was ordered to blind Arthur but could not bring himself to do so; Shakespeare uses this story in 'King John'. On 24th February 1203 John gave William the land of Gower (in South Wales) for himself and his heirs, it was said "on account of William threatening to depart from him and to return to England." It is possible that William had remonstrated with the King regarding Arthur and was bribed with Gower. William had publicly refused to take charge of the prince.
It is believed that John killed Arthur
with his own hands, and a detailed account of the story occurs
in the Annals of Margam. The de Braose family were patrons of
this Cistercian Abbey in Glamorgan and the Annals seem to give
information supplied by William. Certainly he was at Rouen with
John at the time of S Arthur's death. The Margam account says:
"After King John had captured Arthur and kept him alive
in prison for some time, at length, in the castle of Rouen, after
dinner on the Thursday before Easter" [i.e. 3rd April 1203]
"when he was drunk and possessed by the devil, he slew him
with his own hand, and tying a heavy stone to the body cast it
into the Seine. It was discovered by a fisherman in his net .
. . (and) taken for secret burial . . ." (Footnote 2)
William, however, continued to be a close companion of the King until his failure to pay his dues to the Crown caused a rift. In 1207, six years after obtaining the honour of Limerick, he had only paid 700 marks in all, instead of 500 marks a year, and he was in arrears for his other possessions. (Footnote 3) Then in 1208 the Interdict was laid upon England during the great struggle between John and the Pope over the election to the Archbishopric of Canterbury, and William's son Giles, Bishop of Hereford, was one of the five bishops who went to France with the Primate. John must have suspected the loyalty of the rest of the family, and sent to William for a son as hostage against the possibility of the Pope absolving them from allegiance to him as their sovereign. The King's messengers were met by William but before he could reply his wife, Maud, with a reckless lack of tact, replied that she would entrust no son of hers to a monarch who could cause the death of his own nephew.
In an attempt to placate the King, rich gifts were sent; it was said that Maud sent Queen Isabella a herd of cows and a bull all white as milk but with red ears. The King was not to be appeased. William had already surrendered three Welsh castles in pledge for the large sums of money he owed the Crown; now he decided on defiance and tried to regain his castles. He failed and instead stormed and sacked half Leominster before John could send an army to drive the attackers away. William escaped to Ireland and left his family with relatives there whilst he returned to Wales where he harried the countryside. John crossed to Ireland and besieged Maud at Meath but she managed to escape to Scotland with her son and his wife, but they were captured in Galloway. John returned Maud and her son to England and they were eventually imprisoned in Windsor Castle where, it was commonly believed, they were starved to death in 1210. Such was the vengeful ferocity of John's wrath.
William was outlawed but escaped to France disguised as a beggar. He died in September 1211 at Corbeil; his body was taken to Paris and there interred by Stephen Langton, the exiled Archbishop.
Eventually the de Braose lands were recovered by the family but, whilst they were still held by the King, John presented Geoffrey de Meysi as priest to the chapel of St. Leonard in the Windsor Forest, vacant by the death of Robert V Mauncell.
Later in the 13th century the advowson of St. Leonard's was held by the Lord of Clewer and in the 14th century the most illustrious member of the Brocas family. Sir Bernard (Footnote 4) showed an interest in the hermitage. In 1354 he sought privileges for pilgrims to the hermitage by writing to the Pope pleading that:
"Whereas William the hermit, chaplain of St. Leonard Loffold (Losfield), in Windsor Forest, lives a solitary life, and serves God alone, and whereas a multitude of people flock to the chapel, the Pope is prayed to grant an indulgence to those who visit the chapel a. and give alms to the fabric." (Footnote 5).
The request was acceded to, and an indulgence
d one year and forty days was granted in 1355 to those who visited
the hermitage on the feasts of Pentecost, the Assumption of the
Blessed Virgin Mary, and St. Leonard, and gave alms The grant
of an indulgence was much valued for it was believed that a remission
of that much punishment in Purgatory would be obtained as would
have been worked off by penance for the given time.
The last mention of the hermitage in official records seems to be in conveyances of the manor in 1512, (Footnote 6) but there is little doubt that its endowments would have been confiscated at the Suppression of the Chantries in 1547 if it had not already ceased to exist.
Much later there was a country house called The Hermitage on St. Leonard's Hill. The naming of a later house after a former building is slight evidence for the site of that building, but here it does not seem unreasonable, as the plot of land was known as Eremytescroft (Hermit's Field). We know that the house was there in 1717 when William Stukeley, the antiquarian, referred to Mr. Robert Butler as living at The Hermitage. Letters from Frances, Countess of Hertford, in 1737 were addressed from The Hermitage and describe the house as "old and falling into disrepair".
The house, rebuilt in 1750, was bought in 1773 by the Duke of Gloucester who named it Sophia Farm after his daughter born in that year. He added it to his adjoining estate, the house of which was known as Gloucester Lodge. In 1782 Gloucester Lodge was bought by the 3rd Earl of Harcourt, in whose family it remained until 1872 when it was bought by Mr. (later Sir) Frances Tress Barry and thence became known as St. Leonard's Hill. Barry virtually rebuilt the house, which was sold in 1924 following Lady Barry's death, and the new owner began demolition at once. All that remains today is a sad and dangerous ruin.
Sophia Farm became known as St. Leonard's and from 1854-1920 was owned by the Brinckman family. It was bought in 1932 by Horace Dodge the American motor magnate who almost completely rebuilt it. Joseph Kennedy had use of the house whilst he was American Ambassador in London (1937-40), and it was occupied by him for about a year. The house remained empty for a number of years until 1966 when the estate was acquired by Billy Smart and in 1969 was transformed into the Windsor Safari Park. [By 1996 it had become Legoland. Editor]
We have come a long way from the hermit in the quiet chapel of St. Leonard on the Hill.
1. Victoria County History; Berkshire III p. 76.
2. WARREN W.L., 'King John' p. 99.
3. Dictionary of National Biography; Braose, William de.
4. Windlesora No. 3, p. 21.
5. Cal. Papal Pet. Vol. I p. 270.
6. V.C.H.: Berkshire III p. 76.
Also ELWES, Dudley G. Cary, 'The de Braose
family' (W. Pollard 1883).
HUNTER, Judith and others, "The changing face of Windsor: the beginnings".
(Windsor Local History Publications Group 1977).
Acknowledgements: Windsor Local History Publications Group; the late Mr. Reg Try.