Francisco de Madrid and Alonso Ximenes - Pedro Barrantes Maldonado
Friars Diego de Guzmán and Buenventura - Friars Raphael and Gabriel de Miranda
Friars Diego Ramos and Juan Nuñez – Friar Francisco Balbuena
Friar Casimiro de Larra and John Shrimpton - Roger Elliott and Thomas Stanwix
William Hargrave and Edward Cornwallis - Mrs Green and the Duke of Kent
Thomas Trigge and George Don – James Anton and Richard Airey
Colonel Crealock and Lord Napier - Capt Buckle, Juan Calbo and Peter Duranda
The Convent has been the residence of the Governor of Gibraltar since 1728 - or so I have read in several local Directories and general history books of Gibraltar. Perhaps this is date in which it became officially so but there is no doubt that for at least a decade before that the place had already been used by several Governors as their place of residence.
But let’s start at the beginning. The building is of Spanish origin and was originally used as a Monastery by a community of Franciscan Monks who may have first arrived on the Rock shortly after 1462.
Oldest extant plan of the Rock – “D” with its peculiar and unexplained arch or dome is labelled as the Iglesia de San Francisco ( 1567 - Anton Van der Wyngaerde ) (See LINK)
As is often the case the 17th century local historian Alonso Hernández del Portillo (see LINK) is the first to mention the origins of the Monastery:
Hay sin la Iglesia mayor otros tres monasterios . . . El primero que en esta Ciudad se fundó fue el del Señor Don Francisco el año cierto de su fundación no he podido saber pero es verosímil haberse fundado el año de 490 (sic), o antes poco más o menos, por que los Padres que esta casa fundaron eran claustrales, y la reformación que de ellos se hizo empezó desde el año de 1492 por mandado de los Reyes Católicos;
Portillo tried hard to find a more exact date for the establishment of the Convent but found that not even clerics that had lived in Gibraltar for the previous forty years could come up with an answer.
The Franciscan Monastery, however, had been the first one within the bishopric of Cadiz to be established by the Order. Again according to Portillo, by 1512:
Tenían su monasterio en aquel tiempo. . . . donde ahora está parte de la huerta, y llamo se aquello San Francisco el Viejo. . . .In other words the original Monastery was on the site of the orchard south of the modern “Convent”. By 1528, however, the friars decided that it might be a good idea to move from where they were to a new building just north of it – or as Portillo put it:
. . . . a la parte donde hoy está el refectorio, como todos conocimos.
Moving out would allow them to enlarge their orchard making it more productive and – dare I say it - more profitable. The new site was a donation to them by Francisco de Madrid - one of the local councillors. For good measure he added seventy thousand maraveis in cash and thirty ducats worth of dressed stone. All Francisco de Madrid asked for in return was that the building would include a chapel in his memory and that he and his descendents might be buried there. The Franciscans must have fallen over backwards to sign the necessary documents which were dated 1531 and were witnessed by a local notary public Alonso Ximenes.
( 1627 - Luis Bravo de Acuña - adapted ) (See LINK)
As with Portillo I am not entirely sure when the building was completed but it would seem that contrary to what one would have expected the main facade and entrance to the chapel of the Monastery was on the western side facing the Bay rather than the more obvious Calle Real. (See LINK) Regardless of where the entrance might have been the site was not a particularly good choice. Neither Charles V nor Phillip II Walls (see LINK) had yet been built and the town was wide open to attack from the south.
During the notorious Turkish raid of 1540 (see LINK) one of the very first places to be ransacked was the Franciscan Monastery. This is how Pedro Barrantes Maldonado (see LINK) - who arrived just after the Turks had withdrawn – describes it:
Los turcos, que ya dije habían llegado a la ciudad y repartidos por ella, entraron por la calle principal del arrabal (Main Street) y fueron saqueando la calle adelante hasta llegar al monasterio de Sant Francisco, (the Convent ) donde los frailes, oyendo el ruido, huyeron á la Barcina, y los turcos despojaron el monasterio . . .
By the very early seventeenth century Portillo was able to confirm that the finished building was of a sumptuous appearance, and by no means the least of those under the jurisdiction of the bishop of Cadiz. As regards its occupiers, Portillo offered the usual platitudes about the sanctity of their lives and the likelihood of all those who have passed away now being in heaven – with the curious reservation that such judgements are the prerogative of God and therefore impossible to tell for sure. Reading between the lines not all the Franciscan monks lived lives which met with Portillo’s approval.
The church as visualised by local historian George Palao ( 1977 )
Nevertheless he does mention three that did. Friar Diego de Guzmán, one time mayor of Jaen and Friar Buenventura were both Spaniards, but a third, Friar Raphael was English. He had left his country - presumably during the reformation - in order to escape persecution.
In 1704 Spanish Gibraltar capitulated to allied forces under Prince George of Hessen-Darmstadt during the War of the Spanish Succession. (See LINK) The subsequent pillaging, rape and generally out of control behaviour of the mostly English troops meant that the vast majority of the inhabitants opted to leave the Rock. Nevertheless the Monastery – now invariably referred to by English speakers as the Convent - was left undisturbed which is what may have decided several of the friars to stay put.
As regards the church attached to the Convent this soon came to be known as the King’s Chapel but I am not at all sure as to the exact date in which it was given this name. Susan Jackson in her thesis on Methodism in Spain makes the following rather valid point:
. . . . the friars stayed on until 1727 when a further siege took place and they left for San Roque and . . . it was in 1728 that the governor took over the Convent as his residence and named the chapel "The King's Chapel". This makes more sense as in 1704 Queen Anne was on the English throne whereas George II was king in 1728.
Among the list of those few Spaniards who decided to stay (see LINK) were three friars - Gabriel de Miranda, Diego Ramos and Juan Nuñez – all three of whom may very well have belonged to the Franciscan order. The list, however, is incomplete. Firstly it only shows people who were still living on the Rock in 1712 – and secondly there is good evidence that another two Franciscan fathers – Francisco Balbuena and Casimiro de Larra - were occupying rooms in the Monastery at the time. Balbuena was in fact the prior of the Monastery at the time of the capitulation.
By the end of 1704, however, an extra 600 English soldiers were sent to Gibraltar to reinforce the Garrison against the inevitable Spanish counterattack – an event known in history books as the 12th Siege of Gibraltar. (See LINK) By now most of the northern section of the town lay in ruins and some of the newly arrived officers decided to use the Monastery as their mess. The man in overall command was Brigadier John Shrimpton. Presumably on the advice of Prince George of Hessen, Shrimpton was appointed Major-General in the Spanish army by the Archduke Charles and became Governor of Gibraltar.
Shrimpton left the officers and the monks in peace and took up residence in a house in 181 Main Street. It stood on the north eastern corner of the “Parade” – today’s John Mackintosh Square (see LINK) and had probably once been the residence of the Spanish governor’s of Gibraltar.
( 1753 - Adapted from James Montressor – detail ) (See LINK)
Unfortunately this state of affairs did not last too long. In 1707 Shrimpton was succeeded by Colonel Roger Elliott – an appointee of Queen Anne and the first British Governor of the Rock (see LINK) who took one good look at the Monastery and found that he rather liked the place. So much so that he chucked his officers out and made it his own. He did allow the Friars to stay but insisted that they would not be allowed into the gardens. These were out of bounds to everybody but himself.
Roger Elliott ( Unknown )
By 1711 Elliott had left the Convent after having been recalled by London. The new Tory Government were of the opinion that he was probably enough of a crook to actually consider selling Gibraltar back to Spain on his own initiative – and considerable profit. He was succeeded by Brigadier-General Thomas Stanwix who also liked the Convent and settled in. Unlike Elliott he allowed the Friars access to the garden. At least he did so originally.
That same year the Tory Government instructed a couple of army inspectors – Sir Harry Belasyse and Edward Stawell (see LINK) - to enquire into the financial activities of the military in Iberia. The idea was to dig up enough dirt to embarrass the previous Whig administration.
In 1713 the Prior Franco Balbuena was thrown out of Gibraltar and made his way to Lisbon where he was lucky enough to be able to make a complaint to the British Army inspectors before they returned to England. His protest was a simple one. As Prior of the Order of St Francis he had been in charge of the Convent and Church of the same name and he objected to the arbitrary manner in which he and his three fellow friars had been thrown out of the place.
. . .the two moydores of gold (and the salads etc of the said garden) which was paid to him every month by the gardener was more powerful with him than his word and promises made and given us before. . . Not satisfied with this he put out one of us called Casimiro de Larra out of his lodgings and in the place put his under cook . . . and myself he likewise put out of his lodging saying he would have it for a pantry and took for his own use the entire convent. . . .
In June 1713, the final straw - just before he was recalled to England Stanwix ordered the conversion of the Church of St. Francis into a Protestant chapel. The friars were ordered to take an inventory of the church in order to clear it of what the new Protestant owners considered to be Catholic bric-a-brac. The final item on the list states that the inventory was:
. . . una suma de lo que hay en la Iglesia; y en todo ello no ay prenda de plata, excepto dos coronas.
One modern historian has suggested that the comment signifies either that the church was rather poorly endowed or that the friars had already prudently removed everything of value. A far more likely scenario - in my opinion - is that the British – in the shape of Shrimpton, Elliott and Stanwix - had already well and truly ransacked the place of anything of value. And that really is the end of the story in so far as the old Franciscan Monastery and Church are involved.
By the early 1740 the use of the Convent by successive Governors – not just as their residence but more or less as if it were their own private property – was now more or less taken for granted. When Lieutenant-general William Hargrave – perhaps the biggest scoundrel of the lot (see LINK) – became Governor of the Rock he came up with the bright idea to chop the church in half and make the west side of it his personal dining room.
William Hargrave ( Unknown )
According to an anonymous pamphleteer writing in 1749 (see LINK) the way he went about this was anything if not original:
Among other of his witty inventions to get money he took into his head that the church wanted to be repaired. . . . he pulls down one half of it, and with the Materials built Store houses in the Espalande (today’s Casemates) and to save expenses.However, according to E.R.Kenyon, writing in 1911:
. . . the mutilation of the chapel took place between 1782 and 1839. The old pay lists (now at the Public Record Office) show that a considerable amount of work was done at the Governor’s residence between April 1783 and May 1784, which may well have included this provision for ball and supper rooms. . . . A Garrison Order of 19th December I788, says that ‘King’s Chapel’ will be opened for Divine Service on the following Sunday.
A few years earlier and around the middle of the 18th century the Governor at the time Edward Cornwallis decided that the bells of the Chapel disturbed his sleep and ordered them removed. For years after the faithful were called instead to prayer by the roll of a drum – a “mutilation” of sorts perhaps.
On a more serious note, bell-less or otherwise, there is little doubt that the Convent would have taken a heavy toll from enemy bombardment during the Great Siege. According to a journal kept by Colonel Green’s wife (see LINK) :
(1779) The cupola of the White Convent was taken down - also the Arch and upper part of the Governor’s Church.
(1780) I omitted to mention that Divine Service was administered yesterday in the inside of the Court Yard at the Convent, round under the Colonnade . . . This is the first time that the service has been at the Convent since the Church was made use of for a store house – it is now full of dry provisions.
Main Street looking north just after the Great Siege – the Convent would have been some distance south of this but almost certainly just as severely damaged ( 1793 - Capt Thomas Davis )
In 1802 the Duke of Kent (see LINK) who would one day become the father of Queen Victoria’s eventually brought his mistress with him and lived openly with her during his short stay. Unfortunately the Convent was still in a state of disrepair so they set themselves up in a house which eventually came to be known as Kent House which happened to be close to what would one day become the Anglican Cathedral. (see LINK)
Kent House – with the western edge of the Anglican Cathedral just visible to its right and the Line Wall Boulevard on its left ( 1866 - Charles Lygon Somers Cocks ) (See LINK)
Kent proposed an expensive program of reconstruction but before anything could be decided he was recalled home after having more or less singlehandedly provoked a mutiny among his men. Nevertheless his successor, Thomas Trigge did follow this up and proposed a far less expensive repair estimate.
When it was the turn of the new governor General George Don (see LINK) to rule the roost he must have noticed almost immediately that the eventual construction of Hargrave’s proposed personal dining room – now known rather more discreetly as the Supper Room – meant that the western entrance was no longer an option for anybody wanting to get to the Chapel. In other words everybody had to tramp through the Convent in order to be able get to it.
A concern no doubt but the truth was that the chapel had been chopped in half and was now so small that it could only accommodate higher ranked staff officers and the like. The rest had to pray in the open elsewhere. General Don nevertheless arranged for an entrance to the Chapel to be opened on the Southport Street side.
George Don ( Unknown )
Not that everybody would benefit. According to Quarter-Master James Anton (see LINK) who was stationed in Gibraltar from 1825 to 1832:
. . . . although the Convent chapel is almost capable of containing all that attend worship, it may be said with certainty, that there are hundreds of Protestants, perhaps careless ones, that have not entered its door twice in seven years; the reason of which is, the seats being generally occupied by private families or officials of the garrison; when a humble stranger seats himself, so as to hear and see the preacher, he has a chance of being turned out, and instead of the pleasant look of a saint wishing to make a convert of a sinner, he meets with the frowning face of a demon, wishing, if not telling him, to go to.
During the mid 19th century the Convent was probably visited by the Spanish historian Francisco María Montero (see LINK) who wrote a description of it.
El palacio del Gobernador, situado en la calle Real cerca de la Puerta nueva (see LINK) es el antiguo convento de Franciscanos, cuyo escudo de los dos brazos clavados en la cruz se vé aun en el corredor del norte. Al par del nombre se ha conservado casi su forma primitiva, si bien reformadas sus habitaciones para los usos convenientes.
Su principal fachada es simplemente una deforme tapia en donde tal vez estaría la antigua puerta del convento. La puerta es mezquina y la escalera principal de madera; los corredores son sin embargo espaciosos, así como el patio de columnas y tiene además extensos y hermosos jardines.
By 1844 as the Franciscan arms mentioned by Montero had been covered over by plaster.La antigua Iglesia se ha partido, sirviendo de salón de baile del palacio la parte superior y la inferior se ha convertido en iglesia protestante para uso de los Gobernadores y oficiales, con puerta pequeña cerrada con verjas, que da á la calle.
The eastern entrance to the Convent before it was reconstructed ( 1850s – Unknown )
Unknown group posing in the Convent Gardens - The fellow with the sideburns looks suspiciously like Richard Airey, (see LINK) Governor at the time - If so then the lady on the left might be his wife Harriet and the one on the right his daughter Katherine (1865 - 1870)
Throughout the mid to late 19th century there was another flurry of reconstruction. The banqueting-room was built in 1864 and during 1867 and 1869 the place was given its present red brick facade and stone portico both probably designed by Colonel Crealock who was Lord Napier’s Military Secretary. The west wing – or Napier Wing – was built in 1879 on the south side of the stable. It was designed by the Colonial Engineer, Captain Buckle of photograph album fame. (See LINK) This was the age of the gifted amateur – especially the English gifted amateur.
The Convent boasting its new facade – Colonel Crealock’s Portico is in the process of being built ( Late 19th century - G. W. Wilson ) (See LINK)
( 1879 - From Captain Buckle' album )
During the 19th century when Queen Victoria ruled the waves and much of the earth’s surface as well, the King’s Chapel was renamed Queen’s Chapel. However, during Queen Elizabeth’s visit to the Rock in 1953 she requested that it be changed back to “King’s Chapel”. And who was going to say no!
The Queen’s request is a good reminder that – as is often the case in Gibraltar where every street, square or building inevitably ended up having more than one name - the Chapel appears in the literature under several other aliases - from the “English Church” to Mrs Green’s “Governor’s Church” and from the “Protestant Chapel” to perhaps the most popular name during the early 19th century of “The Convent Chapel”.
Usually known in Spanish as la iglesia protestante this British officer and artist chose to call it by the unusual – and unique - name of Capello Reale ( 1820 – Henry Sandham ) (See LINK)
In this sketch, however, the Governor’s residence is referred to as “the Convent” ( 1820 – Henry Sandham )
In 1908 the name of the Convent was officially changed to that of Government House. Not for us to reason why but the following letter from F. M. Ponsonby - King Edward VII’s Private Secretary - to General Frederick Forestier-Walker who was Governor at the time is worth a read:
19. IV. 08.My Dear General, The King desires me to tell you that, after reading your letter to Davidson, he has come to the conclusion that it would be advisable to alter the name of your residence from “The Convent” into “Government House.” The King hopes you will take the necessary steps to effect this change of name.
A curious incident happened in connection with this when Sir George White was Governor. A paragraph appeared in the English Newspapers to the effect that the King had arrived at Gibraltar and had had luncheon at the Convent. Ten days afterwards His Majesty received a resolution passed by an extreme Protestant Association deploring the fact that the King should have thought it necessary not only to visit but even have luncheon at such a Roman Catholic Institution!
Yours very truly, (Sgd.) ‘ F. M. Ponsonbv.’
Plan of Government House possibly in the very early 20th century ( 2003 - Gibraltar Heritage Journal - Tito Benady – with thanks )
When George VI visited the Rock in 1943 – either unimpressed by his father’s reasoning or impressed by the curious history associated with the name of the “Convent”- asked for the old one to be reinstated.
Another description of the place by E.R. Kenyon – possibly as it was in the very early 20th century - offers the following new and intriguing information:
The west doorway has been built up but may still be seen in the stables. Adjoining it there is also in the stables a fine door-way, exactly similar to that which may be seen in Southport Street built into the end wall of St. ]ago’s Barracks. This doorway leads into a series of bombproof shelters built against the side wall of the old nave . . .
Archway in Southport Street built into the end wall of St. ]ago’s Barracks and of which a similar one was supposed to have been part of a western entrance to the Convent ( 1911 – E.R. Kenyon )
Another perhaps less convincing bit of inconsequential information taken from Kenyon is the following:
In the convent garden is a Dragon tree (Dracoena Draco) believed to be over 1,000 years old. The Prince of Monaco (an expert naturalist) when visiting Gibraltar during the Governorship of Sir Robert Biddulph (1893-1900) informed him that it is the oldest known tree of its species in the world . . .
Unfortunately the Prince of Monaco got carried away – Dragon trees apparently do live to a ripe old age but more like 300 to 400 years rather than a 1000. Also the photograph of the tree included in the book was probably taken in the Alameda Gardens rather than the Convent. Nevertheless the existence of an ancient Dagon tree in the gardens of the Convent is mentioned in several older handbooks such as those by Baedeker (see LINK) and Richard Ford (see LINK) - although I am not entirely sure whether the tree is still with us.
Perhaps the Alameda Gardens rather than the Convent ? ( E.R. Kenyon )
In 1924 news was published about the discovery of “two very interesting relics” – the tombs of Juan Calbo and Peter Duranda. The interest must have been short lived as I have not been able to come across any further information as to the identity of either of these two.
Considerable refurbishments and alterations were carried out in 1997 and descriptions of these changes as well as the various Governors who inhabited the place are easily accessible either on the internet or elsewhere. No doubt the Convent has continued to be part of the history of Gibraltar – or perhaps more accurately the history of the British in Gibraltar - to this day. And by British I refer not to Gibraltarians but to our home-grown variety.
Let me put it this way. In the 1950s and 1960s when I was a young man living in Gibraltar nobody from my family - or any of my many friends - had ever set foot inside the Convent or its Chapel. Nor were we ever likely to.
The Convent looking north and more or less as I remember it from the 1950s when I passed by it almost daily on my way home to Alameda House in Red Sands