Saturday, 27 December 2008

Royalty in Reigate

If you go to an event in the Holbein Hall at Reigate Priory you will see an array of large colour photographs of HRH Prince Edward when he visited the Grade 1 historic building and Grade 2 park on 9th July 2008.

He was presented with a copy of Mum's book, "Discovering Reigate Priory - the place and the people" and he even mentioned it in the letter of thanks from Bagshot Park.

In the book there are many references to his family of course. One of the photographs is of his sister, Princess Anne who visited on June 28, 1980 for a rally of St John Ambulance Cadets.

Their grandmother, Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, used to visit the stables at Reigate Priory fairly regularly, just 21 miles from London. I can remember from my childhood in the 1960s, seeing her black limousine sweeping round from Croydon Road into Church Street, and she waved. She was on her way to see her horses in the Priory stables in Park Lane, where they were trained by Jack O'Donoghue. He had trained many horses owned by her. His obituary in the Independent, 1998, started with"As well as being the oldest licensed trainer in Britain until his retirement in 1996, Jack O'Donohue's other distinction during a career spanning half a century was to send out the 1951 Grand National winner Nickel Coin.

I remember the stables and paddocks were always so picturesque, set in the lovely landscape of a gentleman's country estate, now a municipal park. What a shame that they have been the target of arsonists three times this year and still nothing has been done to conserve them or put them to good use as amenities, as originally intended. Peter Beatty had stated as such in his letter published in the Times during WW2.

I wonder if the Queen Mother and our reigning monarch Elizabeth II knew that Reigate is the almer mater of their Honorary Surgeon, Philip H Mitchiner, and also the hometown of Her Majesty's Honorary Gynaecologist, who safely delivered Prince Charles sixty years ago.

In previous generations, owners of Reigate Priory have also had many royal links. Earl Beatty was a national hero and legend in his time - Admiral Sir David. As owner from 1921 onwards of Reigate Priory, perhaps his finest hour was on the deck of his Grand Fleet flagship, HMS Queen Elizabeth. In 1948 it was sold for scrap.

Reigate Priory was even used as a secret refuge for the royal princes (later Edward VIII and George VI) when there was a big scare about a Sinn Feinn plot to murder some members of the Royal Family and the government. They were guarded by the local police who were 'gone for some time until the scare was over'. Churchill was there at the same time, knowing the geography and acting with political discretion and secrecy.

Edward VII, two generations earlier, was a regular house guest along with the Marlborough House set. There is a huge photograph taken May 20th 1905, along with signatures in the visitor's book of Edward R, the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire (a.k.a. 'the Old Trout'), Maud Warrender, Arthur Balfour, the Cadogans, Ernest Cassel, Violet Savile and her husband, Muriel Wilson, William McEwan and Alice Keppel - "the King's special friend". Years ago when I taught at Reigate Priory School, one of my classrooms was Edward VII's bedroom - very grand, with a fabulous view south towards the parkland, the ha ha, the peaceful sunken garden and fountain. There are connecting doors between the rooms of course.

There have doubtless been other right royal visits. In another book stored in a Toronto university library there is a comment that 'we must not omit to mention' that the future James II resided there. We don't yet have the definitive proof of him actually residing there except that there are firm references that he was co-owner for some time.

Then of course we have the geological links with royal palaces. Reigate stone has always been highly prized and used in the building of Westminster Abbey, Westminster Palace, Windsor Castle, Rochester Castle, Hampton Court's Great Hall, Nonsuch Palace, Hadleigh Castle and St. Paul's Cathedral.

There was also Reigate Castle! Its memory survives in legend and history books - on Reigate Grammar School's badge and the Borough's Coat of Arms.

How far back are the right royal links with Reigate? Well, the Domesday Book of 1086 states that "The King holds Churchefelle in demesne" and "Edith the Queen held it". Edith was the widow of Edward the Confessor. It is lovely to read in Hooper's book of Reigate: Its Story Through The Ages, that William the Conqueror respected her title and allowed her to retain possession of this and her other manors during her life.

It's a shame about the stables being burnt down in 2008 though.

Did those vandals ever learn anything about history or respect? Did they ever apologise? Perhaps nothing will ever be done about it until that rather special jigsaw piece of our royal heritage is eventually bulldozed over and forgotten for evermore. Progress, huh.

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