The view from Herstmonceux

From the grounds of the International Study Centre, A&E Editor Adèle Barclay explores the history behind the castle walls

The ISC first opened its gates to students in 1994, providing a unique cultural experience.
The ISC first opened its gates to students in 1994, providing a unique cultural experience.
Supplied by Heather Mosher

There’s something about a castle that can capture anyone’s imagination. The towers, moats, courtyards, twisty staircases, clunky wooden doors and mysterious passages are the stuff of fairy tales. The magic and history a castle conjures haunt the backs of our minds from childhood onward— just look at the status J. K. Rowling’s Hogwarts has achieved in pop culture.

So it’s not surprising that Queen’s doesn’t shy away from mentioning its possession of Herstmonceux Castle to prospective students. I distinctly remember an admissions recruiter visiting my high school in the rural outskirts of the GTA and unfurling a poster of Herstmonceux. Suddenly, Queen’s looked a lot more attractive.

Upon first impression on a sunny spring day, the castle—located in the almost idyllic countryside of East Sussex in the south of England—is quite the vision. A large, reddish brick fortress surrounded by fields of lush greenery, the building’s presence is both commanding and dreamlike. But more than just a wish fulfilment for some childhood fantasy of living in a castle, the ISC is an academic institution. Focused primarily on the humanities but also commerce and law, it offers an education and life less ordinary to its students.

“We’re pretty unique; up until a year ago, there were only two other first-year study abroad programs in the world,” said David Bevan, ISC executive director.

“Now other universities are thinking, ‘Maybe that’s the route to go.’ It’s not so eccentric to think of putting your first year students in school miles away. It puts them at the front edge.”

Bevan has been working and living at the ISC for almost six years. As executive director, he oversees the internal and external workings of the castle, from dealing with oncampus student issues to building liaisons with other universities and recruiting students from other countries.

But the history behind this gem and how it became a one-of-a-kind study abroad program reads nothing like a simple fairy tale. Herstmonceux is a site that has witnessed the evolution of history and culture over time.

The name itself, Herstmonceux, rings of both Saxon and Norman influences, a reflection of its location in the south of England, close to the English channel and France. Dating back to 1440, the castle was built by Roger Fiennes— of the family that eventually produced actors Ralph and Joseph Fiennes—who fought with Henry the Fifth at Agincourt. After prospering from the campaign in France, Fiennes was in need of a home to suit his high standing in society. With the King’s blessing, he had the castle built out of bricks, making it an unusual structure for the time. Today the building stands as one of Britain’s oldest brick structures.

The history here is literally embedded in the walls. Claude Lowther, a Lieutenant Colonel from the First World War who purchased the castle in 1911 and invested heavily in its restoration, had his ashes laid to rest in the
walls of the castle’s chapel—a fact I’m confronted with each time I attend my Elizabethan Shakespeare class. Because the insides of Herstmonceux had been sold off in 1777, Lowther began the task of renovating the rooms and amassing items from other castles to make the place a residence once again. The result is an interior decorating pastiche that spans multiple eras. For example, the “Elizabethan Room” was reconstructed in the style of the era, and contains a staircase built for Queen Elizabeth I’s visit to Theobalds in Hertforshire.

Queen’s found its place in the castle’s history in the early 1990s when its ownership was up in the air. Queen’s alumnus and donor Alfred Bader stepped in and decided to buy the castle and its grounds as a gift to his alma mater.

Bader’s intention for his donation was to create an international educational institution. What followed was a pedagogical experiment as one of the only first-year study abroad programs in the world was formulated. The castle opened its gates to its first class in 1994. Students have the choice of applying for the Fall-Winter program in their first year, but upper-year students can spend time at the castle during the regular school year or during the spring and summer terms.

Bevan said the castle was originally conceived as a first-year experience like no other, offering courses to Queen’s students while providing a chance to study the humanities in context. Courses at the ISC use experiential learning by way of field studies—students visit sites relevant to their area of learning throughout their time spent at Herstmonceux.

The castle’s location is invaluable to this mode of study, with its two-hour commute to London and proximity to the European continent—not to mention the seaside city of Brighton and a countryside filled with cultural relics and rich history. The ISC also offers students something most Canadian undergraduate universities can only dream of: smaller class sizes.

Christian Lloyd is a professor at the ISC, as well as the academic assistant to the executive director.

“There’s a real sort of intensity. You get to know your fellow students and professors much more,” said Lloyd, who has worked at the castle for nine years and now lives on-site.

“The atmosphere in classes is much more relaxed. People really know each other and get to speak their minds.”

Smaller class sizes can mean more discussion, but also the kind of academic mentorship found more often in graduate schools. The close-knit community of approximately 170 students—even fewer in the summer means students live in close quarters.

Christian Petrozza, ArtSci ’10, spent his first year at the ISC and enjoyed the experience so much he stayed on for the following spring and summer terms. Now in his second year, he’s back at the castle for spring term.

Petrozza said students become friends with professors at the ISC.

“They know you by name, which is really important. I noticed a huge difference when I came back [to Queen’s]. You become a number,” he said, adding that professors are more sincere and approachable at the castle.

“The standards are the same, but the person directly involved with teaching you is marking your papers.”

Another aspect of the program often emphasized in guidebooks is its international community. Since the ISC’s conception, there has been movement towards internationalizing the campus through interdisciplinary, comparative culture courses. In addition, the ISC has worked to build relationships with other universities. Queen’s has a preexisting exchange relationship with Fudan University in China that has proved fruitful for the ISC. Each term, Chinese students come to the castle to study and learn, both gaining another cultural perspective and adding to the ISC’s diversity.

Vanessa Shao Feng is an English major entering her fourth year at Fudan—but coming from Shanghai, her courses in England are taught in a language foreign to her.

“We chose to experience something totally different from our culture.”

The concept of the ISC as a fairytale castle only just skims the surface. Underneath, the place is keenly exploring this international economy and the experience of cultural interaction.

The Castle Through the Ages

Sir Roger Fiennes, owner of the Manor of Herstmonceux, applies for a license to “with walls and lime, enclose, krenellate, entower and embattle his manor of HURST MONCEUX in the County of Sussex.” Construction is reported to have cost £3,800.

George Naylor buys Herstmonceux Estate for £38,215 in the first recorded sale of the property.

Robert Hare decides to sell the castle’s contents, removing a quarter of a million bricks. It’s speculated that during this time, the abandoned castle becomes a haven for smugglers, who store goods behind derelict castle walls. This illegal activity leads to the castle’s resident ghost story: a headless drummer boy is said to stalk the castle grounds. A rumoured haunting would have turned off curious local villagers investigating activity within the castle walls.

Thomas Kemp buys Herstmonceux for £56,000. A catalogue from the sale describes the estate as “A Capital and Valuable Freehold Estate … Consisting of an Elegant Residence … and The Ruins of an Ancient, Noble and Spacious Castle … containing in the whole One Thousand and Seventy-Two Acres.”

Restoration begins when Lieutenant-Colonel Claude Lowther, who served in the South African wars, buys the castle. WW I interrupts reconstruction.

Sir Paul Latham purchases the estate and finishes reconstruction over four years. A small lake is built and the moat, which has been dry for hundreds of years, is flooded.

The Hearts of Oak Friendly Society moves into the castle to avoid air raids in London. Records are stored at Herstmonceux throughout the war. Because of a nearby radar station, a V-1 flying bomb lands near the castle grounds in the 1940s.

The British Admiralty spends £76,000 on Herstmonceux for the Royal Observatory, which was previously located in Greenwich.

Observatory relocated due to light pollution from surrounding towns.

Queen’s University Board of Trustees endorses the purchase of Herstmonceux Castle with the assistance of a donation from Alfred and Isabel Bader.

—Kerri MacDonald, Source: "A History of Herstmonceux Castle" by David Calvert and Roger Martin

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