The Weekend I spent in the Queen’s Compound at Windsor

By the time sixty University of London postgraduates finished squeezing into buses rented to ferry them on a two-day retreat, I sensed significant events were in the offing. The prospect of guesting at a former game lodge on the grounds of Windsor Castle had frankly excited me, but I was trying to keep it bottled up by adopting a weary I-have-seen-this-type-of-thing attitude.

In the hour that it took to drive from London to Berkshire, I had abandoned all efforts at being cool and was experiencing an expectant glow. Cumberland Lodge, set in the tranquil landscape of Great Park (formerly known as the ‘King’s woodland at Windsor’), is a massive brown brick mansion surrounded by gardens in which nature’s untidy ways have been quietly subdued. After checking in, we were immediately ushered into a lecture on the history of the lodge.

Later, upon a brief investigation, I discovered that the Duke of Cumberland was better known as Butcher Bill in Scotland on account of his enthusiastic embrace of murder. Somewhat understandably given the English penchant for keeping up polite facades, the 30-minute talk on the lodge’s history had failed to mention this little fact. The woman who had made the presentation got rather thin-lipped when hours later, in a burst of drunken inspiration, I joined an otherwise dignified Swede postgraduate in accosting her and loudly demanding that they change the name of the place to Butcher Bill’s lodge. The whole business got slightly more annoying for this dear lady when we decided to chase the deer peacefully lurking about, thus breaking the air of royal tranquillity if only briefly. They could be killed, but only by the royals and so their being scared by a commoner, especially an African one, appeared to her, I suppose, highly inappropriate. Remembering these incidents now, I can supply no strong argument in my defence except to suggest that they were a childishly expressed desire to dig below the surface.

But let me return to Cumberland and how he came by that sobriquet – we were after all his guests in some fashion. It bears getting into some (irrelevant) detail for though in certain quarters Cumberland was known as Butcher Bill, he was also referred to as Stinking Bill and Sweet Bill. He even had a flower named after him. Whence the discrepancy in names, why would he boast of a mansion in the King’s Woodland, and how to explain the presence of Africans (joined with the Scots in feeling the colonial boot) in this residence so many years after his (in)famous acts? You must admit that these are mysteries, perhaps useless ones to understand, but they are interesting nevertheless.

In the middle of the eighteenth century, Cumberland, after suffering a defeat at the hands of the French as the commander of an Anglo-Dutch-Hanoverian alliance known as the Pragmatic army, was recalled to England to put the threatening Scots in their place. Charles Edward Stuart, called the Young Pretender by those ill-disposed toward him, grandson of the deposed king James II, had invaded England. After several engagements, with the Highlanders at his command using guerrilla tactics, matters came to a head in the Battle of Culloden where Cumberland’s army inflicted a crashing defeat and killed at least a thousand brave Scots. The Young Pretender eventually settled in France after having unsuccessfully tried to raise another effort against the English and used feminine disguises to escape the Royal Army. But that is a story for another occasion. Suffice it to say that Cumberland had carried the day.

After the battle, when our noble duke was asked for orders, he reputedly wrote, ‘No quarter’, on the back of a playing card. You can easily imagine the airiness of the gesture as Billy took in a game of cribbage with a brandy and a cigar in hand. What followed was the cold-blooded murder of all the Scottish survivors, many who had left the field wounded and hidden in peasant huts. He remained in Scotland for three months, captured three thousand prisoners and executed just over a hundred of them. His actions were met with great acclaim in England where he was given a generous pension and a flower named after him to mark his success. This blossom is known as the Sweet William in England, but in Scotland is called the Stinking Billy.

Knowing these details, consider the raison d’être of Cumberland Lodge given these two hundred and fifty years later: ‘to encourage an interchange of thought between students, especially those from the University of London and from the Commonwealth…to encourage the investigation and discussion of the nature of Man and Society’. As I return to the unimportant events that transpired on my weekend stay, consider what role time and intention play in transforming the violent and domineering into the charitable and democratic.

In the interest of honesty, I must report that on our first night at the lodge, students, who perhaps should have known better, stole a bottle of wine from the kitchens seeing that the bar would be closed by 11pm and that there was a strict injunction against providing your own liquor. Word is that they were acting out of a drunken desire for adventure. One of them, a sweet tempered and once removed conspirator in the wine lift, was dispatched to procure a corkscrew from a youngish bartender who seemed to have the eye for her. Unfortunately, the fellow turned out to be less horny and more principled on matters of theft, which I admit threw me. He steadfastly refused to yield the corkscrew and insisted on knowing why she needed it. Feeling that the game was up, this young lady came running to her compatriots in a panic at the dire consequences of robbery on the Queen’s own grounds.

Now this created a dilemma for the guilty parties who will remain unnamed for the moment. While this young woman had been a cheerful member of the planning group, she had not, in a manner of speaking, put her fingers in the cookie jar. If anything, she had been assigned the less morally compromised task of procuring the corkscrew. Being English, and thus possibly clued into the dire punishments that attend petty thefts in the land of Queens and dungeons, she was bubbling over with fear and trepidation. But, as she assured us, chin awobble and in quivering tones, she would take this on the chin without giving up the guiltier parties.

This of course was received not so much with relief, but with the faint beginnings of panic as we sensed that her nerves did not seem strong enough to withstand steady interrogation. And from the look of things, what I suspect was the faint memory of Butcher Bill in his former home, it was clear that the interrogation would prove to be brutal in the extreme.

I tried assuring her that it was an insignificant prank that would amount to nothing, not believing myself as I considered her tear-swollen features. I attempted summoning what I imagined was a rousing speech, deriding the bartender and suggesting that he would not, and indeed could not, take the matter any further on account of its pettiness and the lack of fingerprint proof. After all, I concluded, they did not even know a bottle had been stolen yet.

Having strengthened her backbone enough to reduce the tears into sniffles, I decided to investigate how much information the other side had. Approaching the bartender and his elderly, ladylike assistant – who had earlier refused to serve me drinks because of my inability to accompany the request with a ‘please’. After some friendly banter, it emerged that they suspected our young woman and a companion of stealing a bottle of wine and hiding it under the staircase. Punishment was going to levelled at the whole group by closing the bar a full hour early. Now this was serious stuff given the carefully laid plan to binge drink during that crucial hour. They were determined, like the former owner of the house, to giving no quarter. It came to me in a flash that the downstairs – the servants – in such a home would never ever forgive the transgressions of the upstairs if they had the power to exact punishment. These two had been thrown a bone, a reason to gnaw on it and they were not going to let go.

A well considered discussion now got underway as I dug deep, trying to find a sober set of ideas. With surprising ease, out came a rant on man’s innate corruption and the temptations that, alas, are too often the pitfalls of badly raised youth. Joined in an outraged chorus by the not-so-horny bartender and the please lady, it soon became clear THAT THERE IS A PROBLEM WITH THE YOUNG PEOPLE OF TODAY. ‘But surely, if we are in a crisis here in England on account of declining moral standards, what are we the decent people who have worked hard and lived honestly to do about it all?’ I demanded to know in the midst of this moral love-fest.

I had actually started to feel stabs of great anger against youth crime and a steady sympathy for these two good souls found in their peaceful lair by insidious wine thieves. But I still had a job to do. ‘Are we to depend on collective punishment; on the idea that the sins of the few can be visited on the many; is the message of the New Testament to be disregarded?’ I asked brightly. This was now too much for Mr. Principle and Lady Please; the African was right and deserved a free pint. And then several more. To my credit, I tried refusing these offers suggesting that somewhere in my foggy, largely conscience-free mind, there remained a hint of guilt. But what the hell, I was not going to refuse another pint of London Pride with so much riding on it.

(c) MMK

About bulletsandhoney
I read my first book when I was three, then my second one a few weeks later. It has carried on this way for decades with only temporary distractions of eating, fighting, loving, heartbreak and other such irrelevant biographical details.

One Response to The Weekend I spent in the Queen’s Compound at Windsor

  1. trish says:

    Kimani… riveting,brilliant,precise, cracking and any other person (“African” to quote you)who has a way with words is on their knees!!
    Trish.

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