The Great North Road has always been one of the most famous highways in the world. Along it travelled Phoenician traders, Ancient Britons and the legions of Rome. Later marauding bands of Saxons and Danes and Norman armies trod its length. For more than one thousand years an inn has stood by this Welland River crossing giving food and shelter to the hungry and weary.
The exact age of The George is not known, but historians have referred to it as "A very ancient hostelry, once belonging to the Abbots of Croyland". Consequently it is possible that it was standing in 947 A.D., and was included with much of Stamford Baron in a gift made by Turkotul, chancellor King Edred, to the Abbey of Croyland. Shortly after the Norman Conquest the lands and buildings that Croyland Abbey held south of the Welland passed into the possession of the Abbey of Peterborough. Therefore The George, to have been owned by the Abbots of Croyland, must be nearly 900 years old at least, and one thousand years seems its probable age.
The George of those times must have been comparatively small, for the present George incorporates much of the structure of two religious houses which bounded the old inn on each side. On the south stood the house of the Holy Sepulchre, a hospital of the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem, sometimes called Knights Hospitallers. Here all pilgrims and knights of the Holy Sepulchre were entertained as they travelled from the north on their journey to Jerusalem to visit the Sepulchre of Christ, the knights accompanying the pilgrims for protection.
Remains of the ancient hospital, partly destroyed by a Lancastrian army in 1461 during the Wars of the Roses, can be seen in the crypt under what is now the Champagne bar, and in the short vaulted passage of Perpendicular date which gives access to the beautiful and tranquil gardens. One historian has claimed that part of this block of buildings is the original chancel of the chapel of St. Mary Magdelen, once attached to the house of St. Sepulchre. It is interesting to note that there is a trefoil motif in the gable end denoting the Holy Trinity. Triple trefoils can also be seen over two medieval gateways in the garden.
The founder of this hospital of St. John and St. Thomas was one Brando, a monk of Peterborough Abbey, who started it in 1174, selling all of this possessions to do so. Later in 1189, Richard Humez, who held the manor of Stamford, and Bertram de Verdun his ward, gave the hospital a large meadow with orchard, and "The George Inn", and in this Inn yard "one Siward" built a handsome church.
On December 5th 1189, Richard I gave to the Abbey of Peterborough a charger confirming their possession of the Hospital of St. John and the blessed St. Thomas the martyr, the house of the Holy Sepulchre and The George Inn. As a result the three establishments passed into one ownership for the first time. The George thrived while its religious neighbours declined in importance until the destruction of the greater part of Stamford by the Lancastrians in 1461, when these religious houses finally ceased to have any significance.
It is probable that from this time onwards, many of the outbuildings of the Hospital of St. John and St. Thomas were incorporated into the fabric of The George and antiquarians may be interested in the way in which thick exterior walls are now deep inside the present building. It is likely that the present hotel yard was originally a cloistered quadrangle, and that one of the wings now housing comfortable modern bedrooms was once a handsome church built nearly eight hundred years ago by the pious Siward. In later years the burial ground of this church became the "Monastery" garden and here visitors may wander and enjoy the cloistered calm of this hallowed place.
The name "Monastery" is really a misnomer as there was never a true monastery on the site. A more distinguished appellation, having the merit of being true, would be the "Crusaders of Knights" garden, for here the young Crusaders strolled and talked, as young warriors of succeeding ages have done. The gnarled mulberry tree which grows beyond in the flower gardens probably dates from the time of James I, although it may have been planted in the days of Elizabeth I.
We know that in the 15th century, The George was a place of considerable importance, for a proprietor, John Dickens, was three times Alderman or Chief Magistrate of Stamford, in the years 1478, 1483 and 1493. His daughter and heir, Alice, was married to David Cissell or Sicilit, a gentleman of Stamford, who became one of King Henry VIII's Sergeant at Arms. David Cissell had a son, Richard, who in 1539 obtained the grant of the site of the recently dissolved priory of St. Michael as well as the church and 299 acres of land lying in the parish of St. Martins. Richard Cissell was father to William Cecil, the first Lord Burghley, the great Elizabethan statesman, whose descendants, the Marquises of Exeter are still seated at Stamford at Burghley House.
When Lord Burghley founded his bedehouse on the Welland bank where the hospital of St. John and St. Thomas once stood, he gave the landlord of The George in perpetuity the right of nominating one inmate, and this right has never lapsed. The main block of The George inn was rebuilt by Lord Burghley in 1597, and to this day his coat of arms is to be seen over the front entrance proclaiming the aristocratic antecedents of this noble hostelry. The Elizabethan stone mullioned lattice windows in the upper storey on the north side of the main block date from this time.
Another daughter of a landlord of The George made a notable marriage - in 1765 the eldest daughter of Bryan Hodgson married a clergyman, the Reverend Beilby Porteous, who eventually became Bishop of London. Bryan Hodgson is an ancestor of The Queen (6xgreat grandfather). His great - great grand daughter married Claude Bowes-Lyon, Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne, who was the Queen mother's grandfather.
While many old inns proudly boast a sinister and bloodstained past, The George has always retained a grave respectability in keeping with its religious past and in its whole history there has been only one murder here, and that arose of political feelings running high. West of the quadrangle and through the arch over which the Ballroom was once situated, stood the cheerful little English pub known as the "George Tap", now The Leatham Room in the Business Centre. In former days this was a popular rendezvous of grooms, stableboys and other servants and arguments and disputes were frequent. In 1714 when a Mr Wildman kept The George, The Tap was rented by a Mr Bolton, a man known to have Jacobite sympathies. It was then customary, says an old report, for the Jacobites to drink to the memory of Queen Anne kneeling and bare headed. While Mr Bolton was in this act a soldier, one of Honeywood's dragoons then stationed in Stamford, plunged his sword into him, killing him instantly. The report goes on, "and a sudden and innumerable rabble surrounded the inn, armed with all sorts of domestic weapons, broke all its windows and threatened to demolish it utterly unless the delinquent was given up, but the villain escaped out of the back gate".
During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the roads of England became busier than they had ever been before and The George, a hostelry of great renown, was frequented by royalty and nobility. We do not know whether good Queen Bess actually stayed here on her visits to Stamford as she was entertained by Lord Cecil at the old Burghley House, but we have a record of King Charles I passing the night of March 15th 1641, when on his way to Grantham, and again he stayed the night of Sunday August 23rd 1645, when travelling from Newark to Huntingdon. It was in Stamford, although not at The George, that Charles the Martyr spent his last night as a free man. Other royal visitors were William III in 1696 and the king of Denmark in 1768. Scottish visitors will know of another guest of royal blood who has stayed here, for the "Butcher", Duke of Cumberland, son of George II, stayed at The George on his way back from his victory at Culloden in 1746. Sir Walter Scott frequently stayed at The George and it was he who wrote that the view of Stamford from St. Martins was "the finest twixt Edinburgh and London".
In 1641, shortly after the visit of Charles I, The George suffered in a disastrous flood of the River Wellend which, swollen by a heavy fall of rain and a high wind, rose to such an extent that the ground floor of the hotel was flooded, one of the stables was washed down, and some horses drowned.
The George has for centuries been a favourite meeting place of sportsmen and here in 1725, Brownslow, Earl of Exeter, erected what must have been the finest Cock Pit in the world. It was built in the octagonal form of the local free stone and had a roof described as "arched found and delicately cieled". It measured forty feet across and was computed to hold nearly five hundred persons. Mains and matches were regularly fought here on the mornings of each of the race days, but the sport was slowly going out of favour and in 1819, after the time of the races was changed from 6pm to 2pm, they were discontinued. The last main was fought during the race week of 1834. For a time the Cock Pit continued in existence as a schoolroom but was eventually demolished.
After this period the Whincups, father and son, were landlords for eighty years, Henry Whincup holding the office of Mayor of Stamford in 1845. On one such occasion he laid and won a wager that he would drive at full gallop a carriage and four horse from the top of St Martins High Street, down the hill, turn the sharp corner past the Inn entrance, then through the side archway with no loss of speed and without mishap. This side entrance has since been walled in, but the pillars and an interior archway can be seen inside the Dining Room which was built into the old covered courtyard less than one hundred years ago.
A more sensational wager had been made earlier in the century when a well known character, Milton by name, undertook to ride from London's Piccadilly to The George, a distance of over 90 miles, within five hours. Leaving London at 8.00 on a December morning, he reached Stamford at 12.25, thus winning his wager by 35 minutes. To win this bet he rode 13 horses.
During the eighteenth century the great turnpike roads of England were being built and fast stage coaches were replacing the lumbering wagons. Soon after the building of the Cock Pit, the front of The George was rebuilt to take on its present appearance. The famous gallows sign was erected across the road at this time as a sign of welcome to the honest traveller and as a warning of the welcome which awaited the highwayman - Tom King, Dick Turpin and others of that infamous brotherhood were an ever present menace to the unwary. For a time The George became famous throughout the United Kingdom and beyond. No fewer than 40 coaches, "twenty up and twenty down", passed through Stamford every day and although there were other coaching inns in Stamford, The George was, as it is still, the best. In earlier days the whole journey from London to York by stage took four days, the fare being 25 shillings inside and 18 shillings outside. Each passenger was allowed 14.5 lbs of baggage, all excess charged at 3 pence per lb extra. In the heyday of the coaching age the time allowed for the mail coach from London to Stamford was 9 hours and twenty minutes, including changes.
Visitors to the hotel will see on their left as they enter a door marked "London" and on their right a doorway marked "York". These two old panelled rooms were the waiting rooms for passengers assembling for their coaches which changed horses in the hotel yard. At this time the main entrance for coaches was at the north side of the hotel where they entered between pillars into what is now the Dining Room, and under an arch through into the hotel yard. At this time there was a fine assembly room on the first floor, but this has long since been converted into bedrooms. In the west wing of the hotel there was a stately ballroom, and guests sleeping in one of the rooms here may be interested to know that above the ceilings of their rooms, the original lofty ceiling and minstrels gallery still remain as they were over two hundred years ago.
In the entrance hall there is a portrait of Daniel Lambert, certainly the hotel's biggest customer. He was born March 13th 1770 and as a young man was prodigiously strong. In later life however muscle turned to fat and at the time of his death on June 21st 1809, at the age of 39, he weighed 52 stone, 11 lbs. His height was 5ft. 11ins., and he measured 3 yards 4 ins. around the body and 1 yard and one inch around the thigh. His walking sticks are on view in the hotel.
In recent years the hotel has been modernised, but great care has been taken not to destroy its interesting historical features. Much of the most recent work of modernisation and decoration has been restoration. Luxurious bedrooms, a cuisine to satisfy the most exacting tastes and a truly warm welcome make The George an ideal stopping point for tourists and businessmen alike. The cellars are a source of great pride, where wine of the finest quality is stored under ideal conditions in vaults which date back to the earliest days of the foundation.