When the Christians captured The Rock in 1462, a number of religious orders established themselves in Gibraltar. Franciscan fathers took up residency in the area of what today we call The Convent, in about 1480. In 1531, Francisco de Madrid paid for a chapel and for a considerable extension to the earlier Convent.
Shortly after the capture of Gibraltar by British and Dutch Forces for one of two pretenders to the Spanish throne in 1704, the Franciscan friars left. The building, probable slightly damaged during the capture, stood abandoned until 1728 when it was taken over as the palace for the military Governor. The name “ Convent” from the Spanish “Convento” (used in Spanish both for monasteries and for convents) has been used almost continuously since the first convent in the 15th century. Between 1903 and 1943 it was called “Government House”. We owe the reinstatement of the historic name to King George VI, who so ordered after his visit to Gibraltar during the 2nd WW.
The siege of 1727 caused much damage to the old building but this was small by comparison to the severe damage caused during the Great Siege (1779/83) from enemy bombardments both from land and from the sea. Major restoration no doubt commenced after the Great Siege but the most striking alterations were effected in 1863/64 under Lieutenant General Sir William Codrington KCB, the then Governor. This Governor had the Banqueting Hall rebuilt and the facade overlooking Main Street was totally changed from the back door it had been to the new attractive front entrance we now enjoy. The main staircase by the entrance probably belongs to this major renovation.
In 1951 the SS “Bedenham”, an ammunition ship, blew up in the inner harbour, but only at a distance of 360 yards. The Convent and its chapel suffered badly as did much of Gibraltar. The Banqueting Hall suffered irreparable damage to its three stained glass windows (1863).
Like many ancient buildings, the old Convent attracts a story or two but perhaps the best known is the one about the Spanish nun brought to this monastery to be executed in a rather bizarre fashion and thus becoming The Convent’s resident ghost.
Originally, part of the Chapel was converted into its present looks during the reign of Queen Victoria. Thus the collection of paintings of our monarchs commences with her.
Banqueting Hall: Part of the ancient Convent of 1531. This area was probably the living quarters of the monks during the 16th and 17th century. Between 1863/64 General Codrington, the then Governor, undertook a major enhancement of the Convent and this room is perhaps what has survived best. Three beautiful stained glass windows were lost in 1951, but in the window alcoves we still have the list of Moorish Caliphs and Governors of Gibraltar from 711 to 1462AD. The Spanish Monarchs and Governors dating from 1462 to 1704 adorn the arches of these alcoves. Around the walls hang pennants and shields with the Coat of Arms of all Governors (and Lt Governors) from 1704 to date. All but two are British Officers. The Royal Coat of Arms of Queen Anne (1702/1714) commences those of all our monarchs to the present.
Two tall double wooden doors on the eastern wall of the Hall were tables which themselves were made from wood salvaged from the wrecks of the Spanish floating batteries that attacked Gibraltar during the Great Siege (Sept 1782). The repaired burnt shot holes are prominent. The last working keys of the Fortress following from those of The Great Siege are in a glass case, replicas of which are the ceremonials and placed in front of him at all official dinners. The ceremony of THE KEYS OF GIBRALTAR commemorate the closing of the gates at night which General Elliott took very seriously.
This smaller room is used for breakfast and all other meals, unless the Governor invites a number of guests which requires the use of the Banqueting Hall. Probably made the most personalised room in The Convent by successive Governors. A number of personal pictures, photos and other mementoes adorn this room.
Perhaps the prettiest room in The Convent. The Drawing Room does not possess the history and palatial looks of the Banqueting Hall but is nevertheless a very popular and homely room also containing many personal items belonging to the Governor and Lady White. Over the fireplace hangs a most interesting naval scene painted on silk. Two beautiful full chandeliers complement the interesting ceiling made of iron / tin.
Contain a number of trees planted by visiting royalty. One of the prides of The Convent collection is a Dragon Tree (Draccone Draco) which until recently was exaggeratedly referred to as over 1000 years old, but now considered to date from 1470/80. An old Carob tree, some 200 years old, provides shade near His Excellency’s office.
This square patio, surrounded by an arched covered way, had a well of particularly good fresh water, in the centre. The dominating feature in The Cloister is the black statue of General Sir George Augustus Elliott (later 1st Baron Heathfield of Gibraltar) Governor during The Great Siege (1779/83). This interesting statue made of wood from the Spanish ship “San Juan” captured at Trafalgar (1805) was made for the Alameda Gardens but, as luck would have it, a bronze bust of General Elliott was put in the Alameda, allowing this more delicate wooden statue to survive under cover.
The Chapel to The Convent is now about half its original size. The Chapel, too, suffered during the sieges and the rising cost of repairs in the 18th and 19th Century were a strong contributing factor in the redeployment of its space and the shrinking of the Chapel itself.