GREYS COURT, AN UNUSUALLY BEAUTIFUL NATIONAL TRUST SITE NEAR HENLEY-UPON-THAMES
On my latest visit to London this past spring, my daughter suggested that we go to Greys Court, a National Trust house she’d been curious about but had never visited. The original buildings on the site dated from before the 12th-century and there was a famous garden; it was in the foothills of the Chilterns, outside of Henley-on-Thames (where I’d never been) and we could explore that town as well. We’d picnic on the extensive grassy grounds overlooking the house and have tea later in the Tea Room located in the Cromwellian Stables.
(Yes, I know, looking at the photo above – that is certainly not a medieval building! – but the rest of the surrounding buildings – erected over at least 600 years — are decidedly from the early medieval period and these very well evoke for the visitor those days of yore.)
This site is mentioned in the 11th century Domesday Book as Redrefield (Rotherfield). The owners were the de Grey family, barons who fought with their kings at Crecy, Bosworth, in the Scottish wars, and in the Hundred Years War with France. The most famous of the de Greys was John de Grey, a professional soldier who became one of the original Knights of the Garter. After the Battle of Crecy 1346 he was given a license to crenellate Rotherfield, i.e., fortifying it by providing the walls with battlements.
Upon the death of his grand-daughter, Alice, in 1455, the lands passed to the crown. Henry VII awarded it first to his uncle, Jasper Tudor, then, in 1514, Robert Knollys received the property “for the annual rent of a Red Rose at Midsummer”. Robert Knollys’ son, Francis Knollys, a good friend of King Henry VIII, became the next owner of these lands. (His wife was first cousin to Queen Elizabeth I through her mother’s family, the Boleyns.)
A view from the Knot Garden up to the Great Tower
Francis Knollys was a firm and committed Protestant and a lifelong confidante to his queen. He was treasurer of the royal household for almost 25 years and also oversaw Mary, Queen of Scots, in her captivity. He died in 1596.The tombs of the Knollys family are alongside those of the de Greys in Rotherfield Greys Church.
Greys Court c1600 copyright National Trust
Francis Knollys was responsible for the original structure that is the present house, which is basically a handsome Jacobean structure; some additions to the house were carried on by his son, William, who became Earl of Banbury in 1626. (One of the delightful Tudor additions is a donkey wheelhouse with a 200 foot well! Odds are that this is something few visitors – and I include myself – have never seen the likes of before J It’s amazing.)
After being passed on to several other members of the Knollys family, it was sold to William Paul, whose daughter married the Baronet William Stapleton in 1724. Greys Court remained in the Stapleton family for over 200 years before being sold in 1935.
Under the ownership of the Stapletons, the property was made up of some 8,000 acres of woodland, parkland, and farmland. They incorporated stone from the several medieval buildings on site to further enlarge the house, but today the entire estate comprises only 300 acres, a far cry from the original expansive holdings.
Those marvelous wisteria trellises, with bluebells beneath
What sets Greys Court apart from other stately homes is that it is not a very large house. It strikes one as a house in which one could live an almost-normal family life. It is homey, and the gardens add much to its charm, set as they are amongst medieval ruins such as the Great Tower and the picturesque crumbling walls.
The gardens are rife with rambling, oh-so-fragrant old-fashioned roses and those old walls are draped with wisteria. (The wisteria is also trained over a stunning number of trellises, making quite a beautiful sight.) There’s a clean, clear pond nestled near the Great Tower in which all sorts of tiny swimming wildlife like newts and tadpoles can be seen and enjoyed. Children particularly enjoy the tower and the pond and threading their way through a modern garden maze (commissioned in 1981 in honor of Archbishop Runcie), and under the wisteria trellises. There’s a 19th century icehouse and the faint foundations of medieval gatehouses and other long-gone walls can be seen traced on the earth.
Part Two tomorrow!