'Framed like a picture by the rarest and stateliest of trees and erected amongst the remains of a vast old castellated mansion....'
This is how Mary Russell Mitford describes Greys Court in her book 'Recollections of a Literary Life'(1851). It is also surprising how little has changed at Greys since this was written nearly 150 years ago.The countryside has been tamed somewhat, but progress still remains locked out as you enter the grounds of the Estate. Immediately you are swept back through centuries of building, from times of great wealth and pleasure, to more sinister times when castellated towers and walls were built to make the life of those who lived within more secure.
For such an old dwelling that has been constantly occupied, very little evidence has survived to tell us of its early history. In the Domesday book, Anchetil de Greye is described as owning Redrefield (Rotherfield). The de Greys also had lands in Norfolk and this line of the Family gave us John de Grey, Bishop of Norwich and justicular of Ireland who died in 1214. He served in King John's retinue from 1198. John had him elected Archbishop of Canterbury after Hubert Walter's death in 1205, but this was quashed by Innocent III and Stephen Langton was elected. By the end of the 13th century the de Grey family were spread all over England with the Baron Grey's of Wilton and the Baron Grey's of Codnor being the senior members. They all went on to serve their King in Wales, Scotland and later in the Hundred Years War with France.
The de Grey family continued to own the estate of Rotherfield for more than four centuries. In 1239 Walter de Grey, Archbishop of York, brought Rotherfield from his Kinswoman, Eve de Grey, in order to give it to his brother Robert de Grey, ancestor of the Lords Grey of Rotherfield. This Robert's Grandson, Sir Robert de Grey fought for Edward I in Wales in 1282/3.
Herb Garden with the Great Tower - John de Grey, 5th Baron Grey of Rotherfield
In 1282 Longshanks crossed into Wales to put down the latest uprising which soon turned into a war of conquest. He intended to severely punish his rebellious vassels and finally put the country under his control. The English system of administration was extended, new counties were formed in the north and a consolidation of his Castle building began in earnest. It was during these campaigns that the more 'professional' soldier was being employed more and more by the King, or attending as part of a higher Nobles retinue. The de Grey's were all under Longshanks's banner and all were to be well rewarded for their services.
Sir Robert de Grey's son, John de Grey (1271-1312), was summoned to Parliament as first Baron Grey of Rotherfield on 26th January 1297. He took part in the Scottish wars under Longshanks and fought in the glorious victory at Falkirk in 1298 against William Wallace, when a large part of Edward's troops refused to fight. He was back in Scotland again in 1306 after the rebellion and enthronement of Robert Bruce. He died in 1312 having married Margaret, daughter of William de Odingsells of Maxstoke, Warwickshire and was succeeded by his son, John de Grey, second Baron Grey of Rotherfield (1300-1359). John de Grey was probably the most famous of the de Greys of Rotherfield. He was a professional soldier who:
'Received livery of his lands in the fifteenth year of the reign of Edward the second after the conquest'
In 1336 he was fighting for the King in Scotland; in 1342 he took part in the expedition to Flanders. He was in France in 1343, 1345-6, 1348 and again in 1356. He took part in the Battle of Crecy in 1346 with Edward III and his son Edward Black Prince of Wales, and it was after his return (after the fall of Calais in 1347) that he was given licence to crenellate Rotherfield. In 1353 he was commissioner of array for the counties of Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire, and in 1356 was one of the witnesses to the charters by which Edward Baliol granted all his rights in Scotland to Edward III.
John de Grey was summoned to Parliament from 1326-1356 and was one of the Original Knights of the Garter instituted at its foundation in 1344 and confirmed in 1348, where he occupied the eighth stall on the sovereign's side at Windsor Castle. He died on 1 Sept, 1359 leaving Greys to his son, also John de Grey, Third Baron. The house was completely rebuilt during the life of John, 2nd Baron and his work was continued by his son John, 3rd Baron.
The 5th Baron Grey of Rotherfield, another John de Grey, also fought in the Hundred Years War for Edward III, and his splendid brass, dating 1387, can be seen in the lovely Rotherfield Greys Church, hidden beneath a carpet. He had no sons and his daughter, Joan, married into the Deincourt family. Her daughter, Alice, married William, Lord Lovell in 1422 and inherited Greys from her mother. Alice died in 1455 and with her son, Francis, (whose fate was never accounted for after the Battle of Bosworth ) the family's ownership and occupancy of Greys came to an end.
The Seal of Edward III
Greys Court passed to the crown and Henry VII gave it to his uncle, Jasper Tudor for a short period. Robert Knollys, a court official, who had lived in Greys Court since 1503, received papers passing the property to him in 1514 for an annual rent of a Red Rose at Midsummer. In 1538 it is recorded that Henry VIII secured the estate to 'his friend Francis Knollys', (1514-1598) son of Robert Knollys. It has been said that this branch of the Knollys family descended from the great Sir Robert Knollys of Sculthorpe, (the soldier from the famous 'Free Companies' of the Hundred Years War whose name has featured previously on this web site) but Sir Francis's pedigree cannot be properly traced beyond Sir Thomas Knollys, Lord Mayor of London 1409-1410. He directed the rebuilding of the Guildhall in 1400 and was a member of the Grocers company in the City of London. Sir Francis Knollys was fifth in decent from him.
Francis Knollys's wife was a grand-daughter of Sir Thomas Boleyn and thus made her 1st cousin to Queen Elizabeth I. Francis himself became one of the Queen's most intimate councillors and was Treasurer of the Royal Household from 1572-1596. He was a staunch Protestant and was sent by Elizabeth to attend Mary, Queen of Scots in her captivity. He became great friends with Mary but always remained loyal to his Queen. He proved to be a trusted and loyal servant to his King and Queen, although he did spend some time in Germany during the reign of Mary due to his conflict over the church. His wife, as a relative of Queen Elizabeth always remained close to Royal Court . He died in 1596 and their magnificent Elizabethan tomb can also be seen in Rotherfield Greys Church, which later became the resting place for future generations of the Knollys family.
It was Francis who started another large building programme, and some of the present house forms part of his works. This building was continued by his son, William, who also took a great interest in Court life, he became Earl of Banbury in 1626. It then passed to several lesser known members of the family until it was sold.
In 1724 William Pauls daughter married Sir William Stapleton Bt - the baronetcy was created in 1679 - and Greys Court was to remain in their family until 1935. During the families early ownership the lands comprised about 8000 acres of woodland, parkland and farmland, he also started a grand building programme to the house and used much stone from the medieval buildings. Today the Estate extends to 300 acres which surround the picturesque Jacobean House. In 1937 Sir Felix and Lady Brunner brought the Estate and created the fine gardens and walks around Greys to be enjoyed today by the visitor.
The site is now managed by The National Trust.
Greys Court c1600
Greys Court is managed by The National Trust.
Open 1st April to end of September.
Hours Mon, Wed & Fri, 2pm - 6pm ( closed Good Friday ) Garden daily except Thurs & Sun 2pm - 6pm.
Entry House and Garden £4-50; Family ticket £11-00. Garden only £3-20; Family ticket £8-00.
Telephone 01491 - 628529
Information and Events send SAE to PO Box 180. High Wycombe Bucks HP14 4XT.
OS Map - No 175 Ref SU 725834.
Greys Court is situated 3 miles west of Henley-on-Thames in Oxfordshire. It can be reached by Yellow Bus M1 from Reading Railway Station, alighting at Greys Green. 1/2 mile. Nearest Railway Station, Henley-on-Thames, 3 miles.
Access for people with disabilities is unfortunatly to the garden only due to steps but drivers with official orange badge may park in front of the house. Picnics are not allowed in the Grounds and dogs are allowed in the car park only. There is a Tea Room situated in the Cromwellian Stables that serve light snacks and Homemade Cakes.
Although the main house does not qualify as a medieval building it's sourrounds certainly do. Greys is a fine example of an ancient family's more modest dwelling ,with buildings being erected continuously for over 600 years. Sadly, not all have survived, but what remains gives the visitor an interesting array of buildings and gardens.
The delightful gardens have been created amongst the ruins with rambling old fashioned roses and wisteria. In the garden by the Great Tower is a pond filled with all sorts of wildlife, I even spotted some Crested Newts swimming with the tadpoles, a rare species in the UK today. The ground floor of the house is open to the public and contains some outstanding 18th Century plasterwork. The out-buildings include a Tudor donkey wheel house and a 19th Century ice house.
The house stands today in the western part of de Grey's medieval courtyard, and faces the Great Tower built and crenellated by John de Grey in the mid 14th Century. In a hot summer when the lawns dry out, the foundations of walls and of two gate-houses can be seen in the parched grass. these corrispond with the walls of the two courts shown in the engraving in Napier's History of Ewelme & Swyncombe. As mentioned before the building history of Greys is very scarce and with the new house built from the 16th Century much still has to be learnt. Sir Francis Knolly's son, William, is known to have entertained Queen Elizabeth on several occasions at his main residence at Caversham in Surrey and it is soon clear to the visitor that the present house is not that of a major player at court, more one they would let to friends or family.
Although not as grand as some of the previous sites I've featured, Greys holds its own with equal charm and fasination. The gardens are a joy to behold and are extremly well kept. The House, well I can't really tell you about the house as it was closed on my visit and I have that pleasure to come. The outer buildings were all accessable and they are kept in good condition including the magnificent Great Tower, which can be accended giving excellent views across the Estate. May I also recommend a visit to Rotherfield Greys Church. Inside can be found the resting place of many of the famous residents at Greys including the magnificent brass of the 5th Baron Grey of Rotherfield, John de Grey who died in 1387. There is also the Knollys family tomb with a superb Elizabethan effigy of Robert and Lady Knollys.
I did enjoy my visit to Greys but make sure to check that the House is open before visiting.
Information on Greys Court was obtained from;
Greys Court - Lady and Hugo Brunner.
The Domesday Book - Thomas Hinde.
The Hundred Years War - Anne Curry.
The Crecy War - Lt-Col Alfred H. Burne.
England and its Rulers 1066-1272 - M.T.Clanchy.
The Three Edwards - Michael Prestwich.
King Edward III - Michael Packe.
Plantagenet Encyclopaedia - Elizabeth Hallam.
Chronicles of the Age of Chivalry - Elizabeth Hallam
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography - George Smith.
English Court Culture in the Late Middle Ages - V.J. Scattergood & J.W. Sherborne.
The National Trust Handbook 1998.
All pictures marked and text on this page are copyright to the owner
and must not be reproduced in any format without permission
Another Castles Abbeys and Medieval Buildings Site Feature