SHEEP WITH THEIR LAMBS were grazing or resting in the sunshine in a meadow beside the roadway leading to the entrance of Greys Court near Henley-on-Thames in Oxfordshire. Although the main house at Greys Court was closed (because of the covid19 pandemic) when we visited the estate in April 2021, there was plenty to enjoy in the gardens and fields that are contained in its extensive grounds. The highlight for me was the formal garden enclosed within ruined stone walls that extend from two sides of a tall tower topped with crenellations.
Greys Court has an interesting history, most of which I have summarised from what is contained in a good guidebook published by the National Trust, to which Greys Court and its grounds were donated in 1969. I have also consulted “Elizabeth’s Rivals” by Nicola Tallis. The tower and the attached ancient wall are the only remains of what was constructed by the De Grey family, who had been living on the estate since (or before) the Domesday book was compiled in the late 11th century. One of the family, Walter de Grey (died 1255), Archbishop of York, was a supporter of King John when he was forced into signing the Magna Carta in 1215.
In December 1346, the then owner of the estate Sir John, 1st Baron Grey of Rotherfield (1300-1359) was granted a licence to ‘crenellate’ Greys. What this means is that he was authorised to surround his home with a fortified curtain wall. It is the remains of this mediaeval wall that surrounds the walled garden that attracted me. After Robert, 4th Earl of Grey died in 1387, the estate passed to his daughter Joan, who was married to Lord John Deyncourt. Then, it was inherited by their daughter Alice, who married Lord William Lovell (died 1455). Through this marriage, the estate became owned by the Lovell family.
When Alice died in 1474, she left Greys to her grandson Francis Lovell (1456-c1487), who managed to ‘back the wrong horse’ by being a supporter of the Duke of Gloucester, who became King Richard III. After fighting alongsid the king, who was defeated at the Battle of Bosworth (1485), the Crown confiscated Greys and awarded it to Jasper Tudor (1431-1495), uncle of King Richard’s successor, King Henry VII. In 1514, Greys was leased to a member of Henry VII’s court, Robert Knollys (died 1521). His rent was a single red rose to be paid each Midsummer.
Sir Robert’s son Sir Francis Knollys (1511-1596), a devout Protestant, spent most of the Roman Catholic Queen Mary Tudor’s reign (1553-1558) abroad, returning following the accession of Queen Elizabeth I, who was a cousin of his wife Catherine (1524-1569), whose mother was Mary Boleyn (sister of Henry VIII’s wife Anne Boleyn). One of Francis’s many important jobs was guarding the imprisoned Mary Queen of Scots.
Sir Francis demolished much of the mediaeval Greys Court building and rebuilt it with three gables in the Elizabethan style. His renewed building is what we see today as Greys Court House. One of his reasons for this and other constructions was that he hoped that he would be able to host Queen Elizabeth there, but she never visited. The works were carried out between 1559 and 1596. Francis’s son Sir William Knollys (1544-1632) inherited the Greys estate. It is thought that Shakespeare’s character Malvolio in “Twelfth Night” was based on William. The Knollys family made several modifications and additions to the buildings on the estate but by the late 17th century they began to lose interest in maintaining it. Lettice Kennedy (died 1708), the last of the Knollys to live at Greys sold it to James (or William, according to one source: “Greys Court Volume 2 – Historic England Research Report”: research.historicengland.org.uk) Paul in 1688. Mr Paul and his wife Lady Catherine Fane had a daughter Catherine, who inherited Greys Court. The daughter, Catherine, married Sir William Stapleton (1698-1739) in 1724. Thus, the Stapleton family acquired the property.
Sir William was wealthy. Some of his money came, as the National Trust discreetly puts it:
“…also from sugar plantations in Antigua and Nevis, acquired in the 17th century.”
His son, Sir Thomas Stapleton (1727-1781) inherited Greys. He was a member of the infamous Hell-fire Club along with its principal member and founder, his cousin Sir Francis Dashwood (1708-1781) of nearby West Wycombe. Sir Thomas did not live at Greys Court but arranged for the transformation of the mediaeval remains into ‘Gothick’ follies including the addition of the crenellations that can still be seen on the Great Tower. He also added the two-storey bow windows to Knolly’s Elizabethan house after his marriage to Mary Fane in 1765. She was responsible for many more modifications of the house and its outhouses.
The Grey estate remained in the Stapleton family for several generations, but it was only in 1874 that another male member of the family, Sir Francis Stapleton (1833-1899) began living in it. With no heirs, he left it to his nephew Miles Stapleton, who showed no interest in the place, eventually selling it to a widow, Mrs Evelyn Fleming, in 1934. Both her sons became extremely well-known. Ian Fleming was the creator of the fictional character James Bond. Ian’s brother Peter was an adventurer, soldier, and travel writer, whose life was far more exciting than that led by James Bond. Mrs Fleming was hoping that Greys would be a place where her son Peter could write between his travels, but his marriage to the actress Celia Johnson in 1935 put an end to this idea. So, she sold the property in 1937. The buyers were Sir Felix Brunner (1897-1982) and his wife Elizabeth (1904-2003).
Sir Felix was grandson of the politician and industrialist Sir John Brunner (1842-1919), who was one of the founders of the Brunner Mond & Co chemical company, which became part of ICI in 1926. Sir John was also a supporter of Octavia Hill (1838-1912), the founder of the National Trust, which was formed in 1895. Incidentally, Octavia was also involved with saving London’s Hampstead Heath from disappearing by being built on. As well as serving in WW1, Sir Felix was a Liberal politician. He stood in various Parliamentary elections but was never elected to become an MP. In 1926, he married the actress Elizabeth Irving (1904-2003), a granddaughter of the famous actor Henry Irving (1838-1905).
In 1969, Sir Felix and Lady Elizabeth donated Greys Court to the National Trust and continued to live there. After she was widowed, Elizabeth continued to live at Greys Court, where she died in 2003. During their occupation of the Greys Court estate, the Brunners did much to improve and beautify it, rendering it one of the loveliest National Trust properties that I have visited so far.
I had never heard of Greys Court until a few weeks ago when we drove past a road sign pointing at a road leading to it. As we had never come across the name before and were curious about it, we returned a few weeks later and discovered what a gem of a place it is. While it is relatively simple to describe its history, the opposite is the case when it comes to describing its appearance. Photographs help to do justice to its attractiveness but the best way to appreciate it is to visit it yourself.