In the beginning there was a man and the man's name was William Briwere.
A sketchy history of this man, Briwere, suggests he was a successful businessman who went on to be a rather savvy administrator for the Plantagenets. First as a judiciary left in charge of the kingdom when in 1189 Richard Lionheart embarked on the Third Crusade. Then latterly when he was made a baron, and became a trusted advisor to King John.
In return for his loyalty and service to the crown, he was awarded considerable lands upon which he was able to levy taxes. And upon some of this land, he founded four religious institutions: Dunkeswell Abbey and Torres Abbey in Devon, the Hospital of St. John in Somerset, and the Priory of the Holy Trinity at Mottisfont in Hampshire.
Was he trying to buy his way into heaven after a life-time of financial gain and dubious piety? I can't tell you. I don't know.
The Priory at Mottisfont was founded in 1201 and it housed not monks but black-hooded Augustinian priests, who numbered among their duties ministering to those in need, preaching to the community and welcoming pilgrims passing on their way from Canterbury to Winchester, or even those on their way to the far-off shrine of Santiago de Compostela in Spain.
But in 1348, the Black Death swept over the country, killing over a third of the population and, in some cases, wiping out entire villages. The Mottisfont cellarer, Walter de Blount, fell victim in 1349. Robert de Bromore and Richard de Caneford, his two successors, died too, in quick succession. And like the rest of the land, Mottisfont was caught up in the subsequent civil and economic hardship of the age.
(An earthquake in Hampshire in 1457 didn't help matters any. William Westkarre, the then Prior, recorded that this had "greatly crushed and loosened" the buildings.)
Still, a generation later, though, things were looking up. Henry VII now sat on the throne and he initially planned to change the priory's status, making it a Collegiate Church. But that was never enacted. Instead, Mottisfont became a subsidiary of Westminster Abbey, before gaining, in 1521, a new patron--Henry Huttcroft.
Then in 1536, Henry VIII ordered the dissolution of the monasteries.
They made quick work of it, for Mottisfont had been sold by June of that same year to William, Lord Sandys, (the king's Lord Chamberlain for five years) who at once set about transforming the place into a grand new Tudor dwelling.
Now Sandys was one of those energetic and savvy Tudor apparatchiks. He'd been a diplomat during the reign of Henry VII, and subsequently became a staunch supporter of Henry VIII and his new queen, Catherine of Aragon. He was Treasurer of Calais and made a Knight of the Garter in 1518, and was one of the velvet-tongued-talkers who arranged for the meetings between Henry VIII and Francois I of France at the Field of the Cloth of Gold. He also already owned another substantial property in Hampshire--this one near Basingstoke and called The Vyne--where he'd received Henry and Catherine in 1510; and Henry and Anne in 1535.
Sandys was 66 when he set about transforming the priory with its ruined outbuildings, using the structure of the massive church as the spine of his new great house. Four years later, when he died, the house was nearly completed--creating the main part of the house, the Great Chamber, out of the church nave.
And again, things looked good and the prosperity of the place seemed a certainty: Elizabeth I visited Mottisfont in September 1569 and again in 1574.
But...and it's a big but...by the middle of the 17th century, England was engulfed in Civil War, and Henry, the 5th Baron Sandys, like so many other Hampshire landowners, fought on the side of the King. He died at the Battle of Cheriton in 1644. Within ten years, the family could no longer afford to keep both houses going, so they sold The Vyne.
Finally in 1684, the 8th Baron, Edwin, died childless. The title expired and Mottisfont was left to Sir John Mill, his nephew.
Though interestingly, much of the mediaeval structure was retained, hidden behind the new walls of the new rooms of the south front.
(By 1791, the park had been turned into a fashionable landscape. While sometime in the late 18th/early 19th century, an Ice House was built not far from the house--a.k.a. as a Regency Refrigerator--to be filled with ice during the spring, keeping it cold enough to store winter game, etc. into the summer months.)
And for another century, the Mills family lived and flourished at Mottisfont. In 1835, the estate passed to the Reverend John Barker (a cousin) who instantly changed his surname to Barker-Mill.
Sir John Barker-Mill, besides being a reverend gentleman was a keen rider to hounds and a racing man. In his time, he replaced the old stables with something more suitable for his fine hunters and his stud-farm, and founded Reverend Sir John Barker-Mills Foxhounds. He also was known for his cherry-coloured cravats and his loud check trousers.
Barker-Mill died childless in 1860, but his widow lived on at the house into the 1880s, founding the first school to be built in Mottisfont village.
The new owner of Mottisfont in 1884 was a Mrs. Marianne Vaudrey (who later changed her name to Vaudrey-Barker-Mill) and she decided to let the house to a family with ten children, the Meinertzhagens, on the condition that they altered nothing in the house and most particularly did not install either electric lighting or any kind of central heating!
Their rent was £320 a year, and they loved it there. Mrs. Meinertzhagen was the sister of social reformer, Beatrice Webb, she who also co-founded the London School of Economics, and the house was frequently visited by the social reformers, politicos and intellectuals of the day, including George Bernard Shaw, Cecil Rhodes, Charles Darwin and Henry Stanley, of Stanley and Livingstone fame...
In 1898, following the death of their eldest son in 1898, the Meinertzhagens left Mottisfont, and Mrs. Vaudrey-Barker-Mill set about removing the central heating which had been installed, contrary to her wishes, and spending a considerable fortune, some £40,000 (roughly £3 million in today's money) restoring the old place.
A keen follower of The Gothic, she wished to bring out the monastic history of the place. She removed a parapet on the north side to reveal the roof of the Tudor Great Chamber; she had stucco removed to reveal the mediaeval masonry and arches. She had the Long Gallery redecorated. And when the work was complete in 1908, she let the house for shooting parties. However, in 1932, she had the contents of the house sold.
Whereupon in 1934, the house was bought by a merchant banker and his wife, Gilbert and Maud Russell, who wanted a country house for weekend parties and where they could raise their young family. Another fortune was now spent modernising the house, adding electric lights, and rooms were redecorated and reconfigured once again.
The artist, Rex Whistler, was commissioned in 1939, to help transform the old, dark entrance hall into a large saloon, and his trompe l'oeil murals, painted in gothick style in keeping with the house's origins, were his last and perhaps most beautiful completed work, before he was killed in France in 1944, while on active service.
During WWII, along with many other big houses up and down the country, Mottisfont was requisitioned--the Long Gallery became a hospital ward with up to 80 patients at any one time, and children who'd been evacuated from London, lived in converted accomodations in the Stable Block. And it wasn't until after the war that Mrs. Russell was able to make Mottisfont her home.
Finally, in 1957, Mrs. Russell gave the house and the estate to the National Trust, though she continued to live there for another 15 years.
M.M. Bennetts is a specialist in early nineteenth-century British and European history, and the author of two historical novels set in the period - May 1812 and Of Honest Fame. Find out more at www.mmbennetts.com.