There has been a manor at Greys Court since the 11th century – it was the principal residence of the lords of the manor of Rotherfield Greys near Henley-on-Thames. It lies almost in the middle of the ancient parish and was built on a hillside terrace overlooking the valley to the south.
After the death of Robert de Grey in 1388, the property was neglected for nearly 70 years. It was classed as “exceedingly derelict” in 1422, and restoration only started in 1454.
By the 16th century the house was owned by Sir Francis Knollys, a prominent member of the courts of Henry VIII, Edward VI and Elizabeth I. As a Protestant he was exiled during Queen Mary’s reign. Upon his return after Queen Elizabeth’s accession in 1558, he carried out many changes to Greys Court.
The current house was built by Sir Francis Knollys prior to Queen Elizabeth’s proposed visit to Greys Court in 1574. The house then had a triple-gabled range, built of rendered flint, brick, dressed stone and salvaged materials – much of which is still visible despite many alterations. The re-use of materials indicates that earlier buildings were destroyed to clear the site for the new one.
Sir Francis Knolly’s granddaughter Lettice became the second wife of the famous Buckinghamshire-born Parliamentarian John Hampden.
The well house was built in the 16th century and still contains its contemporary donkey wheel mechanism, although the well is thought to date back to the 12th century. During dry summers, parch marks in the front lawn show where the walls and gates of the Elizabethan courtyard were.
The house was used as a garrison during the Civil War and suffered damage and decay.
Members of the Stapleton family lived at Greys Court between 1724 and 1935 and made many changes to the house. Sir Thomas Stapleton added crenallations to the Great Tower and the south-east tower. The house was also enlarged during this period.
Mrs Valentine Fleming, mother of the famous author Ian Fleming, lived in the house between 1935 and 1937 and stripped away the stucco work, pulled down the Victorian front porch and bay windows and installed a number of new windows. The Fleming family still owns the nearby Nettlebed Estate.
The house was sold in 1937 to Sir Felix John Morgan Brunner and Lady Elizabeth. While bringing up her family at Greys Court, Lady Elizabeth created a lovely garden. The rose garden was designed in the 1950s by Kathleen Letitia Lloyd Jones. In 1981 Lady Elizabeth commissioned the Archbishop's Maze, inspired by Archbishop Runcie's enthronement speech.
The Brunners donated Greys Court to the National Trust in 1969, but they continued to live there until their deaths. Lady Elizabeth would welcome members of the public as they visited the ground floor apartments as well as the large kitchen. Their son, Sir Hugo Brunner, is the former Lord Lieutenant of Oxfordshire.
The house was extensively renovated by the National Trust during 2008-2009. The roof timbers were confirmed to be the originals and have been aged to 1575-76.
Greys Court House and Garden is run by the National Trust and is open from spring to autumn, Wednesdays to Sundays. Check the National Trust website for full information on opening times and ticket prices.
The house has fascinating displays revealing the lives of its occupants over the centuries. You can wander around the delightful gardens and see the Great Tower and the rare Tudor donkey wheel.
There is a National Trust shop and tearoom.
The parish church of St Nicholas in Rotherfield Greys has a magnificent monument to Sir Francis Knollys and his family.
There is a 2 mile stile-free walk around the Estate, taking you through classic Chilterns scenery of beech woodlands and open countryside with lovely views. The bluebells in spring are a seasonal highlight. Dogs are allowed on leads around estate.
The long distance Chiltern Way goes right past Greys Court.
Ground floor largely accessible, no access to other floors. Garden partly accessible.
Henley-on-Thames station 3 miles. Chiltern bus from Henley to Rotherfield Greys then ¼ mile walk. There are lockable posts for bikes. Free cup of tea for those arriving by public transport, cycle or on foot.
More on Sir Francis Knollys at www.berkshirehistory.com
RG9 4PG grid Reference: SU725835