The Priory of the Holy Trinity was founded here in 1201 by William Briwere, right-hand man to four Plantagenet kings. It became an important stopping-off point for worshippers on their way to Winchester, especially as it was said to contain a relic believed to be the finger of John the Baptist.
Mottisfont has been transformed almost beyond recognition since its medieval beginnings. But hints of this hidden history remain. Secret panels in the walls reveal ancient stone. In dry spells, 'parch marks' on the south lawn show the outlines of vanished buildings.
Most significant of all these remains is the vaulted Cellarium, dating from the 13th century. This is where the canons would have stored their food and drink. Imagine it stacked high with riches from the estate, ready to provide hospitality to passing pilgrims.
Peace and prosperity
The 14th-century management of Mottisfont’s lands is revealed by a Rental Book compiled from 1340–5. It was ordered by the cellarer, Walter de Blount, who was in charge of the stores. It lists the spring that fed two watermills, two gardens, two courtyards, an apple yard and pasture, a meadow, a tannery and two dove houses. There was a rabbit warren to the north of the house and a number of walnut trees.
The Rental Book offers clues about how the landscape of the estate was shaped. It seems likely that bricks and tiles were made from local clay. Chalk was extracted and burned to make lime. It's also believed that the woodlands in the northern part of the estate were grazed by priory cattle. Once the land was exhausted, it was quarried and left to regenerate naturally.
However, the peaceful prosperity of the mid-14th century was shattered by the Black Death in 1348. Three priors died in quick succession. Archaeology underneath the lower corridor has revealed bodies, seemingly buried here in haste.
A reversal of fortunes
By the early part of the 15th century the priory lands were being plundered and the fabric of the building itself was seriously neglected. And in 1457 Pope Callistus III received an unusual request for aid – an earthquake had struck Hampshire and had ‘greatly crushed and loosened’ the buildings.
When Henry VII became king it seemed that happier times lay ahead. Mottisfont became a subsidiary of Westminster Abbey and in 1521 the priory gained a new patron, Henry Huttcroft.
Considerable embellishments to the building followed, including the construction of the arched pulpitum (still in evidence between the old kitchen and the scullery) which divided the choir from the nave.
But it was not to last. After the dissolution of the monasteries in 1536, the estate became the property of William, Lord Sandys, who set about transforming the priory into a grand new house.