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The history of Greys Court

Exterior view of Greys Court, Oxfordshire
Exterior view of Greys Court, Oxfordshire | © National Trust Images/Hugh Mothersole

Greys Court has been modified over the centuries, creating a patchwork of medieval, Tudor, Georgian, Victorian and 20th century influences inside and out. Through a mixture of building styles, architectural influences and remnants of the past, discover a stitched-together story of the different families that have called this place home for over 900 years.

A brief history

The influential de Grey family held Greys Court when it was first recorded in the Doomsday Book in 1086. At one time, a medieval manor sat across the upper lawn from the current house and was extended. In the 1450s, the Lovell family added a large timber framed building on the house side of the oval lawn.

In the Tudor period, Sir Francis Knollys demolished many of the medieval buildings and built the main part of the present house incorporating part of the 1450s building.

In later centuries, the Stapletons converted the house in the fashionable Georgian style, with romantic medieval ruins, followed by Victorian alterations. The last owners, the Brunners, renovated both house and gardens, which is what can be seen today.

A portrait of Sir Francis Knollys the Younger in approximately 1630, at Greys Court in Oxfordshire.
Sir Francis Knollys the Younger c.1630 | © National Trust Images/John Hammond

Did you know

The female owners of Greys Court

Thirteen women have owned or co-owned Greys Court, which is unusual given that women did not traditionally own property in the past. These include Eve de Grey who owned it for 50 years in the 12th and 13th century, Alice Lovell, the de Grey heiress, for about 50 years in the 15th century, and Robert Knollys’ wife Lettice, who continued to own it for 37 years after her husband died in 1521.

Later owners include Mary Fane who bought it from her impoverished son, Sir Thomas Stapleton c1815 and Evelyn Fleming briefly in the 1930s.

Relationship with other de Grey families

The Rotherfield de Greys are often said to be the ancestors of other de Grey families, including Earls of Kent, Marquises of Dorset and Lady Jane Grey, although this has not been proved.

Francis Lovell's death

Francis Lovell, friend of Richard III, never accepted Henry VII as king. He supported the pretender Lambert Simnel and disappeared after the battle of Stoke. One story is that he was trapped in an underground room at Minster Lovell, where his skeleton was found sitting at a table 200 years later.

The parentage of Catherine Carey

Catherine Carey, who married Francis Knollys, was the daughter of Mary Boleyn. Mary had an affair with Henry VIII (before her sister, Anne Boleyn married him). Modern historians think it is highly likely that Catherine was the daughter of Henry VIII, though this has not been proved.

Evelyn Fleming's sons

Evelyn Fleming the mother of Ian Fleming, the author of James Bond, owned Greys Court from 1934-7. Her other son was Peter Fleming, the famous travel writer and adventurer.

The 14th-century Great Tower at Greys Court in Oxfordshire, shown with spring blossom on the trees
The 14th-century Great Tower at Grey's Court | © National Trust Images/Hugh Mothersole

Garden history at Greys Court

There have been gardens at Greys Court for hundreds of years, since at least the 13th century. There is little evidence about what the garden looked like before the Brunners arrived in 1937.

After her first visit to Greys Court, Lady Brunner said, ‘I remember thinking it was marvellous - it was very derelict, the garden especially, but I remember picking up a stone and putting it in my pocket’.

Creation of garden rooms

Lady Brunner was keen to create a haven of peace of tranquillity within the walled gardens, using the existing walls to create a series of ‘rooms’ that you could wander through.

Coming from a theatrical background, she was interested in creating a feeling of intrigue for visitors at what they might find through the next door. One of these ‘rooms’ is the Rose Garden, which traces the history of the rose from the early damask varieties to the modern hybrid perennials.

Lady Brunner was not, however, the first female gardener at Greys Court. In the 19th century, the Stapleton ladies were also keen gardeners - Catherine Stapleton even had a pelargonium named after her - Perlargonium Echinatum Miss Stapleton - which is still available today.

Distinctive features of Greys Court

Great tower

Other buildings from earlier eras include the Great Tower built in the 14th century. The Great Tower has been modified by both the Knollyses, who added a gabled roof, and Sir Thomas Stapleton, who was responsible for the current crenelations. This tower was originally one of several towers connecting curtain walls which contained fortified houses and the upper and lower courts.

‘3 or 4 very olde towers of stone, a manifest token that it was sume tyme a castle. Ther(e) is a very large courte bui(l)dyd about with tymbar and spacyd with bri(c)ke; but this is of a latter worke’

- John Leland (Greys Court, 1530s)

Donkey wheel

Discover the Well House, built over a 200-foot deep medieval well, with a donkey wheel from 1587, one of earliest and largest surviving examples of its kind and in use until the early 20th century.

Nearby the shop is a pump dating from about 1870, which was powered by two horses walking in a circle. It came originally from Shabden Park, near Epsom, and was set up here in 1975.

The families of Greys Court

1086 - 1485

The de Greys: Soldiers and Churchmen

The earliest surviving fabric above ground is part of a wall connected to the Great Tower, which has been dated to the late 11th or early 12th century. It was constructed by the de Grey family, who had been living at Greys Court since the Domesday Book.  

The de Grey family included some important figures. Anschetil de Grai is recorded in the Domesday Book of 1086 as holding the estate of Redrefeld (now Rotherfield Greys). Walter de Grey is named in Magna Carta (1215) and was the archbishop of York for 40 years and Regent of England twice. Sir John de Grey, the first Baron Grey of Rotherfield, was a soldier who became a founding knight of the Garter after the battle of Crecy in 1346. On 10 December 1346 he was granted a ‘licence to crenellate’ Greys, and the major surviving medieval work dates from this period. 

The last male de Grey died in 1387. His granddaughter Alice supported the Lancastrians during the Wars of the Roses. Her grandson, Francis Lovell, became a Viscount and a great friend of Richard III but lost everything after the Battle of Bosworth in 1485, including Greys Court, which was given to Jasper Tudor. 

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