Deep in the sandy heath lands of east Suffolk, close to the river Butley is the gate house of Butley Priory, virtually all that remains of the Augustinian Priory founded here in 1171. It was built under William de Geystone (prior, 1311 - 1322).
The priory originally comprised a magnificent collection of buildings, and covered an area of twenty acres enclosed by a stone wall. Although nothing remains of this once great priory except the fine gatehouse and an arch which once led out of the south transept of the church, the plan of the site is known from the excavations carried out in 1930 by Montague Rendell, scholar and ex headmaster of Winchester, who bought the Gatehouse in 1926.
Unique features of the building are its extensive armorial frieze on the north side and exuberant flushwork decoration, ‘an amazing fantasy - wonderfully preserved through its complete charm can only be fully realised from a scaffold or by means of a powerful glass, so delicate is its carving and expression of the little sprightly features that adorn it, so rich the imagination with which they are inspired’.
It is thought that the stone used in the building of the priory came from the valley of the Yonne in France, and that it was brought up the Butley River in barges. A canal was cut to bring the stone to the wharf only 200 yards south of the Priory church.
The first king to visit Butley Priory appears to have been Henry III, who arrived on 9th March 1235.
It would seem from early records that the most important person after the sub-prior, and possibly the most popular, was the cellarer. In the only two instances where the records tell of the position previously held by a newly elected prior, we are informed that he had been the cellarer - William de Geystone, 1311, and Thomas Sudbourne, 1528.
Tradition has it that some where within the Priory grounds is buried a Silver Coffin containing the body of Michael de la Pole, third Earl of Suffolk, who fell at the side of Edward Plantagenet, Duke of York, at Agincourt.
It was during the time of Prior Augustine Rivet (1509 - 28) that the priory became the regular resort of many of the nobility who came there for the hunting. Mary Tudor, sister to Henry VIII, was a frequent visitor between 1515 and 1519. In 1527 she stayed for two months accompanied by her new husband Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk.
On 6th August 1527, as it was very hot she ordered her supper to be laid out in a shady part the garden on the east side of the gatehouse. This she so enjoyed that picnic suppers in the Priory gardens became a regular feature of her stays. It is recorded in Brother Nicholas’s garden the royal party were overtaken by a tremendous storm and had to rush to the church for shelter.
On the 1st March 1538, Butley Priory, with all its lands and properties, was surrendered to Henry VIII. The commissioner, who received the surrender William Petre, stated that ‘we have today received the surrender of Butley, to which the Convent assented very quietly’.
For the next two years the Priory was used as a royal hunting lodge before being granted in 1540 to Thomas, duke of Norfolk, who in turn sold it toWilliam Forthe of Hadleigh in 1544 for £910 2s 2d. Anne, his only daughter inherited it and later married Viscount Hereford, who left it to his daughter Elizabeth. She married John Clyatt in 1684 and having no children settled the estate and heirs.
In 1737 George Wright Esq, married the Clyatt heiress and inherited the property it was George Wright who restored the Gatehouse and converted it into ‘a handsome mansion’. Later the house became the residence or shooting seat of many important people of the day, including the Marquis of Donegall, Lord Archibald Hamilton and Lord Rendlesham. After this time it went into decline for some years and was used periodically for some years as a very cold vicarage, until in 1926 the Gate house was saved again by the aforementioned Dr. Rendall who called in the famous architect Caroe and began an intensive programme of restoration and conservation to a country house.
A new front entrance was introduced into an angle of the east wing. Bedrooms and a bathroom were located above and a kitchen created out of the Georgian annex. Buttresses were repaired and the armorial frieze was carefully conserved.
It appears that such was Dr. Rendall’s passion for the building that he spent his last penny on the restoration work, and was forced to sell the property in his later years to Sir Bernard Greenwell Bart, who generously allowed him to live out his life at Butley.
The Gatehouse is currently owned by his son Sir Edward Greenwell who lives outside Orford. The present tenants, the Cavendish family have lived here since 1987 and have made the house into the very unique combination of private event venue and family home that it is today.
Due to its unique appeal the house has featured in design and interior decorating magazines as well as national newspapers on several occasions. One cannot help but wonder what the monks would have made of it all!