We lived in England in the late 70s, early 80s and my family spent some delightful weekends at Hengrave Hall in Bury St Edmunds, a historic Tudor manor house built in 1525. It is a 44 acre estate with 35 rooms and boasts a 16th century stained glass window in its Great Hall. When we visited back then it was home to nuns who ran a Christian retreat center. The nuns would cook for us and we’d eat in the Long Gallery. They also made ceramics, jam and honey to sell. The rooms we stayed in were not numbered, but named, and we always stayed in the “Rose” chamber. All the participants would gather in the West Garden for various activities and my sister and I would pretend we lived here in the manor and imagined ourselves living in centuries past. The fact that Elizabeth I had stayed there in 1578 on her travels to and from Norwich always kept us intrigued, as well as the unconfirmed claim that Elizabeth’s older sister Mary also stayed there on her flight from the conspirators trying to put Lady Jane Grey on the throne in 1553. It was amazing fun, but definitely a young girl’s romanticized view of the period.
The history of the buildings and land that are now part of the Hengrave Hall estate goes back to the time of Edward the Confessor (1003-1066) and even further back to Saxon times evidenced by the round Saxon tower that is attached to a church that was added by Sir Thomas de Hengrave and his wife Joan in the late 14th century. Apparently there is also evidence of a Saxon church that was mentioned in the Doomsday Book, which is a survey of England done in 1086.
The estate was initially in the possession of monks at the monastery at Bury St Edmunds around 1100 and the Abbott granted the land to a gentleman whose grandson inherited it from him, a Thomas Hengrave, and in 1231 King Henry III officially gave him the rights to the land. It was in the Hengrave family until the last of the line died out in 1419. It was then purchased by the Earl of Buckingham and passed through several hands before Thomas Kytson, a rich cloth merchant from Lancaster, purchased it in 1521. He began the construction of the Hall in 1525 and it took 13 years to complete and cost 3,000 pounds. Thomas was knighted by Queen Elizabeth I and although he was a devout Catholic, his family avoided the fate of many who opposed the Protestant church.
The Tudor manor house was held by the Kytson and Gage families for nine generations through the female line from 1525-1887. Hengrave then was bought by John Lysaght, and then in 1896 was purchased by Sir John Wood who held the property until his death in 1952. Sir John is responsible for a great deal of restoration work to the Hall and the church.
In 1952 the Hall became the property of the Convent of the Assumption and was used as a boarding school for girls that was subsequently closed in 1974. For more than 30 years it was a Christian Retreat Center that was leased from the nuns. In 2005 it was struggling financially and in 2009 it was purchased and is now used as a wedding venue and for conferences.
We lived about 25 miles from Hengrave Hall at an Air Force base. My parents took us all around the area to various manor homes and castles, and we took one trip up through Scotland. It was a great experience and fostered a love of history in my sister and I. I would love to go back and see all of these historic places again. Hopefully that will be soon!
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