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  • Kristin Bundesen, PhD

Greys Court - The Knollys Home

Updated: Apr 14, 2020

I have had the pleasure of visiting Greys Court, the  16th century home of Sir Francis and Lady Katherine Knollys, now managed by the UK's National Trust twice. Both trips included visits to the Knollys funeral monument at the Rotherfield Greys parish church.

Greys Court. January 2018

The property’s name comes from the Grey family. The property is mentioned in the Domesday Book in 1086 and stayed in the Grey family through four centuries. For more on the families of Greys Court, see here. It is possible that this same Grey family were related to other 15th and 16th century Grey families including the Marquis of Dorset and Lady Jane Grey, the nine days queen.

When the property was granted to the Knollys family, the name of the previous owners stuck. This is still common, as I apparently live at ‘The Turley House’; the Turleys were the previous owners.

Greys Court was used in the story line of Downton Abbey as backdrop to the season 3 episode when the Crawley family are facing downsizing due to poor financial decisions by Robert, Earl of Grantham. In the show, the property is referred to as Eryholme - an old hunting lodge used by the previous generation. This gives the correct impression that the property is not palatial. It is a substantial manor house, but not overly grand.

The Letters and Paper of Henry VIII give proof to the romantic story that the property was granted to Robert Knollys and his wife Lettice in 1514 by patent seal for the annual rent of one red rose to be delivered on Midsummer. After Robert’s death in 1521, his wife had use of the estate for her single life.

Robert’s son, Francis, inherited the estate upon the death of his father. However, some of the property was in dispute by the heirs of Sir Thomas Englefield leading to parliamentary action. After Francis married Katherine Carey, daughter of Mary Boleyn Carey, the estate was re-granted to the newlyweds including the addition of Katherine’s name, by the king with parliamentary confirmation. This was repeated five years later topped off with the personal seal of the king to finally squelch any disputes.

As an historian, I wonder about the persistence of Henry VIII to resolve this issue in favor of Francis and Katherine. Why should Henry care so much and include Katherine in the legal paperwork? In a larger context, it repeats the pattern of Henry taking a benign interest in Katherine’s welfare.

The Knollys family funeral monument in the nearby St. Nicolas Church in Rotherfield Greys was installed in the church in 1605. The canopy, with two kneeling figures arrayed in noble robes and coronets, was a later addition to the memorial, which can be dated between 1616 and 1625 when William was created Viscount Wallingford and before creation as Earl of Banbury as he wears a viscount’s coronet, not that of an earl. The structure of the canopy resting on four pillars does not interfere with the effigies or weepers on the base so it could have been added without disruption to the existing structure to celebrate William Knollys’s elevation from Baron Knollys to Viscount Wallingford.

A second visit to the Knollys funeral monument in Rotherfield Greys. Photo courtesy of Lynn Holmes.

The base structure includes Sir Francis Knollys and his wife Katherine Carey Knollys in effigy lying on their backs looking toward the underside of the canopy. On Francis’s side kneel seven male weepers and on Katherine’s seven female weepers. Additionally, there is a very small effigy of an infant lying next to Katherine’s effigy. She is wearing a pendant, which is also portrayed in the 1562 painting of Portrait of a Woman, probably Catherine Carey, Lady Knollys, attributed to Steven van der Meulen. The presence of the unique pendant in both the painting and on the effigy along with the coincident dates of Katherine’s last pregnancy seem to confirm the sitter’s identity as that of Katherine Carey and the unborn infant, Dudley.

After her own birth in 1524, Katherine Carey disappears from the records until her appointment as a ‘maiden’, maid of honor, in November of 1539 to Anne of Cleves, Henry VIII’s 4th wife. The choice seems a bit random. Her mother, the king’s former mistress, was not rich, powerful, nor any longer part of a powerful kinship clan. Most of the other surviving Boleyns had endured some sort of financial, political, or social punishment. Bringing Katherine into the new queen’s court had no obvious reason or benefit to the king.

Portrait of a Woman, Probably Catherine Carey, Lady Knollys attributed to Steven van der Meulen. Original held at the Yale Center for British Art.

Francis, who had been at court and already served in the parliaments of 1534 and 1539 was included in a newly constituted group at Christmas 1539, The Gentlemen Pensioners. This was a rotating group of men meant to act as a personal bodyguard to the king. He was also assigned to the large welcoming party for the Cleves bride.

Francis and Katherine married April 25, 1540. She was 16, he was 29. It is tempting to think that their courtship started on the road to meet the new queen. It would indicate a whirlwind romance, or if an arranged marriage, a short engagement with few if any hiccups in negotiating the marriage contract.

By 1547, when Francis was knighted for his prowess at the Battle of Pinkie Cleugh, Katherine had given birth already to five children, including their daughter Lettice, at Greys Court. Lettice would make waves during Elizabeth’s reign.

A Christmas display at Greys Court. Portraits of Katherine and Francis in the background. A sample of festive Tudor treats laid out on the table. And in back on the right, two dolls recreated by the volunteers to represent presents from Lettice to her younger sisters.

Last year was my second trip to the property and this time I was hosted by the gracious Lynn Holmes, a volunteer and a member of the history group working on the Knollys family and the estate. The Christmas displays were still up - it was the middle of January - and so toys, board games, spices, and foods representing a typical Tudor family Christmas feast were all on display.

Entering the gardens at Greys Court.

While the gardens were mostly dormant, there are rose bushes that I imagine flower by Midsummer still.

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