Christchurch Mansion is well known, both locally and far beyond. It is a
fine building set in delightful parkland and housing a wonderful collection
of pictures and artefacts all in an imposingly appropriate setting. However,
the house itself is perhaps more interesting than is at first recognised.
Where the mansion now stands there was in early medieval times the
Augustinian Priory of Holy Trinity, that was also known as 'Christchurch'.
It had extensive grounds (over 600 acres) and appropriate wealth. Someone
once said, and this has often been repeated, that following the suppression
of the priory in 1537 the buildings were completely destroyed and that a new
house was then built on the vacant site by Edmund Withipoll- but does this
bear close inspection?
At the time of the dissolution an inventory was made in which,
interestingly, the priory is described as 'an ordinary brick-built
building'. Now it is well known that, once abandoned, stone buildings were
either deliberately or casually demolished and the stone reused, whereas
mere brickwork was not usually worth recycling. An example of this practice
is Thomas Wolsey's short-lived college of which nothing survives but the
sturdy brick watergate that stands to this day in College Street.
We know that following the dissolution of the priory the land was held under
the stewardship of the Wingfield family and so it is most likely that Holy
Trinity, once stripped of anything valuable, was simply left derelict.
Is there further evidence to support this theory? An intriguing clue lies in
the Latin inscription over the front door, dated 1549, that translates
loosely as 'Frugality is the way to avoid dissipating one's wealth' and
these words would no doubt be in the mind of Edmund Withipoll as he planned
his new residence and measured the cost.
Pursuing this idea we see that on the east wall of the east wing there are
three chimneys, the middle one of which has a plaque with the date 1550 and
a cipher for Edmund. The style is certainly what one would expect for such a
date. However the other two are different. The bricks are smaller and there
are crow-steps, both more suited to the 15th century, which suggests
strongly that they are survivals of the original priory. If follows then
that rather than demolish completely a basically sound structure the frugal
Edmund simply remodelled and enlarged what remained.
The front wall provides further evidence of an earlier period as the
diaper-work there would have been rather old-fashioned in 1550 and in fact
is very similar to that of the bishop's palace in Ely which was constructed
in the 1480s. Edmund was a man of the city and very familiar with the latest
fashions; if starting from scratch he would surely have opted for a more
modern appearance for that important frontage. As it is, the impression is
undoubtedly early- Tudor rather than early-Elizabethan.
The house passed through several hands until 1895, when it was presented to
the town by Felix Cobbold - a famous local name -leading to its use as the
museum we know today.
Much repair and many alterations and improvements have been made to
Christchurch Mansion throughout its history, right up to modern times, but
in the light of what we now know we may surely assume that in addition to
the visible signs there must also be, tantalisingly hidden from our view but
securely encased within those sturdy walls, some substantial remnants of
that earlier structure.
Louis Musgrove and Ken Wilson