The dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII gave rise to the greatest country-property sale of all time, with former monastic lands and buildings being systematically seized and sold to favoured courtiers, thereby creating an economic power-base for the gentry and nobility which endures to this day.
Before the Dissolution, Notley Abbey at Thame, on the Buckinghamshire/ Oxfordshire borders, was one of the largest and richest Augustinian monasteries in the Oxford region. The abbey, which takes its name from the nut trees which then abounded in the surrounding woods, was founded in the 12th century by Walter Giffard, Earl of Buckingham, and his wife, Ermingarde. Little remains of the original church and cloister, and the present 10,668sq ft house listed Grade I and currently for sale through Knight Frank (020?7629 8171) and Savills (020?7499 8644) at a guide price of about £4 million was the Abbot?s Lodging, built partly in the 15th century and completed between 1529 and 1539 by Richard Rydge, the last Abbot of Notley before the Dissolution.
The house largely consists of two sides of the old Cloister Garth, with the present main hall/sitting room the former Abbot?s Hall, the drawing room the Abbot?s Parlour, and the barn forming the east range of the cloister, the monks? refectory. After the Dissolution, the abbey was owned by three generation of the Reynolds family, and more recently, was the marital home of Sir Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh from 1944 to 1959. It was Olivier who planted the romantic nut walk beside the main formal lawns which slope gently down from the house to the banks of the Thame.
In all, this rambling, wonderfully private house, set in 69 acres of gardens, grounds and woodland, has four reception rooms, seven bedrooms, six bathrooms and various ancillary rooms, plus a two-bedroom cottage, a Grade I-listed barn, workshops, stabling and garaging.
The present owners, who bought the house privately some three years ago, have concentrated their efforts on restoring the fabric of Notley?s ancient buildings and recreating the wonderful riverside walks and gardens. They have also secured unusually generous planning and listed-building consents to remodel parts of the interior, notably the kitchen area, the master suite and Vivien Leigh?s former flat. If implemented at an estimated cost of £500,000 to £1m the end product would be that rare entity, a ?really convenient? Grade I-listed house, the agents say.
Henry VIII was a passionate supporter of learning, and he and Cardinal Wolsey often stayed at Notley Abbey on their way to Oxford, 12 miles away. Henry left his mark on Oxford, too, taking control of Christ Church when its founder, the unfortunate Wolsey, fell from grace in 1529. Henry abolished the study of canon law at the university, instituting instead chairs of medicine, law, Greek, theology and Hebrew.
This article first appeared in Country Life magazine on May 4, 2006.