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Wrest Park Before the 17th Century

The relative positions of old house (blue) and its replacement (red)
The relative positions of old house (blue) and its replacement (red)

Historian of Wrest Park James Collett-White wrote a history of the old house at Wrest, demolished in the 1830s, in Volume XXII and XXIII of The Bedfordshire Magazine. The following edited extract from his article deals with the house before 1572.

The Old House at Wrest was sited between the present house and the Canal and had been the Grey family home for over 500 years. In his unpublished Memoirs of my Own Life, written in 1859, Earl de Grey gave his reasons for demolishing the home of his ancestors: "For many years before my aunt's death [1833], I had felt the utter impossibility of doing anything to or with the old house. It was very old but it had neither antiquarian nor architectural value. It was not essentially out of repair, but it was of very bad construction (much of it nothing but lath and plaster), very extensive without a possibility on concentration; utterly impossible to warm, and with no suite of apartments upon any floor" [CRT190/45/2]. Elsewhere he comments on "the damp mist which so frequently rises in that part, most remote from the pieces of water, and the clouds of gnats which used to eat us up".

The earliest reference to the de Grey family owning land in Flitton and Silsoe is in the Feudal Aids on 1284-6, when Reginald de Grey held a fee in Flitton and Silsoe of John de Wahull, the Barony of Wahull [Odell] being overlord of the Manor of Wrest. Later it was described in Chancery papers as a "capital mesuage with a dovecote worth 4 shillings per annum, 100 acres of arable land at 4 d. per acre (£1/13/4), 6 acres of meadow at 1/6 (9 shillings), 3 acres of pasture at 1 shilling per acre; a wood with no underwood, therefore no profit (£1/19/8) in Silsoe, held by Reginald de Grey on his death in the year 1307-1308. The "capital messuage" probably represents the beginnings of the house that survived to 1838. It is probable that the chapel, hall, screen passage and kitchen still in existence in the 1830s were medieval [L33/216-218]; the site was moated by 1512 [LJeayes899]and almost certainly always had been. Traces of the moat can be seen on J. Knyff's View of Wrest House c. 1705 [L33/143].

Through the Middle Ages the Grey family advanced in power and prestige. In 1325 Sir Roger de Grey was made 1st Baron Grey of Ruthin in Wales. His descendant Edmund Grey helped the future Edward IV (1461-1470 and 1471-1483) win the Battle of Northampton in 1460 by deserting the Lancastrian side at a crucial stage. In gratitude, Edward IV appointed him Lord High Treasurer of England in 1463, and in 1465 created him Earl of Kent. We do not know exactly how much the house was extended during this period of increasing affluence, but it is probable that separate suites of apartments were built for the Earl and his wife, north and south of the main block of chapel, hall, screen passage and kitchen.

Richard Grey, 3rd Earl of Kent, fulfilled his father George's death-bed prediction in 1505 that he "will not thrive and will be a waster". His gambling debts led to the sale of Wrest and his other estates. He died in 1524 aged 42 or 43. His thrifty half-brother Henry refused to assume the title "by reason of his slender estate" but managed to buy back Wrest in 1512 before his brother's death. A document of about 1524 [L24/16] states that (note the original spelling) "the sayd Sir Henry Grey seyth that ytt was enformed hym that the seyd Sir Henry Wyatt was dysposyd to pull downe the manor place at Wrest and to sell the tymbre and tyle and the other stuffe thereof to hys mosste advauntage and … for as moche as the seyd syr Henry Grey had then no house of hys own convenient for hym to dwell yn and also for Petye he hadde that the … house wheryn diverse and many of hys auncestores hadde dwellyd should be so utterly dysstroyed, he offeryd to bye off … Sir Henry Wyatt the … manor of Wraste and other lands and tenements in the … countey of Bedfordshire nygh unto the … manor of Wraste wyche be about the yerly value of fortye poundes. Whereupon … Sir Henry Wyatt for the somme of four hundred and fyftye markes solde the … manor off Wraste … to Sir Henry Grey and hys heyrs" [L24/16]. Four hundred and fifty marks represented the sum of £300.

By 1573, when an inventory [L31/169] was made on the death of Reginald Grey, 5th Earl, the ground plan of the house had become much more complex. It is probable that to the main block of the house with its 15th century extensions more rooms were added in Tudor times. Rooms listed in the 1573 inventory were: the Dining Chamber; the Chapel Chamber; Lady Grey's Chamber; Lady of Kent's Chamber before Marriage; the Closet; Master Peregrine's Chamber; Bolberis Chamber; Corner Chamber; Clay Chamber; Edmond Hookes' Chamber; Inner Chamber; Master Jenys Chamber (being the Chamber next the Chapel); the Chapel; Chamber next the Store House; Porter's Lodge; Master Elmes Chamber over the Store House; Chamber over the Gate; Chamber coming upon the Gate; Clock Chamber; Clerk's Chamber; Kitchen; Chamber over the Buttery; Chamber next the Mewe; Hall; Mistress Pigot's Chamber; Low Parlour next the Chapel and Wardrobe. The inventory may list only some of the contents of the house; for example, the Dining Chamber contained only "a very old window clothe longe 2¼ yards". The Kitchen was equally bare, containing but "3 plankes and 2 shelves (2/-), a short troughe (10d.), a dresser boorde without (6d.). Much of the furniture  and household goods in these rooms may have been removed at the Earl's death.

Some medieval fittings seem to have survived. In the chamber next the store house was a "covering of Imagery very oulde, 20d". In the Chapel Chamber was a cushion with ragged staves and dolphins "longe 3 quarters and a half 5s"; ragged staves and dolphins appear on the family coat of arms.