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