Mottisfont Abbey is beautifully set on green lawns amidst vast old trees, it is bounded on one side by the rich water-meadows of the River Test.
Originally, a Priory of the Austin Canons was set up here at the start of the 13th century. It was known as the Priory of the Holy Trinity. This was not a large order and in the 14th and 15th centuries it suffered from lack of money, with its fortunes being further depleted by the Black Death, a squalid disease that wiped out people within a week. At the time of the 15th century, money was so short that the Priory could only maintain three canons.
In 1536 the Priory was suppressed. William, Lord Sandys, Lord Chamberlain to Henry VIII received it from the king in return for the villages of Chelsea and Paddington. Lord Sandys already owned The Vyne, near Sherbourne St.John, but at this time he had a desire to live at Mottisfont.
Lord Sandys demolished most of the Priory living quarters and transformed the nave of the church together with the wings over the old cellarium and chapter house, thus shaping a wonderful, habitable mansion out of the old buildings. The result was a building of almost "E" shape, but minus the middle bar of the letter. The north front is the entire length of the nave, ending with a truncated tower where the arch leading into the north transept is outlined in the facade.
Towards the middle of the 17th century the last of the Sandys descendants died. In 1648, ownership of Mottisfont Abbey passed to the Mill Family. Sir Richard Mill made further changes to the house in the 1740's, transforming it from a Tudor Mansion into a comfortable Georgian residence of fashion.
Much of the old Priory can still be seen, various details exist from the 12th and 13th centuries, there is an interesting old stone pulpit decorated with stone shields, also there is the remarkable 13th century undercroft to the monks cellarium where graceful stone columns support a magnificent vaulted ceiling. The mullioned windows to the ground floor survive as original, but the upper floor is inserted with sash windows. A later feature is the handsome stable block of 1836.
In the 20th century Mottisfont Abbey was acquired by Mr. and Mrs. Gilbert Russell. They moved into the house around 1934. At this time they instructed the celebrated Rex Whistler to transform the saloon. This he executed with his usual flair, designing a charming Gothic fantasy of trompe l'oeil, with ceiling, walls and curtain pelmets, all delicately painted. This room was Whistlers final work and has proved to be his masterpiece. He was further commissioned to design the furniture, but sadly he died during the Second World War.
Mottisfont Abbey is surrounded by glorious parkland where the visitor can identify mature sycamore's, beeches, walnuts, Spanish chestnuts and cedars. Most of these exist from the former 18th century garden, but many specimens are thought to have been established even before this. With their vast range of colour the trees are just one of the gardens glories. Another is the delightful summerhouse in the Gothic style, dating from the 18th century, it shows medieval floor tiles taken from the Priory.
Between 1936 - 37, Mr and Mrs Russell commissioned Geoffrey Jellicoe to design the paved octagon. He also designed the north lawn with its border of pleached limes. The wisteria and other climbers were added later by Norah Linsey, who was responsible for the lovely box and lavender edged parterre.
The walled kitchen garden was re-designed in 1972, this now houses the National Collection of Old-Fashioned Roses, and is perhaps the gardens most delightful feature. Amongst these are pre-1900 shrub roses, in all there are over 300 varieties, all arranged in box-edged beds around a graceful fountain pool. It is the far side of the garden that is the most historic, here there is the crystal clear spring of "font" which attracted the Austin cannons to the site so very long ago.
Mottisfont Abbey Estate encompasses over 2,000 acres and includes most of Mottisfont village, farmlands and woods. All of this was given to the National Trust in 1957 by Mrs Russell, who for a period continued to live at the house. Eleven years later the Trust were able to acquire Derek Hill's 20th century picture collection.
Despite the availability of only limited rooms to see in the house, Mottisfont in its enchanting setting is still a worthwhile visit, the famous grounds are exceptional and the superb Rex Whistler Room will leave you breathless at its sheer beauty.
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