Wingfield College Invitation to View: Discovering its rich royal heritage
PUBLISHED: 13:23 26 June 2018
A trip to Wingfield on the historic houses scheme, Invitation to View, reveals a medieval college and royal stories aplenty | Words & Photos: Lindsay Want
When it comes to right royal rollercoaster rides through history, Suffolk has a whole theme park full of them.
From Henry II’s Orford keep to Charles II’s Newmarket racecourse, the great and not-always-so good have left legacies of mighty landmarks behind them. Bury St Edmunds boasts the tomb of one-time Queen of France, Mary Tudor. Framlingham’s church harbours Henry VIII’s illegitimate son, Henry Fitzroy.
From South Elmham in The Saints to Haughley Manor, kings have come and gone. But as for sharing the thrill of the past, nowhere does it quite like Wingfield.
Simply sign up to an Invitation to View private house tour of Wingfield College with its owners Peter Bloore and Jane Greenwood, you’ll soon discover how genuine passion, understanding and an excellent spot of storytelling can leave you with the most vivid impressions of Suffolk’s fascinating past.
Heading cross-country towards the flood plains of the Waveney, the ups, downs and unexpected swerves of Mid-Suffolk’s tiny lanes paint the picture perfectly. And, certainly, if you’re slightly behind schedule, it’s a daring, gravity-fed scenic-railway of a ride down towards sleepy Strad Brook.
Wingfield is an impressive space, made all the more so by mighty monuments. There are cheeky carvings on the wooden ‘cinema seat-style’ misericords, where generations of clergy and choirboys presumably propped their bottoms during lifetimes of lengthy liturgies.
Near the Lady Chapel, a wooden box standing sentry turns out to be a ‘hud’ - a shelter for keeping the vicar dry during burials. All such practical signs of life in a place clearly destined for higher things.
Peter escorts everyone back through time in a deft and honourable fashion, plunging us into the period of the Plantagenets and the 14th century world of Sir John de Wingfield. The feudal lord’s CV is impressive – a steadfast soldier to Edward III, Chief Counsellor to the Black Prince and a castle up the road. “Pity he probably died of plague in 1361, but he’d made a killing from ransoming French aristocrats.”
Through his ill-gotten gains, his will provided this new church, care for his people and a chantry college of secular priests and choirboys to pray for his own soul and those of his masters.
Totally captivated, the gathered company stands open-mouthed as Peter tells of John’s son-in-law, Michael de la Pole, Chancellor of England, then of an ambitious retinue of later offspring, all seemingly called Michael too. “This one died from dysentery at the 1415 siege of Harfleur,“ he explains very gently tapping the rare, painted wooden effigy of the crusader who came home to rest.
“They cut up his body and parboiled it in a barrel, so it didn’t go off. His son (another Michael) died at Agincourt just weeks later. His brother (a William to save confusion) was ransomed for a fortune, married Geoffrey Chaucer’s granddaughter and, accused of treason, was beheaded with a rusty sword on a boat heading for Holland.” Then comes the final blow. Resting his head on a Saracen helmet, another John, carved in exquisite detail like a waxwork but in alabaster, lies next to his royal wife, Elizabeth Plantagenet of York.
Known as ‘The Trimming Duke’, he spent a lifetime hedging his bets, but their son, the Earl of Lincoln, challenged Henry VII for the throne. “There could have been a de la Pole dynasty not a Tudor one. So close . . . but yet so far.”
Then, outside in the churchyard, the half-timbered medieval chantry college is suddenly there before you, real to a miraculous extent, but Peter fills in the gaps, building up the whole original picture from fishponds and dovecote, to gatehouse and great hall.
There’s talk of Henry VIII and how he eventually came round to Mary Tudor’s marriage to his childhood chum, Charles Brandon. How giving the couple patronage of Wingfield College was a positive bid to rebrand and extend the place after the treacherous de la Poles had brought it disgrace.
A swift descent from the graveyard and we’re standing in front of the extensive Georgian pile. Peter explains how the college was voluntarily surrendered at the Dissolution and the collegiate church was taken over by the parish.
He is the latest in a long line of people to make the place a family home since Tudor times. Virtual pictures show how the centuries remodelled the place, repositioning the entrance, adding extensions and great windows, then finally disguising its origins totally until the 1970s by shrouding it inside and out in ‘Georgian’ elegance.
And once you’re educated about its history, Wingfield College soon adds up - mullion windows and herringbone brickwork, Great Hall timbers blackened in times before chimneys, massive beams which grew as saplings in Domesday Book times, linenfold panels carved with a queen, a duke and a wannabe king, crown posts and a rather impressive ‘throne’ room.
Not surprisingly, the family serve up a right royal tea out on the terrace.