This first gatehouse, possibly of just one storey, guarded the entrance to a small Benedictine priory beside the church of St Mary. There had been a religious community at Bromfield since before the Norman Conquest, which in 1155 became a priory subject to St Peter's Abbey in Gloucester. The Gatehouse was not built for another two centuries after that, however, the design of the arch and the loops in the gate passage can be dated roughly to the mid-14th century. It probably replaced an earlier gatehouse. On either side of it there would have been a stone wall or a timber stockade. With this, and with the two rivers (the Onny and the Teme) which join east of the church, forming a narrow promontory between them, the priory site was a very secure one.
Bromfield Priory was dissolved in 1538. Its buildings were acquired by Charles Foxe who turned them into a house for himself. The Gatehouse continued to preside over its entrance, and before 1600 it was enlarged by the addition of a timber-framed upper storey. This formed a single large room, the present living room, which was probably reached by an outside stair on the north-east corner. The Gatehouse was smaller then than it is now, consisting of just the northern two thirds. 18th-century views also show it to have had two windows on the west side, a roof of slightly flatter pitch and no chimney.
One reason for enlarging the Gatehouse was undoubtedly to impress. A fashion for building ornamental gatehouses began in the early Tudor period, and was still going strong among the country gentlemen of Shropshire and neighbouring counties until well after 1600. There was obviously also an advantage in having the entrance to your house watched over, even in relatively peaceful days - while a good strong pair of doors could be closed in times of unrest.
At the same time, no one put up a large room intending to leave it empty. The upper room at Bromfield is thought to have served as a courtroom, where the manorial court was held and local disputes settled. Records of the manorial court in Bromfield continue until 1770. If it was indeed held in the Gatehouse, its ending would explain why the building was abandoned after that, being shown in a state of picturesque decay by watercolourist of the 1790s.
Then, in 1836, as part of a general round of improvement in the village, the Gatehouse was restored and enlarged again, this time to serve as the village school and teacher's cottage. The courtroom became the main schoolroom, reached by a stair at the north end: the low rooms there were tall enough for children's cloakrooms. At the south end, a three storey addition was made, with a classroom on the top floor, and rooms for a teacher below. The oriel window on the west front, the chimney, and the decorative finials on the gables were all added at this time, as were the chimneypiece and cupboards inside, made up from an assortment of Jacobean and later carving.
In 1895 the school moved to a new building. The south end became an estate cottage, and the main room became a parish reading and recreation room. Although still used occasionally in the 1970s, the Gatehouse was really by then in search of a new use once again. A solution was found when in 1990, the Gatehouse was leased by the Plymouth estate to the Landmark Trust, as a charity which specialises in the repair of historic buildings.
For a short history of Bromfield Priory Gatehouse please click here.
To read the full history album for Bromfield Priory Gatehouse please click here.
To download the children's Explorer pack for Bromfield Priory Gatehouse please click here.