As it was so conveniently situated for the journey to Normandy, Wilmington Priory became Grestain Abbey's base for managing its extensive English estates. It was never a conventional Priory with cloister and chapter-house, but rather at the height of its fortunes it seems to have housed the Prior and perhaps two or three monks whose chief duties were those of a land agent. At the centre of the Priory today is an open space which is the site of the hall of which the early 13th century entrance still survives. The hall received additions in the form of a wing to the south-east, a two-storey porch, a drum tower, a wing to the north-east with an undercroft and, possibly after the suppression, a great chamber which replaced the western service wing.
After it was suppressed the Priory came into the hands of the Dean and Chapter of Chichester Cathedral and in 1565 it was granted to Sir Richard Sackville. Quite remarkably, from then until 1925 the Priory was never sold but passed by marriage from the Sackvilles to the Comptons and then to the Cavendishes. Wilmington eventually passed to the 9th Duke of Devonshire and it was he who presented it along with the Long Man to the Sussex Archaeological Society in 1925.
The Archaeological Society's architect, Walter Godfrey of Wratten and Godfrey, carried out repairs and opened up much of the Priory as well as creating quarters for a custodian in the south-east wing. A museum of rural life was set up much later in the present kitchen, the large room above and in the porch chamber. By the beginning of the 1990s this arrangement was no longer viable and so the Sussex Archaeological Society asked the Landmark Trust to take on the priory.
As our architect we chose Ian Angus who is a partner in Walter Godfrey’s firm now known as Carden & Godfrey, thus keeping this historical link. Wilmington Priory is one of the most archaeologically complicated buildings with which the Landmark Trust has ever been involved. Alterations have taken place in almost every century since its foundation and the result is a complex puzzle to try and unravel.
A tour of the building
Standing at the front door looking north towards the church, the open space on the left is the site of the earliest part of Wilmington Priory, the old hall built around 1225. This would have been a single storey room open to the roof. To the left of the archway into the porch is the remains of one of its windows in what was then an outside wall. The decorated doorway into the porch with its columns and capitals was originally the entrance into the hall. The area north of the old hall was an additional wing built c1400 with a vaulted undercroft below, which can be entered via the steps from the garden.
The porch was a later addition to the hall and was built c1330. The window in its south wall was at this time the original entrance to the Priory. Surprisingly, the fine vaulting above, with its mask bosses, was added later and you can see how it cuts across the entrance arch. From here you would have entered the hall and on the left would have been the service wing. Today this site is occupied by the ruins of the great chamber added c1450. At the same time the entrance to the porch was fortified by the addition of a portcullis.
From the porch a door leads into the kitchen, a room which was added in the 17th century. By this time the hall was long since derelict and the north wall of the kitchen extended beyond the present one so that the massive fireplace stood in the middle of the wall.
Passing through this room you enter what was the south east wing built at the same time as the hall or very soon afterwards. This wing would have provided fine lodgings for the prior and his guests on the upper floor, whilst the ground floor rooms, which would have had lower ceilings than they do now, served as store rooms. However, it now has much more of the character of an 18th century farmhouse. This wing originally extended further east towards the road but was truncated c1450.
Upstairs is the mezzanine landing under a lean-to roof added by Walter Godfrey after 1925 to accommodate the custodian’s bathroom. Passing upstairs to the next landing there is a bedroom on your left and straight ahead another room. Back in the 13th century this would have been a chapel for use by the prior. The roof timbers are medieval and this room illustrates the contrast between this period above, and the Georgian character lower down reflected in the sash windows and their shutters.
Returning to the mezzanine you enter into the room over the kitchen. This, like the kitchen below, was also one of the main museum rooms and we have deliberately left it unconverted. From here a few steps lead up to the chamber over the porch which contains the remains of a decorative 14th century window. This would have been a high status room, originally reached from the great chamber opposite.