Have you seen the progress at Kentwell Hall?
This was the marketing ploy used by the new owners of Kentwell Hall, a Tudor property in Suffolk that had fallen into disrepair by the 1970s. The family who bought it have spent thirty years working on the restoration project in much the same way most people do when they buy an aging house – a little at a time.
When I first visited the house in the early eighties, the couple were up step-ladders in the great hall doing some DIY while their young children played close by. The moat had been drained and the vast array of strange contents laid out for viewing in the attic. Much of the house was inaccessible due to prolonged neglect. So they encouraged people to come back for updates on the progress, using the entrance fees to finance the repairs.
Kentwell has a long history going back to the Domesday Book in 1086 when it was listed as Kanewella, a manor owned by Frodo, the brother of a local abbot. Records go quiet for 300 years when de Kentewell family lived there in the 13th Century. The house eventually passed into the ownership of the Clopton family in 1372. This noble family over several generations constructed Kentwell Hall, starting with the oldest part – the moat house.
However, the Cloptons went into decline and one of their heirs, Thomasine Clopton was part of the Puritan exodus to the Americas. She married John Winthrop, a founder of Boston and the first Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The next owner of Kentwell was a lawyer who was responsible for planting the mile long avenue of trees that lead up to the gates. It’s a magnificent approach which was badly effected by the Great Storm in 1987 when many trees were blown down.
More tenants and owners came and went, some getting into debts, others managing to make some improvements to the house. In Victorian times the house was purchased by Robert Hart Logan, a Canadian of Scottish descent who made his fortune through the timber trade. He employed an architect after a fire in 1826 burnt out the central part of the house. The gallery and screens were removed from the Great Hall and the ceiling reconstructed with hammer beams and plasterwork to resemble oak posts. By 1826, Logan was in debt (seems to be a common feature of those who sought out these great houses) and he sold it to the Starkie Bence family, who lived at Kentwell for over a century.
During WWII, the house was used as a transit camp for the army and those who participated in the D-Day landings camped there. After the war, the last Starkie Bence practically camped at the house themselves, so by the time of their death in 1969, the house was in a pretty bad state.
Enter the Phillips family, another lawyer, and this time they brought something special to Kentwell, a tradition that continues each year – Tudor re-enactments events. A date is chosen from the Tudor period and participants are invited to come and play the role of a Tudor for the during of the enactment, whether that’s a few days or weeks. The public then pay to come in and join in the fun. These ‘actors’ not only ‘perform’ for the public, after the visitors have gone, they continue to live as if they are in the Tudor times. From the bakers, the dairy maid in the buttery, the farmers (Kentwell now has a rare-breed farm), the blacksmiths who made the lead for the guttering, and the still room maids concocting cures using smelly herbs (they actually plaster them on you), they all maintain their roles. The Phillips family and friends of course dress up as the Cloptons and have servants wait on them and musicians with their lutes entertain them, while the nobles discuss the politics of the day, whether that is Anne Boleyn’s execution or the Spanish Armada. The trick for the visitor is to try and catch them out by referring to something more modern. But these people are serious re-enactors and rarely make the simple mistake of getting their history wrong.
What an excellent way to raise money for the restoration, educate people (lots of school parties visit) and give people who have a rare skill or craft the opportunity to demonstrate it in a historical setting. Such fun, and if you ever are in Suffolk in the summer, check out the dates for these events.
“Beautifully written mystery weaves a spell around the house and the people connected to it.” Goodreads reviewer
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