Cowdray House, Midhust, West Sussex title banner, a history of a magnificent 16th Cent house, destroyed by fire in the late 18th Cent
Home & IntroductionLocation, Midhurst & AreaGuide to CowdrayDestruction by Curse?Cowdray in RuinsAppendixTourPhoto Gallery


A brief outline of the history of Midhurst and the surrounding area is needed to explain the setting in which Cowdray was created.

Midhurst, twelve miles north of Chichester in West Sussex, probably owes its foundation as a feudal town to its position on a crossing point of the River Rother, close to a north-south route through the South Downs. The Mediaeval town plan still survives in the eastern half, near the church.

A mile to the north of Midhurst is the remains of Easebourne Priory, founded in the thirteenth century. Cowdray is in the parish and many of its noble owners have their mausoleums in the parish Church of St. Magdalene and St. Deny's.

After the Norman Conquest, every town in Sussex became a manor and these were granted to noblemen to be held and looked after. During the reign of Henry I (1100 - 1135AD) the manor of Midhurst was granted to Geldwin Fitz Savaric.

About 1160, Savaric built himself a fortified manor house, or castle, on St. Ann's Hill, just to the east of Midhurst Church. It consisted of a small chapel, hall, keep, living and ancillary quarters, surrounded by a curtain wall. A total enclosure of about five acres.

Through marriage, the site became the property of the Bohun family, who took over as Lords of the manor. Between 1273 - 84, a new house was built, just to the north of St. Ann's Hill. In 1311, the old house was destroyed and only the foundations remain to be seen today.

Little is known about the new Bohun house, except that it almost certainly stood on the site of the present Cowdray, was enclosed by a moat and may have been a half-timber construction. Evidence for this comes from a list of materials taken from the site after the house's demolition about 1520, in which only wood was mentioned. In parts of Cowdray, some of the walls are made up of loose rubble that may have come from the earlier house and some pieces of thirteen century stonework have been found, suggesting that some old stone was reused in at least part of the old house.

The first mention of 'la Cowdreye' near Midhurst, occurs in 1320 and refers to the land north of St. Ann's Hill. There are several suggestions as to the derivation of the name. It has been said that the site was previously a 'Cow-dairy', or that it was named after a Thomas de Cowdray who lived there in 1304. Sir William St.John Hope suggests in his book that the name came from 'Coudre' or 'Coudrier', meaning hazelnut and 'la Cowdreye' means 'hazel wood'. This fits well as Midhurst is taken to mean 'the middle wood.'

In 1492 the Bohun family line ended and though marriage the house became the property of Sir David Owen. Between 1520 - 30 he pulled down the old house and on its site started to build the present Cowdray House.

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