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The first recording of buildings on the site of Friars Court dates back to 1142 and the establishment of the first ‘Hospitaller’ ‘in Oxfordshire by the charitable, religious order of the Knights Templar Order of St. John of Jerusalem. An ‘Hospitaller’ was a place of rest for travellers and from it are believed to derive the words ‘hospital’ and ‘hostel’.
In a chronicle of 1338, Friars Court is mentioned as being “... a small house with gardens, dovecote and adjacent crofts worth 30s a year”. This accommodated the preceptor (the only serving brother), a chaplain, a steward, two servants and three pensioners.
A few years later after the building of a bridge over the River Thames at nearby Radcot (now the oldest surviving crossing to remain standing), the increase in passing traffic must have had a strong influence in making Friars Court a more important stopping point.
By the middle of the 15th century the “small house” had become a stone-built hall with a ‘great chamber’; a separate kitchen, with an adjoining building; latrines to the east; a bake-house and a stone-built chapel with a walled garden to the north.
The house remained under auspices of the Order of St John until the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 1530s after which it became a private residence. From 1558 until the turn of the 19th century Friars Court had a varied succession of owners, often joint owners, most of whom let the house and land to tenants. During this period the most significant change to the house, before the alterations of the 19th century, was the addition of an attic storey and the remodelling of the façade in the 1650s.
The estate was still called a manor in 1803, though when sold in 1835 it appears the new owner did not acquire the manorial rights along with the house. Between that time and 1886 the house changed considerably: the most significant alteration saw the existing spiral main staircase replaced by a closed-string straight flight running between two galleried landings; this required radical re-arrangement of rooms on all floors and for one window in the façade to be blanked off. These sweeping changes extended to creating more defined servants’ rooms in the attics, the creation of a butler’s pantry and the installation of indoor plumbing for the family. Externally, the two ’Gothic’ porches were added and the coach house built.
In 1917 Richard Willmer arrived as a tenant and three years later bought the house and farm which at that time comprised of just 220 acres. Over the years the farm has increased to over 650 acres.
In recent years the house has had two major changes. In 1997 the 40 foot semi-glazed Garden Room was built to the side of the house to accommodate the growing number of visitors to the gardens. Then over the winter of 2009, two years after Clanfield suffered some of the worst flooding known in the area, Friars Court underwent its biggest internal makeover when the house was emptied of furnishings, the electrics rewired, much needed new bathrooms installed and the ground floor walls renovated using traditional lime plaster and painted with breathable clay-based materials. A year later wood-burners, fuelled by timber from the farm, were also installed in every available fireplace to reduce dependence on the ever increasing cost of heating oil.
NB with the exception of the Garden Room and Old Laundry the house is not open to the public.