Michelham Priory is set on a medieval moated island and surrounded by gardens. An idyllic setting where it is possible to imagine the life of the small band of Augustinian canons who first came here in 1229.
The founder was Gilbert De l'Aigle whose eagle emblem flies over the gatehouse. Part of the original buildings survive in the present house. There was a cruciform church with a cloister to the north, a Chapter House on the east, the Kitchen and Refectory to the south and dormitories (over the cellars) to the west.
In the late 14th century the threat of French raids and general unrest led Prior Leem to surround the Priory and its immediate grounds with a moat (the longest water-filled medieval moat currently surviving in England) and build a gatehouse.
The moat now gives shelter to its wildlife - a pair of swans and their family, kingfishers and fish.
The Priory was dissolved in 1537 and the church and most of the east cloister range were pulled down for their building materials.
A local man, John Foote, purchased the Priory in 1556 and began to transform the south and west cloister ranges into a house. In 1587 Michelham was acquired by Herbert Pelham, an ironfounder and landowner. He added a new stone wing but ran out of money and was forced to sell the property.
In 1601 the Priory was purchased by Thomas Sackville, later 1st Earl of Dorset, and the Sackville family owned the freehold for the next 300 years. The Sackvilles let the Priory to tenant farmers, so barns and farm buildings were gradually built around the house.
The medieval watermill continued in use on the site and is still in full working order, producing stoneground flour.
The house itself fell into a decline, but in 1896 the site was bought by James Eglington Gwynne who set about restoring the medieval buildings. The 20th century was dominated by Richard Beresford-Wright who owned it from 1925 and made many improvements which survive today. It was requisitioned during World War II, but the Wrights returned until 1951.
The last buyer was Mrs Stella Hotblack who bought it in 1959 specifically to preserve it. In 1960 she gave the Priory to the Sussex Archaeological Society who have continued to open the house and gardens to the public and to enhance it.
The watermill runs regularly and there is a working forge, alongside more tranquil attractions such as the Sculpture Trail in the gardens and special changing exhibitions in the house. The Education Officer has a range of options for enquiring minds and the Iron Age Centre on the far side of the moat gives a rare chance to picture life here before the Romans.
The house is approached from the carpark across the bridge and through the gatehouse. The 13th century church and cloister stood to the north of the present house and the church walls can be seen marked out on the ground. Looking at the house from the South Lawn highlights the two main periods of building, with the honey-coloured iron-rich stone of the old priory to the east of the greyer stone of the fine Tudor wing.
Inside the house many of the rooms are laid out as if the family had just left and where possible many of the objects are in use, from the square piano to the kitchen spit.
Upstairs the Michelham Priory Room on the first floor has a display detailing the history of the site and some of its residents from the finds that they left behind. There is an 18th century children's bedroom, with samplers and toys. Another upstairs room houses a collection of furniture made for Michelham in the late 1920's by Gordon Russell and Romney Green.
The 13th century Prior's Chamber has a medieval hooded fireplace and is fitted with oak furniture and 17th century Brussels tapestries.
A short distance from the house is the Elizabethan Great Barn, a ten-bay oak-framed structure now in demand as a venue for weddings and other occasions. A more intimate restaurant is located here.
Nearby 19th century farm buildings form a small yard which include a working Forge displaying 19th-early 20th century equipment and an unusual Rope Museum.
Michelham Priory is surrounded by tranquil, well-kept gardens with the moat providing beautiful reflections and an abundance of wildlife. There is a kitchen garden, a cloister garden, fine old trees and an orchard. The physic garden is intriguing and the visitor can walk between the fragrant plants and read the labels as to their medieval uses.
Michelham Priory also holds special events throughout the season, from living history days and outdoor theatre to a Christmas Gift Fair.