Being Henry VIII’s confessor must have been a nerve-racking job, but it’s one John Longland – who also held the titles Dean of Salisbury and Bishop of Lincoln, and was thus a major ecclesiastical figure of the Tudor era – held with aplomb. Although he was closely associated with influential men (and bigger names) such as Sir Thomas More and Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, his role in one of the most turbulent chapters in British history has secured his legacy, and given him a walk-on part in Shakespeare’s Henry VIII, as well as many a modern-day small screen bodice-ripper.
As the famous story goes, when the athletic, handsome Henry became infatuated with Anne Boleyn during his marriage to Catherine of Aragon (and realised his Spanish-born wife was never going to provide him with a male heir), he wanted out. To this end, he started to express doubts over the validity of his marriage to Catherine, as she had been married before to his late brother, Arthur, and declared the union surely incestuous in God’s eyes.
The Eton-and Oxford-educated Longland supported an annulment, sitting as assistant judge in Henry’s divorce proceedings in 1533, and paving the path for the king to marry his new love. Also the king’s almoner, Longland was signatory to the Act of Succession in 1534, which effectively removed the authority of the Pope in England. Cleverly staying in Henry’s good books throughout his reign, and surviving the king’s apparent personality breakdown after a traumatic jousting accident in 1536, Longland kept his head - in more ways than one - and even managed to outlive Henry by several months, dying well into his seventies in 1547.
This conservative but savvy court character also leaves a legacy in stone. In genteel Henley-on-Thames, grade II* listed Longlands House – on Hart Street, in a prime spot overlooking the river – was the bishop’s home for many years, and, according to the neighbouring 13th-century St Mary’s Church’s records, also his birthplace. Behind the pleasingly symmetrical Georgian exterior, which dates from 1786, you’ll find original Tudor features such as a secret tunnel leading to the church’s east chapel, a courtyard with brick and flint walls and stabling now converted into a two-bedroom cottage. The kitchen and what was originally the hay loft have beamed ceilings, and an inglenook fireplace, that once had five ovens, now houses a log-burner.
With six main bedrooms and two bedrooms in the converted stabling, and about 4,500 sq ft of living space, Longlands is the largest Georgian property in the idyllic Oxfordshire market town that hasn’t been converted into offices or flats. Although from the 1970s it was used commercially, by Brakspear Brewery, and then by an investment firm, its present owner, Clive Hemsley, who bought it in 2000, was keen for it to be converted back into a home. After using Longlands as the base for his advertising agency, Billings, for over a decade, he and his wife, Inez, spent two years on the project, spending at least £1m. Much of it, he says, went on painstakingly converting the stabling into the self-contained cottage and home office, set over three floors, and restoring the rest of the home’s historic features.
'We worked closely with a conservation team, finishing works in 2015,’ says Hemsley, 68. ‘The house is filled with history, and it was important to us to bring everything up to standard, returning it to its former glory as a home.’ Georgian panelling, the original wooden staircase, high corniced ceilings and sash and shuttered windows are once again in prime condition, and a fine rococo fireplace was unearthed along the way and made good.
Contemporary family life was of course catered for, too, with a focus on entertaining. The kitchen has a marble breakfast bar around which family and friends gather, and in the basement, there’s a bar, jukebox and media room. The driveway can now take 10 vehicles – handy for when friends visit for the Henley Royal Regatta, a firm fixture on every socialite’s summer calendar.
‘At the top of the house, there’s a platform with a roof garden that overlooks the River Thames,’ Hemsley says. ‘It’s a real suntrap – and you can see the finish line. It’s a wonderful place to watch the fireworks on New Year’s Eve, too, or simply to write.’
Now that Hemsley is reaching retirement age, he and Inez have decided to sell up, and Longlands House is now on the market for £5.5m with estate agency Waterview. For those without such a budget, a stroll around Henley’s many other landmarks can still bring you close to Longland, who later in life is said to have regretted ever taking part in Henry’s divorce proceedings. The 100ft high stone and knapped flint tower of St Mary’s, for example, was built under his instruction, as were many of the alms houses lining the churchyard.
Longlands’ buyer, however, will be the next guardian of a singular piece of British history.