The parish of Wotton Underwood was home to the Grenville family for several centuries. Danish by origin, Grenvilles accompanied William the Conqueror and following the Conquest were given lands in the West Country. But some members of the family evidently came soon after to Wotton since in 1166 Gerard de Grenville held one knight’s fee at Wotton from the overlord Walter Giffard, Earl of Buckingham, and Eustace de Grenville “answered for one knight’s fee to the Earl of Leicester” in 1231 (Hundred Rolls of Henry III). However, it was not until after 1714 that the Grenvilles finally bought the manorial rights from Walter Giffard’s heirs. Meanwhile, as Country Life put it in a series for three articles on Wotton House in July 1949, “the family had been living quietly at Wotton, waxing in wealth and importance as sheriffs and knights of the shire”.
Almost all the documentary evidence relating to the building of the original Wotton House in 1704 – and indeed to the following 120 years – was destroyed in the great fire of 1820 described below. Most of the surviving Grenville papers are held by the Henry Huntington Library in California. We know little about how the family lived before 1704. There is mention in 1618 of a manor house a hundred yards or so to the southeast of the present house, but no paintings or descriptions survive.
In its three hundred year history Wotton has had its full share of drama and misfortune. But overall it has been a lucky house. Before the great fire of 1820, John Soane happened to have undertaken recent commissions for the Marquis of Buckingham at Stowe, including the Gothic Library, and was the obvious architect to rebuild the house. Wotton took on a new lease of life as a Soane house, and as such became an endangered species in the 20th century when Soane went out of fashion.
In 1957 it again faced destruction, this time at the hands of developers planning to replace it with a housing estate. It was by pure chance that Mrs Patrick Brunner was brought to see it a fortnight before it was due to be demolished and decided to save it. By a further happy accident, the Historic Buildings Council had recently been formed precisely in order to help save such stately homes, then disappearing at an alarming rate. With the aid of a grant from the Council and the services of Donald Insall Associates, Mr and Mrs Brunner embarked on a major restoration project ensuring that Wotton House, almost alone, has survived almost exactly as Soane left it.