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Buckland was originally a Cistercian abbey founded in 1278 by Amicia, Countess of Devon and was a daughter house of Quarr Abbey, on the Isle of Wight. It remained an abbey until the Dissolution of the Monasteries by King Henry VIII. In 1541 Henry sold Buckland to Sir Richard Grenville who, working with his son Roger, began to convert the abbey into a residence. Roger died in 1545, leaving a son, also named Richard Grenville, who completed the conversion. He eventually sold Buckland to Drake in 1581. The abbey is unusual in that the church was retained as the principal component of the new house whilst most of the remainder was demolished, which was a reversal of the normal outcome with this type of redevelopment.
Drake lived in the house for 15 years, as did many of his collateral descendants until 1946, when it was sold to a local landowner, Arthur Rodd, who presented the property to the National Trust in 1948.
The property has been open to the public since 1951. The National Trust operates it with the assistance of the city of Plymouth — the City of Plymouth Museums and Art Museum use the building to house part of their collection.
The collection is noted for the presence of "Drake's Drum". A number of independent craft workshops are located in the converted ox sheds. In March 2013 the portrait of a man wearing a white feathered bonnet was re-attributed to Rembrandt by the Rembrandt expert Ernst van de Wetering.
The National Trust Costume Group operate at Buckland Abbey, creating authentic Elizabethan costumes using traditional materials and methods. There is a complete Francis Drake costume, based on the famous portrait of Drake in the National Gallery, and the group are currently working on a costume for Lady Drake, also based on a portrait.
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