Saturday, 18 July 2015

A conflict between the Comberford family
and an argumentative Puritan divine

Saint Editha’s Church Tamworth: William Comberford’s claim to the patronage of the parish church led to an open conflict with the leading Puritan Thomas Blake in the 1640s and 1650s (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

During the first early decades of the Reformation in England, members of the Comberford family in Staffordshire tended to identify with the Catholic cause. Their Catholic sympathies later translated into an expression of High Church sympathies, and as the English Civil War unfolded in the 1640s it led to a confrontation between William Comberford and Tamworth’s leading Puritan, Thomas Blake, a dogged and bitter theologian who even became involved in controversial and open debagtes with his Puritan contemporaries.

It is a story that shows how the Comberford family was involved in the theological and political controversies of the mid-17th century that were often forceful expressions of the same debates, and it shows how debate descended into bitter and violent conflict – in this case a conflict for which the Comberford family suffered bitter consequences.

The Precentor’s stall in the chapter of Lichfield Cathedral: Henry Comberford was precentor 1555-1559 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Henry Comberford (ca 1499-1586) was Rector of Norbury, Derbyshire, in the Diocese of Lichfield (1558), Precentor of Lichfield Cathedral (1555-1559), and Prebendary of Bishop’s Itchington (1557-1559). In 1559, the two bailiffs of Lichfield City, Edward Bardell and John Dyott accused him of “lewd preaching and misdemeanour.” He was brought before the Privy Council, was deprived of all his parishes because of extreme Catholicism, and was jailed.

But he remained in office in Lichfield Cathedral until a report on Staffordshire by the Bishop of London, Edward Grindall, in 1562, in which Henry was described as “learned, but wilful.” He was dismissed as the Precentor of Lichfield and Prebendary of Bishop’s Itchington, and was ordered to live in Suffolk, although he was free to return to Staffordshire for six weeks twice a year.

Later Henry was apprehended for celebrating the Mass in the house of the Countess of Northumberland. In 1570, he was brought before the Yorkshire ecclesiastical commissioners for defending the Mass. By 1579, when he was aged 80, Henry was a prisoner in Hull for his religious beliefs, which were regarded as dangerous to the state. He died on 4 March 1586 in prison in Hull.

Henry’s nieces, Dorothy Heveningham of Aston and Pipe Hall, and Katherine Badduley or Bodlilighe of Stone, were fined for non-attendance at church in Lichfield in 1581. Indeed, Pipe Hall was said to be “a nest of Papists.” In 1606, Dorothy’s son, Sir John Heveningham of Pipe Hall, was a suspected Papist and was accused of failing to attend Saint Chad’s Church, Stowe. But he defended himself, pointing out that he worshipped at Lichfield Cathedral and that Saint Chad’s was not a parish church.

Henry’s nephew, Thomas Comberford of Comberford Hall, was implicated in plots by the Staffordshire Catholic gentry in support of Mary Queen of Scots. Later, he was apprehended in 1573 by the Earl of Shrewsbury, who reported that Comberford was a place “where masses were frequented.” Shrewsbury also arrested two priests who had said a very large number of Masses there.

Thomas was released after a short period, but he, his wife Dorothy, and other members of the family were fined on several occasions in the 1580s for not attending church. Thomas appears to have more careful to conform for the rest of his life, although two of his tenants were accused of harbouring seminarians and priests.

The Long Gallery in the Moat House ... the ceiling, illustrating the family trees of the Comberford family, was decorated for the visit of Charles I as Prince of Wales in 1619 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Thomas Comberford’s eldest son, William Comberford (1551-1625), conformed to the Church of England by 1586, and later welcomed the future Charles I as his guest at the Moat House in Tamworth in 1619. William’s eldest son, Humphrey Comberford, who had died ten years before that visit, was once said to have harboured Jesuits in the Moat House, where a “priest’s hole” led to the River Tame, offering safe routes down to Wednesbury Manor or north to the homes of other Catholics among the Staffordshire gentry.

In the Elizabethan period, the Comberfords were Catholics and it was whispered that the oak panelling inside the Moat House hid more than one “priests’ hole” (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The continued adherence of the Comberfords to Roman Catholicism was a religious loyalty shared with many related gentry families in South Staffordshire. But William was ambitious to make the Comberfords the principal family in both Tamworth and Wednesbury.

His son, Colonel William Comberford (ca 1610-1656), who eventually inherited Comberford Hall, the Moat House in Tamworth and Wednesbury Manor, was similarly ambitious. He became a colonel in the Royalist army, and in 1642 he became the last Royalist High Sheriff of Staffordshire. He took part in the first of the three sieges of Lichfield, between 2 and 5 March 1643, and he returned to Lichfield again in June 1643 following the fall of Tamworth to the Parliamentarian forces.

William was a suspected “church papist,” and he became entangled with one of the most controversial Puritan theologians of the day, the Revd Thomas Blake (1597?-1657).

The Moat House ... a Jacobean gem in the heart of Tamworth (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

In 1639, as William Comberford of the Moat Hall, he received a faculty for a seat in Saint Editha’s Parish Church in Tamworth. Saint Editha’s had been a collegiate church in the Middle Ages, and the Comberford Chapel on the north side of the church had been associated with the Comberford family for generations. In his will in 1414, John Comberford left bequests of 3s. to the high altar, 1s. 6d. to the Holy Trinity altar, and 6d. to each of the other altars in Saint Editha’s.

In the 15th and early 16th century the college received a series of gifts and bequests, mostly from local people and mostly of land and property in the town. By 1528, the Prebend of Wigginton and Comberford supported one of the priests of the college in Saint Editha’s with an income of £10 a year. By 1548 it was worth £13.16.8. The college was dissolved that year, its canons, vicars and deacons provided with pensions, and St Editha’s became a parish church served by a preacher and two curates.

In 1581, Queen Elizabeth I granted the advowson and right of patronage of Saint Editha’s to Peter Ashton and Edmund Downing. But they only held the rights for a short while before relinquishing them, and they were sold to Thomas Repington in 1583. From then, the patronage of the church and vicarage belonged to the Repington family.

When Queen Elizabeth granted her second charter to Tamworth in 1588, it contained legal inconsistencies, leading to disputes over Saint Editha’s. The Corporation of Tamworth, as guardians of Tamworth Grammar School, claimed the right to appoint a preacher and two other ministers, or curates, provided the nominations were agreed to by the borough’s Chief Steward. The corporation also had the right to appoint the Master of Queen Elizabeth’s Grammar School and, very often, one man was appointed to be both vicar and master. The preacher was to receive an income of £20 a year and the other ministers £16. They were also given a house and garden in the town.

However, Thomas Repington claimed sole rights to choose the clergy for Saint Editha’s Church, and for almost 200 years successive generations of the Repington family were in conflict with the bailiffs and burgesses of Tamworth over the issue.

In addition, there was a dispute about the annual Saint Editha’s Fair, also called the Cherry Fair. Since 1266, the proceeds from the fair went to the Dean and canons of Saint Editha’s Collegiate Church. But the corporation believed it was now entitled to the income, while Thomas Repington believed the money was his.

Although the Repingtons and the corporation failed to agree, they accepted a compromise that saw the Repington family appoint the vicar and the town appoint the assistant ministers.

In 1610, John and Margaret Repington appointed the Revd Samuel Hodgkinson as Vicar of Tamworth in 1610. He remained as vicar until 1629. The Revd Thomas Blake (ca 1597-1657) first arrived in Tamworth while Samuel Hodgkinson was Vicar of Tamworth.

Blake was a native of Staffordshire, where was born about 1597. He matriculated at Christ Church, Oxford, in 1616, at the age of 18 or 19, and graduated BA on 5 May 1620. Seven months later, on Christmas Eve 1620, he was ordained priest by Thomas Morton, Bishop of Lichfield, at Eccleshall, where the Bishops of Lichfield lived at Eccleshall Castle.

Blake proceeded MA at Oxford on 21 February 1623. On 3 August 1627, Bishop Morton, who was sympathetic to the Puritans, licensed Blake as preacher in Tamworth. Meanwhile, John Repington died in 1626 and was succeeded by his son, also John Repington.

Blake was appointed to the Vicarage on 12 November 1629 by Sir John Repington, and Tamworth Corporation as the Guardians of the School gave him the right to appoint the two curates, so that he became both Vicar and perpetual curate and resided in the College House.

On 27 March 1631, Thomas Blake, Minister of Tamworth, and Jane Wagstaff of Drayton Basset, were married in Saint Editha’s.

The Revd William Blake was appointed Schoolmaster of Tamworth in 1639 and Thomas Blake, who had been licensed as preacher in Tamworth, 1627, was licensed as curate 1639. An entry in the Liber Cleri when Robert Wright was Bishop of Lichfield, shows that Blake was still the Vicar of Tamworth with Glascote and Hopwas in 1639.

As Vicar of Tamworth, Blake preached his brand of Presbyterian Puritanism with its dislike of bishops and catholic doctrines.

Meanwhile, Katherine Clifton, Duchess of Lennox, had long maintained a claim to the advowson and the old college property, based on rights that pre-dated the abolition of the college. In 1630, she sold her claim to the patronage of Saint Editha’s to Thomas Gore, and he in turn sold these rights in 1639 to William Comberford of Comberford Hall and the Moat House.

Between 1639 and 1642, William was pursuing legal actions to secure his claim to the patronage of Saint Editha’s and the college house in Tamworth.

Eventually, on 4 May 1642, Comerford’s case against Blake for occupying the property without his permission was heard in the Court of King’s Bench. Comberford was unsuccessful in his action, and he and Blake soon also found themselves on opposite sides in the First English Civil War, which was unleashed in the summer of 1642 with the onset of the First English Civil War.

In the mid-17th century, Tamworth was cut in two by the county boundary between Staffordshire on the north or church side of the town and Warwickshire on the south or castle side. Each had its own town bailiff, administration and loyalties. The north side was, in the main, sympathetic to Parliament and the Presbyterians, while the loyalties of the other side were with their aristocratic patrons at the castle, who supported the King and Archbishop Laud.

Tamworth was held by royalist forces for a time and became a base for attacking the parliamentarian forces in the fighting at Lichfield. Blake was a strong supporter of parliament and probably did not remain in Tamworth during the royalist occupation. His parish work was disrupted and it was in these years that he first earned a reputation for being controversial.

His publications at the time focussed on questions about infant baptism, and he debated publicly with other Puritans, including Presbyterians and Baptists, publishing pamphlets and sermons. One of the children he baptised was John Rawlett (1642-1686), who was baptised in Saint Editha’s on 27 March 1642, probably only days after his birth. Rawlett (1642–1686) later was an Anglican cleric, preacher and writer who had close sympathy with the Presbyterians.

Charles I ... a copy of the triptych by Sir Anthony van Dyck (1599-1641), painted in 1635-1636, this copy is in the ancient high House in Stafford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Despite Comberford’s failure to eject Blake in 1642, Blake appears to have left the parish immediately after the case. There is a blank of two years in the Parish Registers during the Civil War from 1642 to 1644, for which Theophilus Lord wrote in 1644: “For some short time service there was not any.”

As the Civil War gathered pace, William Comberford, as High Sheriff of Staffordshire, raised a small royalist force in the autumn of 1642 and garrisoned Tamworth Castle for King Charles I (1625–1649). Comberford took part in the first of the three sieges of Lichfield, between 2 and 5 March 1643. Lichfield was captured by the parliamentary forces on Sunday 5 March 1643.

After Lichfield was captured by the Roundheads, it became the main target for the Tamworth royalists, who adopted the method of harrying opposing forces rather than outright battle. These tactics proved a success, hampering the supply routes to Lichfield. Inevitably it also bought them to the attention of the larger parliamentarian force who determined to end the royalist seat of control in Tamworth.

On 23 June 1643, Tamworth Castle was besieged by Parliamentarian for two days and was captured by a detachment of Cromwell’s forces under the regicide Colonel William Purefoy. Comberford escaped but many of the garrison remained prisoners. According to the local historian, the late Mabel Swift, although many of the garrison at Tamworth Castle were taken prisoners, Comberford escaped to Lichfield. In his absence, the Comberford home at the Moat House was ransacked by the Cromwellian forces. They mutilated the Comberford monument in Saint Editha’s Church, the Comberford Chapel was defaced, and, according to Swift, also sacked Comberford Hall.

The Comberford Chapel in Saint Editha’s Church, Tamworth: the plaque beneath the window says the family was “brought low” by the political unrest in 17th century England (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

However, Blake did not return to Tamworth, and in 1644, Cromwell’s Committee of Safety appointed Theophilus Lord as the Minister of Tamworth. Lord was educated at New Inn Hall, Oxford, and was ordained deacon in 1639 by John Bancroft, Bishop of Oxford.

By December 1644, the Parliamentary Committee was administering most of Staffordshire. Comberford was fined £5 that month and had a fine black horse taken from him.

There is a long-held local tradition that when Cromwell’s Parliamentarian troops occupied Tamworth, they stabled their horses in the chancel of Saint Editha’s Church. Iron tethering rings were removed from the walls in the 1850s, but why did Tamworth’s two Puritan ministers, Thomas Blake and Theophilus Lord, allow such wanton destruction to the church?

Blake had moved from Tamworth to Shrewsbury, and there he became the Puritan minister at Saint Alkmund’s Church in 1645 after the royalist garrison was defeated. A year later he was replaced as Vicar of Tamworth by the Revd Ralph Hodges. Hodges was a pluralist, and he was appointed Rector of Birmingham on 29 June 1646, only two days after he became Vicar of Tamworth.

When a Presbyterian church system was established in Shropshire in 1647, Blake was named as one of the eight serving ministers. The ruling elders or lay leaders included the Mayor of Shrewsbury and Humphrey Mackworth, the town’s governor.

In 1648, Blake signed the Solemn League and Covenant and he was one of 57 signatories to a condemnation of the Independents or Congregationalists. But the Presbyterian party among the Puritans was fatally wounded by the Scottish Engager invasion in support of Charles I. By the end of 1648, Pride’s Purge had removed moderate Presbyterians from the English House of Commons and cleared the way for the execution of King Charles on January 1649.

When Parliament imposed the Oath of Engagement in March 1650, Blake and Samuel Fisher of Saint Mary’s Church preached against it in Shrewsbury. As the debate became heated, there was an outbreak of bubonic plague in Shrewsbury, and Blake and Fisher left the town. But they were also facing political expulsion, and in August Mackworth was ordered to arrest Blake and Fisher for “their former and late offences.” Blake and Fisher first found refuge first with the Revd Joshua Richardson in Myddle, and then with the Puritan writer Samuel Hildersham at West Felton.

In Blake’s absence, the Revd Ralph Hodges was appointed Vicar of Tamworth with Glascote and Hopwas on 27 June 1646. Hodges, who was a graduate of Pembroke College, Oxford, had been a schoolmaster in Stockton, 1637 and a curate in Birdingbury, and in June 1639 he was also appointed Rector of Birmingham, a position he held until the end of 1661.

Meanwhile, the conflicts over the patronage of Saint Editha’s Church, Tamworth, appear to have continued, and in 1650, Leicester Barbour sought the tithes for the Prebend of Cotton alias Coton from William Comberford.

By 1651, Blake was back in Tamworth, where he was writing and publishing Puritan tracts and pamphlets once again, and where he remained until his death. He was nominated by Oliver Cromwell to be an assistant to the commissioners of Staffordshire for ejecting ignorant and scandalous ministers and schoolmasters, and those he ejected included the Revd William Blake, who was Schoolmaster in Tamworth since 1639.

In later publications, Blake advocated a more open and inclusive approach to Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, This position brought him into conflict with one of the leading Puritans of the day, Richard Baxter, and the controversy continued until Blake’s death.

Blake made his will on 11 January 1656. He named John Swinfen of Swinfen and Thomas Fox of Tamworth as “overseers” of his will, which was witnessed by Thomas Fox, a Puritan and Parliamentarian officer who would soon move into the Moat House, his wife Judith Fox, Nicholas Parker and Anne Davill.

Blake died in Tamworth, and was buried in Saint Editha’s Church on 11 June 1657. His funeral sermon was preached by Anthony Burgess of Sutton Coldfield and was published in 1658, along with an oration by Samuel Shaw (1635-1637), then usher at the grammar school in Tamworth.

In the ‘Oration,’ Shaw said of Blake: “His kindness towards you could not be considered without love, his awful gravity and secretly commanding presence without reverence, nor his conversation without imitation. To see him live was a provocation to a godly life; to see him dying might have made any one weary of living. When God restrained him from this place (which was always happy in his company but now), he made his chamber a church and his bed a pulpit, in which (in my hearing) he offered many a heavenly prayer for you.”

Blake was survived by his widow, Jane. They had no children and his estate was divided between Jane and his brother, John.

Blake, like Lord, was buried in Saint Editha’s Church. But the locations of the graves of Tamworth’s two Puritan ministers is lost to memory. What happened to the Puritan circle around Blake and their successors in Tamworth after the civil war, the Restoration and the ejection of Puritan ministers? What happened to William Comberford and his family? And what happened to the dispute over the patronage of Saint Editha’s and the appointment of the Vicar of Tamworth?

At the restoration of Charles II, John Swinfen, who had witnessed Blake’s will, and Lord Clifford, were elected MPs for Tamworth.

Shaw, who gave the oration at Blake’s funeral, was ordained some months later by the Wirksworth Classis or Presbyterian assembly in Derbyshire on 12 January 1658 and became the Schoolmaster or Puritan minister in Tamworth. He was one of the Puritan ministers who were ejected from their parishes at the Restoration and he later became Master of the grammar school in Ashby-de-la-Zouch, Leicestershire.

Anthony Burgess, who preached Blake’s funeral sermon, had been the Vicar of Sutton Coldfield from 1635 until he was forced to take refuge in Coventry in 1642, and was replaced by the royalist Revd James Fleetwood. Burgess was a member of the Westminster Assembly in 1643, and returned to Sutton Coldfield. After the after the Great Ejection in 1662, he moved to Tamworth.

The parish of Tamworth remained vacant until 1662 and Sir John Repington survived until 1662, when the complicated system of patronage was revived and the Revd Samuel Langley was appointed minister and schoolmaster by the Repington family and the Corporation of Tamworth.

The Unitarian Chapel on Colehill, now Victoria Road, was built in 1724, but was rooted in the story of the 17th century Puritans (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

The Puritans’ successors in Tamworth were the Presbyterians, who built their own meeting house. They had become Unitarians by 1690. The former Presbyterian meeting house was replaced in 1724 by the Unitarian Chapel built on Colehill (now Victoria Road) in Tamworth.

The Unitarian congregation dwindled in numbers in the 20th century, and their chapel was later used by the Royal Naval Association.

As for the Parish of Tamworth, the disagreements between the Corporation and the Repington family over the patronage of Saint Editha’s continued to rumble on. When the Vicar of Tamworth died in 1758, the Bailiffs and Capital Burgesses appointed the Revd Simon Collins. However, the Repingtons took legal action, and their nominee, the Revd William Sawrey, was appointed Vicar of Tamworth.

To meet the costs of the legal dispute, the Corporation mortgaged three houses in Market Street. When the appeal reached the House of Lords in 1771, Collins finally withdrew, 13 years after the initial action.

The Repingtons continued to exercise their right to the presentation of the living until 1898, when Charles Henry Wyndham à Court-Repington (1819-1903), of Amington Hall, the owner of the Deanery lands and the last lay Dean of Tamworth, transferred the patronage to the Bishop of Lichfield.

The family memorial, erected in the Comberford Chapel in Saint Editha’s Church, Tamworth, in 1725 by Joseph Comerford of Waterford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Meanwhile, William Comberford died in 1656. In his will made that year, he asked to be buried with his parents in the Comberford Chapel in Saint Editha’s Church. The Moat House and Comberford Hall eventually passed out of the hands of a heavily indebted family whose ancestral estates had been mortgaged to raise funds for a lost cause and for which they were never compensated after the Restoration.

Thomas Fox (1622-1666), a Roundhead captain, and Judith Boothby were married in 1654, an were witnesses to Blake’s will in 1656. Thomas Fox bought the Moat House for £160, and they moved in some time between 1656, when William Comberford died, and 1659. Fox was MP for Tamworth in 1659-1660, and was Town Clerk of Tamworth until 1663. After the Restoration, he was described in a list of Staffordshire gentry (1662-1663) as a “violent Presbyterian, very able and dangerous, being bred to the law.”

After the Restoration, Fox was removed from office by the commissioners of corporations. In April 1663, he made over his estate, valued at £200 p.a., to his brother-in-law, Sir William Boothby (ca 1638-1707), of Ashbourne Hall, Derbyshire, including the Moat House, for £1,540. Fox then moved from Tamworth and settled in London. He died in Dublin in 1666, presumably on a visit to his brother, whose grandson George Fox was returned for Hindon as a Tory in 1741.

Unlike his brother-in-law, Boothby was a royalist; he was made a baronet at the restoration, and was High Sheriff of Derbyshire (1661-1662) immediately prior to his purchase of the Moat House. His second wife, Dame Hill Boothby, was a daughter of Sir William Brooke. The sale of the Moat House to Boothby included the moat with the right of fishing in it and in the River Tame, and all profits arising out of the fields and meadows in Hopwas, as well as a seat belonging to the Moat House in Saint Editha’s Church in “the aisle or burying place in the Chancel on the north side of the Church, adjoining the Comberford chapel.”

Their descendant, Sir Brooke Boothby (1744-1824), was a member of the Lunar Society and the intellectual and literary circle in Lichfield that included Anna Seward, Richard Lovell Edgeworth and Erasmus Darwin and a close friend of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. In 1801, he bought the Herkenrode Glass that has recently been restored in Lichfield Cathedral.

In the centuries that have followed, the Moat House has been bought and sold and changed several times.

The Comberford Chapel in Saint Editha’s Church Tamworth ... now used for parish coffee mornings (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Further reading:

DP Adams, The Moat House and the Comberford Family (privately published, Tamworth, n.d., ca 1966-1970).
GC Baugh, WL Cowie, JC Dickinson, AP Duggan, AKB Evans, R H Evans, Una C Hannam, P Heath, DA Johnston, Hilda Johnstone, Ann J Kettle, JL Kirby, R Mansfield and A Saltman, ‘Colleges: Tamworth, St Edith’, in A History of the County of Stafford: Volume 3, ed MW Greenslade and RB Pugh (London, 1970), pp. 309-315. http://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/staffs/vol3/pp309-315 [accessed 8 July 2015].
John Harper, ‘When Cromwell Ordered 'Cancel Christmas! Looking back,’ Tamworth Herald, 12 December 2013.
CFR Palmer, The history and antiquities of the collegiate church of Tamworth (London: Simpkin, Marshall, and Co, 1871).
Richard Stone, Tamworth, A History (Chichester: Phillimore, 2003).
Mabel Swift, ‘Swift Look Round,’ a series of historical articles in the Tamworth Herald.

Last updated: 10 June 2016, with a photograph of the Unitarian Chapel, Victoria Road, Tamworth.

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