09 May 2019

The Comberfords of Comberford
and the Moat House, Tamworth

The Moat House this afternoon … a Jacobean gem in the heart of Tamworth (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

Tamworth and District Civic Society,

Thursday 9 May 2019,

7 p.m.:
Saint George’s Chapel, Saint Editha’s Church, Tamworth,

Followed by refreshments in the Comberford Chapel

1, Introduction:

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)

This evening, we are being reminded of a royal visit to Tamworth 400 years ago, in 1619, when King James I stayed at Tamworth Castle and Prince Charles, the future King Charles I stayed at the Moat House ‘Mothall’ on Lichfield Street as the guest of the Comberford family. At that time, William Comberford owned virtually all Tamworth and the surrounding area, apart from Tamworth Castle.

The king stayed at Tamworth Castle on the night of 18 August 1619 as the guest of Sir Humphrey Ferrers, while his son, Prince Charles I, stayed at the Moat House as William Comberford’s guest. The parish register of Tamworth records that ‘the kinge lodged at ye castell and ye prince at the mothall. Mr Thomas Ashley and Mr John Sharp, then bailieffes, gave royall entertaynement.’

Palmer notes that during this visit King James knighted his host, Sir Humphrey Ferrers, ‘but the same distinction was not extended to Mr William Comberford.’

So, this evening, four centuries after that visit, I want to ask who was William Comberford, who were the Comberford family, why was the long gallery in the Moat House so lavishly decorated for this visit, what is the symbolism of this decoration, why the Comberfords give their name to the Comberford Chapel in this church [Saint Editha’s Church, Tamworth], and is it true, as the plaque in the Comberford Chapel claims, that the family died out but continued to be represented in Ireland?

2, Comberford Manor and village:

Comberford Hall, set back from the River Tame, in the rich, green Staffordshire countryside (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Comberford, immediately north of Tamworth, is on the east bank of the River Tame, and is part of Wigginton and Alrewas parish within Lichfield District Council. Most authorities agree the name is Anglo-Saxon in origin, meaning ‘the river crossing of the valley.’ However, Bardsley says a ‘Comb’ was a cell or hollow in a hillside, where there was a sheltered habitation. The Celtic word cwm means a hollow, while the Anglo-Saxon camb means the crest of a hill.

The story of Comberford, from the time the Marmion family came into the possession of Tamworth until modern times, is a story that is intimately linked with the story of the Comberford family, the principal family associated with the Moat House.

3, The Comberford Family

The Comberford family tree compiled by DP Adams in the late 1960s

The first person to use the name Comberford appears at the end of the 11th century. The name Alan de Comberford appears consistently from soon after 1070 repeatedly until 1278, a 200-year period, spanning six or seven generations. However, it is often difficult to distinguish and separate their identities, or to establish with certainty their kinship with each other. At this time, the family also held land at Chesterfield, near Wall, south of Lichfield.

Alan de Comberford, who claimed Wigginton Manor in 1278, was sued by the Marmion family for £10 in damages caused in fields in Coton and Wigginton. Around that time, Wigginton and Comberford were providing an annuity of £6 for the Prebendary of Wigginton and Comberford, one of the five canons in the Collegiate Church of Saint Editha, Tamworth.

Roger de Comberford represented the men of Wigginton when they and the burgesses of Tamworth granted common land to John de Hastings in 1286. Roger’s seal was used alongside the town’s common seal to ratify that grant.

His son Richard was as lord of Comberford in 1312, and by the late 1320s Richard was holding a manorial court for his tenants.

The family continues as a relatively unremarkable minor gentry family throughout the 14th and 15th centuries, and it is questionable whether at the time Comberford was a manor or merely a freehold estate. Although we have a hint of the family’s ambitions to assert manorial status when John de Comberford is licensed to have an oratory or chapel in his house at Comberford in the 1370s.

In 1391, John de Comberford owned a messuage and property in Otewellestrete (now Lichfield Street), Tamworth, which may have been the site of the later Moat House. The holding included rights to common pasture on the river side of the Lichfield Road. His will in 1414, included bequests of 3 shillings to the high altar in Saint Editha’s Church, 1s. 6d. to the Holy Trinity altar, and 6d. to each of the other altars in the church. He also left 10 shillings for masses to the Carmelites of Coventry and 10s to the Franciscan mendicant friary in Lichfield.

His nephew, John Comberford in 1424 owned a ‘messuage in Lychfeldestrete (Lichfield Street) between the highway and the field known as Wallefurlonge.’ Adams suggests that this site may have been nearer into the town and on the other side of Lichfield Street from the Moat House. That year, John Comberford leased property in Lichfield Street to Edmund Pachette or Paget, who paid 6 shillings 8 pence to enter the property in the liberty of the town.

The family begins to rise to regional and national prominence with this John’s son, William Comberford (ca 1403/10-1472), a lawyer who worked for John Talbot (1384/1390-1453), 1st Earl of Shrewsbury, and Humphrey Stafford, Earl of Stafford, steward of the Duchy of Lancaster estate at Tutbury in Staffordshire.

In 1439, William Comberford was building a new house for himself at Comberford, a half-timbered, moated manor house that was still partly standing in the early 18th century. He was MP for Newcastle-under-Lyme and then for Staffordshire in the 1440s and 1460s. In 1469, he was admitted to membership of the Guild of Saint Mary and Saint John in Lichfield. He died in 1472.

His son and heir, John Comberford (ca 1440-1508), was admitted to the Guild in Lichfield in 1476. He is described as ‘Lord of Comberford’ in 1479. He died in 1508.

His son, Thomas Comberford (ca 1472-1532), was also admitted to the Guild in Lichfield in 1495, and he too was a judge. He asserted his rights to Comberford as a manor, and bought the manorial rights to Wigginton in 1513, restyling Comberford as a manor as part of a joint holding.

Thomas also had the right to hold a fair in Tamworth twice a year, the rights of fishery for a 2½-mile stretch along the River Tame from Lady Bridge, marking the boundary between the Staffordshire and Warwickshire parts of Tamworth, to Hopwas Bridge, and the right to keep six swans in the river.

His sons included: Humphrey Comberford (ca 1496-1555), his heir; Richard Comberford (ca 1512-post 1547), supposedly the ancestor of the Comerfords of Ireland, including my branch of the family, the Comerfords of Ballybur Castle, Co Kilkenny, and Bunclody, Co Wexford; Henry Comberford (ca 1499-1586), Precentor of Lichfield Cathedral at the Reformation; and John Comberford of Wednesbury, who in 1543-1544 was Treasurer of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer. These brothers appear to have benefited under the terms of a bequest from John Bayley and his brother who had funded a fellowship at Saint John’s College, Cambridge, stipulating that preference be given to men from Tamworth.

Thomas Comberford died in 1540. His eldest son and heir, Humphrey Comberford (ca 1496-1555) was the Master of the Guild in Lichfield in 1530. He made a politically and socially strategic marriage when he married Dorothy Beaumont. Dorothy and her sisters were the heirs to the vast Beaumont family estate in Wednesbury and other parts of south Staffordshire.

Between 1553 and 1555, the Dean and Chapter of Christ Church, Oxford, took legal action against Humphrey, seeking rent from the Manors of Wigginton and Comberford of £29 a year first given to the Masters, Fellows and Scholars of Christ Church by the heirs of the Neville family.

An inquest in Tamworth in 1556 showed he owned the Manor of Wigginton with 510 acres; lands in Hopwas, Comberford, Tamworth and Coton, a fair held twice a year in Tamworth, a market and a fishery in the River Tame, from Lady Bridge; the Manor of Comberford with 1,800 acres of land and wood in Comberford, Wigginton, Hopwas and Coton.

When he was making his will, Humphrey assigned his manor house at Comberford to his sister Margaret, perhaps as the guardian of his unmarried daughters, and he vested Wigginton Manor in trustees for 20 years, allowing his eldest son Thomas Comberford (ca 1530-1597) only the income from the Comberford estate. Humphrey evidently intended to rein in Thomas, who was urged to ‘live after the best sort without doing oppression or wrong to his neighbours or tenants.’

In time, Thomas Comberford tried to claim manorial rights in Tamworth borough. A long dispute between Thomas Comberford and the civic leaders of Tamworth eventually led to a royal charter incorporating the town as a borough in 1560.

The Comberford family remained staunchly Catholic and family members were frequently in trouble for their recusancy and were accused of taking part in some of the many plots against Elizabeth. Thomas was arrested in 1573 by the Earl of Shrewsbury who said ‘masses were frequented’ at his house. Shrewsbury also arrested two ‘mass priests who had said a very large number of masses there.’

When Thomas inherited Wednesbury from his mother Dorothy (Beaumont), he moved there and settled Comberford and Wigginton on his son William Comberford (1551-1625), who was living in Comberford by 1589. When the Moat House reverted to the Comberford family, William Comberford took up residence there. He began creating his own new estate centred on Moat House, and it remained his principle residence until he died in 1625.

This William Comberford had conformed to the Church of England by 1586. He was an ambitious man who made the last attempt on the part of the Comberfords to become the principal family in both Tamworth and Wednesbury.

William claimed he was the Lord of the Manor of the Staffordshire part of Tamworth, on the grounds that Tamworth and Wigginton had once been joined when they were held by the Hastings family and that he was the Lord of the Manor of Wigginton. He bolstered his case by pointing out that as Lord of the Manor of Wigginton he had received the fee farm rent of 100 shillings from the bailiffs of Tamworth in equal quarterly sums of 25 shillings, that he held the court leet of Wigginton in Tamworth’s Staffordshire town hall, and that he and his son, Humphrey Comberford, had asserted their right to proclaim fairs in the town.

However, after a prolonged lawsuit initiated by the bailiffs of Tamworth, running for three years until 1599, his claim was rejected and he was refused the right to proclaim the fairs. The Court of Chancery issued an injunction against him on 21 May 1599, ordering him not to call himself Lord of the Manor of Tamworth again.

On 7 November 1622, William Comberford was appointed High Sheriff of Staffordshire. He made his will on 22 June 1625 and died later that year. In his will, he asked to be buried in the north end of the parish church of Tamworth, where he said his father and mother were buried.

William Comberford was twice married, and he had two large families who were virtually a generation apart in age. He was predeceased by his eldest son, Humphrey Comberford (ca 1568-1609), and tracing the descent of his estates and his family after his death is complicated by a number of factors: some of the estates passed to William Comberford, the eldest son of William by his second marriage, while other parts of the estates were inherited by the elder William’s grandson, also William Comerford. William the uncle was considerably younger than his nephew William, the heir-at-law; both the nephew and his younger uncle were involved as royalists in the Civil War; and both Williams have been confused by successive local historians and genealogists.

In the Elizabethan period, the Comberfords were Catholics and it was whispered that the oak panelling in the Moat House hid more than one ‘priest’s hole’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Humphrey Comberford, who moved into Comberford Hall in 1591, was jailed for recusancy in August 1592. He was accused of harbouring priests at the Moat House in Tamworth in 1606, when he was described as ‘a notorious recusant.’ Sir Humphrey Ferrers of Tamworth Castle suspected Humphrey Comberford and his family of holding covert Masses in the Moat House, and ordered the bailiffs of Tamworth to gather a party to search the Moat House. Three men were found hiding in the house and, with the search party also finding a number of religious tracts, they were arrested on suspicion of being seminarians.

William Comberford, the grandson, died unmarried in 1654, and William Comberford, the half uncle, died in 1656.

The family estates passed to Robert Comberford (ca 1594-1669), who was living in Comberford Hall in 1657, having recovered it from a distant cousin, Francis Comberford (1620-1679), a Quaker and former Parliamentarian.

Robert Comberford had no sons, and his heirs were his two young daughters, Mary and Anne, who later married Thomas Giffard and Thomas Brooke. These sisters sold some of their property in the early 1680s, but the Comberford estate passed to Anne’s son, Cumberford Brooke, who in 1710 sold it with the manorial rights to Thomas Thynne, Viscount Weymouth, also Lord of Drayton.

However, Robert Comberford’s widow, Catherine, was still living at Comberford Hall when she died in 1717.

4, Comberford Hall

Patrick Comerford visiting Comberford Hall

By 1440, William Comberford was building a house in Comberford, probably the half-timbered manor house that survived until the 18th century. The site of the mediaeval manor house may have been bounded by a moat.

The present Comberford Hall stands to the west of Comberford village. It was built in the late 18th century. It is square in plan, with two storeys and an attic, the main three-bay west front has a Tuscan porch.

The partly timber-framed coach house that survives near Comberford Hall is said to be part of the earlier house.

The Thynne family retained Comberford Manor and the estates until 1790, when Viscount Weymouth, recently created Marquess of Bath, sold them to Arthur Chichester, Earl of Donegall, who also owned he neighbouring estate at Fisherwick Hall estate.

The trustees of Lord Spencer Chichester sold Comberford and Wigginton, along with other parts of the estate, in 1808 to pay off his gambling debts. The Howard family of Elford owned the estate for more than a century, but Comberford Hall was lived in by a variety of interesting families as tenants.

From about 1888 to about 1896, Comberford Hall was the home of Sydney Fisher (1857-1927), a Tamworth paper manufacturer. When James Comerford visited Comberford ca 1900-1902, William Felton Peel (1839-1907) was living at Comberford Hall, which was his family home from 1900 to 1903. In 1916, Charles Frederick Palmer was living there.

The remaining part of the Comberford estate was sold by the Howard family in 1919, along with most of the Elford estate.

Later, Comberford Hall passed to the Arden, Pickin, Coltman, Mills and Darrell families.

Comberford Hall was severely damaged by fire in the 1980s, with the loss of the original shutters on the outside windows, and much of the interior, including the original Georgian staircase. The house has been rebuilt, and has been sold many times since.

Comberford Hall Cottage, with Comberford Hall in the background (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Beside Comberford Hall is Comberford Hall Cottage a Grade II Listed house with four bedrooms. This semi-detached cottage directly adjoins Comberford Hall.

The Coach House dates back 300 or 400 years (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Coach House, Comberford, is an impressive, five-bedroom residence beside Comberford Hall. When it was sold recently, a report in the Tamworth Herald said the Coach House dates back 300 or 400 years, which means it was built while the Comberford family was still living at Comberford Hall.

If Shaw is correct in saying the original Comberford Hall stood east of the present Comberford Hall, then both Comberford Hall Cottage and the Coach House may stand on the original site or incorporate parts of the original house.

In the early 1970s, a ridged indentation in one of the fields to the north of the Comberford Hall close to the right of way that leads to Comberford village, was pointed out to me as the site of the original Comberford Hall. However, this contradicts Shaw’s descriptions of an original house east of Comberford Hall. Instead, it probably matches the crater shape in the field to the left of the path from Comberford village to Comberford Hall that was known to the village children in the 1950s and 1960s as ‘the bomb field’ and caused by a stray war-time bomb.

Comberford Manor is a Grade II three-storey house with views over open countryside and the River Tame (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

A third possible location for the original Comberford Hall may be Comberford Manor, at the north edge of Comberford Village.

While Comberford Hall is set a good distance back from the banks of the River Tame, Comberford Manor at the north end of Manor Lane is close to the banks of the river and on the flood plane. I surmise that its location suggests that this may indeed be the site of the original Comberford Hall and the centre of the manor once owned by the Comberford family.

Manor Farm has been run as a mixed dairy and arable farm, and more recently it has been an arable enterprise with some grassland for heifer rearing. The farmland has good road access and river frontage to the River Tame.

Comberford Manor is a Grade II listed three-storey farmhouse, and was described recently by the Lichfield blogger Lichwheeld as ‘one of those ‘yes please’ houses.’

5, The Moat House, Lichfield Street, Tamworth

The Moat House on Lichfield Street, Tamworth … the site may have been owned by the Comberford family before 1391 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Moat House in Lichfield Street, Tamworth, is a handsome Tudor Mansion of dark-red brick with mullioned windows and fine chimneys that has been described by one local historian as ‘Tamworth’s Elizabethan treasure.’ Because of its riverside location on the banks of the River Tame, the house was built on a series of brick arches or vaults. The front consists of five gables, two large ones extending forward on either side of the house, and three smaller ones in between. Tall chimneys of twisted brickwork complete the typical aspect of an Elizabethan manor house.

However, the name of the Moat House refers not to a water-filled moat, but to a high Anglo-Saxon defensive ditch known as a motte.

Land known as ‘le Mot,’ there has been a house on this site since at least in the mid-14th century. This land was located ‘Otewall’ (later Lichfield) Street, on the west side of Tamworth.

John de Comberford owned a messuage and property in Otewellestrete in 1391 that may have been the site of the later Moat House. The holding included rights to common pasture on the river side of the Lichfield Road.

A reference in 1460 to William Comberford’s house in Tamworth ‘lately burned down’ may well refer to the Moat House in Lichfield Street, which was not rebuilt until the mid-16th century. Adams raises the possibility that after the fire William Comberford could have sold the Moat House to the Jekes family, but concedes that the gap that in records makes it difficult to trace what happened to the house and site in Lichfield Street for almost a century between 1460 and 1540.

The house on the site was known as the ‘Mote’ in 1549. It was set back off the south side of the street and near the river. The house was mortgaged in 1549 by Richard Jakes (or Jekes) to Thomas Ensor of Comberford. Under an agreement made in 1554, the ultimate right to the Moat House should rest with the heirs of Humphrey Comberford (ca 1496-1555).

In 1551, Thomas Ensor left the house to his wife Mary, daughter of Humphrey Comberford.

By 1563, the widowed Mary (Comberford) Ensor had married her second husband Walter Harcourt of Tamworth. In 1571, Walter Harcourt was involved in a lengthy legal battle with the Jekes family to prove that the Moat House, then valued at £500, and about 600 acres was rightly his. The courts upheld that the Moat House was transferred from Jekes to Ensore in 1549 and was legally the estate of Endsore’s widow. When Mary died ca 1591, the title to the Moat House reverted to the Comberford family, although Walter Harcourt continued to live there until he died in 1598, when he was buried in Saint Editha’s Church.

Meanwhile, the title to the Moat House inherited by Mary Harcourt passed to her nephew, William Comberford, who moved to the Moat House from Wednesbury. In 1591, the family’s Comberford and Wednesbury estates were settled on William’s son Humphrey, and William was left with only the Moat House.

Humphrey also lived at the Moat House in the early 1590s, and a ‘priests’ hole,’ said to have been used by the Jesuits harboured in the Moat House by Humphrey Comberford, led to the River Tame. The river may have provided safe routes down to Wednesbury Manor or north to the homes of other Catholics among the Staffordshire gentry.

At Wednesbury, William Comberford invested in an iron works, and it was perhaps in order to provide a supply of charcoal that his sons acquired woodland in Hopwas Hay in the 1590s. The profits were used to rebuild the Moat House.

William may already have started planning the lavish, heraldic decoration of the ceiling of the gallery on the first floor of the Moat House when he moved into the house in 1591, with advice as early as 1592 from his first cousin, the herald and genealogist William Wyrley (1565-1618) and the Staffordshire antiquarian Sampson Erdeswick.

In summer 1606, acting on a tip-off, Sir Humphrey Ferrers sent the bailiffs of Tamworth with a number of his servants to break into the locked Moat House. They were ordered to search all the rooms, including under the beds and behind locked doors and panels, for priests and for any evidence that the Mass was being said in the house. But, despite the weight of circumstantial evidence, there was no hard proof that Mass was being celebrated in the Moat House. The quarrel between the Ferrers and Comberford families eased with the death of Sir Humphrey Ferrers in 1608, although a dispute with the Ferrers family over fishing rights continued until at least 1613 when William Comberford and Sir John Ferrers went to arbitration.

The Moat House was described as ‘a fair dwelling house’ in 1619, the year William had Prince Charles as his guest at the ‘Mothall’ in 1619 while King James I stayed at Tamworth Castle.

By 1619, William Comberford owned virtually all of Tamworth and the surrounding area, apart from Tamworth Castle. The king stayed at Tamworth Castle on the night of 18 August 1619 as the guest of Sir Humphrey Ferrers, while his son, the future Charles I, stayed at the Moat House or ‘ye mothall’ as William Comberford’s guest.

Palmer notes that during this visit King James knighted his host, Sir Humphrey Ferrers, ‘but the same distinction was not extended to Mr William Comberford.’ The parish register of Tamworth records that ‘the kinge lodged at ye castell and ye prince at the mothall. Mr Thomas Ashley and Mr John Sharp, then bailieffes, gave royall entertaynement.’

William Comberford built a brick wall in 1620 to enclose the croft in which the Moat House stood. He was Sheriff of Staffordshire in 1622 and died at the Moat House in 1625.

William Comberford, who next lived at the Moat House, was an active Royalist in the Civil Wars. During the siege of Tamworth in June 1643, William and his supporters sought refuge with the Ferrers family in Tamworth Castle. The siege of Tamworth Castle lasted only two days, and a parliamentary detachment under the command of Colonel William Purefoy captured the castle. According to the local historian, the late Mabel Swift, although many of the garrison at Tamworth Castle were taken prisoners, Comberford escaped to Lichfield, where once again he joined the royalist army defending the cathedral city.

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, defaced the Comberford Chapel, and, according to Swift, also sacked Comberford Hall.

When William Comberford made his will in 1656, he asked to be buried with his parents in the Comberford Chapel in Saint Editha’s Church, Tamworth. He died soon after making his will, an inventory of all his fittings and furniture in the Moat House, amounting to £162.11.4, was made on 4 August 1656, and his will was proved on 1 October 1656.

It is clear from the inventory of his possessions in 1656 in the Lichfield Record Office that William Comberford was not well off. Adams says £162.11.4 was ‘a small amount for a gentleman of his standing.’

In 1659, the Moat House, along with Bolehall Manor, was conveyed to trustees, including the new MP for Tamworth, Captain Thomas Fox, a parliamentarian and a lawyer. Fox had married Judith Boothby in 1654 and they lived at the Moat Hall until they sold it in 1663 to Judith’s nephew, Sir William Boothby. Boothby seems to have been living in the Moat House in 1664 when his son was baptised in Tamworth.

Documents from 1663-1668 show the extent of the Moat House, Moathall or Motthall estate, which had not yet been broken up since it had been consolidated by the Comberford family. The estate included a barn near the Moathall called Brickbarn, houses and properties in Lichfield Street, including one called ‘The White House,’ properties in Gungate Street, Church Street, Bowbridge Street, a property in George Street, Tamworth, known as ‘The George,’ lands in Calford Meadow, Spittle Field, and Bolehall, a close of ground called the Kiddings in Tamworth, a seat in Tamworth Church, a burying place in the chancel of the Comberford Chapel, and the ‘liberty’ to keep and mark six swans on the Tame and Anker.

Boothby in turn sold the ‘Moat Hall’ in 1671 to Sir Edward Littleton of Pillaton in Penkridge, and he moved into the house after his second marriage.

Sir Edward died in 1709 and the title of baronet passed to his grandson (through his first marriage), also Sir Edward Littleton. But the Moat House had been settled in 1708 on his second wife Joyce (died 1722) and the heirs of this second marriage. And so, the house passed to a son, Fisher Littleton, who died in the late 1740s, and then Fisher’s sister Sarah, the wife of Stanford Wolferstan of Statfold.

The Wolferstan family sold the Moat House in 1752 to a Birmingham lawyer, William Abney of Winson Green, who was living at the house in 1761. That year, he stood unsuccessfully as a Whig candidate for Tamworth. Perhaps because he failed to get elected as MP, Abney’s interest in Tamworth waned and in 1767 he sold the Moat House to George Townshend, 1st Viscount Townshend, a godson of King George I and the owner in his wife’s name of Tamworth Castle.

Lord Townshend’s steward, John Willington, lived at the Moat House until he died in 1801. After that, George Townshend, 2nd Viscount Townshend, seems to have used the Moat House when he was visiting Tamworth. From 1811 to 1815, Sir John Sheal lived at the Moat House as a tenant of Townshend.

The Moat House was sold as part of the Tamworth Castle estate to John Robins in 1814 as part the efforts to clear the debts of the Townshend family. From 1815 to 1821, Dr Robert Woody, a surgeon, was renting the Moat House, and he licensed the house as an asylum for the insane. He died in 1823 and his widow Alice died in 1863.

The ownership of the Moat House then passing to their son John Francis Woody (d. 1894), who continued the asylum. In 1863, Woody opened the Moat House for the Tamworth Horticultural Show.

His nephew, Edward Hollins (died 1921), a JP, continued to live at the Moat House.

The house and its furniture were then sold to a local doctor, William Lowson. He offered it to Tamworth Borough Council when he retired in 1950. Although there was a plan to convert part of the house into a council chamber, the council was reluctant to take on the building. Lowson withdrew his offer and sell it to a Birmingham businessman. The Moat House passed through the Ashworth, Jones, Roddis and Egling family. It was bought by the Paul family in the 1960s, and they welcomed me on my first visit to the Moat House in 1970.

It was run by various private owners as a country club from the early 1960s and as a restaurant from 1972. It has been known as the Gazebo Club, The Moat House Country Club, and other names. The house was acquired in the 1980s by the first of a succession of national hotel or brewery groups, including Berni Inns, and since then it has seen periodic closures and re-openings.

6, The Moat House gallery

The gallery of the Moat House, looking west, with the windows overlooking the River Tame on the south side. (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Two first-floor rooms on the south side of the house, overlooking the river, were made into a single gallery, almost certainly to make a reception room for the visit by Prince Charles when he visited Tamworth with his father James I in 1619.

The plaster ceiling is decorated with heraldic shields, a group at the east end emphasising the Comberford’s family – somewhat distant – connections by marriage with the royal family.

William Comberford had two rooms on the first floor of the Moat House converted into one to provide the main entertainment for the Prince of Wales.

The ceiling on the new extended gallery in Moat House was decorated with new plasterwork painted with rows of heraldic shields outlining genealogical tables that illustrated the royal descent of the Comberford family. The pattern of the shields was as follows:

South side

North side

The first row on the south side of the gallery, which overlooks the River Tame, gave an heraldic representation of the Comberford genealogy from William Comberford MP in the 15th century down to William Comberford’s parents, Thomas and Dorothy (Wyrley) Comberford.

The first row runs as follows:

1, Comberford (gules a talbot passant argent).

2, Comberford impaling Edgbaston (per pale indented or and gules), for the marriage of William Comberford and Anna Edgbaston. This is incorrect, as William’s wife Anna or Anne was a daughter of Robert Browe, MP, of Teigh and Woodhead, Rutland.

3, Comberford impaling Parles (gules, on a cross engrailed or, five roses of the field), for the marriage of John Comberford and Anne Parles.

4, Comberford (formerly the Parles arms) impaling Fitzherbert (argent a chief vairee or and gules, over all a bend sable), for Thomas Comberford and Dorothy Fitzherbert.

5, Comberford (formerly Parles) impaling Wyrley (or a chevron gules between three lions rampant sable), for Thomas Comberford and Dorothy Wyrley.

This row, therefore, traced the family tree from one William to another William through 200 years.

The centre row shows:

6, The royal arms of France.

7, The royal arms of Scotland.

8, The royal arms of England, which were quartered with those of Ireland.

9, The full Comberford coat-of-arms as used by William Comberford. The helmet, peacock crest and mantling with roses could still be seen in the 1970s, but by then the shield had been painted over and the original pattern could no longer be discerned. But at the end of the 18th century Shaw had noted that the shield originally had six quarters showing: 1, the original Comberford arms with a talbot; 2, Edgbaston; 3, Parles; 4, Beaumont; 5, Leventhorpe; 6, Heronville. This was a curious arrangement, considering the first row of arms on the south side of the gallery indicates that the family was using the Parles coat-of-arms as its own for over a century and that at the end of the 16th century William’s son Humphrey was using it as his own.

The third row of arms on the north side of the long room was an heraldic and genealogical chart showing the descent of Wednesbury Manor, by then the family’s principal holding, to William Comberford:

10, Leventhorpe (argent, a bend compony gules and sable, cotised of the last, in dexter chief a mullet or).

11, Leventhorpe impaling Heronville (sable, two lions passant reguardant argent, crowned or), representing the marriage of William Leventhorpe and Joan, daughter and heiress of Henry Heronville of Wednesbury (died 1406), who had inherited the Wednesbury estate through his descent from the Tynmore family, originally from Freeford, near Lichfield.

12, Beaumont (azure semee-de-lis, a lion rampant or), impaling Leventhorpe, for the marriage of William Leventhorpe’s daughter, Joan, and Sir Henry Beaumont, son of Henry, 5th Lord Beaumont (died 1413), and a descendant of John de Brienne, the last Crusader King of Jerusalem, and of the royal houses of France, England and Scotland.

13, This was impossible to make out by the 1970s or again in 2007 and 2008, but probably illustrated Beaumont impaling Sutton (or, a lion rampant vert, double queued), for the marriage of Sir Henry Beaumont’s son, another Sir Henry Beaumont, and Eleanor Sutton, daughter of John Sutton, Lord Dudley, grandparents of Dorothy Beaumont who married Humphrey Comberford.

14, Comberford impaling Beaumont, for the marriage of Humphrey Comberford and Dorothy Beaumont.

The set of eight arms at the end of the gallery also emphasised William Comberford family’s royal connections:

A, The full Beaumont coat-of-arms, with helmet, a crest displaying an elephant and castle, and a mantling charged with fleur-de-lis.

B, Beaumont impaling Cumming (azure, three garbs or) for the marriage of Henry Beaumont, 1st Lord Beaumont (died 1342) and Lady Alice Cumming, daughter of Henry Comyn, Earl of Buchan – through this marriage Henry Beaumont became King of the Isle of Man for life, Constable of Scotland, and Lord of the Manor of Whitwicke in Leicestershire.

C, Beaumont impaling Scotland, emphasising the family’s connections with the visiting prince’s Scottish birth and ancestry.

D, Cumming impaling Scotland for the marriage of Lady Alice Cumming’s grandfather and Lady Elizabeth Quincy, a descendant of Saint David, King of Scotland (1124-1153), who built Dumferline, where Charles I was born.

E, Beaumont impaling de Vere (quarterly gules and or, in the first quarter a mullet argent), for the marriage of Henry Beaumont, 3rd Lord Beaumont (died 1368) and Lady Margaret de Vere, daughter of John de Vere, Earl of Oxford.

F, Beaumont impaling Everingham (gules, a cross moline or), for the marriage of John, 4th Lord Beaumont (died 1396) and Katherine, daughter and heiress of Sir Thomas Everingham of Laxton.

G, Beaumont impaling the differenced arms of England, for the marriage of John, 2nd Lord Beaumont, and Lady Alianore Plantagenet, daughter of Henry Plantagenet, Earl of Lancaster and great-granddaughter of King Henry III.

H, A more complete representation of the arms on No 14, Comberford impaling Beaumont, with the peacock’s head crest, helmet and mantling of gold and red, charged with complementary roses of red and gold.

In the 18th century, the great room was divided in two, one 36 feet long and 18 feet wide, the other 34 feet long and 18 feet wide and used as a bedroom. However, the rooms were later reunited, and the ceiling was restored to its original condition.

7, The Comberford Chapel

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)

A great fire destroyed much of the town centre of Tamworth, including Saint Editha’s parish church, on 23 May 1345. Two years later, in 1347, Baldwin de Witney was appointed Dean of Tamworth, and he began rebuilding the parish church after the fire.

It is said that following the fire that destroyed Tamworth and Saint Editha’s Church, William Comberford funded the rebuilding of the north transept of Saint Editha’s. This chapel, dedicated to Saint Catherine, is known as the Comberford Chapel.

William died in 1349, and an alabaster monument in the Comberford Chapel is said to be his, while Palmer said in the mid-19th century that a large plain altar tomb against the south (recte north) wall of Saint Editha’s ‘appears to have belonged to the Comberfords, as the mural monument of that family was placed over it.’ The earlier alabaster monument was badly damaged by Parliamentarian forces after they captured Tamworth in June 1643, and the Comberford chapel was defaced.

In 1639, William Comberford ‘the uncle’ of the Moat Hall, received a faculty for a seat in Saint Editha’s Parish Church. Between 1639 and 1642, he was involved in an unsuccessful legal claim to the patronage of Saint Editha’s and the college house, which he had bought from Thomas Gore in 1639.

The effigy in the Comberford Chapel, Tamworth, said to represent William Comberford who died in 1349 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

From 1809 to 1870, the effigy said to be William Comberford who died in 1349 was hidden by a great stairs built in the aisle, but the stairs was later removed and became part of the fittings of the Moat House. The monument was visible once again, and James Comerford, who noted its details in the 1880s, said there was an old small card on it with the following remarks: ‘Effigy of warrior in chain mail with surcoat over haubert and sword belt, head resting on helmet (other fragments of this monument may be seen in the muniments room). This Monument formerly lay under pointed arch in north transept similar to that in St. George’s Chapel but now walled up, it was in memory of one of the Comberfords, this transept being called ‘Comberford Chapel’.’

The Tamworth historian Mitchell dated the monument to ca 1500. According to Mitchell, the figure in the monument was in chain mail and with a collar of SS, a Lancastrian symbol that would support Mitchell’s later dating of the monument.

According to James Comerford (1902), there were two small figures at the foot of this monument, representing William de Comberford’s son and daughter. He noted these words at the effigy: ‘Here is placed a Monument, though much defaced by lapse of time and mis[chanc]e by civil wars of the great and noble (though not now so flourishing as in former days) family of the Comberfords, to whom this borough owes much for other benefits, as well as for help in building this fane.’

Neither the collar nor the figures representing the children were evident by the time I first saw in 1970. The monument remains in the Comberford Chapel.

8, The Comberford memorial

The Comberford plaque in the Comberford Chapel in Saint Editha’s Church, Tamworth, dated 1725, claims strong ties of kinship between the Comberford family of Comberford and the Comerford family in Ireland (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

A marble tablet erected in 1725 in the Comberford Chapel in Saint Editha’s Church, lamenting the demise of the Comberford male line that ended with Robert Comberford’s death – although he died in 1669, not in 1671, as stated on the monument. It was erected just eight years after the death of his widow Catherine, and bears the following inscription:

Hic situm est Monumentum diuturnitare vero
temporis et bellis plusquam civilibus dirutum
familiae non ita pridem florentis. Gentis
amplae et honostae Cumberfordiorum
Qui de hoc Municipio cum in alliistum.
In hoc Templo aedificando optime meruerunt.
Domini Cumberfordiae melaruere annis septigentis.
In Roberto autem novissimo stirpis Angliacae
Staffordiensis viro Gentis extinctum pleratur.
Qui obiit A.D. 1671 et hic cum consorte
Domina Catharina Bates filiisque duabus
Maria et Anna suis Haeredibus Tumulo
conditur Nomen adhuc viger in stirpe
Hibernica, quae Regem Jacobum Secundum
in Galliam secuta est; atque ibi Angluniae
In Provincia de Champagne Dominio
insignitur 1725

Translated, this inscription reads:

‘This place is truly a fitting monument to a family brought low by wars rather than civic affairs, and that no longer flourishes here. The generous and honest family of Cumberfords richly deserve the gratitude of this town in many things, including in the building of this church. The Lords of Cumberford, who survived for seven hundred years, became extinct with the death of Robert, last scion of the Staffordshire branch in England, when he died in AD 1671, and was buried here with his wife Lady Catherine Bates and their two daughters and heiresses, Mary and Anne. Henceforth, the name lives on in the Irish branch of the family, which followed James II into exile in France, and there they became the Lords of Anglunia in the Province of Champagne. Erected in 1725.’

There are some typographical errors on this monument: 1671 should read 1669, and Anglunia refers to Anglure.

Shaw, Palmer and James Comerford said that above this plaque there was a representation of the Comberford coat-of-arms (gules, a talbot passant argent) impaling those of Bates of Sutton (sable, a fess between three hands erect argent), with the Comberford crest of a ducal coronet and peacock’s head, but this has long since disappeared. The plaque is surprisingly open in its Jacobite sentiments, only a decade after the Vicar of Tamworth was convicted for his Jacobite loyalties.

The tablet was probably commissioned by Irish officer and merchant, Joseph Comerford of Clonmel and Dublin, who had recently bought the chateau of Anglure in Marne, France, along with the title of Marquis d’Anglure.

The Comerford family in Ireland claimed kinship with the Comberford family of Staffordshire from, perhaps, the early 17th century, if not from an earlier period. By the 18th century, the Irish genealogist, Sir William Betham, was accepting the claims that the Comerford family in Ireland was of Norman origin, coming to England with William the Conqueror in 1066, and then to Ireland in 1189.

Indeed, the family claimed not just a single, but a double descent from the Comberfords of Comberford. The first claim is that Sir Henry de Comerford and his nephew Sir Fulco de Comerford are said to have gone to Ireland with Prince John, son of Henry II, King of England, as early as 1172.

The second line of descent is introduced with the claim that when the male line of descent of this uncle and nephew was dying out, Richard Comberford, who was living in Staffordshire in 1547, married a niece of Edmond Comerford, Bishop of Ferns, who died in 1509, and was the direct ancestor of my branch of the family.

Joseph Comerford registered this pedigree in 1724. But it contains a number of unsubstantiated and unsustainable claims. For example:

● It provides an average of 22 years for each generation, which is highly improbable and totally unbelievable.

● There never was such an uncle and nephew pair of Sir Henry de Comerford and Sir Fulco de Comerford, either in Irish history or in the history of the Tamworth area.

● And Richard Comerford never married a niece of the Bishop of Ferns, in fact he never, ever visited Ireland.

The Bridge of Sighs, at Saint John’s College, Cambridge … Richard Comerford and his brother Henry Comberford were Fellows of Saint John’s in the 16th century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

My direct ancestor, Richard Comerford of Ballybur Castle, Co Kilkenny, has been confused Judge Richard Comberford (ca 1512-post 1547), second son of Thomas Comberford who died in 1532.

However, this Richard Comberford was, in fact, the ancestor of the Bradley branch of the family. He was born ca 1512. With his brothers, Canon Henry Comberford and Humphrey Comberford, he was educated at Cambridge (BA 1534, MA 1537). He was a Fellow of Saint John’s College (1534), and the Senior Bursar of Saint John’s (1542-1544). A senior barrister, Richard was a serjeant-at-law or servillus ad legem, and held one of the highest judicial posts in the land as the King’s Remembrancer from about 1547.

Richard Comberford married Isabel Biggs. In 1530, as Dame Isabella Cumberforde, she was admitted to membership of the Guild of Saint Mary and Saint John the Baptist in Lichfield while her brother-in-law, Humphrey Comberford, was Master of the Guild.

Richard and Isabel Comberford had a son and two daughters, their only son Francis Comberford, being the ancestor of the Bradley branch of the family. As Richard Comberford was still living in Staffordshire in 1547, a second marriage is an impossibility, for this would leave 12 generations between Richard’s death, many years after 1547, and Joseph Comerford’s death in the 1729 – an average of less than 15 years for each generation over a span of less than 180 years.

9, Bonds of affection and affinity

The Comberford and Comerford coats-of-arms quartered by the Comerfords of Ballybur

These claims were continued in a pedigree compiled at the College of Heralds in London in 1786 for the Countess of Crequy, and continued to be accepted with variations by many 19th century Irish historians and genealogists, including John GA Prim (1821-1875), who perpetuated the claims that the Comerfords of Kilkenny originated in Staffordshire.

Whether these are links or confusions, these mutual bonds of affection and adopted kinship were consolidated with Joseph Comerford’s lengthy visit to Tamworth and Comberford, when he erected the Comberford monument in the Comberford chapel in 1725.

The plaque erected in the Comberford Chapel in the north transept of Saint Editha’s Church, Tamworth, in 1725, a year after Joseph Comerford registered this pedigree, perpetuates the claims the Comerfords of Ireland were a branch of the Comberford family, and a similar claim is made, through the use of the coat-of-arms of the Comberfords of Tamworth, in a monument erected about the same time in Saint Mary’s Church in Callan, Co Kilkenny.

This coat-of-arms was used in various forms by Patrick Comerford, 17th century Bishop of Waterford and Lismore, in official recognition of heraldic arms in the 18th century, and in family histories in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

The Comberford coat-of-arms used by James Comerford as a bookplate in 1902 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The claims of Staffordshire origins for the Irish family were first questioned in 1888 by the Irish genealogist George Dames Burtchaell (1853-1921), who pointed out that the earliest spelling of the name of the Irish-based family was Quemerford. My research has since been able to identify the origins of this family in Quemerford, once a small village and now part of suburban Calne in Wiltshire.

Why did Joseph Comerford do this?

I surmise he truly believed, like successive generations of the family, that we were a branch of the Comberfords of Comberford and Tamworth. But he needed to embellish his family tree because, when he bought the chateau of Anglure he needed to prove he was of noble descent if he was also going to acquire the title of Marquis d’Anglure along with his new French estate. That continental understanding of nobility is provided by linking the Irish family tree with the glorious family tree in the Moat House, proudly proclaiming descent from the Beaumont family and kinship with the English, Scots and French royal families.

Nevertheless, it is as though the Comerfords of Ireland and the Comberfords of Staffordshire had adopted each other as family and kin. These mutual bonds of affection and adopted kinship, these claims and the confusion they have caused when it comes to identifying the origins of the Comerford family in Ireland, continued through the persistent use of the Comberford coat-of-arms by many branches of the Irish Comerford family from the early 17th century.

It was a mutual bond of affection and adopted kinship that continued with the interesting visit to Comberford, Tamworth, Wednesbury and Lichfield from Ireland by my great-grandfather James Comerford at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries.

Around August 1900 or 1901, James Comerford, describing himself as ‘a descendant’ of the Comberford family, set out to rediscover and own the Comberford roots of the Comerford family, visiting Comberford Hall, the Moat House, the Comberford Chapel and Saint Editha’s Church, Tamworth, and Wednesbury. In Saint Editha’s, he took detailed notes of the Comberford plaque erected by Joseph Comerford in 1725, and of the alabaster effigy, which he ascribed to William de Comberford (1349). In Saint Bartholomew’s Church, Wednesbury, he saw the figures of John Comberford in armour and his wife, the name of William Comberford among a list of charitable bequests over the south door, and the name of William Comberford (1623) inscribed on the sixth bell. He also noted many of the references to the Comberford family in other records. At Comberford Hall, he visited the Peel family, and he also visited the Moat House in Tamworth.

James Comerford collected his findings in a very small, seven-page pamphlet, that was privately published in a small print run of 25 on 26 November 1902, and bound with it photographs of the Moat House and Saint Editha’s Church, Tamworth – although, surprisingly, there are no photographs of the Comberford monuments he describes in Tamworth and Wednesbury, or of Comberford Hall. Shortly after the account of his visit was printed and bound, James Comerford added his bookplate and additional handwritten notes to the slim volume, and these notes add further clues to his identity and the date of his visit.

All these ties of affection amount to bonds of kinship, and they make it important to record the history of the Comberfords of Comberford when telling the story of the Comerfords of Ireland. Despite its bizarre, fictitious, fantastic claims, there is a romantic side to Joseph Comerford’s family tree. In its own charming way, his pedigree, serves to emphasise how by the late 17th century and the early 18th century the Comerfords of Ireland totally identified with the Comberfords of Staffordshire, and had forged strong ties of kinship and affinity.

James Comerford’s small pamphlet describes himself as ‘a descendant’ of the Comberford family … a surviving copy in the local history collection at Tamworth Library (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

10, Conclusions

The Moat House today still evokes memories of its former glory (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The Moat House today, standing off Lichfield Street, retains its centuries-old access to the banks of the River Tame and peaceful riverside walks. Despite the many alterations over the centuries, it is still possible to imagine it as it was when the Comberford family first lived there. It is approached by an attractive avenue of lime trees and is peacefully secluded from the surrounding bustle.

Side-by-side with the Moat House, memories of its former glory can be found in six neighbouring multi-storey blocks of flats off Lichfield Street: Harcourt House recalls a family who were intermarried with the Comberford family and who once lived in the Moat House; Devereux House recalls a family closely linked with the Comberford family in the political life of Tamworth and Lichfield in the 16th and 17th centuries; Strode House is named after a Parliamentarian whom Charles I tried to arrest; Stanhope House recalls a royalist who died on the battlefield; Townsend House commemorates the former owners of both Tamworth Castle and the Moat House; and Peel House recalls the Tamowrth MP who bought up the mortgages on Comberford Hall and who later became Prime Minister.

The Moat House remains a priceless heritage from a magnificent age in Tamworth, and, as John Harper says, it was a shameful day when Tamworth refused it as a gift.

Sources and select bibliography:

Moat House Papers, D 5368/4, Staffordshire and Stoke-on-Trent Archive Service, Staffordshire Record Office.
Salt Historical Collection, various volumes.
Tamworth Parish Registers.
Victoria County History of Staffordshire, various volumes.
Visitations of Staffordshire and Warwickshire.

DP Adams, The Moat House and the Comberford Family (privately published, n.d., ca 1970).
JD Burtchaell, Genealogical Memoirs of the members of parliament for the county and city of Kilkenny (Dublin: Sealy & Co., 1888).
James Comerford, Some Records of the Comerford family collected by a descendant (1902).
JF Ede, History of Wednesbury (Wednesbury: Wednesbury Corporation, 1962).
Sampson Erdeswicke, A Survey of Staffordshire (ed Thomas Harwood, Westminster: 1820). FW Hackwood, Wednesbury: Ancient and Modern (Wednesbury, 1902).
Thomas Harwood, The History and Antiquities of the Church and City of Lichfield (1806).
HC Mitchell, Tamworth Parish Church (Welwyn: Alcuin Press, 1935).
CFR Palmer, History of the Town and Castle of Tamworth (Tamworth: Jonathan Thompson, 1845).
Robert Plot, The Natural History of Staffordshire (Oxford, 1686).
Stebbing Shaw, History and Antiquities of Staffordshire (1798).
Henry Wood, Tamworth Borough Records (Tamworth: Tamworth Corporation, 1952).
Henry Wood, Borough by Prescription: a history of the municipality of Tamworth (Tamworth: Tamworth Corporation, 1958).
Henry Wood, Medieval Tamworth (Tamworth: Tamworth Corporation, 1972).

Last updated: 18 September 2023.

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