29 June 2019

Reminders in Cambridge
of the mixture of fiction
and family intrigues

Saint John’s College, Cambridge, on Trinity Street, with part of the chapel to the right (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

During my visits to Cambridge this week, I could not help but think of the writer Rose Macaulay, and some 16th century family connections with Saint John’s College. Her best-known novel, The Towers of Trebizond, is known even to people who have never read it for its opening line:

“Take my camel, dear,” said my Aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass.

The High Mass, of course, is an Anglican High Mass, in the Anglo-Catholic tradition of the Church of England.

The book is heavy on irony, and is delightfully funny about Anglo-Catholics, Roman Catholics and Evangelicals. Yet it shows a deep respect for faith and a poignant longing for grace. The narrator is in a state of mortal sin, and as the child of a very old Anglo-Catholic family, knows himself or herself to be in a state of mortal sin.

One of the enduring mysteries of the book is whether the narrator is a man or a woman. It is a device that helps to place the reader, whether male or female, inside the mind of the narrator.

In the book, travel serves as a metaphor for the soul’s progress towards or away from God. Trebizond, now an impoverished Turkish town whose Byzantine history is of no interest to the local people, represents for the narrator the glories of the past and the wealth and riches of the Byzantine court. But it also represents heaven, and grace, from which the narrator is barred.

With this serious discussion of sin and forgiveness, The Towers of Trebizond is also a brittle comedy of English manners.

Although Rose Macaulay studied at Oxford rather than Cambridge, reading history at Somerville College, Oxford, Cambridge plays a large part in The Towers of Trebizond and an earlier book, They Were Defeated.

This is historical novel, published in 1932, is set in Cambridge just before the English Civil War. The characters include the poets Robert Herrick and John Cleveland, and there are appearances by John Milton, Sir Kenelm Digby, Sir John Suckling, and a host of Metaphysical poets and other historical figures, including Abraham Cowley, Andrew Marvel, Henry More and Richard Crashaw.

Religion is at the heart of this story too, as it begins in a Church where the divisions of Church Papists, Puritans and Anglicans are all too obvious because of the display of harvest bounty in Robert Herrick’s church.

One of the characters becomes a Roman Catholic and narrowly avoids arrest while attending Mass in Cambridge, along with two priests who are arrested and taken away, probably to be sent into exile.

Tensions over religion are increasing in Charles I’s reign and the dangers of being Roman Catholic are evident, even in the relatively positive atmosphere during the reign of Charles I. Even prominent people at Cambridge University who have demonstrated their animus toward Catholicism are considered Papist if they follow Archbishop Laud’s example in using the Book of Common Prayer in high liturgical style, such as John Cosins, the Vice Chancellor of Cambridge and Master of Peterhouse.

The first part of They Were Defeated is set in Devon, while the second part takes place mainly in Cambridge. When the Vice-Chancellor of the University, Dr John Cosin, is threatened with the loss of his position because of his supposed Catholic leanings in early 1641, the authorities begin to crack down on recusants. Three priests are arrested at Mass and several students present are reported to their colleges.

In an epilogue, set in 1647, Herrick is about to be turned out of his church to make way for a Puritan incumbent.

The great gatehouse of Saint John’s College facing Trinity Street, Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

But, to return to The Towers of Trebizond, the Cambridge of Cosin, the role of John Cosin, and the Anglican approaches of Archbishop Laud make important contributions too.

As I passed by Saint John’s College on Wednesday afternoon, I recalled one lengthy passage in The Towers of Trebizond that reads like a stream of consciousness but captures a snobbery about Cambridge once found among some Anglo-Catholic families:

Perhaps I had better explain why we are so firmly Church, since part of this story stems from our somewhat unusual attitude, or rather from my aunt Dot’s. We belong to an old Anglican family, which suffered under the penal laws of Henry VIII, Mary I, and Oliver P. Under Henry VIII we did indeed acquire and domesticate a dissolved abbey in Sussex, but were burned, some of us, for refusing to accept the Six Points; under Mary we were again burned, naturally, for heresy; under Elizabeth we dug ourselves firmly into Anglican life, compelling our Puritan tenants to dance round maypoles and revel at Christmas, and informing the magistrates that Jesuit priests had concealed themselves in the chimney-pieces of our Popish neighbours. Under Charles I we looked with disapprobation on the damned crop-eared Puritans whom Archbishop Laud so rightly stood in the pillory, and, until the great Interregnum, approved of the Laudian embellishments of churches and services, the altar crosses, candles and pictures, the improvements in the chapel of St. John’s Cambridge under Dr. Beale and in Peterhouse under Dr. Cosin (Cambridge was our university). During the suppression, we privately kept ousted vicars as chaplains and attended secret Anglican services, at which we were interrupted each Christmas Day by the military, who, speaking very spitefully of Our Lord’s Nativity, dragged us before the Major-Generals. After the Glorious Revolution, we got back our impoverished estates, and, until the Glorious Revolution, there followed palmier days, when we persecuted Papists, conventiclers and Quakers with great impartiality, and, as clerical status rose, began placing our younger sons in fat livings, of which, in 1690, they were deprived as Non-Jurors, and for the next half century or so carried on an independent ecclesiastical existence, very devout, high-flying, schismatic, and eccentrically ordained, directing the devotions and hearing the confessions of pious ladies and gentlemen, and advising them as to the furnishing of the private oratories, conducting services with ritualistic ceremony and schismatic prayer-books, absorbing the teachings of William Law on the sacramental devotional life, and forming part of the stream of High Church piety that has flowed through the centuries down the broad Anglican river, quietly preparing the way for the vociferous Tractarians. These clergymen ancestors of ours were watched with dubious impatience by their relations in the manor houses, who soon discreetly came to terms with the detestable Hanoverians, and did not waste their fortunes and lives chasing after royal pretenders who were not, after all, Anglican.

Change Sussex for Staffordshire and it could be a description of the Comberford family of Comberford Hall and the Moat House in Tamworth, and the description of their downfall in the plaque in the Comberford Chapel in Saint Editha’s Church, Tamworth, as I recalled in my lecture in Tamworth last month [9 May 2019]:

‘Under Charles I we looked with disapprobation on the damned crop-eared Puritans whom Archbishop Laud so rightly stood in the pillory, and, until the great Interregnum, approved of the Laudian embellishments of churches and services, the altar crosses, candles and pictures, the improvements in the chapel of St. John’s Cambridge … Cambridge was our university.’

Many members of the Comberford family were associated with Saint John’s College.

Humphrey Comberford (ca 1496/1498-1555) of Comberford Hall and the Moat House was educated at Cambridge (BA 1525, MA 1528). Humphrey and two of his brothers – Henry and Richard Comberford – seem 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, stipulating that preference be given to men from Tamworth.

His brother, Henry Comberford (ca 1499-1586), later Precentor of Lichfield Cathedral, was admitted to Saint John’s College on 31 March 1533. He graduated BA (1533), MA (1536) and BD (1545). He went on to become a Fellow of Saint John’s College and a Proctor of Cambridge University.

When he was the ‘parson of Polstead’, near Colchester, in 1539, Henry was still associated with the college, and he was still a Fellow of Saint John’s when he was involved in a bishop’s visitation to Saint John’s in April 1542.

Their brother, Richard Comberford (ca 1512-post 1547),was born at Comberford and was admitted to Saint John’s on 8 April 1534. He was a Fellow of Saint John’s in 1538, and later was the Senior Bursar in 1542-1544.

Richard Comberford and his brother John Comberford both leased lands at Much Bradley in Staffordshire from Saint John’s College.

Richard Comberford has often been confused by 18th century genealogists with Richard Comerford of Ballybur, Co Kilkenny, and so in a confused way, the family trees became entangled … another intrigue that could so easily provide material for a novel set in Cambridge in the 16th and 17th centuries.

‘Cambridge was our university’ … the Trinity Street frontage of Saint John’s College (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

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