15 May 2021

Lichfield Cathedral opens
exhibition of books with links
to a ‘trulie virtuous ladie’ and
friend of William Comberford

Lady Frances Devereux by Anthony van Dyck … the ‘trulie virtuous ladie’ named in the will of William Comberford, she left her books to Lichfield Cathedral

Patrick Comerford

Lichfield Cathedral is reopening to visitors for sightseeing from Monday (17 May 2021). Earlier this year, Lichfield Cathedral became the first cathedral in England to host a vaccination clinic to help fight the coronavirus pandemic, expressing a fresh, renewed relationship between healing, science, creativity and faith that goes back to its foundation by Saint Chad.

On Monday too, a new exhibition opens in Lichfield Cathedral: ‘Fantastic books and where to find them.’ To coincide with Monday’s reopening, the cathedral is showcasing some of the lesser-known books from the library collection.

Lichfield Cathedral’s Library has an extraordinarily broad and varied collection of books gifted to the cathedral, including a significant bequest by the Duchess of Somerset in 1673.

The books in this collection are reminders of the discourse around science and faith. How we have lived and worked together for centuries, and how debate, discovery and conflict, have changed the way societies have thought about and described the world around them.

Visitors to this exhibition are invited to discover ancient but living texts that paint a picture of the world as seen by generations before us and that have been influential in how we explore the world around us.

The exhibition explores the following themes, following the movements of creation:

● Earth’s Beginning
● Light
● Nature
● Stars and Astronomy
● Creatures and Fantastic Beasts
● Humanity
● Peace and Rest

The bequest by the Duchess of Somerset in 1673 included the Lichfield Gospels, an eighth century Gospel Book dating from 730, making it older than the Book of Kells yet a little younger that the Lindisfarne Gospels.

The opening folio contains a faded signature, Wynsige presul, which may refer to Wynsige, Bishop of Lichfield from around 963 to ca 975, and folio four refers to Leofric, Bishop of Lichfield in 1020-1026.

The book was in Lichfield Cathedral until 1646, when the cathedral was sacked during the English Civil War and the cathedral library was looted. Later, the book was recovered and was returned to the cathedral by Lady Frances Devereux (1590-1674), Duchess of Somerset. The Gospels have been on public display since 1982, and the Bishops of Lichfield still swear allegiance on the Lichfield Gospels.

The Duchess of Somerset, the former Lady Frances Devereux, was a sister of Robert Devereux, 3rd Earl of Essex, and the youngest child of Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex , who also Lord of the Manor of Lichfield.

She married William Seymour (1587-1660), later Duke of Somerset, at Drayotn Bassett in 1616. As the Dowager Duchess of Somerset, she also held properties in Comberford, Wigginton and Tamworth. When she died on 24 April 1674, she left her collection of 1,000 books to Lichfield Cathedral, including the Saint Chad’s Gospels and a book of pedigrees given to her by her close friend, Colonel William Comberford, of Lichfield, Comberford Hall and the Moat House on Lichfield Street, Tamworth.

William Comberford had been the Royalist High Sheriff of Staffordshire and took an active role in the siege of Lichfield. When William died in 1656, he left a book of pedigrees of the Nevilles, Earls of Warwick to his friend, Frances, Marchioness of Hertford, later the Duchess of Somerset, saying: ‘The book of pedigrees of the Earles of Warwick, I give and devise to the Right Honorable and trulie virtuous ladie, the Marchioness of Hertford, for whose sake … I bought the same.’

His affectionate words and the terms of the bequest reveal a close and intimate friendship with the woman who restored the Lichfield Gospels to Lichfield Cathedral. Her donation of books to the cathedral included this book William Comberford had bought for her.

Lady Frances Devereux’s father, Robert Devereux, had once been Queen Elizabeth’s favourite, but he fell out of favour and was executed in 1601. Two years later, in 1603, her widowed mother, Frances (Walsingham), married Richard Burke (1572-1635), 4th Earl of Clanricarde, who built Portumna Castle, on the banks of the River Shannon in Co Galway, in 1610-1618.

Lady Frances was a half-sister of the 5th Earl of Clanricarde, who lived at Portumna Castle, and lived there throughout the Civil Wars of the 1640s and 1650s, while she was living in Lichfield. Portumna Castle remained the main seat of the Clanricarde Burkes for generations, and after recent conservation and restoration work, the ground floor of the castle is open to the public, while conservation work continues on other parts of the castle.

The Duchess of Somerset’s grandchildren included Charles Boyle (1639-1694), Viscount Dungarvan, who was MP for Tamworth (1670-1679).

The new exhibition in Lichfield Cathedral is open during visitor opening hours from Monday next 17 May to Monday 19 July.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

As a volunteer in the cathedral from time to time, I'd heard about this exhibition but found this piece very informative and will visit it as soon as I can. Something so romantic about a barely there signature...