06 April 2023

Getting to know ‘the other place’
and Comberford links with Oxford

Christ Church, Oxford … the Dean and Chapter took legal action in the 17th century against the Comberford estates in Staffordshire (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

I was in Christ Church, Oxford, earlier today (6 April 2023) for the Maundy Thursday Chrism Eucharist and the annual renewal of ordination vows by deacons, priests and bishops in the Diocese of Oxford.

I have been in Oxford a number of times in recent months and I am reminded how, in a letter to Conrad Aiken on New Year’s Eve 1914, TS Eliot wrote famously: ‘Oxford is very pretty, but I don’t like to be dead.’ In a similar vein, WH Auden said: ‘Oxford city is sheer hell. Compared with New York, it’s five times as crowded and the noise of the traffic is six times louder.’ On the other hand, although AE Housman was at Cambridge for only a year, he could say: ‘I find Cambridge an asylum, in every sense of the word.’

Anyone who has been at Oxford refers to Cambridge as ‘the other place.’ And, after many years of staying in Sidney Sussex College in Cambridge while studying at the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies, I have long been inclined to think of Oxford as ‘the other place.’

Inside Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford, after today's Maundy Thursday Chrism Eucharist (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

I have written in the past about the many Comberford family connections with Cambridge over the generations, including many family members who were associated with Saint John’s College.

Humphrey Comberford (ca 1496/1498-1555) of Comberford Hall and the Moat House 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.

Henry Comberford (ca 1499-1586) later became Precentor of Lichfield Cathedral, while Richard Comberford (ca 1512-post 1547) – often confused with Richard Comerford of Ballybur, Co Kilkenny – was the Senior Bursar of Saint John’s (1542-1544). Richard Comberford and his brother John Comberford both leased lands at Much Bradley in Staffordshire from Saint John’s College.

So, by default, I came to think of Oxford as ‘the other place.’

The Crown in Oxford … William Comerford’s Oxford MA may have been a reward for his loyalty to the crown during the Civil War (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

But, during my visits to Oxford in recent months, I have been reminded too of the many family connections with Oxford.

In the early 17th century, Christ Church, Oxford, took legal action as it tried to demand some of the income from the Comberford estates near Tamworth and Lichfield. But later, when Christ Church became the headquarters of Charles I and the Royalist party in the early stages of the Civil War, William Comberford was part of the king’s retinue in Oxford, and was given an MA degree by the university.

Earlier in the 17th century, two other members of the Comberford family matriculated at Balliol College, Oxford, but died as undergraduates before they ever received degrees.

The family connections with Oxford begin in the late 15th century, with Edmund Comberford or Comerford, who was Dean of Kilkenny and Bishop of Ferns from 1505 until he died on Easter Sunday 1509. He was educated at Oxford, although his college and degree are not recorded, and his name is sometimes given mistakenly as Edward.

Nicholas Comberford or Comforde received his BA at Oxford 1518-1519. He seems to have been a member of the Irish family too, and may have been the Rector of Cottered, Hertfordshire (1541), or vicar of Nangle (Angle), Pembrokeshire (1545).

Nicholas Comberford or Quemmerforde (1544-1599), who was described as ‘a learned Irishman,’ graduated BA at Oxford in 1562 after four years studying logic and philosophy, probably at Oriel College.

He was born in Waterford ca 1544, and was educated at Peter White’s school in Kilkenny. He returned to Waterford, where he was ordained priest, and was chaplain to Sir Edmund Butler and Rector of Kilconnell in the Diocese of Cashel until about 1570, when he was ejected for nonconformity. He moved to the University of Louvain, and received the degree of DD in 1576. He joined the Society of Jesus about 1578, and was one of the 16 Waterford Jesuits from the Comerford family living in the half century between 1590 and 1640.

At one time, he was nominated as Archbishop of Cashel, although his nomination was blocked by the King of Spain and was never accepted by the Vatican. He died in Spain about 1599.

Philip Comberford (Quamerforde or Comerforde) from Waterford matriculated at Oxford at the age of 15 in 1581, and later studied law at the Inner Temple (1586) and Clifford’s Inn.

Henry Comberford and Thomas Comberford matriculated at Balliol College (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Philip Comerford was a near contemporary of Henry Comberford (1588-ca 1600/1616) of Comberford and Wednesbury, who matriculated at Balliol College in 1600 at the age of 12. Henry never graduated and died young, and his father had another son also named Henry who was born in 1616.

The Dean and Chapter of Christ Church, Oxford, took William Comberford (1551-1625) of Comberford Hall and the Moat House to court in Easter 1602, seeking an annuity of £29 from the Manors of Wigginton and Comberford and lands and tenements in Wigginton, Comberford, Hopwas, Coton and Tamworth. In his defence, William said the manor had been granted in 1534 to ‘Sir George Nevyll, lord of Begavenny,’ and that while Comberford was formerly a manor, he did not know if it remained one.

Thomas Comberford (1621-1639), son of Francis Comberford, of Oxley, Staffordshire, matriculated at Balliol College, Oxford, in 1639 at the age of 18. He too never graduated – he died unmarried within a month and was buried at Saint Peter in the East, Oxford, on 13 December 1639. This is a 12th-century church on Queen’s Lane, north of the High Street in central Oxford. It now forms part of Saint Edmund Hall, one of the Oxford colleges. The church has long been deconsecrated and houses the college library for graduates and undergraduates. The churchyard is laid out as a garden and contains a seated bronze statue depicting Saint Edmund as an impoverished student.

Meanwhile, the Dean and Chapter of Christ Church, Oxford, continued their legal actions against the Comberford family. They took William Comberford to court in 1629, seeking the disputed rent or annuity of £29 from the Manors of Wigginton and Comberford and lands and tenements in Wigginton, Comberford, Hopwas, Coton and Tamworth.

Despite his earlier disputes with Christ Church, William Comberford was created MA at Oxford on 1 November 1642. No college is recorded, but he was probably with the king at Christ Church that winter, and the degree may have been a reward for William’s loyalty to Charles I as the Royalist High Sheriff of Staffordshire in the early stages of the English Civil War.

Thomas Comberford was buried at Saint Peter in the East, Oxford, in 1639 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

William Comberford first had his royalist headquarters at the ancient High House on Greengate Street, Stafford. Charles I stayed there in September 1642 on his way through Staffordshire. The king was accompanied by his nephew, Prince Rupert, who is said to have taken shots at the weathercock on Saint Mary’s Tower from the garden of the house.

By then, Oxford was the royalist headquarters, with King Charles I living at Christ Church, and on 1 November 1642 William Comberford received the degree MA from Oxford University, along with the herald and antiquarian Sir William Dugdale (1605-1686) from Shustoke, near Tamworth. Dugdale’s son-in-law, the Lichfield-born antiquarian Elias Ashmole (1617-1692), gave his name to the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.

Of course, there were many other members of the Comerford families to graduate from Oxford in more recent decades, and I have stayed in the past at Wycliffe Hall and Ripon College Cuddesdon, as well as being a patient this time last year in the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford.

Perhaps, now that I am living in the Diocese of Oxford, I should stop thinking about Oxford as ‘the other place.’

The King’s Arms in Oxford … King Charles I was living at Christ Church in 1642 when William Comberford received his MA at Oxford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

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