05 July 2023

Comberford family links
with Coventry date back
over 600 years to 1414

The ruins of Whitefriars in Coventry … endowed by John Comberford in his will in 1414 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

During my ‘field trip’ to Coventry, I visited both Holy Trinity Church and the former Carmelite monastic house at Whitefriars. Both reminded me of the extensive links of the Comberford family with Coventry, dating back more than 600 years to 1414.

John de Comberford, who was Lord of Comberford ca 1350-1414, also held extensive estates in Hopwas, between Lichfield and Tamworth, and owned property on Lichfield Street, Tamworth, that may have been the site of the later Moat House.

In his will in 1414, as John Comberford of Tamworth, his bequest included 3 shillings to the high altar in Saint Editha’s Collegiate Church in Tamworth, 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 10 shillings to the Franciscan mendicant friary in Lichfield.

The Carmelite Friary in Coventry was built in 1342 and was commonly known as the Whitefriars.

The surviving sandstone building, close to the Whitefriars Ringway and the campus of Coventry University, was once part of a much larger complex. It contains the one surviving side of the friary’s cloister on the ground floor, while upstairs is the former dormitory where the friars slept.

Part of the foundations of the friary church are still visible on the site. The church was 96 metres long and much of the site now lies under the ring road. The friary survived almost 200 years but it was closed in 1538 with the dissolution of the monastic houses during the Tudor Reformation.

Whitefriars was closed in 1538 with the dissolution of the monastic houses during the Tudor Reformation (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

John Hales (1516-1572) bought the former Whitefriars in Coventry from Sir Ralph Sadler in 1544 for £83 12s 6d. Hales converted part of the Whitefriars into a residence, Hales Place, and set up a free grammar school in what had been the choir. In 1545 he was granted licence to establish the free school as King Henry VIII School in the former Saint John’s Hospital in Coventry.

During Hale’s exile in the reign of Mary Tudor, Coventry Corporation moved the school from Whitefriars church to the former Hospital of Saint John the Baptist and claimed the church as a parish church.

Queen Elizabeth I made her one and only visit to Coventry in 1555, staying for two days at Whitefriars with John Hales, and she described it as a ‘fine house.’ Mary Queen of Scots was held in Coventry on Elizabeth’s orders between 25 November 1569 and 2 January 1570, and spent part of that time in Whitefriars.

The surviving building remained a house until 1801, when it became Coventry’s workhouse. It became a Salvation Army hostel in 1948 and later was part of the Herbert Museum in the 1960s.

The museum closed in the early 1990s due to spending cuts, and is no longer open to the public. The Grade II listed Whitefriars Ale House nearby is named after the monastery and was once within its boundaries.

Whitefriars Inn is named after the monastery and was once within its boundaries (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

John Comberford’s brother, Richard Comberford, was the grandfather of Judge William Comberford (ca 1403/1410-1472), the first member of the family to attain national importance.

He was a judge, MP for Newcastle under Lyme, and an important landowner in south Staffordshire in the mid-15th century, with land in Comberford, Wigginton and Tamworth, and a members of the Guild of Saint Mary and Saint John in Lichfield (1469).

William Comberford and John Cateby were asked in 1472-1473 to arbitrate in a dispute between the Mayor and Corporation of Coventry and William Briscowe or Bristowe over rights to the lands and common pasture at Whitley Manor and Whitley Common near Coventry. The dispute was ‘contended fiercely and bitterly’ and led to ‘angry words and blows, public riot and costly litigation.’

The Archdeacon’s Court in the north-west corner of Holy Trinity Church, Coventry (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

William Comberford’s grandson, Henry Comberford, may also have been Archdeacon of Coventry (ca 1558 to 1559) in the Diocese of Lichfield, although this is disputed. At the same time, Henry Comberford was the Precentor of Lichfield from 1555 until he was deprived of all his church offices in 1559.

Henry Comberford was preceded as Archdeacon of Coventry from 1509 by Ralph Colyngwood, afterwards Dean of Lichfield, and from 1512 by John Blythe, who died in 1558.

During this time, the ‘Coventry Carol’ was first written down in 1534. This maternal lament for soon-to-be-slaughtered babies was originally part of a mediaeval mystery plays, performed annually in Coventry from the late 12th century until the Coventry plays were supressed in 1579.

The Archdeacon’s Court in the north-west corner of Holy Trinity Church, Coventry, was the court of the Archdeacons of Coventry from some time before 1350. It was used as an ecclesiastical court and was set aside for dispensing ecclesiastical justice.

The memorials in the Archdeacon’s Court include a mediaeval memorial to a member of the Morton family. The memorial is decorated with a rebus, or symbolic pun on the name Morton.

The exhibits in the Archdeacon’s Court include a copy of the Bishop’s Bible, published in 1568 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

The exhibits in the Archdeacon’s Court include a copy of the Bishop’s Bible, published in 1568. This was one of the first Bibles in English, so that all could hear it in their own language. The Bishop’s Bible was sent to significant churches across the land, and Holy Trinity Church in Coventry was one of these churches. The cover of the Bible may have damaged in a fire in the north porch, but the Bible is virtually perfect inside.

Payment was made in 1589 ‘for making the seate for the Bishoppe in the Consistorie’ or Archdeacon’s Court in Holy Trinity Church.

One of the windows in the Archdeacon’s Court contains fragments of the Godiva Window, which had been destroyed during the Reformation. This stained glass panel with fragments of mediaeval glass survived the bombing of Coventry in 1940.

Fragments of the Godiva Window, destroyed during the Reformation, in a window in the Archdeacon’s Court (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Henry Comberford was succeeded as Archdeacon of Coventry in 1560 by Thomas Lever (1521-1577), a reformer and one of the founding Puritans who lived in exile during the reign of Mary Tudor.

Thomas Lever studied at Saint John’s College, Cambridge, (BA 1542, Fellow 1543, MA 1545). His time at Saint John’s overlapped with three Comberford brothers: Henry Comberford (BA 1533, MA 1536, BD 1545), his predecessor as Archdeacon of Coventry and a fellow of Saint John’s; Richard Comberford, the putative ancestor of the Irish branch of the family, who was a fellow (1534; MA 1537) and Senior Bursar (1542-1544) of Saint John’s; and Humphrey Comberford, who was also a student at Saint John’s (BA 1525, MA 1528).

At Saint John’s College, Thomas Lever was a leading figure in the theological disputes of the day in Cambridge from 1547. He preached before Edward VI in 1550, and was the Master of Saint John’s in 1551-1553.

Lever was among the Reformers who went into exile in Zurich in 1553, where he became friends with Heinrich Bullinger. He also visited Geneva to hear John Calvin lecture. When Lever returned to England, he succeeded Henry Comberford as Archdeacon of Coventry from 1559.

A mediaeval memorial to a member of the Morton family in the Archdeacon’s Court (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

A later family link with Coventry is found in ‘The Bosworth Crucifix,’ which once belonged to the Victorian book collector, antiquarian and notary, James Comerford (1807-1881). It now belongs to the Society of Antiquaries in London, and featured prominently in the exhibition ‘Making History’ (2008-2009).

The crucifix and many other Catholic relics passed from John Brown by 1793 to Joseph Carter, the sexton of Saint Michael’s Church, Coventry (later Coventry Cathedral). Joseph Carter had married Elizabeth Brown in Saint Michael’s Church, Coventry, in 1778, and she may have been related to John Brown. He died in June 1808, and his will was granted administration in the Consistory Court of the Diocese of Lichfield on 7 October 1808.

The crucifix then passed to his widow Elizabeth Carter and remained with the Carter family of Saint Michael’s Parish, Coventry. Presumably it was she who sold it to the Comerford family – probably James Comerford’s father – ca 1808-1810. However, it is still unclear how the crucifix passed from the Brown family in Coventry to the Carter family in Coventry and from the Carter family to the Comerford family.

The Bosworth Crucifix was owned by the family of the antiquarian and book collector James Comerford from around 1810. James Comerford was born in Holborn in 1807, the son of James Comerford, a Notary Public of Change Alley in Cornhill, London, who died in 1833. He appears to have been of Irish descent. However, John Ashdown-Hill, in his paper on the ‘Bosworth Crucifix’ in the Transactions of the Leicestershire Archaeological and Historical Society (no 78, 2004), wonders whether James Comerford was related to the Comerford family who lived in Saint Michael’s Parish, Coventry, in the first half of the 19th century.

The Bosworth Crucifix passed from the Brown and Carter families in Coventry to the Comerford family

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