09 March 2023

The Cumberford Manor near
the Watford Gap and family
estates in Northamptonshire

Watford Court or Watford Manor Hall stood on the site of the manor house in Watford, Northamptonshire, until it was demolished in 1975

Patrick Comerford

For ten generations, members of the Comberford family and their ancestors in the Parles family owned a large portion of land in north Northamptonshire. These families gave their name to the manor near Watford Gap, which was known for centuries as the Cumberford Manor and, before that, the Parles Manor.

The manor passed into the Comberford family by marriage in the mid-15th century, and provided not only a new coat-of-arms for the Comerford family, but its later sale increased the family’s wealth too.

Cumberford Manor was an integral part of the village of Watford, between Northampton and Rugby, although it is difficult to accurately delineate its precise location today. In his definitive history of Watford Manor, The Watford Knight’s Fee: The Medieval Manors of Watford, Northamptonshire (Maitland FL: Mill City Press, 2018), Murray Johnston quoted extensively from my genealogical research on the Comberford family.

So, with this book in my hands and its maps and detailed descriptions, I went in search of Cumberford Manor near the Watford Gap, catching the bus between Northampton and Rugby one afternoon last week. It was a journey that took me past the Spencer estate at Althorp, through beautiful countryside and small towns and villages such as Long Buckby and East Haddon. But it almost ended in a fruitless journey when the bus driver never told me I was at Watford, and my journey continued on, with the bus weaving its way under the MI and finally bringing me to Rugby.

Rather than waste my journey, I hastily caught a bus back to Watford to search for the Cumberford Manor … and found to my delight there is more to Watford than the Watford Gap.

There is more to Watford than the Watford Gap (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

The Watford Gap has made Watford in Northamptonshire known to motorists for over 60 years, although few ever take a detour to the small rural village four miles north-east of Daventry.

The Watford Gap dates from the opening of the first stretch of long distance motorway in England, the M1 between London and Crick, on 2 November 1959. The first motorway service area was opened outside the village on the side of the M1 and Watford Gap was born.

In popular conversation and journalism, Watford Gap marks the divide between Northern England and Southern England. It is close to the north/south isogloss of the three key hallmarks of Northern English and Southern English: foot–strut split, bad-lad split and the Bath vowel.

The phrase ‘North of Watford’ usually refers to the north of England, especially to places remote from London. It usually means ‘north of Watford Gap,’ although the phrase was in use long before the M1 or the Watford Gap Service Station opened in 1959. Some say the original expression refers not to Watford in Northamptonshire but to the much larger Watford town in Hertfordshire and Watford Junction railway station, once the last urban stop on the main railway line out of London to the north of England.

Watford Gap and the service station get their name from a minor gap between two slight hills that found favour with engineers providing roads, canals and railways. But both the village of Watford and the Watford Gap long predate the M1. Ever since Roman times , engineers have found this an ideal place for connecting the Midlands with south-east England. Today, the M1, the A5, the West Coast Main Line railway and a branch of the Grand Union Canal traverse in parallel a space about 400 metres wide. This was the crossing point on the old east/west stagecoach route across England and it is said that there was once a coaching inn in the area called ‘The Watford Gap.’

The lands of the Comberford Manor in Watford ca 1550 (Murray Johnston)

Watford has a population of little more than 200 today. The name Wadford or Watford means ‘Wading Ford’ or ‘Hunter’s Ford.’ Watford appears in the Domesday Book in 1086, when Gilbert the Cook held two hides of land of the crown in Watford, where there were 27 households and a mill worth 12 pence a year.

After two centuries, the single holding was broken into separate manors for the deceased lord’s daughters. In time, the Manor of Watford passed through various hands including the de Braye, de Burnaby and Parles families. The portion held by the Parles family eventually passed by marriage to the Comberford family, and so became known as Cumberford Manor. Eventually the manors of Watford were recombined in the 17th century by a wealthy London merchant.

The manor passed from Gilbert the Cook to his son Baldwin, who was living there in the reign of Henry II. When Baldwin died, he had no children or male heirs, and the manor passed to the crown. The manor then came into the hands of Eustachius de Arden, or de Watford, and continued with his descendants until 1276, when Eustachius de Watford (IV) died in 1276. The Manor of Watford was then divided into four parts between his four daughters: Atheline, wife of William Bray, of Brune; Sarah, wife of John de Burnaby; Joan, wife of William Parles; and Elena, who was unmarried.

Three of the daughters of Eustachius de Burnaby and John Parles were lords of Watford in 1296, and Henry de Bray held a fourth part of Watford from Athelina Bray. This Athelina Bray passed on her portion to Henry de Bray, but this portion later passed to the crown and it was granted to Eustace de Burnaby and his wife Maud in 1303.

The two lines of the Parles family were descended from Baldwin and Payn de Parles, who were living in Oxfordshire in 1163 . They married two sisters and co-heirs and so acquired interests both in Rollright, Oxfordshire, and Handsworth, Staffordshire. Records in Staffordshire detail disputes between the family and the Priory of Sandwell, and with the Dean and Chapter of Lichfield involving the advowson of Handsworth.

William de Parles (1230-1278) of Handsworth married Joan de Watford (1242-1309), one of the four daughters and co-heiresses of Sir Eustace de Watford (1200-1276), and when Eustace died, William and Joan took part in the division of the Watford estates in 1276.

However, William was accused of killing one Philip, son of Robert, was arrested, imprisoned, found guilty of murder, and hanged in 1278. All his properties were forfeited, including Rollright and Handsworth. However, the Watford properties inherited by William’s wife Joan were not included in the forfeiture.

The gates into the former Watford Court (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

This branch of the Parles family then moved to Northamptonshire. Joan transferred some of her inheritance to her son, John Parles (1260-1327), who consolidated the family’s remaining estates he inherited in 1309. He married Eleanor, and died ca 1327, when he was succeeded by his son Walter Parles (1305-1361).

Walter Parles turned around the family’s fortunes. He was sheriff of Northamptonshire and sat as MP for Northamptonshire in six parliaments. Along with his inheritance at Watford, Alderton and Silsworth, Walter held land at Byfield and Shutlanger, some of this possibly acquired by his marriage to Alice.

By 1347, Walter Parles and Nicholas de Burneby accounted for three parts of one knight’s fee in Watford, Syvesworth, and Murcote, which they held of the king in capite. The estate held by Nicholas de Burneby continued with that family for several generations. The fourth part of the manor held by the Parles family later passed by marriage to the Comberford family and became known as the Cumberford Manor.

Nicholas Parles (1325-1359), son of Walter Parles, and his wife Roesia, daughter of Nicholas de Cancellis of Upton, Northamptonshire, benefited from a settlement of the manor of Upton by Nicholas de Cancellis in 1344-1345, and inherited it three years later. However, they had no children, and when Nicholas and his wife died ca 1359, Upton passed out of the Parles family. When Walter Parles (1305-1361) died in Watford in 1361 during the second outbreak of the Black Death, he was succeeded by his next son, Ralph Parles (1335-1420).

Ralph Parles (1335-1420) of Watford acquired a further estate at Shutlanger, afterwards called Parles Park, centred on a house known as the Monastery. He probably made his home at Shutlanger, where his name occurs repeatedly in local deeds. His estate there included nine messuages, two mills, 11 virgates of land, 18 acres of meadow, 10 acres of pasture, 100 acres of wood and 40 shillings rent in Stoke, Shutlanger, Shaw and Alderton. Ralph Parles, his wife Alice, their son Ralph and daughter-in-law Alice, had a licence from the Bishop of Lincoln in 1411 for a chaplain to conduct services in the chapel or oratory in his manor at Shutlanger, inspiring the name of the Monastery.

Ralph Parles was several times sheriff of Northamptonshire (1388-1389, 1403, 1408-1409, 1412-1413), a justice of the peace (1397-1412), and sat twice as MP for Northamptonshire (1404, 1406). Before his death at an advanced age in 1420, Ralph added more property at Stoke Bruern, and at Morecote, Helmdon, Wappenham, and Yelvertoft to the family’s holdings.

Ralph Parles married four times: 1, Joan Talbot, daughter of John Talbot of Richard’s Castle, Herefordshire; 2, Katherine Talbot, living in 1364; 3, Elizabeth (Lewknor), widow of Sir Edward de Twyford, living 1381; 4, Alice de Harewedon, living 1411.

Ralph Parles was blind by 1413, and he died on 27 August 1420, aged 85. His heir was his grandson, also Ralph Parles, then aged 11. As well as the manors of Watford and Byfield, Ralph had estates and land in Shutlanger, Stoke Bruerne and Alderton.

Ralph’s grandson, John Parles, son of William Parles, was born in 1419, and inherited the Parles estates when he came of age in 1440, recovering the family estates after a lengthy wardship. He married Margaret Walwyn or Weldon, daughter of William Weldon of Weldon, Northamptonshire.

This John Parles died in May 1452, owning the same estates as his grandfather. He was survived by his widow Margaret and his daughter and heir Joan, then aged five, to whom his estate was entailed after her mother’s death. Joan’s wardship and marriage were granted to William Cumberford in 1454.

The widowed Margaret Parles almost immediately married her second husband, Robert Catesby, whose brother, Sir William Catesby, already owned a portion of the Watford Manor. Margaret remained at the Parles Manor in Watford, and she and Robert Catesby were the parents of a son, William Catesby. When Margaret died in 1459, her daughter Joan was 12, and Margaret’s husband Robert Catesby died soon after.

William Comberford of Comberford had the legal custody of Margaret Catesby’s lands by 1459, when she died. The Manor of Watford and the other estates that belonged to her first husband were to descend to her daughter Joan Parles, who came of age at 15 two years later in 1461.

Joan’s wardship and marriage had already been granted to William Comberford (ca 1403/1410-1472) and John Lynton in 1454. William Comberford already had strong political interests in the neighbouring counties of Buckinghamshire and Northamptonshire. He was an important landowner in south Staffordshire in the mid-15th century, with lands in Comberford, Wigginton and Tamworth, and he was also a trustee of the manors of Whichnor, Sirescote and other estates. He built Comebrford Hall, a new house at Comberford, between Tamworth and Lichfield, in 143, and may have been one of the early members of the Comberford family to own the Moat House on Lichfield Street in Tamworth.

Three years after he built Comberford Hall, Comberford was one of the two MPs for Newcastle-under-Lyme, Staffordshire, in 1442-1447, on the nomination of the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster.

From 1442 or earlier, William Comberford was a key political ally of Henry Stafford (1402-1460), Earl of Stafford and later 1st Duke of Buckingham. Stafford was the key political figure in Buckinghamshire at the time, and they shared a political ally in John Talbot, 2nd Earl of Shrewsbury.

A year after William Comerford received the wardship of Joan Parles, his patron, the Duke of Buckingham, was killed at the Battle of Northampton on 10 July 1460. Nevertheless, Comberford continued to play an important role in the political, civil and judicial life of Staffordshire, and was a member of the Guild of Saint Mary and Saint John in Lichfield. His interests near Watford included properties in Newport Pagnell and Tickford on the border of Buckinghamshire and Northamptonshire, which he acquired in 1471-1472. By then, William Comberford was in his 60s, but already he had substantial property and political interests in the area.

Around this time, the heiress Joan Parles married William Comberford’s son, John Comberford, who witnessed a deed relating to Shutlanger in 1477. In this way, the fourth part of the manor of Watford once held by the Parles family was brought by marriage to the Comberford family ca 1460, and from then on it was known as Comberford Manor or Cumberford Manor.

In 1482, Joan and John Comberford conveyed the manor of Byfield, with extensive property there and in Watford, Murcott, Shutlanger, Stoke Bruerne, Shaw, Alderton and Wappenham, along with half an acre in Yelvertoft and the advowson of the church there, to three men, including Christopher Comberford. But this was not a sale: they were to hold the estate on behalf of John and Joan, and this was a legal way of guaranteeing the Comberford family held on to the lands.

In 1504, after his wife Joan had died, John Comberford, together with his son Thomas Comberford (1472-1532) and daughter-in-law Dorothy (née Fitzherbert), sold the former Parles estates, totalling almost 350 acres in Stoke Bruerne, Shutlanger, Alderton and Wappenham, to Richard Empson of Easton Neston. However, the Comberford family continued to keep the Comberford Manor in Watford.

The Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul in Watford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

John Comberford died in 1508, and Cumberford Manor in Watford and his estates near Tamworth and Lichfield were inherited by his son Thomas Comberford (1472-1532). Thomas Comberford also inherited the advowsom of Yelvertoft, then in the Diocese of Lincoln. As patron of the living, Thomas presented his wife’s nephew, the Revd Thomas Babington, as the rector of the parish in 1510.

Thomas Comberford and his wife Dorothy (Fitzherbert) were the parents of a large family:

1, Humphrey Comberford (1491-1555), son and heir.
2, (Judge) Richard Comberford (1495- ), ancestor of the Bradley branch of the family, and often but mistakenly identified with Richard Comberford, ancestor of the Comerfords of Kilkenny and Co Wexford.
3, (The Revd Canon Dr) Henry Comberford (1499-1586), Precentor of Lichfield Cathedral at the time of the Tudor Reformations, and Rector of Yelvertoft until 1560, when he was deprived because of his Catholic sympathies.
4, John Comberford of Wednesbury (died 1559), Treasurer of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, and Treasurer of Canterbury Palace.
5, Margaret, who married William Stanley of Elford.

The former Parles coat-of-arms used as the Comberford arms impaling those of Beaumont, representing the marriage of Humphrey Comberford and Dorothy Beaumont in the long gallery decoration in the Moat House, Tamworth (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The eldest son, Humphrey Comberford (1491-1555), married Dorothy Beaumont ca 1528 and inherited his father’s estates in 1532. When Humphrey Comberford senior died in 1555, his significant estates included the Cumberford Manor in Watford. He left most of his manors to his eldest son, Thomas Comberford, but specified in his will that the Cumberford Manor in Watford was to go to his second son, Humphrey Comberford, who was to hold it for 60 years from the eldest son, Thomas Comberford. He had also given a lifetime interest in some cottages to his daughter, Margaret Stanley.

In the event, however, the younger Humphrey Comberford died unmarried in 1545, before his father’s death, and the estates were inherited by the eldest son, Thomas Comberford (1530-1597).

Some sources suggest this Thomas Comberford probably sold the Watford manor lands, known as Comberford Manor shortly after he inherited them in 1555. But, in fact, the family held on to the Cumberford Manor for almost another decade. Thomas Comberford sold his manor in Watford to Sir John Spencer in 1563, and the Cumberford Manor remained with the Spencer family for a number of generations.

Thomas Comberford’s eldest son, William Comberford (1551-1625), who was born while the Watford estates were still owned by the family, was a leading landowner in Staffordshire. Prince Charles, later King Charles I, was his guest at the Moat House, the Comberford family home on Lichfield Street, Tamworth, in 1619.

William was twice married, and his second wife was widowed Anne Spencer (nee Watson). I have not identified this Anne Spencer with certainty, but she may have been a member of the same Spencer family who bought the Cumberford Manor in Watford. This Spencer family is the same family as that of Princess Diana.

The sale of the Cumberford Manor in 1563 included 840 acres of land, meadow and pasture and another 46 acres of wood, heath and furze. Months before the sale, Thomas Comberford leased a property in Watford to his widowed sister Margaret Stanley.

Two former pubs in Watford village: the Old Henley Arms, left, and the Old Star and Garter, right (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Meanwhile, another portion of Watford Manor had passed through the de Cranford family to the Catesby family of neighbouring Ashby St Ledgers, and so was called the Catesby Manor. The Catesby Manor later passed to the Watkins family who held it for several generations.

Catesby Manor and the other three manors in Watford, including Cumberford Manor, were later bought by Sir George Clarke between 1631 and 1639. They passed from him in 1689 to his nephew Sir Robert Clarke, son of his younger brother, Robert Clarke of Long Buckby.

The Watford estates, consolidated by the Clarke family in the 17th century, were bought in 1836 by Robert Henley (1789-1841), 2nd Lord Henley. Anthony Henley (1825-1898), 3rd Lord Henley and lord of the manors in the mid-19th century, lived at Watford Court and was the Liberal MP for Northampton (1859-1874). His grandfather was Sir Robert Peel of Tamworth, the first baronet, his uncle was the Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel, and his first wife Julia was the only daughter of the Very Revd John Peel, Dean of Worcester.

The post-war Prime Minister Anthony Eden was a regular visitor to Watford Court. In time, however, taxes destroyed the Henley estate, and most of it was sold off, including the manor house, Watford Court. Within two years of the sale of Watford Court, the house was demolished in 1975, and new homes were built on the site. Even today, the Henley and Eden family own much of the surrounding countryside.

As for Ashby St Ledgers, the Gunpowder Plot was planned In the room above the Gatehouse by Robert Catesby, his servant Thomas Bates and other. Catesby was killed with some other plotters at Holbeche House, and Bates was executed in the following January.

The local historian John Bridges describes two deserted manors at Watford in the early 18th century. One was Catesby Manor, ‘an enclosed manor with no house’, the other was Cumberford Manor, ‘a depopulated village in an enclosed manor, now reduced to one house … the Crown ale house’.

The locations of both manors are unknown. However, Johnston points out, no separate physical identity can be identified with certainty with either the Catesby manor or the depopulated village of Cumberford mentioned by Bridges. Cumberford Manor was one quarter of the Watford manor and manor-house, split off by descent to a daughter. It had no separate physical identity from Watford in terms of site and present-day earthworks. Even the ‘manor house’ of Cumberford’s manor was part of the main Watford manor house.

The Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, dating from ca 1300, has memorials to the Clerk, Henley and Abby familiets, who once lived at Watford Court. The shop and the school in Watford village have now closed, and are now private homes. The two former public houses in the village, once known as the Henley Arms and the Star and Garter, have long been converted into private houses too.

There are no signs anywhere, in house names or in street names, that the Comberford family were lords of the manor from the mid-15th century to the mid-17th century. Yet, the Comberford Manor in Watford consisted of 885 acres in 1550: 260 acres in Watford; 280 acres in Silsworth and 345 acres in Murcroft. The Comberford family held Cumberford Manor for over a century, from 1454 to 1563, over five generations from William Comberford’s role as ward of Joan Parles, until the manor was sold by Thomas Comberford.

Watford School was built in 1857 and provided education for 60-100 children from the village and surrounding farms until it closed in 1965 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Sources and additional reading:

Derek F Blunt, Northamptonshire, County of Spires and Squires (Northampton: Eddy Lyn, 2012).

John Bridges, The history and antiquities of Northamptonshire compiled from the manuscript collections of the late learned antiquary John Bridges Esq (1791, 2 vols).

Murray Johnston, The Watford Knight’s Fee: The Medieval Manors of Watford, Northamptonshire (Maitland FL: Mill City Press, 2018).

Michael Andrews-Reading, ‘Village Cromwells: The Parles Family, 1166-1452’, in Foundations, journal of the Foundation for Medieval Genealogy, vol 2, no 5 (January 2008), pp 342-349.

Philip Riden and Charles Insley (eds), A History of the County of Northampton, vol 5, Cleley Hundred, Victoria County History Series (London: University of London, 2002).

Stephen Swailes, ‘Deserted villages and hamlets in Northamptonshire’, February 2023, https://www.medievalgenealogy.org.uk/sources/NorthamptonshireDesertedVillages.pdf

Murray Johnston’s book ‘The Watford Knight’s Fee’ … an invaluable guide in tracking down the Comberford Manor in Watford, Northamptonshire

A journey through Lent 2023
with Samuel Johnson (16)

‘We soon must lie down in the grave with the forgotten multitudes of former ages’ … the Martyrs’ Plaque in Lichfield, dating from the 1740s and now in Beacon Park (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

During Lent this year, I am taking time each morning to reflect on words from Samuel Johnson (1709-1784), the Lichfield-born lexicographer and writer who compiled the first authoritative English-language dictionary.

Samuel Johnson wrote in the Rambler (No 203) on 25 February 1752:

Every period of life is obliged to borrow its happiness from the time to come. In youth we have nothing to entertain us, and in age we derive little from retrospect but hopeless sorrow. Yet the future likewise has its limits, which the imagination dreads to approach, but which we see to be not far distant. The loss of our friends and companions impresses hourly upon the necessity of our own departure; we know that the schemes of man are quickly at an end, that we soon must lie down in the grave with the forgotten multitudes of former ages, and yield our place to others, who, like us, shall be driven awhile by hope and fear about the surface of the earth, and then like us be lost in the shades of death. Beyond this termination of our material existence, we are therefore obliged to extend our hopes …

Continued tomorrow

Yesterday’s reflection