20 March 2023

All Saints’ Church, Yelvertoft,
and a century-long link with
the Comberford family

All Saints’ Church in Yelvertoft, Northamptshire, was connected with the Comberford family for about a century and Henry Comberford was the rector in 1546-1560 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

In recent weeks, I have gone in search of the former Comberford Manor in the village of Watford in Northamptonshire, close to the Watford Gap.

Having found the site of the Comberford manor and visited the Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, I decided last weekend to return to the same part of rural Northamptoinshire, between Northampton and Rugby, and to search for All Saints’ Church in the village of Yelvertoft, which was also connected with the Comberford family for about a century, and where Henry Comberford was the rector from 1546 to 1560.

The advosom of Yelvertoft, or the right to nominate the rector of the parish, was held by the Combeford family for almost a century, from some time after the 1460s, when John Comberford married Joan Parles, the heiress of Watford Manor and Shutlanger, until 1563, when Thomas Comberford sold the Cumberford Manor in Watford to Sir John Spencer and the Comberford family interest in Yelvertoft parish came to an end.

Inside All Saints’ Church, Yelvertoft, facing east (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

All Saints’ Church, Yelvertoft, is an attractive country church, with an interesting mediaeval tomb niche, a series of carved heraldic shields on the outside north wall of the chancel, a surviving mediaeval sedilia and piscina, a double south aisle and mediaeval carvings on the south porch.

There has probably been a church on this site in Yelvertoft since Saxon times. A church is mentioned in the Domesday Book (1086), although there are no visible traces from that time.

The lofty chancel and a slightly taller nave were built of local cobblestones in the early 12th century in Norman style. The east chancel wall was rebuilt towards the end of the 13th century, when the west tower was added.

Inside All Saints’ Church, Yelvertoft, facing west (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

The north and south aisles were added to the nave ca 1330 to create a wide, spacious interior. An unusual second south aisle was added to the first south aisle in the 15th century, making the interior of the church almost as broad as it is long. When the second south aisle was built, the south door and porch were moved and reinserted in south side of the new, second aisle.

The most intriguing feature of the church is in the chancel, where half the north wall is taken up by an elaborate tomb in Perpendicular style, probably dating from the 15th century.

Within the tomb niche is the alabaster effigy of a priest, thought to be the Revd John Dycson or Dixon, who was the Rector of Yelvertoft from 1439 to 1445. Although the figure is worn, the carvings are very detailed and finely crafted, and the details of the priest’s vestments are clearly visible. Traces of paint still cling to the effigy, indicating how colourful it was at one time.

The tomb niche of a priest, thought the Revd John Dycson or Dixon, Rector of Yelvertoft in 1439-1445 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

On the opposite wall in the sanctuary is a three-seat sedilia, where clergy – priest, deacon and sub-deacon – were seated during the liturgy. The columns separating the seats are worn or eroded, as if they had been badly damaged by weathering.

A local story says the incisions were caused by Cromwell’s soldiers during the Civil War, and that they used the sedilia to sharpen their swords before the Battle of Naseby, about 5 miles from Yelvertoft.

A piscina and aumbry are next to the sedilia.

The carvings on the effigy of the Revd John Dycson are very detailed and finely crafted (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

There is a wall memorial to John Watkin (died 1772) in the chancel. Other monuments commemorate Thomas Rumpin (died 1770), by William Cox senior, to the left of the south chapel arch, with a marble tablet with a cherub below and an heraldic device above; and Thomas Wills (died 1774), in the south chapel, with a marble tablet with curved sides. There are other 19th century marble tablets in the church.

The east window is of painted glass and has suffered the ravages of time and over-enthusiastic cleaning.

The chancel and sanctuary floors are covered with attractive Victorian encaustic tiles, thought to be by Minton.

The columns of the sedilia ring are worn or eroded, and may have been been damaged by Cromwellian soldiers before the Battle of Naseby (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

The south window in the Lady Chapel was blown out during World War II. Most of the glass is recent but the tiny triangles at the top are original and date from mediaeval times.

Several pew ends in the nave have carved end panels that may date from the 16th century. They came from a church in the West Country and were installed in 1870. At the end of one pew, a brass plate on the floor commemorates Richard Ashby, a local benefactor who was one of the founders of the original village school in 1711. The school building on the High Street is now known as the Reading Room.

A memorial on the south wall commemorates airmen who died when two Allied planes collided in the air outside Yelvertoft during World War II, causing much blast damage.

The organ by Norman Beard, dating from 1908, is a two-manual instrument and is in use every Sunday.

There is a copy of Mappa Mundi on the west wall.

The mediaeval piscina in the chancel (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Near the carved font, a sheet of lead taken from the roof has the names of churchwardens and the plumber. Painted boards above the south door describe some local village charities that still exist.

The tower houses a ring of five bells, cast locally in 1635 by Hugh Watts II of Leicester. One bell has coins cast into its rim. The castellation at the top of the tower was renewed in 1959 and a new bell frame installed. The local ringers added a sixth bell in 1989. It was designed by a direct descendant of Hugh Watts to match the originals. The bells are rung every Sunday.

A rural churches millennium grant in 2000 was used to enclose the outer south aisle to form a meeting room with kitchen facilities.

The north window of the chacel seen from outside the church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Outside the church, the wall beneath the north window of the chancel, aligned directly with the Dycson tomb, is decorated with 32 heraldic shields.

These decorative shields were painted rather than carved, and it is safe to speculate that at one time the heraldic decorative work included the coats of arms of the Parles and Comberford families as patrons of the living, nominating many successive incumbents of the parish, and perhaps also the Babington family.

When John Comberford died in 1508, Cumberford Manor in Watford and his estates near Tamworth and Lichfield were inherited by his son Thomas Comberford (1472-1532), who also inherited the advowsom of Yelvertoft.

Many of the Rectors of Yelvertoft appointed by the Comberford family were either drawn from church life in the Diocese of Lichfield or were part of a nexus of families that included the Comberford, Fitzherbert, Babington and Beaumont families. That nexus of families was strengthened by marriages between these families in the late 15th and early 16th centuries.

The 32 decorative shields were once painted and the heraldic decorative work may have included arms of the Parles and Comberford families as patrons of the living (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

The priests nominated to Yelvertoft by the Comberford family included Canon William Smith LLD, who was the Rector of Yelvertoft in 1507-1510. He was a nephew of William Smith (1460-1514), Bishop of Lichfield (1493-1496) and Bishop of Lincoln (1496-1514), who refounded Saint John’s Hospital, Lichfield, in 1495.

William Smith, the bishop’s nephew, studied canon law in Ferrara in Italy, as did William Fitzherbert, Chancellor of Lichfield Cathedral. Smith was incorporated LLD in Cambridge in 1505 and in Oxford in 1506, and was appointed to Yelvertoft by John Comberford the following year.

Smith was also Archdeacon of Northampton (1500-1506), Archdeacon and a Prebendary of Lincoln (1506-1528), Archdeacon of Stow (1507-1508) and a Prebendary of Chichester (1508-1528); Vicar of Bugbrooke, Northamptonshire (1501-1508) and Vicar of Earls Barton, Northamptonshire (1525-1528). He died in June 1528.

The south porch of All Saints’ Church, Yelvertoft (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Smith was succeeded at Yelvertoft by the Revd Thomas Babington, who became Rector in 1510, the year he graduated BA in Cambridge. He was the sixth son of Thomas Babington of Dethick and was part of the nexus that included the Comberford, Fitzherbert, Babington and Beaumont families. He was presented to the parish by his wife’s uncle, Thomas Comberford (1472-1532) of Comberford.

This Thomas Comberford married Dorothy Fitzherbert, daughter of Ralph Fitzherbert of Norbury. She was a sister of: Sir Anthony Fitzherbert of Norbury; Canon Thomas Fitzherbert, Precentor of Lichfield Cathedral; Canon William Fitzherbert, Chancellor of Lichfield Cathedral (1476-1489); Alice Fitzherbert, Abbess of Polesworth, near Tamwortg; and Edith Fitzherbert, who married Thomas Babington of Dethick.

The Revd Thomas Babington was presented as the Rector of Yelvertoft by Thomas Comberford in 1510. He was a nephew of Thomas Comberford, being a son of Dorothy (Fitzherbert) Comberford’s sister, Edith Fitzherbert, and Thomas Babington (d 1518) of Dethick, Sheriff of Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire.

Details of the intricate carving on the south porch of All Saints’ Church, Yelvertoft (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

The Revd Thomas Babington’s brother, Humphrey Babington (1481-1544), married Eleanor Beaumont, the youngest of the three daughters and co-heirs of John Beaumont of Wednesbury. Their children included: Thomas Babington (1516-1567), who joined the plot to place Lady Jane Grey on the throne; and Francis Babington (d. 1569), Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University (1560-1562).

Dorothy Beaumont, the second daughter and co-heir of John Beaumont, married Thomas Babington’s cousin, Thomas Comberford’s son and heir, Humphrey Comberford, who was the Master of the Guild of Saint Mary and Saint John the Baptist in Lichfield in 1530.

Joan Beaumont, the eldest daughter and co-heir of John Beaumont, inherited Timmor, near Fisherwick and in the Parish of Saint Michael, Lichfield. She married William Babington, of Rothley Temple, Leicestershire. They were the ancestors of Canon Zachary Babington, Chancellor of Lichfield Cathedral and Master of Saint John’s Hospital, Lichfield, whose grand-daughter Margaret married John Birch, one of the trustees of the Comberford estates in the 1650s.

The Victorian-era encaustic tiles in the chancel are believed to be by Minton (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Thomas Babington was the Rector of Yelvertoft for only a short time, and he died in Cambridge in 1511. He was succeeded by Canon John Harding or Harden, who was the Rector of Yelvertoft until he died in 1541. He was also a canon of Lincoln Cathedral and Prebendary of Welton Brinkhall (1509-1541), a stall held briefly by Cardinal Thomas Wolsey in 1509.

Yelvertoft was transferred from the Diocese of Lincoln when the new Diocese of Peterborough was formed in 1541. Harding was succeeded by the Revd Thomas Younge, who was the Rector of Yelvertoft in 1542-1546.

Following the death of Thomas Younge, Canon Henry Comberford (1499-1586) was appointed Rector of Yelvertoft by his brother Humphrey Comberford in 1546. With his brothers, Humphrey and Richard, Henry Comberford was educated at Cambridge (BA 1533, MA 1536, BD 1545). He went on to become a Fellow of Saint John’s College and a Proctor of Cambridge University. His brother Richard Comberford was also a Fellow and Senior Bursar of Saint John’s College, Cambridge, and is sometimes said, confusingly, to be the ancestor of the Comerford family of Co Kilkenny and Co Wexford.

A rural churches millennium grant in 2000 was used to enclose the outer south aisle to form a meeting room with kitchen facilities (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Like many of his clerical contemporaries, Henry Comberford was a careerist and a pluralist. After ordination, he was the Rector of Saint Mary’s, Polstead, near Colchester, Suffolk (1539), a Proctor of Cambridge University (1543-1544), Rector of All Saints’, Earsham, near Bunbay, Norfolk (1553-1558) on the nomination of the Duke of Norfolk, Rector of All Saints’, Hethel, near Norwich (1554-1559), Rector of Norbury, then the Fitzherbert family parish in Derbyshire and then in the Diocese of Lichfield (1558-1560), and Rector of Yelvertoft (1541-1560).

Throughout this time, Henry Comberford was also the Precentor of Lichfield Cathedral (1555-1559) and Prebendary of Bishop’s Itchington, and he may also have been the Archdeacon of Coventry (1558-1559) in the Diocese of Lichfield, although this is disputed.

As a pluralist who spent most of his time in the Cathedral Close in Lichfield, Henry might have been expected to treat Yelvertoft as a sinecure that supplemented or enhanced his income, and to not spend much time in his Northamptonshire parish. However, he is named as ‘Sir Henry Comberford, clerk, parson of Yelvertoft,’ in 1557, when he was appointed one of the executors in the will of Sir Thomas Cave, who died in 1558.

Henry was soon deprived of all his church appointments because of his Catholic sympathies. He was replaced in Yelvertoft by Canon William Walkeden (1526-1620), who was presented to the parish in 1560, and remained there until he died in 1589.

Painted boards above the south door describe some local village charities (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Walkeden was ordained in the Diocese of Lichfield and was also the Prebendary of Whittington and Berkswich in Lichfield Cathedral and Rector of Clifton Campville (1558-1607), Staffordshire, six or seven miles east of Comberford. He too seemingly shared Henry Comberford’s theological outlook, and in the Diocese of Lichfield he was threatened on 3 January 1561 by Bishop Thomas Bentham for ‘evil and papist stuff … uttered in his sermon.’

Thomas Comberford sold his manor in Watford to Sir John Spencer in 1563, and the Comberford family interest in Yelvertoft came to an end after a century of patronage and appointing the rectors of the parish.

• The Revd Graeme Anderson is the Rector of Crick, Lilbourn and Yelvertoft with Clay Coton, and the Rev Kris Seward is curate. Sunday services are at 11.15 am: First Sunday, Sung Holy Communion; Second Sunday, Sung Morning Worship; Third Sunday, Songs of Praise; Fourth Sunday, All-Age Service; Fifth Sunday, a united benefice service, Sung Eucharist in one of the churches in rotation.

Henry Comberford (1499-1586) was the Rector of Yelvertoft in 1546-1560 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

A journey through Lent 2023
with Samuel Johnson (27)

The widowed Elizabeth (‘Tetty’) Jervis Porter married Samuel Johnson in 1735 – he was then 25 and she was 46 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

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

The Samuel Johnson Birthplace Museum in Lichfield recently displayed a beautiful portrait of Johnson’s step-daughter, Lucy Porter, showing Lucy as a child.

At the time the portrait was loaned to the museum, the museum curator, Jo Wilson, told the Lichfield Mercury that Lucy ‘was very close to Johnson, but also an interesting figure in Lichfield’s history as she often helped in the Breadmarket Street shop, and had Redcourt House built later in her life.’

Thomas Macaulay described Johnson’s wife Tetty as ‘a short, fat, coarse woman, painted half an inch thick, dressed in gaudy colours, and fond of exhibiting provincial airs and graces.’ Other largely negative and unsympathetic descriptions of Elizabeth come from the actor David Garrick, a former pupil of Johnson, and Johnson’s friend the actor and diarist Hester Thrale.

But Johnson was very fond of his wife. Born Elizabeth Jervis, Tetty first married Henry Porter (1691-1734) in 1715, and they became friends of Johnson in 1732. On first meeting him, she said to her daughter Lucy: ‘That is the most sensible man I ever met.’

They married in Saint Werburgh’s Church, Derby, in 1735. Her dowry of over £600 was invested in setting up Edial Hall, a private school at Edial, near Lichfield. After the school’s failure in 1737, Johnson moved to London, where she joined him later that year.

Although the couple went through difficult periods, their marriage was certainly tested throughout their life together, only to be proven at the very end that their love was infinite and true.

Elizabeth died at 63 in 1752. Her gravestone inscription in Bromley Churchyard says in Latin: Formosae, cultae, ingeniosae, piae, ‘Beautiful, elegant, talented, and dutiful.’

The full inscription reads:

Hic conduntur reliquiae Elizabethae, Antiqua JARVISIORUM gent Peatlingae, apud Leicestrienses ortae; Formosae, cultae, ingeniosae, piae, Uxoris, primis nuptiis, Henrici PORTER, Secundis, Samuelis JOHNSON: Qui multum amatam diuque defletam Hoc lapide contexit Obiit Londini, Mense Mart, A.M. MDCCLIII.

The inscription mistakenly gives the year of her death as 1753.

Some years after her death, Johnson prayed in these words:

Almighty God, sanctify unto me the reflections and resolutions of this day. Let not my sorrow be unprofitable; let not my resolutions be in vain. Grant that my grief may produce true repentance, so that I may live and please thee … Grant me that the loss of my wife may teach me the true use of the blessings which are yet left me, and that however bereft of worldly comforts, I may find peace and refuge in thy service … May my affliction be sanctified, and that remembering how much every day brings me nearer to the grave, I may every day purify my mind and amend my life, by the assistance of thy Holy Spirit, till at last I shall be accepted by Thee, for Jesus sake. Amen.

In 1764, 12 years after his wife’s death, Johnson wrote in a diary:

Having before I went to bed composed the foregoing meditation and the following prayer, I tried to compose myself but slept unquietly. I rose, took tea, and prayed for resolution and perseverance. Thought on Tetty, dear poor Tetty, with my eyes full.

Johnson wrote an extended sermon for his wife, describing her vivacious character; although this was not published until after his death in 1788.

When Johnson died, he left Tetty’s wedding ring to his servant Francis Barber, who had the ring enamelled then gave it to his wife as a ring of mourning. This beautiful ring is on display in a small elegant box in the ‘London Life’ room in Samuel Johnson Birthplace and Museum in Lichfield.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

The portrait of Lucy Porter, showing her as a child (Photograph: Samuel Johnson Birthplace and Museum/Lichfield Mercury)