17 June 2024

Skeffington House in
Leicester recalls family
feuds, Comberford links
and a lost Lichfield estate

Skeffington House, the only surviving Elizabethan urban gentry house in Leicester … built by Thomas Skeffington in 1560-1583 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Patrick Comerford

During my visits to Leicester last month, I went twice to see Skeffington House, the only surviving Elizabethan urban gentry house in Leicestershire. It was built between 1560 and 1583 by Thomas Skeffington (1550-1600), who was MP for Leicestershire in 1593 and the Sheriff of Leicestershire on four occasions: 1576-1577, 1588-1589, 1596 and 1599-1600.

The survival of Skeffington House in Leicester over the past 450 or more years was a reminder of the close connections that once linked the Skeffington family and the Comberford family in Staffordshire, and of how the Skeffington family of Fisherwick were once – albeit briefly – a powerful political family in Lichfield and Tamworth in the 17th century.

The Skeffington family took their name from Skeffington, a village 15 km (10 miles) east of Leicester, where they lived from the mid-13th century. In the early 16th century, Sir William Skeffington was the Lord Deputy of Ireland during the reign of Henry VIII. It was he who battered down the walls of Maynooth Castle with cannon, and he devised a contraption of torture known as the ‘Skevington maiden.’ When he died in Kilmainham in 1534, he was buried in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin.

Fisherwick Hall, the long lost home of the Skeffington family near Lichfield

His son, Sir John Skeffington, was the founder of the Staffordshire branch of the family. This John Skeffington was a London alderman and wool merchant. He was the Sheriff of London in 1521, and in that same year he bought the Manor of Fisherwick, about 6 km (4 miles) east of Lichfield, between Whittington and Elford and immediately north of Comberford. Fisherwick was in Saint Michael’s Parish, Lichfield, and many members of the Skeffington family of Fisherwick were baptised, married and buried at Saint Michael’s Church – the same church where the parents of Samuel Johnson were buried later.

John Skeffington married Elizabeth Pecke, and Fisherwick was inherited by their son, Sir William Skeffington of Fisherwick. This William married Isa or Joan (Elizabeth) Leveson, a daughter of James Leveson of Liilleshall, Shropshire, and Trentham, Staffordshire. When Sir William died in 1637, he too was buried at Saint Michael’s Church, Lichfield.

William Skeffington’s daughter Mary married her neighbour, William Comberford (1551-1625) of Comberford Hall and the Moat House, Tamworth, in 1567, probably in Saint Michael’s Church, Lichfield, while his son Sir John Skeffington (1534-1604) inherited Fisherwick.

Comberford Hall … Mary Skeffington married Thomas Comberford of Comberford Hall and the Moat House, Tamworth, in 1567 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Mary Comberford’s brother Sir John Skeffington was educated at Queens’ College, Cambridge, and was admitted to the Inner Temple in 1556. He married Alice Cave, daughter of Sir Thomas Cave, and when he died on 7 November 1604 he too was buried at Saint Michael’s Church, Lichfield.

Sir John Skeffington’s son and Mary Comberford’s nephew, Sir William Skeffington of Fisherwick, was a prominent figure in Staffordshire life. Sir William Skeffington was twice Sheriff of Staffordshire, in 1601 and again in 1623, when he succeeded his uncle by marriage, William Comberford, and he was given the title of baronet in 1627. He married Elizabeth Dering and died on 13 September 1635. He was buried on 16 September 1635.

Sir William Skeffington’s two sons found themselves on opposing sides in the English Civil War: Sir John Skeffington (1584-1651), who inherited Fisherwick and the family title as the second baronet, was a faint-hearted royalist, while his younger brother, Sir Richard Skeffington (1590-1647), was an MP for Tamworth in 1627 and later an MP for Staffordshire in the Long Parliament of 1646.

The Moat House, Tamworth … Sir Richard Skeffington, MP for Tamworth, was a grandson of Mary Comberford’s brother (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

The elder son, Sir John Skeffington, spent more than two years at the Middle Temple, but may not have been a diligent student: he was twice fined for missing readings and once for being absent at Christmas. Sir John became entangled in the affairs of the Skeffington family in Leicester when he married his distant cousin Ursula (or Cicely) Skeffington, one of the four daughters of Thomas Skeffington who built Skeffington House in Leicester.

At the time of their marriage, the Leicestershire branch of the Skeffington family was threatened with extinction. Ursula’s father had died in 1605, leaving his estates between his two sons, Sir William Skeffington and John Skeffington. The elder brother William was in an unhappy childless marriage, and shortly after he died in 1605 his widow, Lady Katherine Skeffington, married her groom, Michael Bray.

John Skeffington resented his widowed sister-in-law marrying the groom. The family arguments ended up in court of Westminster in 1613 and a settlement seemed near when the case was adjourned. During the adjournment, John Skeffington and Michael Bray ran into each other in the Hoop Tavern in 1613. They fought and brawled, swords were drawn, and each man ran his sword through the other at the same time, murdering each other in one swift moment.

The Skeffington estates in Leicestershire, Warwickshire and Lincolnshire, said to be worth £1,500 a year, were now divided between the four surviving sisters of William and John: Mary, Catherine, Elizabeth and Ursula. The youngest sister, Ursula, became engaged to a man named Palmer, but she returned his ring and instead married her distant cousin, Sir John Skeffington of Fisherwick, a grandson of Mary Comberford’s brother.

Sir John Skeffington moved to Leicestershire, and when he was knighted in 1624 he was described as living at Skeffington. However, his bride did not make him especially wealthy, as the twice widowed Katherine Bray continued to draw an income from her first husband’s Leicestershire estates.

It seems, though, that John Skeffington exaggerated his poverty. For example, he claimed in 1623 that he was unable to provide a light horse for the militia because he was living on less than £100 a year. Yet in 1627 he told Chancery that his estate was worth around £300 a year.

Skeffington was knighted in 1624 and in 1626 he was elected MP for Newcastle-under-Lyme – a constituency represented almost 200 years earlier by William Comberford in 1442. Skeffington was elected with the support of his brother-in-law Sir William Bowyer and of the Lord Lieutenant of Staffordshire, the 3rd Earl of Essex, who may also have been responsible for the election of Skeffington’s brother, Sir Richard, as MP for Tamworth the previous year.

Saint Mary’s Church, Lichfield … Sir John Skeffington was involved in the legislation to make Saint Mary’s a parish church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

As one of the MPs for Staffordshire, Sir John Skeffington was involved in the legislation to annex Freeford prebend to the vicarage of Saint Mary’s in Lichfield and make Saint Mary’s a parish church. But he seems to have become disillusioned with Parliament, and in a letter he described the House of Commons as a place ‘to please none, to displease all and bear all his own charges’.

George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, may have been involved in securing the title of baronet for Skeffington’s father in 1627, a title John Skeffington would eventually inherit himself.

Sir John Skeffington inherited his father’s title and his estates in Staffordshire in 1635. He returned to live at Fisherwick, and was appointed Sheriff of Staffordshire in 1637, although his enthusiasm for this office seems to have waned. His portion of the family’s Leicestershire estate increased when one of his sisters-in-law, Elizabeth Jeter, died childless in 1637. By the early 1650s, he was able to put the income from his wife’s estate at £700 a year, out of which £140 continued to be paid to Lady Katherine Bray.

When the English Civil War broke out, he initially supported the king, agreeing to contribute six horsemen to the royalist army. However, by October 1642 he was beginning to have second thoughts and he was negotiating with his Roundhead brother, Sir Richard, to defect. Sir Richard Skeffington (1597-1647) was educated at Magdalene College, Cambridge, and was knighted in 1624. He was MP for Tamworth in 1625 and for Staffordshire in 1646-1647. When he died on 2 June 1647, he was buried at Broxbourne, Hertfordshire.

In the event, John Skeffington never switched sides. The parliamentarians sequestered his estates, and in March 1650 he was allowed to compound for his Staffordshire properties at a sixth of their value. In July 1651, his fine was fixed at £1,616 18s 8d, but there is no evidence he ever paid that sum.

Generations of the Skeffington family were married and buried at Saint Michael’s Church, Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Sir John Skeffington died in November 1651 and was buried on 20 November in Skeffington, Leicestershire, rather than in Saint Michael’s, Lichfield. Despite his behaviour and fines as a student, his funeral monument says was learned and was skilled in English, Latin, Greek, French, Italian and Spanish. Towards the end of his life, Skeffington translated El Héroe (1637), by the Spanish Jesuit Baltasar Gracián Morales, which was published after his death with a preface by Izaak Walton.

Sir John Skeffington’s son, Sir William Skeffington, who succeeded as the third baronet and inherited the estate at Fisherwick, died unmarried in April 1652. The title of baronet then passed first to the son of Sir Richard Skeffington of Tamworth, Sir John Skeffington (1632-1695), who was elected to Richard Cromwell’s 1659 Parliament for counties Antrim, Down and Armagh. He later inherited the title of Viscount Massereene through his father-in-law and died in 1695.

His descendants acquired Comberford Hall in the decades that followed, although the descendants of the Comberford family seem to have continued to lived there as tenants of the Skeffington family until the mid-18th century, when they found themselves unable to redeem the mortgages once raised on the Comberford estates.

Capability Brown’s landscape at Fisherwick Hall, a painting by John Spyers (1786) … Fisherwick Hall was inherited along with Comberford Hall by the Chichester family, but was demolished in 1805

Fisherwick Hall, in time, passed from the Skeffington family to the Chichester family, later Earls and Marquesses of Donegall, who also acquired neighbouring Comberford Hall, acquiring the ancestral homes of both the Comberford and the Skeffington families between Lichfield and Tamworth.

Like neighbouring Fisherwick Hall, Comberford Hall descended with the title of Viscount Massereene, until 1755, when Clotworthy Skeffington, 5th Viscount Massereene, sold his mortgaged estates – perhaps to pay the debts of his gambling son, Clotworthy Skeffington – to Samuel Swinfen of Swinfen Hall, in Weeford, near Lichfield, as the trustee of his neighbour Samuel Hill of Shenstone Park.

When Comberford and Fisherwick passed to Hill’s nephew, Samuel Egerton (1711-1780), he told them to their former trustee, Samuel Swinfen. The estate were later sold to Thomas Thynne (1734-1796), 3rd Viscount Weymouth and 1st Marquis of Bath, and then to Arthur Chichester (1739-1799), 5th Earl of Donegall, who rebuilt Fisherwick Hall in 1766-1774 to designs by Capability Brown.

Eventually, the Chichester family, crippled by the gambling debts of a profligate son, was forced to sell Fisherwick Hall and Comberford Hall. Fisherwick Hall was demolished by the Howard family in 1805, although some of its ruins may still be seen. But the Fisherwick name survives in street names in parts of Belfast once owned by the Chichester family.

Skeffington House, Leicester … a reminder of jealousy, feuds and links with Lichfield and the Comberford family (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)


Anonymous said...

What a brilliant read Patrick. I & friends in the 60s/70s did a lot of fishing along the canal at Fisherwick. We loved it there & knew about Fisherwick Hall but not to the extent of what you’ve published here. Brilliant read.

Patrick Comerford said...

Thank you David for such generous and beautiful memories. I'm glad this posting has rekindled those memories. This is a beautiful corner of the world, and I treasure every opprtunity I have of being there, Patrick

Anonymous said...

We live in Fisherwick always on the lookout for interesting information about the area