23 May 2018

Ruined castles and lost
hopes of a title in
Stafford and Tamworth

The ruins of Stafford Castle … but whatever happened to the Stafford heirs? (Photograph: Giles Jones/Wkipedia)

Patrick Comerford

I have always enjoyed the Ealing comedies. Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949) is a memorable movie starring Alec Guinness. The plot revolves around Louis D’Ascoyne Mazzini, the son of a woman disowned by her aristocratic family for marrying out of her social class. After her death, Louis sets out to take revenge on the family by murdering the eight people ahead of him in succession to the title.

Eventually, he succeeds as the tenth Duke of Chalfont, but he is sentenced to death not for the murders that secured his peerage but for a murder he had never contemplated.

Alec Guinness plays nine members of the D’Ascoyne family: Ethelred, 8th Duke of Chalfont, the Revd Lord Henry, General Lord Rufus, Admiral Lord Horatio, Lord Ascoyne, Young Ascoyne, Young Henry and Lady Agatha D’Ascoyne. He also plays the seventh duke in brief flashback sequences to his mother’s childhood.

Major themes in the film include class, sexual repression and love across the English class divisions. It has been listed consistently among the top British films in different polls.

The weak point in the plot is that, unlike other most other English titles, the title of Duke of Chalfont can descend through female heirs. It is an unlikely line of succession that would have destroyed one of the plots in Downton Abbey, written by Julian Fellowes, now Lord Fellowes of West Stafford.

The story in this Bafta-winning blockbuster centres on the plight of the Earl of Grantham who has three daughters and no son. The estate and title are entailed exclusively to a male heir, and so both pass to a distant cousin, Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens).

Like Kind Hearts and Coronets, the television drama series dealt not only with questions of aristocratic lines of succession, but also with class, sexual repression and love across the English class divisions.

These issues may be entertaining today, and they probably appear obtuse to most of us. But I came across a real-life case from the 17th century that could have inspired both of these storylines while I was trying to research some minor details of the Comberford family tree in Staffordshire.

The Moat House on Lichfield Street, Tamworth, where William Comberford entertained Charles I when he was Prince of Wales (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

At the Visitation of Warwickshire in 1619, the heralds allowed William Comberford of Comberford to use the coat-of-arms of the Parles family quartered with those of eight other families: Edgbaston, Beaumont, Cumming, Chester, Everingham, Heronville, Tynmore and Stafford (or, a chevron gules and in dexter chief a mullet gules).

There is no independent evidence to explain why William Comberford was allowed to include the differenced Stafford arms in his quarterings. This is the year Charles I, as Prince of Wales, was William Comberford’s guest in the Moat House, Tamworth. Perhaps William aspired to an eventual claim to a title from one of these families. If so, his hopes were misplaced.

But within the next two decades, the Stafford family title changed hands in what can only be described as a genealogical sleight-of-hand that would have fitted neatly into the story of the D’Ascoyne family and allayed the fears and anxieties of the Earl of Grantham in Downton Abbey.

It is a tale of snobbery, class discrimination, and genealogical farce, and it is the very sad case of Roger Stafford, who was the rightful 6th Baron Stafford.

His ancestors, as Earls of Stafford, and for a while Dukes of Buckingham, had been one of the most powerful families in 14th and 15th century England. Roger was descended from English royalty through several lines of royal descent. But, partly because of this, Roger’s great-grandfather, Edward Stafford, 3rd Duke of Buckingham, fell foul of Henry VIII; he was attainted and was beheaded in 1521.

In 1547, the third duke’s son and heir, Henry Stafford (1501-1563), was restored in blood, but not to all his father’s peerages and titles. After recovering many of his father’s estates, he was declared to be Baron Stafford, with remainder (or rights of succession) to the heirs male of his body.

The succession then passed to Henry’s first and second sons, Henry Stafford (1534-1567), 2nd Baron Stafford, and Edward Stafford (1536-1603), 3rd Baron Stafford. Although Edward also inherited Stafford Castle along with a small parcel of land, he never regained the family’s wealth or status of earlier years. Stafford Castle had fallen into disrepair and in 1603, Edward Stafford wrote a letter in which he referred to ‘My rotten castle of Stafford.’

When Edward Stafford died in 1603, his title passed to his son, Edward Stafford (1572-1625), 4th Baron Stafford, and then to his great-grandson, Henry Stafford (1621-1637), the 5th Baron Stafford, who died at the age of 16 in 1637.

When the fifth baron died, the Stafford family estates passed to his sister Mary, who soon after married William Howard (1621-1680), son of the Earl of Arundel. But the title was inherited – at least in theory – by Henry’s distant kinsman, Roger Stafford (1572-ca 1640). This Roger Stafford was the only known son of Richard Stafford, the youngest brother of the second and third barons and the youngest son of the first baron.

At the age of 65, Roger Stafford petitioned Parliament for the title. A commission was appointed to examine his claim, headed by Henry Montagu, 1st Earl of Manchester. Eventually the claim reached King Charles I who denied it on the grounds of Roger’s poverty and his ‘very mean and obscure condition.’

The judgment decided ‘that the said Roger Stafford, having no part of the inheritance of the said Lord Stafford, nor any other lands or means whatsoever … should make a resignation of all claims and title to the said Barony of Stafford, for his majesty to dispose of as he should see fit.’

Today, such a surrender would be deemed illegal. Charles I may have been applying the principles of Scottish peerage law, which allowed peers to renounce or surrender their titles to the Crown for regrant. But Scottish law could not have applied to a case in which the king deprived a legitimate heir of his English peerage.

Nevertheless, in compliance with the king’s wishes, Roger Stafford stepped down as the 6th Baron Stafford, signing a deed dated 7 December 1639 and confirmed in court early in 1640, in exchange for a payment of £800. Later that year, on 12 September 1640, King Charles bestowed the titles of Baron and Baroness Stafford on William Howard and his wife Mary Stafford, Roger’s distant but well-married cousin.

Roger Stafford died unmarried soon after. At the time, he was thought to be the last male member of the Stafford family. His sister Jane had married a man in in Newport, Shropshire, variously described as a a labour or joiner. She is said to have been a widow by 1637, and to have had a son who was a cobbler or shoemaker.

Roger Stafford failed to hold onto his title as the rightful 6th Baron Stafford, not because he failed to prove his ancestry, but because his failure to inherit any of the family lands meant he and his family lived what we might describe today as tradesmen or in working class lives.

Further descendants of this branch of the Stafford family have never been traced. But it is still possible many ordinary families somewhere in the West Midlands are descended from the once-noble Staffords.

As this branch of the Stafford family descended into obscurity, William Howard was given a new title as Viscount Stafford. He was implicated in the Titus Oates plot and executed for treason in 1680. But his widow’s Roman Catholic faith found favour with James II, and in 1688 Mary was given the title of Countess of Stafford.

The Stafford barony created for Mary Stafford is unusual, for – like the title of the fictious Dukes of Chalfont – it can descend to heirs general. The last Earl of Stafford in this line of descent, John Paul Stafford Howard (1700-1762), died in 1762. One of his daughters married, two of his daughters became nuns, and the line of descent of the new title of Baron Stafford was deemed to have descended through the children of his sister Mary Plowden, and her daughter, Mary Plowden, who married Sir George Stafford Jerningham.

The title has since passed through their descendants to the Fitzherbert family, who had actually intermarried with the Comberford family in the 16th century. Today the title is held by the current Lord Stafford. But, while he and his predecessors have claimed the ancient barony of Stafford once held by the mediaeval Staffords, these claims were never accepted by the House of Lords.

These obscure lines of genealogical descent that have allowed a peerage to descend in an obscure way that in the past has ignored the original male heirs would give credibility to the storyline in Kind Hearts and Coronets and would end the woes of Lord Grantham in Downton Abbey.

Meanwhile, I have still to find out why William Comberford was anxious to assert his claims to descent from the Stafford family … and whether the title of the Dukes of Chalfont was an obscure point of humour, referring to the cockney rhyming slang that associates Chalfont St Giles with haemorrhoids. Perhaps Roger Stafford’s forgotten brother-in-law might have thought it all cobblers too.

The quartered arms allowed to William Comberford at the Visitation of Warwickshire in 1619, with the Stafford arms in the last quarter

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