21 September 2022

Searching in York for
Henry Comberford’s
prison cell on the bridge

Henry Comberford was imprisoned in the Upper Sheriff’s Kidcote on the Ouse Bridge in York from 1570 to 1576 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Patrick Comerford

While I was in York last week, I was interested in finding the place where the other cathedral precentor in the family, Canon Henry Comberford of Lichfield, had been held as a prisoner 450 years ago. He was then about the same age as I am now.

Henry Comberford (ca 1499-1586), became Precentor of Lichfield Cathedral during the reign of Queen Mary, in 1555, and he was a key figure in the events surrounding the Reformation in Lichfield.

Henry Comberford was arrested in Sheffield in 1570 and was imprisoned in the Upper Sheriff’s Kidcote on Ouse Bridge in York from 1570 to 1576. From his prison cell in York, he seems to have spread his beliefs amongst his fellow prisoners. As his fame grew, those outside the prison walls sought audiences with him. The confessions of at least two York prisoners, William Tessimond and John Fletcher, suggest the influence of Comberford’s teaching.

The historian John Aveling points out the importance of Henry Comberford in the development of recusancy in York. He attributes to him no small part in the growth in number of recusants in the city from only 15 in 1568, to 67 in 1576.

Later, when Henry Comberford was moved from York, he had a significant impact in Hull, where he was commanded him ‘to cease from such seducing and to be quiet.’

The Archbishop of York, Edwin Sandys, complained in 1577, that due to Comberford many ‘stiffe necked, wilful’ and ‘obstinate’ people of his diocese were ‘reconciled to Rome and sworne to the pope’, and that ‘the moste of them have ben corrupted by on Henry Comberforde, a moste obstinate popishe prieste.’

The Precentor’s Stall in the chapter stalls in Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Henry Comberford, who born ca 1499, came from Comberford, half-way between Lichfield and Tamworth. His family lived at Comberford Hall, the Moat House on Lichfield Street, Tamworth, and at Wednesbury Manor.

His brothers included Humphrey Comberford, one of the last Masters of the Guild of Saint Mary and Saint John in Lichfield, and Judge Richard Comberford, the putative ancestor of the Comerford family in Ireland.

With his brothers, Humphrey and Richard, Henry Comberford was educated at Cambridge, where he graduated BA (1533), MA (1536) and BD (1545), and 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.

Like many of his contemporary clerics, Henry became 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’, Hethell, near Norwich (1554-1559), Rector of Norbury, Derbyshire, then in the Diocese of Lichfield (1558), and Rector of Yelvertoft, Northamptonshire, in the Diocese of Peterborough (to 1560).

Henry was the Precentor of Lichfield Cathedral from 9 June 1555 to 1559, and Prebendary of Bishop’s Itchington at the same time. He may also have been Archdeacon of Coventry (ca 1558 to 1559), in the Diocese of Lichfield, although this is disputed.

The precentor was the first residentiary canon of Lichfield Cathedral, and as such was a Justice of the Peace or Magistrate for the Cathedral Close. For many centuries, the precentor’s house traditionally has been at No 23 in the Cathedral Close in Lichfield. Bishop’s Itchington, or Fisher’s Itchington, near Stratford-on-Avon, Warwickshire, takes its name from the River Itchen and from the Bishops of Lichfield, the former landowners of the village. The prebend of Bishop’s Itchington was traditionally held by the Precentor of Lichfield.

Henry Comberford accumulated most of his appointments during the reign of Queen Mary (1553-1557), but when she died in November 1558 and her half-sister Elizabeth became queen, Henry appears to have been willing initially to accept the Elizabethan Anglican settlement, and his name appears on the coronation pardon roll of 15 January 1559.

However, within a month, the two bailiffs of Lichfield City, Edward Bardell and John Dyott, in February 1559, accused Henry of ‘lewd preaching and misdemeanour.’ Dyott is referred to in Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part 2, Act 3, Scene 2, in the dialogue between Shallow and Silence. He was an uncle of Sir Richard Dyott, who was a trustee of the Comberford estates in the following century.

Henry was summoned before the Privy Council on 27 February 1559, was deprived of all his benefices because of his extreme Catholicism, and was in prison until April 1559.

Four months later, in June 1559, Ralph Baynes, who had been Henry’s contemporary at Saint John’s College, Cambridge, was deprived as Bishop of Lichfield, and the Dean of Lichfield, John Ramridge, was sent to the Tower of London. When he was released on bail, Dean Ramridge escaped to Flanders, where he was later murdered. In addition, between 1559 and 1564, the Chancellor of Lichfield, Canon Alban Longdale, was deprived, the Treasurer, Canon George Lee, resigned, and many of the prebendaries and cathedral clergy were deprived or were forced to resign between 1559 and 1564. Henry was also deprived of the parish of Yelvertoft in 1560.

The Cathedral Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul in Sheffield … Henry Comberford was arrested in Sheffield in 1570 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

In a report on the recusants of Staffordshire in 1562, Edward Grindall, Bishop of London, described Henry Comberford as ‘learned, but wilful.’ After three years of protracted actions, he was finally dismissed as the Precentor of Lichfield and as the Prebendary of Bishop’s Itchington that year, and was succeeded by Edward Leds or Leedes.

Later, Henry was ordered to live in Suffolk. But he may not have been as extreme in his Catholic views as his detractors claimed, for he was given the liberty to travel twice every year into Staffordshire, allowing six weeks on each occasion.

Nevertheless, in 1570 – the year his old protagonist Grindal became Archbishop of York – he was apprehended for celebrating the Mass in the house of Anne Percy (1538-1596), Countess of Northumberland. In the autumn of 1569, Lady Northumberland and Jane Howard, Countess of Westmoreland, planned and instigated the ‘Northern Rebellion,’ an uprising by the disgruntled Catholic gentry of Northern England against Queen Elizabeth I.

On 10 November 1570, while Mary Queen of Scots was held in Sheffield Castle, Lady Northumberland’s house at Broom Hall in Sheffield was searched. Henry Comberford was arrested there. Later, when he was examined by the York ecclesiastical commissioners, he affirmed both ‘the Masse to be good’ and ‘the Pope to be supreame Head of the universall Churche,’ beliefs he vowed to maintain ‘untill deathe’.

Henry further claimed that it was through his efforts that Lady Northumberland had renounced Protestant principles and embraced the Catholic faith. Although the countess was allegedly responsible for persuading and encouraging her husband to stand up for his Catholic beliefs and to take part in the ‘Northern Rebellion’ the previous year, her religious convictions had not always been so strong. Henry lamented that she had been ‘possessed with an evell spirite' which had caused her to ‘utter infinite and blasphemous others to denye god and the Catholik Church’. It was only through fasting, praying, reciting of psalms and reading of the gospel ‘where the castinge owt of devells is menciond’ that he had brought her to her senses.

York Minister … Henry Comberford was questioned by the York ecclesiastical commissioners after his arrest in Sheffield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

In his examination, Henry revealed that ‘abowte tenn yeres paste whilste he was at his praiers’ he had been visited by a messenger from God. This messenger had supposedly bidden him to ‘ponder well the third Chapter of Danyell.’

Daniel 3 tells the story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego who, when instructed by King Nebuchadnezzar to worship the golden idol, trusted in God and defied the king’s command, ‘resolving to suffer with patience what soever [God] would permitte to fal unto them.’

Placed within the context of early Elizabethan Catholicism, it seems that Henry was using this biblical story to justify his resistance to the Elizabethan settlement. The citation of Daniel 3 to justify non-compliance with a ruler had been employed by Protestant anti-Nicodemite propagandists during Mary’s reign and it may be that Comberford drew inspiration from these tracts. However, he seems to have been the first to deploy this biblical passage in a Catholic context – the next Catholic writer known to do so was the English Jesuit Henry Garnet in his 1593 tract, A treatise of Christian renunciation.

Henry Comberford was imprisoned in York, and from his prison cell in the Upper Sheriff’s Kidcote on Ouse Bridge, he spread his beliefs amongst his fellow prisoners. As his fame grew, those outside the prison walls sought audiences with him. The confessions of at least two York prisoners, William Tessimond and John Fletcher, suggest the influence of Comberford’s teaching.

The historian John Aveling emphasises the importance of Henry Comberford in the development of recusancy in York. He attributes to him no small part in the growth in number of recusants in the city from only 15 in 1568, to 67 in 1576.

The River Ouse beneath the Ouse Bridge in York … from his prison cell, Henry Comberford spread his beliefs amongst his fellow prisoners (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

The prominent people in York who became Catholics at this time included Saint Margaret Clitherow (1553-15 ), who was martyred on the bridge in York for harbouring a priest and refusing to abjure her faith.

Margaret Clitherow’s father, Thomas Middleton, was Sheriff of York in 1564 and a churchwarden of Saint Martin’s Church, Colney Street. Her husband, John Clitherow, was a wealthy butcher and a chamberlain of the city, and they lived in The Shambles in York.

Margaret became a Roman Catholic in 1574 through the influence of the wife of Dr Thomas Vavasour, a prominent Catholic in York. At the same time, Henry Comberford was being held in a cell in the Upper Sheriff’s Kidcote on Ouse Bridge.

Christopher Watson, a wealthy gentleman of Ripon, over 20 miles from York, explained how a local priest had brought him to York to meet Comberford, ‘who with godly prudence and good deliberation took him by the hand and brought him within the saving Ark of Noah.’ This encounter convinced Watson to spend all his wealth relieving afflicted Catholics, and by 1580 his activities had earned him a place in York Castle where ‘his continual exercise was … to pray, to praise God, and to work the works of mercy.’

Henry Comberford also seems to have made a significant impact upon another Yorkshire town, Hull. On 7 January 1576, the York high commission, recognising that ‘he (by fame) hath seduced divers … causing them by his persuasion to be disobedient in coming to the church,’ commanded him ‘to cease from such seducing and to be quiet.’

The sign of the King’s Arms by the River Ouse beneath the Ouse Bridge in York (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Finding him ’utterly disobedient,’ they moved him out of the prison at York and into the closer confinement of Hull Blockhouse. It seems that he began at once to develop yet another recusancy network in his new surroundings, despite the harsher conditions of the Blockhouse.

Archbishop Edwin Sandys of York wrote to the privy council on 28 October 1577, decrying the many ‘stiffe necked, wilful’ and ‘obstinate’ people of his diocese who were ‘reconciled to Rome and sworne to the pope.’ It is unknown whether the former Precentor of Lichfield had been granted such faculties for reconciliation, but it was certainly Sandys’s belief that ‘the moste of them have ben corrupted by on Henry Comberforde, a moste obstinate popishe prieste.’

Sandys wrote again to Burghley in April 1578, explaining apprehensively how, ‘[t]he obstinate which refuse to come to churche, whereof the most parte are women, neither canne I by persuasion nor correction bringe them to any conformitie. They depende uppon Comberford and the rest in the Castle at Hull.’

Henry Comberford was still a prisoner in Hull for his religious beliefs in 1579. There he was regarded as dangerous to the state. It is hard to imagine how dangerous a man he could have been, for by then he was 80 years of age. Grindal was an argumentative and difficult prelate, with Puritan sympathies – even falling out of favour with Elizabeth – and by then had become Archbishop of Canterbury.

Henry Comberford died on 4 March 1586 in Hull Prison at the age of 87.

Later that month, Margaret Clitherow’s house in The Shambles in York was raided. She was tried at the Guildhall and on 25 March 1586 she was taken to the Toll Booth on the Ouse Bridge, close to where Henry Comberford had been a prisoner. There she was crushed to death by door of her own house.

A plaque on the Ouse Bridge recalls the execution of Margaret Clitherow in 1586, days after the death of Henry Comberford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Henry Comberford’s Catholic views were shared by his sister, Dorothy Comberford, wife of Christopher Heveningham of Aston and Pipe Hall. Pipe Hall, the manor of Pipe at Burntwood, west of Lichfield, is part of Saint Michael’s Parish, Lichfield, and during the reign of Elizabeth I, according to the Staffordshire historian Michael Greenslade, ‘the manor was a nest of Papists.’

Dorothy was fined with her cousin Katherine Badduley or Bodlilighe of Stone for non-attendance at church in 1581. In 1606, her son, Sir John Heveningham of Pipe Hall, a ‘suspected papist,’ was accused of failing to attend church at Saint Chad’s Church, Stowe, but he defended himself by pointing out that he had worshipped at Lichfield Cathedral and arguing that Stowe was not a parish church.

Henry’s nephew, Thomas Comberford of Comberford Hall, was implicated in plots by the Staffordshire Catholic gentry in support of Mary Queen of Scots. He was apprehended in 1573 by the Earl of Shrewsbury, who reported that Comberford was a place ‘where masses were frequented.’ Shrewsbury also arrested two priests who had said a very large number of Masses there.

Thomas was released after a short period, but he, his wife Dorothy, and other members of the Comberford family were fined on several occasions in the 1580s for not attending church. Thomas appears to have more careful to conform for the rest of his life, although two of his tenants were accused of harbouring seminarians and priests.

I smiled in York last week as I found myself in Precentor’s Court beside York Minister and recalled that there was another precentor in the family story who was sacked after being accused by one of his neighbours of ‘lewd preaching and misdemeanour,’ and who was described by a bishop as being ‘learned, but wilful.’ His ‘lewd preaching and misdemeanour’ was not the sort that would have excited tabloid journalists today.

Precentor’s Court beside York Minister (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

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