22 October 2022

The dream of Mary Comberford
(1641-1700), a Quaker mystic
and visionary from Staffordshire

Comberford Hall, between Lichfield and Tamworth … Mary Comberford and her parents became Quakers here in 1653, when they met Edward Burrough and Francis Howgill (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

While I was in York last month, I was interested in the time spent in prison there by Canon Henry Comberford (ca 1499-1586), a former Precentor of Lichfield, who was held in prison in York in late 16th century as a ‘recusant,’ and who played a prominent role in Catholic dissent in the city, even from his prison cell.

However, my visit to York, including the Quaker meeting houses and burial grounds, also led me to the unusual story of Mary Comberford (ca 1641/1642-1700), a Quaker mystic and visionary. Her vision of the Heavenly City in 1700 has recently come to light because it was transcribed recorded by the Yorkshire Quaker writer and preacher Joseph Wood (1750-1821), whose writings and notebooks have recently been edited and published.

Although Mary Comberford may not have visited York, the images in her vision seem to draw on the Book of Revelation and are remarkably similar to images in the ‘Pricke of Conscience’ Window in All Saints’ Church, North Street, York, which I was discussing in my prayer diary on my blog on three mornings last week.

Mary Comberford was a descendant of Judge Richard Comberford (ca 1512-post 1547), a Lichfield judge, Senior Bursar of Saint John’s College, Cambridge (1542-1544), and the putative ancestor of the Comerford families of Co Kilkenny and Co Wexford.

Richard Comberford’s grandson, Francis Comberford (ca 1592-1648/1649), lived at Oxley Farm, near Wolverhampton, before inheriting Bradley Old Hall from his father in 1629. He was the patron of the parish of Bradley, and presented the Revd Jonathan Yates as Vicar in 1636.

Francis Comberford married Elizabeth Storey, who may have been a sister of Walter Storey of Little Hales, Staffordshire. Their eldest and oldest surviving son, Francis Comberford (ca 1620-1679) of Oxley Farm and Bradley Old Hall.

This Francis Comberford was, in turn the father of Francis Comberford, JP (ca 1620-1679). The Tamworth historian DP Adams incorrectly identified him as the fifth son of William Comberford of Comberford Hall, the Moat House, Tamworth, and Wednesbury.

Bradley Hall, Staffordshire, home of the Quaker Comberfords in the 17th century

Francis Comberford was born ca 1620, and moved from Oxley Farm, near Wolverhampton, Staffordshire, around 1648 to his estate at Bradley, Bradley, near Gnosall and Penkridge, four miles south of Stafford. Francis Comberford was a Justice of the Peace for Staffordshire, and in October 1647 Parliament added his name to the Commissioners for Staffordshire charged with raising £60,000 a month to arm the parliamentary forces.

Francis Comberford married Margaret Skrimshire, daughter of Sir Thomas Skrimshire of Forton Manor and of Aqualate, near Newport, Staffordshire, in Church Eaton on 8 June 1640.

Francis Comerford of Comerford, as his name is sometimes spelt, was one of only 12 magistrates to become a Quaker in the 17th century. He and his family were living at Comberford Hall in 1653, when they met two of the earliest Quakers, Edward Burrough and Francis Howgill, and Francis, Margaret and their two daughters Margaret and Mary became Quakers. The minutes of Staffordshire Quarterly Meeting of the Society of Friends record the conversations between Burrough and Howgill with the Comberfords, and Francis Comberford is said to have received them ‘kindly’.

As a gentleman and a magistrate, Francis Comberford probably played a useful role in protecting early Quakers. The minutes go on to say that for several years Francis Comberford held Quaker meetings at his home in Bradley when he returned from Comberford. They say:

‘Hee was a valiant man for the truth, and in the time of persecution stood faithfull & gave vp ffreely to suffer both to Imprisonm[en]t & spoy[l]ing of goods, soe farr as was permited for him to be tryed. He continued an honest Simple harted man to the End of his dayes, and Laid downe his head in peace in a good old age; and I doe believe is att rest with [th]e Lord.’

Robert Spence (1871-1964), ‘Woe to the Bloody City of Lichfield’, depicts George Fox, bare-footed and ragged, denouncing the city of Lichfield in the Market Square in 1651 (Lichfield Heritage Centre)

George Fox (1624-1691), the founder of the Quakers, was born in Fenny Drayton, eight miles east of Tamworth. In 1650, he was imprisoned for about a year in Derby on a charge of blasphemy. On his release in the winter of 1651, Fox, who was overwrought and weakened by six months ‘in the common gaol and dungeon,’ walked barefoot through the streets of Lichfield on a market day, crying: ‘Woe to the bloody city of Lichfield!’

In a list of Staffordshire gentry compiled in 1662-1663, Francis Comberford is mentioned as a Quaker of Bradley, and he was the only Quaker among the gentry of south Staffordshire. With the death of his cousin Robert Comberford in 1671, Francis claimed the Comberford family estates, including Comberford Hall, which he had first leased from his kinsman, William Comberford, but was unsuccessful.

Francis Comberford later moved to Shropshire, where he lived for the rest of his life. There is some confusion about the dates when Francis and Margaret Comberford died. DP Adams is obviously wrong when he says Francis ‘died before 1670’; the Visitations of Staffordshire say they both died ca 1677. However, the records of Shropshire Monthly Meeting of the Society of Friends show Margaret was buried on 18 May 1676, and that Francis Comberford died on 1 March 1679 and was buried on 3 March 1679.

Adams says Francis and Margaret had no sons. However, the Visitations of Staffordshire and the records of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) show they were the parents of two sons and six daughters:

1, Mary (ca 1641/1642?-1700), the Quaker mystic and visionary discussed in this paper.
2, Margaret (ca 1642/1643?-post 1684), She too became a Quaker at Comberford Hall with her parents and her sister Mary in 1655. She married a man named Pitt, and was living in Worcester in 1684.
3, Francis Comberford (1645-post 1684). He was baptised at Bradley on 26 July 1645. He was alive in 1684, when he was said to be aged about 27 (sic).
4, Anne (1647-post 1667). She was baptised at Bradley on 19 April 1647. She married in Lichfield, on 12 November 1667, Richard Meighim, a tanner from Shropshire.
5, Jane (1648-post 1675), was baptised (as June) in Bradley on 30 August 1645. She married Robert Sutton in Bradley on 3 November 1675.
6, Grace (1651- ), baptised at Bradley on 25 April 1651.
7, Thomas Comberford (ca 1654-post 1684). He was born ca 1654, and was aged about 30 in 1684, when he was unmarried and living with a relation in Gloucestershire.
8, Hannah ( - pre-1699). She was unmarried and living in 1684. She probably died before 1699, as she is not named in the will of her sister Mary that year.

Francis Comberford’s sons, Thomas and Francis Comberford, may have descendants, but I have been unable to trace them. However, the eldest daughter, Mary, became a prominent Quaker in Staffordshire in the second half of the 17th century.

The side streets of Stafford … Mary Comberford had moved to Stafford by 1690 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

This eldest daughter, Mary Comberford (ca 1641/1642-1700), is the Quaker mystic and visionary whose dramatic vision shortly before her death in 1700 is described in the recently-edited papers of the Yorkshire Quaker Joseph Wood.

Mary Comberford was born ca 1641/1642. She was still in her early teens when she became a Quaker at Comberford Hall with her parents in 1655. Mary Comberford continued to hold Quaker meetings in her house in Bradley after her father died in 1679. Among the Quakers who met there were Thomas Somerford and his wife Dorothy, John Paddy, Mary Sherratt and Robert Kingston. She was still living and unmarried in 1684, and she was fined for attending ‘conventicles’ or Quaker meetings in 1684 and 1685. She lived for some time at Wolverhampton, and had moved to the Ford Gate, Stafford, by 1690.

Mary wrote to George Fox from Stafford on 19 April 1690, addressing him affectionately as ‘My dear friend,’ ‘Dear Friend’ and ‘My dear love in the everlasting truth …’ and sending ‘dear love to thy wife & children.’ George Fox died nine months later on 13 January 1691.

Although there are reflections of the imagery in the ‘Pricke of Conscience’ Window in York in Mary Comberford’s dream, and although this dream or vision was transcribed by Joseph Wood of Yorkshire, I have no supporting evidence that she ever spent any time in York.

Mary Comberford made her will in 1699, leaving £135.16.9 (over £25,000 today). She died unmarried the following year, and she was buried in Stafford on 23 April 1700.

Shortly before her death in 1700, Mary Comberford recalled an earlier vision with images that seem to draw on the Book of Revelation and are remarkably similar to images in the ‘Pricke of Conscience’ Window in All Saints’ Church, North Street, York, which I was discussing in my prayer diary on my blog on three mornings last week.

‘The Pricke of Conscience’ window, depicting the 15 signs of the End of the World … the most important mediaeval stained glass in All Saints’ Church, North Street, York (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Mary Comberford’s account of her vision was transcribed by Joseph Wood, a leading Yorkshire Quaker, without correction or editing, retaining her original spelling and punctuation:

A Dream or Vision

As I was upon my bed, I had this dream, I saw a great flood which was to overflow the whole world, and it arose very fast, even as it were the arising of a great River; and I saw the waves thereof very strong but it was bound on the right hand with a great high mountain, upon the side of which was a straight narrow path, and I walked along it in great fear to get to a City which I saw before me where was a refuge for all that would come there, and I was to pass over this great River or flood which was to destroy the whole world, and there was no man to help me, but some I saw going before at a distance and I followed them in great fear and trembling; for I saw myself in great danger of falling if my foot did but slip, into the river that was on my left hand; So after a while I came to a Bridge over this great River, over which I must go to the City of refuge, and it seemed not so broad as my hand, and as it were round with all, and not anything on either side to rest or lean upon, which when I saw I wept bitterly, knowing there was no other way to the City where safety was, which my Soul greatly desired to come into; and also seeing the water rise so fast that I knew not how soon every other place might be overflowed with the same, So that I assayed to go over the Bridge, with my Apparel that I had on at that time, but could not go therewith for it sometimes weighed me on one hand and then on the other, that I was in great danger of falling, then I slipt of my outward garments, and would fain have gone with the rest on, but could not, then I slipt of all but that which was next to me, for I was loth to go naked, but still I could not, then I wept sore because I must either go over naked or else perish and not come at the City were safety was; and this river grew very raging, and the waters did rise almost to the Bridge sometimes and I cried unto the Lord what shall I do it is unpossible that any shall ever go over to this City unless thou help them, and I desired that he would help me and I would do whatever he would command me, and it was shewed me that I must strip of everything which I had upon me, and must go over naked with out anything, and when I had so done a hand helped me but I saw no man, and brought me into the City, where I saw many of my dear Friends who were come thither before, and had come the same way that I came and were all of them naked, then it arose in my heart that we were naked and were not ashamed, and then did the Lord fill our hearts with thanksgiving and our mouths with praises, to sing forth to his Name who lives for ever, and he crowned us with crowns more bright than Gold, and we were all filled with the Glory of that Power which is upon us in our good Meetings, and never more were we to know Sorrow or pain, but were compassed about with the glory of the most high who lives forever more. This I saw many years since, and it is now come to my remembrance and I penned it down for it was of great service to me when I saw it.

1700 Mary Cumberford

The former Quaker burial ground in Bishophill, York (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Joseph Wood’s writings have been transcribed, edited and published by Pamela Cooksey as: Joseph Wood, A Yorkshire Quaker 1750-1821, A Transcription Volume 1 (High Flatts Quaker Meeting, 2011).

Joseph Wood was born at Newhouse, near High Flatts, in West Yorkshire, in 1750, half a century of Mary Comberford’s death. The foremost influences on him were the beliefs of his parents in spiritual truth as professed by the Quakers and the family’s membership of a Quaker community.

He was a well-respected, much-travelled and hugely influential Quaker preacher and worker in the cause of spreading Quaker truth, and a prolific writer. His notebooks, letters and daily memoranda offer an account of his faith and its place in his daily life. His archives include 100 large and small notebooks, written between 1767 and 1821, as well as 647 letters and a selection of printed Quaker papers.

His papers were preserved by family members over six generations and now provide primary source material for Quaker studies and late 18th- and early 19th-century studies, and a resource for research on Quaker family history and the history of Meeting Houses.

James Wood, the custodian of the Joseph Wood Archive, donated these archives to the Special Collections at the Brotherton Library, the University of Leeds. Their significance for Quaker studies has been confirmed by Ben Pink Dandelion of the Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre and Honorary Professor in Quaker Studies at the University of Birmingham.

Although Francis Comberford failed to recover Comberford Hall, where he had first become a Quaker, the Quaker presence continued in the Tamworth area. There was a Quaker meeting house in Tamworth by 1653, and the Quakers of Tamworth met at Bitterscote. Later there was a Quaker meeting house in Tamworth from about 1750 to 1850, behind 101 Lichfield Street and close to the Moat House. This Quaker Meeting House in Lichfield Street, Tamworth, was still standing in 1936, but was no longer in use.

The Quaker presence in Lichfield and the surrounding villages was less numerous. In 1655, two Quakers – Alexander Parker and Thomas Taylor – held a meeting for worship in Humphrey Beeland’s house in Lichfield. There was a Quaker meeting in Shenstone from 1654 until it moved to Chesterfield, where the meeting continued from 1669 until the 1720s. These Quakers in Chesterfield tried but failed to establish a Friends’ meeting house in Lichfield in 1703-1704. By then, Mary Comberford was dead and the Combeford Quaker line had faded into obscurity or come to an end.

A Quaker meeting was re-established in Lichfield in 1813, but closed 16 years later. Today, there is a small Quaker meeting in Lichfield, which has been meeting every Sunday morning since 1993 in Martin Health Hall, Christchruch Lane, which is rented from Christ Church (Church of England) parish.

Friends’ Meeting House in Friargate is one of three Quaker meeting houses in York (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

1 comment:

Carol N Wong said...

Wonderful information. Many of my ancestors were Quakers. They worked in the Underground railroad, helping slaves to make their way to safety.