25 April 2023

A Comberford contribution
to the unique collection at
Lichfield Cathedral Library

The Duchess of Somerset’s bequest is at the ‘Library and Legacy’ exhibition at Lichfield Cathedral Library

Patrick Comerford

I was back in Lichfield this week as two of us visited the ‘Library and Legacy’ exhibition telling the story of Lichfield Cathedral Library and the Seymour Family.

The exhibition, which opened in the Chapter House on Saturday (22 April), offers an opportunity to explore why Lichfield Cathedral Library is unusual – perhaps unique – among cathedral libraries and its link with the Seymour family.

The Cathedral Library, as it is today, began in 1674 with a gift of over 400 books from the private collection of William Seymour, Duke of Somerset, donated by his widow, the former Lady Frances Devereux. His books reflect the wide-ranging interests of a wealthy intellectual in the 17th century and they are different from the books normally found in a cathedral library.

The mediaeval library at Lichfield Cathedral was almost totally lost during the English Civil War. In the 1670s, a new library was established with the gift of more than 400 books from the widowed Duchess of Somerset.

Frances Devereux inherited her husband’s library when he died in 1660, and bequeathed the collection to Lichfield. She wrote in her will: ‘for the respect which I and my family have received from the City of Lichfield, I give the books which were my late deceased husband’s, to the Church of Lichfield to be put in the new library there.’

Lichfield Cathedral’s Library then inherited a wide range of books that are associated with the library of a prominent 17th century intellectual rather than with a cathedral.

The exhibition explores William Seymour’s library, illustrating the types of books he and his ancestors included in their libraries and how this reflected the culture of their time. It also invites visitors to consider what books we choose to have in our homes these days and whether books are still relevant in a digital age.

The exhibition includes the only three books known to have survived at Lichfield from the mediaeval collection.

The bequest from the Duchess of Somerset includes the Lichfield Gospels, an eighth century Gospel Book dating from 730, making it older than the Book of Kells yet a little younger that the Lindisfarne Gospels.

The opening folio contains a faded signature, Wynsige presul, which may refer to Wynsige, Bishop of Lichfield from around 963 to ca 975, and folio four refers to Leofric, Bishop of Lichfield in 1020-1026.

The book was in Lichfield Cathedral until 1646, when the cathedral was sacked during the English Civil War and the cathedral library was looted. Later, the book was recovered and was returned to the cathedral by the Duchess of Somerset.

The Gospels have been on public display since 1982, and the Bishops of Lichfield still swear allegiance on the Lichfield Gospels at their enthronement.

Lady Frances Devereux by Anthony van Dyck … the ‘trulie virtuous ladie’ named in the will of William Comberford, she left her books to Lichfield Cathedral

The Duchess of Somerset, the former Lady Frances Devereux (1590-1674), was a sister of Robert Devereux, 3rd Earl of Essex, and the youngest child of Elizabeth I’s favourite, Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex, who also Lord of the Manor of Lichfield.

She married William Seymour (1587-1660), later Duke of Somerset, at Drayotn Bassett in 1616. As the Dowager Duchess of Somerset, she also held properties in Comberford, Wigginton and Tamworth. When she died on 24 April 1674, she left her collection of 1,000 books to Lichfield Cathedral.

Her collection also included a book of pedigrees given to her by her close friend, Colonel William Comberford of Comberford, Lichfield and the Comberford Hall and the Moat House on Lichfield Street, Tamworth.

William Comberford had been the Royalist High Sheriff of Staffordshire and he took an active role in the siege of Lichfield during the English Civil War. When William died in 1656, he left a book of pedigrees of the Nevilles, Earls of Warwick, to his friend Lady Frances, then Marchioness of Hertford and later the Duchess of Somerset, saying: ‘The book of pedigrees of the Earles of Warwick, I give and devise to the Right Honorable and trulie virtuous ladie, the Marchioness of Hertford, for whose sake … I bought the same.’

His affectionate words and the terms of the bequest reveal a close and intimate friendship with the woman who restored the Lichfield Gospels to Lichfield Cathedral. Her donation of books to the cathedral included this book that William Comberford bought for her.

Lady Frances Devereux’s father, Robert Devereux, had once been Queen Elizabeth’s favourite, but he fell out of favour and was executed in 1601. Two years later, in 1603, her widowed mother, Frances (Walsingham), married Richard Burke (1572-1635), 4th Earl of Clanricarde, who built Portumna Castle, on the banks of the River Shannon in Co Galway, in 1610-1618.

Lady Frances was a half-sister of the 5th Earl of Clanricarde, who lived at Portumna Castle throughout the Civil Wars of the 1640s and 1650s, while she was living in Lichfield. Portumna Castle remained the main seat of the Clanricarde Burkes for generations, and after recent conservation and restoration work, parts of the castle are now open to the public.

The Duchess of Somerset’s children included Lady Jane Seymour (1637–1679), who married Charles Boyle (1639-1694), Viscount Dungarvan, who was MP for Tamworth (1670-1679). Another daughter, Lady Mary Seymour (1636-1673), married Heneage Finch (1628-1689), 3rd Earl of Winchelsea, and their descendants in the Thynne family would later own Comberford Hall for almost 30 years (1761-1789).

But more about the exhibition in Lichfield Cathedral later this week.

• The ‘Library and Legacy’ exhibition in Lichfield Cathedral opened on Saturday (22 April) and remains open during visitor opening hours until Sunday 3 September 2023.

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