19 June 2024

How four generations of
the Skeffington family of
Fisherwick owned and
lost Comberford Hall

Comberford Hall … passed to four generations of the Skeffington family of Fisherwick for half a century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

I was discussing earlier this week how the Skeffington family of Fisherwick, near Lichfield, had intermarried with the Skeffington family of Leicester, and how they were a powerful political family in Leicestershire and Staffordshire from the late 16th century into the mid-17th century see 17 June 2024 HERE).

Sir William Skeffington of Fisherwick was High Sheriff of Staffordshire in 1601 and again in 1623 in succession to his uncle, William Comberford (1551-1625) of Comberford Hall and the Moat House on Lichfield Street, Tamworth. William Comberford was married to William Skeffington’s aunt, Mary Skeffington, and their grandson was Robert Comberford (1594-1671) of Comberford Hall.

Robert Comberford was a second cousin of two Skeffington brothers who played political roles in Staffordshire during the English Civil War: Sir John Skeffington (1584-1651), was a royalist colonel and had been MP for Newcastle-under-Lyme and was High Sheriff of Staffordshire in 1637; Sir Richard Skeffington (1590-1647) was a Parliamentarian and was MP for Tamworth in 1625 and for Staffordshire in 1646-1647. Both brothers were baptised in Saint Michael’s Church, Lichfield.

After Robert Comberford died in 1669, his kinsman, Francis Comberford, the Quaker former magistrate of Bradley, tried but failed to claim Comberford Hall and the Comberford estate. Robert’s widow, Catherine (née Bates), continued to live at Comberford Hall for almost 50 years with her daughter Anne and grandson Comberford Brooke, until she died in 1718.

But the Comberford estates were heavily indebted and mortgaged, and the title to them appears to have passed to Sir Richard Skeffington’s son, Sir John Skeffington (1632-1695), who owned the neighbouring estate of Fisheriwck.

Fisherwick Hall was about 6 km (4 miles) east of Lichfield, between Whittington and Elford and immediately north of Comberford

Fisherwick Hall was 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.

Although Comberford Hall passed to the Skeffington family of neighbouring Fisherwick, whose members later held the title of Lord Masserene, the descendants of the Comberford and Brooke family continued to live at Comberford Hall into the early 18th century. When the Privy Council ordered a return by the parish clergy of Papists and reported Papists in 1706 , ‘with their respective qualities, estates and places of abode,’ 55 were counted in Tamworth, including Mrs Comberford of Comberford, with her three grandchildren and three servants.

This Mrs Comberford was Robert Comberford’s widow Catherine, and she and her family continued living at Comberford Hall as tenants of the Skeffington family until the mid-18th century, unable over the space of half a century to redeem the mortgages raised on the Comberford estates.

The Moat House Tamworth … Richard Skeffington, a second cousin of Robert Comberford, was MP for Tamworth in 1625 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Four successive generations and members of the Skeffington family owned Comberford Hall from the late 17th century until they too were forced to sell it in 1755.

Sir Richard Skeffington (1597-1647) of Fisherwick 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.

1, Sir John Skeffington (1632-1695), 2nd Viscount Massereene, 4th Baronet, Sir Richard’s son, was the first member of his family to own Comberford Hall. He was born in Lichfield, but spent most of his life in Ireland in a political and military career. His strong Presbyterian views made him one of the leading Presbyterians in Ireland at the time, but were at odds with the High Anglicanism and Catholic sympathies of the Comberford family.

John Skeffington was born in Lichfield in December 1632 and was baptised in Saint Michael’s Church, Lichfield, on 27 December 1632. His father was a Parliamentarian or Cromwellian, and John identified as a Presbyterian from an early age.

He was educated at Magdalene College, Cambridge, where his tutor was Samuel Morland and his fellow students included Samuel Pepys. He was 19 when he succeeded his cousin, Sir William Skeffington, as the fourth baronet in April 1652 and inherited the Skeffington estates at Fisherwick, near Lichfield. Two years later, in 1654, he married Mary Clotworthy, the eldest daughter of John Clotworthy, 1st Viscount Massereene and 1st Baron Lough Neagh.

Massereene is a small townland on the shores of Lough Neagh, just outside Antrim town. The peculiar conditions in which the Massereene title was created made John the heir to his father-in-law and the name Clotworthy became a first or given name in successive generations of the Skeffington family.

John Skeffington eventually inherited that title as 2nd Viscount Massereene and 2nd Baron Lough Neagh on 23 September 1665. Meanwhile, he had become a key figure in political and military life in Ireland. He was the MP for Down, Antrim, and Armagh in the Third Protectorate Parliament in 1659. He was made the captain of a troop of militia in Co Antrim in 1660. He was elected as the MP for Co Antrim in the re-established Irish House of Commons from 1661 until he succeeded to his father-in-law’s title and estates in 1665, when he took a seat in the Irish House of Lords.

He was a justice of the peace in Antrim, but he continued to hold the strong Puritan views he held during the Cromwellian period. He was described in the early 1660s as ‘a rigid Presbyterian … his whole alliance Presbyterian,’ and he was removed from as a justice of the peace in 1663 in the aftermath of Colonel Thomas Blood’s foiled plot to install a Presbyterian administration in Ireland.

Despite this, Skeffington was appointed Custos Rotulorum of Derry in 1666, a member of the Irish Privy Council in 1667 and Governor of Derry in 1678. Skeffington was appointed Captain of Lough Neagh in 1680, in part owing to his expenditure in improving the fortifications at Antrim Castle.

Skeffington’s Presbyterian views were also a factor in managing his estates in Staffordshire, and William Palmer’s house in Fisherwick was licensed for Presbyterian teaching in 1672. Skeffington was zealous in his pursuit and persecution of Roman Catholic priests in Ireland, and in 1681 he alleged that many soldiers in the Irish army were either Catholics or married to Catholics.

In the aftermath of the Rye House Plot in 1683, Skeffington came under pressure from the Duke of Ormond to conform to the Church of Ireland, but he refused. James II excluded Skeffington from the Irish Privy Council upon his accession in 1685. Three days after the outbreak of the Williamite War in Ireland, on 15 March 1689, Skeffington fled his home at Antrim Castle home. The castle was captured the following day by Jacobite forces who looted £3,000 worth of his possessions.

After time in Derry and Scotland, he was in London by September 1689 where he was one of a committee chosen by Irish Protestant exiles to represent their concerns to the English Williamite government. He was attainted by James II’s brief Patriot Parliament in Dublin in 1689. Skeffington returned to Ireland following the war, and was readmitted to the Irish Privy Council by William III in 1692.

Meanwhile, Presbyterians continued to find support on the Skeffigton estate in Staffordshire, and in 1693 Fisherwick Hall was included in a list of houses licensed for dissenting worship.

When Skeffigton died on 21 June 1695, he was buried at Antrim. He was succeeded in his title and his estates by his son, Clotworthy Skeffington (1661-1714), 3rd Viscount Massereene.

A canopied Victorian Gothic Skeffington and Massereene monument in All Saints’ Church, Antrim (Photograh: Patrick Comerford)

2, Clotworthy Skeffington (1661-1714), 3rd Viscount Massereene, was the second generation of the Skeffington family to own Comberford Hall was born in Antrim in 1661, and was admitted to Magdalene College, Cambridge, in 1679.

Clotworthy Skeffington shared his father’s religious and political outlooks. During the Williamite wars in Ireland, he joined the Earl of Mount Alexander’s Protestant militia in 1688 and received a commission as a colonel from William III in January 1689. He took part in the defence of Derry during the Siege of Derry from April to August 1689. Like his father, he too was attainted by James II’s Patriot Parliament in Dublin in 1689.

After the Williamite wars, Skeffington was MP for Co Antrim in the Irish House of Commons in 1692-1693. When he inherited his father’s peerage in 1695, he took his seat in the Irish House of Lords. He was appointed Governor of Derry in 1699.

He continued to support nonconformist and dissenting views on his estate in Staffordshire, and Robert Travers, the Presbyterian minister for the Lichfield area, baptised a child at Fisherwick in 1701.

Clotworthy Skeffington married Rachel Hungerford in 1680, and they were the parents of one son and three daughters. He died in Antrim in March 1714 and was succeeded by his son, Clotworthy Skeffington, who became 4th Viscount Massereene and inherited Fisherwick Hall and Comberford Hall, as well as a vast estate in Ireland centred on Antrim Castle.

The monument to Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (1689-1762) by the West Door of Lichfield Cathedral … she jilted Clotworthy Skeffington in 1712 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

3, Clotworthy Skeffington, 4th Viscount Massereene, was the third generation in his branch of the Skeffington family to hold Fisherwick Hall and Comberford Hall when he succeeded his father in 1714. He is often remembered as the rejected suitor of Mary Pierrepoint, later Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (1689-1762), who instead married Sir Edward Wortley Montagu in 1712.

A year later, on 9 September 1713, the jilted Skeffington married Lady Catherine Chichester, a daughter of Arthur Chichester (1666-1706), 3rd Earl of Donegall, and they were the parents of seven children. The Chichester family gave their name to Donegal House in Lichfield, and her nephew, Arthur Chichester (1739-1799), 4th Earl of Donegall and 1st Marquess of Donegall, later acquired Comberford Hall and other parts of the former Skeffington estates in Staffordshire.

Skeffington’s main political and financial interests, however, were in Ireland. He sat in the Irish House of Commons as the MP for Co Antrim from 1703 until he succeeded to his father’s title and took his seat in the Irish House of Lords in 1714.

Meanwhile, Catherine Comberford, who had continued to live at Comberford Hall as a tenant of the Skeffingtons of Fisherwick, died in 1718. Comberford Hall then passed to the Skeffington family, although they never lived at either Fisherwick Hall or Comberford Hall, and continued to live mainly at Antrim Castle.

Clotworthy Skeffington died on 11 February 1738, and was succeeded by his eldest son, Clotworthy Skeffington (1715-1757), who inherited the family titles and estates and who was made Earl of Massereene in 1756.

A portrait of Clotworthy Skeffington (1715-1757), 5th Viscount Massereene and 1st Earl of Massereene (ca 1751 by Arthur Pond) … he was forced to sell his Staffordshire estates, including Fisherwick Hall and Comberford Hall

4, Clotworthy Skeffington (1715-1757), 1st Earl of Massereene and 5th Viscount Massereene, succeeded to his father’s titles in 1738 and took his seat in the Irish House of Lords. He was the fourth and final generation in his branch of the Skeffington family to hold Fisherwick Hall and Comberford Hall in Staffordshire.

He became a Member of the Irish Privy Council in 1746, and and in 1751 he was created a Doctor of Law by the University of Dublin (Trinity College Dublin). He was given a more senior ranking in the Irish peerage on 28 July 1756 as Earl of Massereene. By then, however, he had been forced to sell his estates near Lichfield, including Fisherwick and Comberford, perhaps to pay the debts of his wayward, gambling son, Clotworthy Skeffington.

Massereene married his first wife Anne Daniel on 16 March 1738. She died two years later; he married his second wife Anne Eyre from Derbyshire on 25 November 1741, and they were the parents of six children. A year after receiving his new peerage title in Ireland, he was killed in Antrim while he was out ‘fowling’ on 14 September 1757.

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 and Comberford Hall had descended with the title of Viscount Masserene, until 1755 when the 5th Viscount Masserene 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, who built Swinfen Hall in 1757.

After Hill died on 21 February 1758, Comberford and Fisherwick, along with the Tatton Park estate, were inherited by his nephew, Samuel Egerton (1711-1780). By then, Egerton had embarked on his grand rebuilding of Tatton Park in Cheshire, with its neoclassical façade and exuberant rococo interiors, and in 1759 he sold his Comberford and Fisherwick estates back to their former trustee, Samuel Swinfen.

Samuel Swinfen sold the estates once again in 1761, this time to Thomas Thynne, 3rd Viscount Weymouth (1734-1796), a descendant of the Duchess of Somerset, who was a beneficiary under William Comberford’s will. In 1756, Comberford Common was enclosed under an Act of Parliament.

On 1 August 1789, Viscount Weymouth – who was about to become the 1st Marquis of Bath – and his son, the Hon Thomas Thynne, sold the Manors of Comberford and Wigginton, including lands in Hopwas and Coton, to Arthur Chichester (1739-1799), 5th Earl of Donegall, a nephew of Lady Catherine Chichester who had married Clotworthy Skeffington, 4th Viscount Massereene, in 1713.

Within a year, Lord Donegall had raised £20,000 from the banker Henry Hoare, using the Manors and Lands of Comberford and Wigginton as collateral security. Eventually, the Chichester family, crippled by the gambling debts of a profligate son, would find it impossible to pay off this loan, and would be forced to sell Comberford Hall and the manorial rights and lands that went with it.

Clotworthy Skeffington (1742-1805), the wayward and gambling son who appears to have forced the sale of Fisherwick Hall and Comberford Hall in 1755, spent almost 20 years in prison in France

As for Clotworthy Skeffington (1742-1805), the wayward and gambling son who appears to have forced the sale of Fisherwick Hall and Comberford Hall in 1755, he spent almost 20 years in prison in France, and only escaped in during the French Revolution in 1789, the year his father’s first cousin, Arthur Chichester (1739-1799), 5th Earl of Donegall, had bought the former Skeffington estates in Staffordshire.

This Clotworthy Skeffington was born on 28 January 1742, and he was styled Lord Loughneagh from 1756 until 1757, when he inherited his father’s titles as 2nd Earl of Massereene and 6th Viscount Massereene, and his estates in Co Antrim, although the Skeffington estates in Staffordshire had been sold off in 1755.

As a young peer, he entered Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, in 1758. In his early days, it was said, he was a gambling dandy who ‘figured very considerably in the walks of fashion,’ and that he was vain, conceited and disagreeable.

Through his gambling and his speculation in salt imports from Syria or the Barbary Coast, he accumulated large debts in France of between 15,000 and 20,000 French livre. He was imprisoned in For-l’Évêque in Paris in 1769 for his debts. He maintained a lavish lifestyle in prison, employing a private chef and entertaining fellow prisoners and visiting prostitutes. In his first seven years in jail, his debts had risen to 1 million livres, and were growing by the day. He attempted to escape in June 1770, but his plan was foiled was those he owed fortunes to.

When For-l’Évêque was closed in 1780, Skeffington was transferred to La Force Prison. This second prison is known in literature for its fictional detainees, including Charles Darnay in Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities, Lucien de Rubempré and Jacques Collins in Honoré de Balzac’s Illusions perdues and Splendeurs et misères des courtisanes, Thénardier in Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, and Benedetto in Alexander Dumas’s The Count of Monte-Cristo.

There, Skeffington’s debts continued to mount, rising to 3 million livres. He was freed with other prisoners by a mob on 13 July 1789, a day before the storming of the Bastille. He fled to England with Marie Anne Barcier, the 27-year-old daughter of the Governor of For-l’Évêque or Châtelet prison in Paris, and they were married in Saint Peter’s Cornhill, London, on 19 August 1789 – although some accounts say they had already been secretly married in Paris before that date in a ceremony of dubious legality.

From England, the couple made their way back to the Skeffington family seat at Antrim Castle. But his eccentric and erratic behaviour escalated and proved to be too challenging. The woman known as ‘the beautiful countess’ returned to France and died at the age of 38 in October 1800.

Skeffington married a second wife, Elizabeth Lane, also known as Mrs Blackburn, and said to have been a 19-year-old English chambermaid. When he died at Antrim Castle on 28 February 1805 he had no children. His widow married twice again, to George Doran and then to the Hon Hugh Massy, and died on 19 March 1838. The titles and the remaining estates passed to Clotworthy Skeffington’s younger brother Henry Skeffington, as the third earl, and then to youngest brother, Chichester Skeffington, as the fourth early.

The title of Earl of Massereene and the Skeffington title of baronet died out with the death of the fourth earl in 1816, while the tiles of Baron of Loughneagh and Viscount Massereene were inherited in another, distantly related family.

As for Antrim Castle, it was gutted by fire in 1922 and was finally demolished in the 1970s.

Antrim Castle was gutted by fire in 1922 and was finally demolished in the 1970s

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