17 June 2024

Skeffington House in
Leicester recalls family
feuds, Comberford links
and a lost Lichfield estate

Skeffington House, the only surviving Elizabethan urban gentry house in Leicester … built by Thomas Skeffington in 1560-1583 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Patrick Comerford

During my visits to Leicester last month, I went twice to see Skeffington House, the only surviving Elizabethan urban gentry house in Leicestershire. It was built between 1560 and 1583 by Thomas Skeffington (1550-1600), who was MP for Leicestershire in 1593 and the Sheriff of Leicestershire on four occasions: 1576-1577, 1588-1589, 1596 and 1599-1600.

The survival of Skeffington House in Leicester over the past 450 or more years was a reminder of the close connections that once linked the Skeffington family and the Comberford family in Staffordshire, and of how the Skeffington family of Fisherwick were once – albeit briefly – a powerful political family in Lichfield and Tamworth in the 17th century.

The Skeffington family took their name from Skeffington, a village 15 km (10 miles) east of Leicester, where they lived from the mid-13th century. In the early 16th century, Sir William Skeffington was the Lord Deputy of Ireland during the reign of Henry VIII. It was he who battered down the walls of Maynooth Castle with cannon, and he devised a contraption of torture known as the ‘Skevington maiden.’ When he died in Kilmainham in 1534, he was buried in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin.

Fisherwick Hall, the long lost home of the Skeffington family near Lichfield

His son, Sir John Skeffington, was the founder of the Staffordshire branch of the family. This John Skeffington was a London alderman and wool merchant. He was the Sheriff of London in 1521, and in that same year he bought the Manor of Fisherwick, 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.

John Skeffington married Elizabeth Pecke, and Fisherwick was inherited by their son, Sir William Skeffington of Fisherwick. This William married Isa or Joan (Elizabeth) Leveson, a daughter of James Leveson of Liilleshall, Shropshire, and Trentham, Staffordshire. When Sir William died in 1637, he too was buried at Saint Michael’s Church, Lichfield.

William Skeffington’s daughter Mary married her neighbour, William Comberford (1551-1625) of Comberford Hall and the Moat House, Tamworth, in 1567, probably in Saint Michael’s Church, Lichfield, while his son Sir John Skeffington (1534-1604) inherited Fisherwick.

Comberford Hall … Mary Skeffington married Thomas Comberford of Comberford Hall and the Moat House, Tamworth, in 1567 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Mary Comberford’s brother Sir John Skeffington was educated at Queens’ College, Cambridge, and was admitted to the Inner Temple in 1556. He married Alice Cave, daughter of Sir Thomas Cave, and when he died on 7 November 1604 he too was buried at Saint Michael’s Church, Lichfield.

Sir John Skeffington’s son and Mary Comberford’s nephew, Sir William Skeffington of Fisherwick, was a prominent figure in Staffordshire life. Sir William Skeffington was twice Sheriff of Staffordshire, in 1601 and again in 1623, when he succeeded his uncle by marriage, William Comberford, and he was given the title of baronet in 1627. He married Elizabeth Dering and died on 13 September 1635. He was buried on 16 September 1635.

Sir William Skeffington’s two sons found themselves on opposing sides in the English Civil War: Sir John Skeffington (1584-1651), who inherited Fisherwick and the family title as the second baronet, was a faint-hearted royalist, while his younger brother, Sir Richard Skeffington (1590-1647), was an MP for Tamworth in 1627 and later an MP for Staffordshire in the Long Parliament of 1646.

The Moat House, Tamworth … Sir Richard Skeffington, MP for Tamworth, was a grandson of Mary Comberford’s brother (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

The elder son, Sir John Skeffington, spent more than two years at the Middle Temple, but may not have been a diligent student: he was twice fined for missing readings and once for being absent at Christmas. Sir John became entangled in the affairs of the Skeffington family in Leicester when he married his distant cousin Ursula (or Cicely) Skeffington, one of the four daughters of Thomas Skeffington who built Skeffington House in Leicester.

At the time of their marriage, the Leicestershire branch of the Skeffington family was threatened with extinction. Ursula’s father had died in 1605, leaving his estates between his two sons, Sir William Skeffington and John Skeffington. The elder brother William was in an unhappy childless marriage, and shortly after he died in 1605 his widow, Lady Katherine Skeffington, married her groom, Michael Bray.

John Skeffington resented his widowed sister-in-law marrying the groom. The family arguments ended up in court of Westminster in 1613 and a settlement seemed near when the case was adjourned. During the adjournment, John Skeffington and Michael Bray ran into each other in the Hoop Tavern in 1613. They fought and brawled, swords were drawn, and each man ran his sword through the other at the same time, murdering each other in one swift moment.

The Skeffington estates in Leicestershire, Warwickshire and Lincolnshire, said to be worth £1,500 a year, were now divided between the four surviving sisters of William and John: Mary, Catherine, Elizabeth and Ursula. The youngest sister, Ursula, became engaged to a man named Palmer, but she returned his ring and instead married her distant cousin, Sir John Skeffington of Fisherwick, a grandson of Mary Comberford’s brother.

Sir John Skeffington moved to Leicestershire, and when he was knighted in 1624 he was described as living at Skeffington. However, his bride did not make him especially wealthy, as the twice widowed Katherine Bray continued to draw an income from her first husband’s Leicestershire estates.

It seems, though, that John Skeffington exaggerated his poverty. For example, he claimed in 1623 that he was unable to provide a light horse for the militia because he was living on less than £100 a year. Yet in 1627 he told Chancery that his estate was worth around £300 a year.

Skeffington was knighted in 1624 and in 1626 he was elected MP for Newcastle-under-Lyme – a constituency represented almost 200 years earlier by William Comberford in 1442. Skeffington was elected with the support of his brother-in-law Sir William Bowyer and of the Lord Lieutenant of Staffordshire, the 3rd Earl of Essex, who may also have been responsible for the election of Skeffington’s brother, Sir Richard, as MP for Tamworth the previous year.

Saint Mary’s Church, Lichfield … Sir John Skeffington was involved in the legislation to make Saint Mary’s a parish church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

As one of the MPs for Staffordshire, Sir John Skeffington was involved in the legislation to annex Freeford prebend to the vicarage of Saint Mary’s in Lichfield and make Saint Mary’s a parish church. But he seems to have become disillusioned with Parliament, and in a letter he described the House of Commons as a place ‘to please none, to displease all and bear all his own charges’.

George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, may have been involved in securing the title of baronet for Skeffington’s father in 1627, a title John Skeffington would eventually inherit himself.

Sir John Skeffington inherited his father’s title and his estates in Staffordshire in 1635. He returned to live at Fisherwick, and was appointed Sheriff of Staffordshire in 1637, although his enthusiasm for this office seems to have waned. His portion of the family’s Leicestershire estate increased when one of his sisters-in-law, Elizabeth Jeter, died childless in 1637. By the early 1650s, he was able to put the income from his wife’s estate at £700 a year, out of which £140 continued to be paid to Lady Katherine Bray.

When the English Civil War broke out, he initially supported the king, agreeing to contribute six horsemen to the royalist army. However, by October 1642 he was beginning to have second thoughts and he was negotiating with his Roundhead brother, Sir Richard, to defect. Sir Richard Skeffington (1597-1647) 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.

In the event, John Skeffington never switched sides. The parliamentarians sequestered his estates, and in March 1650 he was allowed to compound for his Staffordshire properties at a sixth of their value. In July 1651, his fine was fixed at £1,616 18s 8d, but there is no evidence he ever paid that sum.

Generations of the Skeffington family were married and buried at Saint Michael’s Church, Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Sir John Skeffington died in November 1651 and was buried on 20 November in Skeffington, Leicestershire, rather than in Saint Michael’s, Lichfield. Despite his behaviour and fines as a student, his funeral monument says was learned and was skilled in English, Latin, Greek, French, Italian and Spanish. Towards the end of his life, Skeffington translated El Héroe (1637), by the Spanish Jesuit Baltasar Gracián Morales, which was published after his death with a preface by Izaak Walton.

Sir John Skeffington’s son, Sir William Skeffington, who succeeded as the third baronet and inherited the estate at Fisherwick, died unmarried in April 1652. The title of baronet then passed first to the son of Sir Richard Skeffington of Tamworth, Sir John Skeffington (1632-1695), who was elected to Richard Cromwell’s 1659 Parliament for counties Antrim, Down and Armagh. He later inherited the title of Viscount Massereene through his father-in-law and died in 1695.

His descendants acquired Comberford Hall in the decades that followed, although the descendants of the Comberford family seem to have continued to lived there as tenants of the Skeffington family until the mid-18th century, when they found themselves unable to redeem the mortgages once raised on the Comberford estates.

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, in time, passed from the Skeffington family to the Chichester family, later Earls and Marquesses of Donegall, who also acquired neighbouring Comberford Hall, acquiring the ancestral homes of both the Comberford and the Skeffington families between Lichfield and Tamworth.

Like neighbouring Fisherwick Hall, Comberford Hall descended with the title of Viscount Massereene, until 1755, when Clotworthy Skeffington, 5th Viscount Massereene, 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.

When Comberford and Fisherwick passed to Hill’s nephew, Samuel Egerton (1711-1780), he told them to their former trustee, Samuel Swinfen. The estate were later sold to Thomas Thynne (1734-1796), 3rd Viscount Weymouth and 1st Marquis of Bath, and then to Arthur Chichester (1739-1799), 5th Earl of Donegall, who rebuilt Fisherwick Hall in 1766-1774 to designs by Capability Brown.

Eventually, the Chichester family, crippled by the gambling debts of a profligate son, was forced to sell Fisherwick Hall and Comberford Hall. Fisherwick Hall was demolished by the Howard family in 1805, although some of its ruins may still be seen. But the Fisherwick name survives in street names in parts of Belfast once owned by the Chichester family.

Skeffington House, Leicester … a reminder of jealousy, feuds and links with Lichfield and the Comberford family (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Daily prayer in Ordinary Time 2024:
39, 17 June 2024

The icon of Christ Pantocrator to the right of the the Beautiful Gates in the new iconstasis in the Orthodox Church in Stony Stratford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Patrick Comerford

The week began with the Third Sunday after Trinity (Trinity III, 16 June 2024). Today the calendar of the Church of England in Common Worship remembers the lives and the witness of Samuel Barnett (1913) and Henrietta Barnett (1936), Social Reformers.

Before today begins, I am taking some quiet time this morning to give thanks, for reflection, prayer and reading in these ways:

1, today’s Gospel reading;

2, a reflection on the icons in the new iconostasis or icon stand in the Greek Orthodox Church in Stony Stratford.

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary;

4, the Collects and Post-Communion prayer of the day.

The lower, first tier of the iconostasis in Stony Stratford, with the central doors open during the Divine Liturgy (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Matthew 5: 38-42 (NRSVUE):

[Jesus said:] 38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I say to you: Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also, 40 and if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, give your coat as well, 41 and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. 42 Give to the one who asks of you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.”

The icon of Christ Pantocrator in the inconostasis in Stony Stratford … the opening words of the Gospel passage read ‘Ἐγώ εἰμι τὸ φῶς τοῦ κόσμου … I am the light of the World …’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

The Stony Stratford iconostasis 2: Christ Pantocrator:

Over the last few weeks, I have been watching the building and installation of the new iconostasis or icon screen in the Greek Orthodox Church in Stony Stratford. In my prayer diary over these weeks, I am reflecting on this new iconostasis, and the theological meaning and liturgical significance of its icons and decorations.

The lower, first tier of a traditional iconostasis is sometimes called Sovereign. On the right side of the Beautiful Gates facing forward is an icon of Christ, often as the Pantokrator, representing his second coming, and on the left is an icon of the Theotokos (the Virgin Mary), symbolising the incarnation. It is another way of saying all things take place between Christ’s first coming and his second coming.

Other icons on this tier usually include depictions of the patron saint or feast day of the church, Saint John the Baptist, one or more of the Four Evangelists, and so on.

The six icons on the lower, first tier of the iconostasis in Stony Stratford depict Christ to the right of the Beautiful Gates, as seen from the nave of the church, and the Theotokos or Virgin Mary to the left. All six icons depict (from left to right): the Dormition, Saint Stylianos, the Theotokos, Christ Pantocrator, Saint John the Baptist and Saint Ambrosios.

In the icon of Christ Pantocrator, Christ’s right hand is held in blessing, his fingers in a shape that represents the letters IC and XC, forming the Christogram ICXC (for ‘Jesus Christ’). The IC is composed of the Greek characters iota (Ι) and lunate sigma (C, instead of Σ, ς) – the first and last letters of Jesus in Greek (Ἰησοῦς); in XC the letters are chi (Χ) and again the lunate sigma – the first and last letters of Christ in Greek (Χριστός).

His left hand holds an open Gospel with the words: Ἐγώ εἰμι τὸ φῶς τοῦ κόσμου· ὁ ἀκολουθῶν ἐμοὶ οὐ μὴ περιπατήσῃ [ἐν τῇ σκοτίᾳ, ἀλλ' ἕξει τὸ φῶς τῆς ζωῆς], ‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me [will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life’] (John 8: 12).

His head is surrounded by a halo, with the name of Christ written on each side of the halo as the initials IC and XC. Christ’s cruciform halo is inscribed with the letters Ο ΩΝ, ὁ ὤν (Ho On), ‘He Who Is’. These letters form the present participle, ὤν, of the Greek verb to be, with a masculine singular definite article, ὁ. A literal translation of Ὁ ὬΝ would be ‘the being one,’ although ‘He who is’ is a better translation. These words are the answer Moses received on Mount Sinai when he asked for the name of him to whom he was speaking (Exodus 3: 14a; see John 8: 58).

In Hebrew, he who was speaking said Yahweh, which is also a present participle. Greek translators of the Hebrew Bible put Yahweh as Ὁ ὬΝ.

In traditional iconography, Christ Pantocrator (Χριστὸς Παντοκράτωρ) is a depiction of Christ as Pantocrator or ruler of all, often translated as ‘Almighty’ or ‘all-powerful’. The icon of Christ Pantokrator is one of the most common images of Orthodox Christianity. An iconic mosaic or fresco of Christ Pantokrator is usually seen in the space in the central dome of a church, in the half-dome of the apse, or on the nave vault.

In the Greek Septuagint translation of the Hebrew Bible, the title Pantokrator was used for both Lord of Hosts or Sabaoth (צבאות) and for El Shaddai, God Almighty. In the New Testament, Pantokrator is used once by Saint Paul (II Corinthians 6: 18) and nine times in the Book of Revelation (1: 8, 4: 8, 11: 17, 15: 3, 16: 7, 16: 14, 19: 6, 19: 15 and 21: 22).

The most common translation of Pantocrator is ‘Almighty’ or ‘All-powerful’. Pantokrator is a compound word formed from the Greek words πᾶς, pas (παντός, pantos), or ‘all’, and κράτος (kratos), strength, might, or power – in other words, the ability to do anything, omnipotence. Christ Pantocrator also signifies Christ in his glory at his second coming, seated on his throne.

Another translation of Pantokrator is ‘Ruler of All’ or ‘Sustainer of the World’. In this understanding, Pantokrator is a compound word formed from the Greek for ‘all’ and the verb meaning ‘to accomplish something’ or ‘to sustain something’ (κρατεῖν, kratein).

The oldest known icon of Christ Pantokrator is in Saint Catherine’s Monastery on Mount Sinai. It dates from the sixth or seventh century, and survived the period of destruction of icons during the iconoclastic disputes in 726-787 and 814-842. The two different facial expressions on either side of that icons may emphasise Christ’s two natures as fully God and fully human.

Christ Pantokrator is not so common a concept or image in Western theology, where the equivalent image in probably that of Christ in Majesty.

The icon of Christ Pantocrator in the porch of the church in Stony Stratford shows Christ holding the Gospel open at John 15: 17-18: Ταῦτα ἐντέλλομαι ὑμῖν, ἵνα ἀγαπᾶτε ἀλλήλους. Εἰ ὁ κόσμος ὑμᾶς μισεῖ, γινώσκετε ὅτι ἐμὲ πρῶτον ὑμῶν μεμίσηκεν (‘I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another. If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you’).

The three icons to the right on the lower, first tier of the iconostasis in Stony Stratford depict (from left) Christ Pantocrator, Saint John the Baptist and Saint Ambrosios (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Today’s Prayers (Monday 17 June 2024):

The theme this week in ‘Pray With the World Church,’ the Prayer Diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel), is ‘Windrush Day.’ This theme was introduced yesterday with reflections by the Right Revd Dr Rosemarie Mallett, Bishop of Croydon.

The USPG Prayer Diary today (17 June 2024) invites us to pray:

O Lord, may we place belonging at the heart of our witnessing and worshipping – drawing all to the knowledge that we belong to Jesus and each other.

The icon of Christ Pantocrator in the porch of the church in Stony Stratford shows Christ holding the Gospel open at John 15: 17-18 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

The Collect:

Almighty God,
you have broken the tyranny of sin
and have sent the Spirit of your Son into our hearts
whereby we call you Father:
give us grace to dedicate our freedom to your service,
that we and all creation may be brought
to the glorious liberty of the children of God;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Post Communion Prayer:

O God, whose beauty is beyond our imagining
and whose power we cannot comprehend:
show us your glory as far as we can grasp it,
and shield us from knowing more than we can bear
until we may look upon you without fear;
through Jesus Christ our Saviour.

Additional Collect:

God our saviour,
look on this wounded world
in pity and in power;
hold us fast to your promises of peace
won for us by your Son,
our Saviour Jesus Christ.

Ταῦτα ἐντέλλομαι ὑμῖν, ἵνα ἀγαπᾶτε ἀλλήλους.Εἰ ὁ κόσμος ὑμᾶς μισεῖ, γινώσκετε ὅτι ἐμὲ πρῶτον ὑμῶν μεμίσηκεν (‘I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another. If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you’ John 15: 17-18) … the verses on the icon of Christ Pantocrator in the church porch in Stony Stratford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Saturday’s introduction to the Stony Stratford iconostasis

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version, Updated Edition copyright © 2021, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

The image of Christ Pantocrator surrounded by the Four Evangelists on the ceiling in the Church of the Transfiguration in Piskopianó in Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)