We now know quite a lot about the part which Combermere Abbey and the Cotton family played during the Civil War. We know that the Abbey was a Royalist house, and the Cotton family declared for the King against Parliament, and at two points during the War very nearly paid a high price for their loyalty.
Great country houses such as the Abbey, and their inhabitants, could not simply keep their heads down and hope that the maelstrom of civil war would pass them by. The counties of Cheshire and Shropshire, the cities of Chester and Shrewsbury, and nearby Nantwich all saw major action during the war, and as in most wars – and especially civil wars – impartiality was impossible.
We know the colour of many of the Cheshire families’ allegiances during the Civil War from depositions sent to either thing King or Parliament in early 1642, when there was a sort of phoney war of declared loyalties. The Cotton name appears on none, though we know that the Cotton were Royalist, as we will see. The 1642 documents show that, tragically, some of the great families of Cheshire, such as the Wilbrahams and the Mainwarings – both of which had close links to the Cottons – were divided in their allegiances.
The longevity of Cheshire’s aristocracy and gentry had lead to a politicial maturity within the county. Writing in 1656 the historian Daniel King said, “there is no county in England more famous for a long continued succession of ancient Gentry”, with many of the greatest families being able to trace their lineage back to the Normans. This didn’t mean a lot to humble peasants, but the gentry, who lived and worked in the county – where their families had been based for many generations, have re-invested in their estates over the centuries and were proud of their familial achievements. After the ravaging of William I’s Harrying of the North, Cheshire had become a wealthy agricultural county, and the great houses (and, until the Dissolution, the few monastic establishments) had been economic generators for the most part, and had created strong bonds of loyalty. Cheshire had been made a County Palatine in 1450, giving it many distinctive privileges and a high degree of autonomy, and setting it apart from its neighbours.
In 1642, when the war was looming and fighting had already begun, a number of the great gentlemen of Cheshire met in the village of Bunbury, a few miles north of Combermere, two days before Christmas Day. They debated the matters which were ripping the country apart and dividing houses against themselves, and decided to declare neutrality for the county palatine of Cheshire.
For the preservation of their wealthy county, and the safety of their homes and families, they decided to put loyalties aside and take no part in the forthcoming conflict. Prisoners taken so far were to be released and any property looted was to be returned. All fortifications – particularly noted were those in Chester, Nantwich, Northwich, Stockport and Knutsford – were to be removed, and the combined Royalists and Parliamentarians of Cheshire would escort all the military forces from outside Cheshire to the county boundaries. It was a unique and very noble enterprise but it was a forlorn ambition, doomed to failure. The great forces raging in the kingdom were too powerful, and the shire was of too great a strategic importance. Little more than a fortnight later, on January 9, fighting began again in Cheshire; this time in earnest, and it was to last for years and cost many lives.
The Royalist contingent at Bunbury was headed by Lord Kilmorey, who will re-appear in the story of Combermere and the Civil War, and Sir Orlando Bridgeman of Great Lever (son of the Bishop of Chester). No member of the Cotton family was present and one would have expected that they would have known about the meeting in advance, though there is an argument that the Cotton family were seen still as parvenus. There was said to be thirty five “chiefest gentlemen” in Cheshire, all of them from families established in the county centuries ago. Between 1590 and 1642 two-thirds of all the marriages among the aristocracy and the gentry in Cheshire were between members of that same group. There were newcomers to the county’s gentry; the Cottons of Combermere, and the other owners of what had been monastic lands, the Brookes of Norton (acquired by Sir Richard Brooke in 1545). However it is hard to imagine that the Cotton family did not support the aims of the Bunbury agreement.
It is fascinating – certainly to those of us who live in Bunbury – to speculate where the meeting took place. There was no great house in the village in the Seventeenth century, so the venue might have been the large and very splendid church of Saint Boniface as it would have been neutral territory and any act of violence, had the encounter not gone well, would have been unthinkable. Later in the Civil War this church was set on fire by Royalist forces. The other possibility in the Chantry, not far from the church, which was built in 1527 by Ralph Egerton to house the two priests who ministered at his chapel within Saint Boniface’s church. Again, as an ecclesiastical building it might have been a ‘safe house’.
When the Civil War finally erupted, the ‘Commissioners of Array’ for the Royalist cause, who recruited through the county, and in particular among the aristocracy and gentry – looking for potential officers – were Lord Cholmondeley, Earl Rivers (John Savage of Rock Savage) his brother Thomas Savage, Sir Peter Leicester of Tabley, Thomas Cowper of Chester. There are also references to Lord Strange, Robert Needham (Viscount Kilmorey) of Shavington Park, Shropshire, and Alderman William Edwards of Chester. So we see so many familiar and ancient Cheshire surnames, many of which will appear again and again.
King Charles I visited Cheshire in September 1642 and drew many of the gentry to his banner. Recent research suggests that Cheshire was two-thirds for the King. The Parliamentarians had a strong leader in Sir William Brereton of Handforth though, who was a determined and gifted military leader. Charles I went south from Cheshire to Shropshire, where he was joined by his two sons, James and Charles, and his dashing military commander, Prince Rupert. He had even more success there as in Cheshire, and the county was overwhelmingly Royalist. Charles raised a considerable army in Cheshire and Shropshire – which he then marched to Edgehill in Warwickshire (as we will see later), gaining more men as he went.
The head of the Cotton family at Combermere Abbey through the first phase of the Civil War was George Cotton, who was born in 1560, and was already in his eighties when war began. He was the eldest son of Richard Cotton (who had thirteen children by two wives), who built the new half-timbered house at Combermere, following the almost-complete destruction of the dissolved Cistercian monastery.
Richard died in 1602, shortly after Queen Elizabeth I’s death, at which point George had already been married for more than twenty years to Mary Bromley of Shifnal, and seven of their eleven children had been born. The first ten of those children had been girls, and the son and heir – Thomas – wasn’t born until 1609, when Mary was forty (so Thomas was thirty three years of age when the Civil War began, though in fact Thomas was to pre-decease him)). George must have long feared that he would have no male heir to continue the line.
One aside: When the Spanish Armada threatened England in 1588 the great gentlemen of the country were encouraged to make a donation to the defence of the realm. The “Nobility, Gentry and others” of Cheshire seem to have decided that an appropriate contribution was £25, and Richard Cotton’s name appears in the contemporary accounts as having given that sum on March 17 1588, in the distinguished company of such as Henry Delves of Doddington, Thomas Vernon of Haslington, and Roger Mainwaring, Richard Church and Geffrie Minshull – all of Nantwich. Queen Elizabeth, who was notoriously tight with her own purse-strings, will have received the money was gratitude (though perhaps have wondered why it wasn’t more).
George died in 1647 – probably in the autumn, as he added a codicil to his will on August 17 of that year – just as the first part of the war was coming to an end, with the Royalists in retreat right across the country and King Charles captured by the Parliamentarians. He was eighty seven.
We know that Thomas died at much the same time, at the age of thirty seven or eight. He died before his father, so was the codicil to George’s will made as a result of his heir apparent dying? Had he fought in the war, and had he died as a result of military action? We do not know the answer to these questions at present.
An interesting connection is that in 1624, at the age of fifteen, Thomas had married Francis Needham, the daughter of Robert Needham, Viscount Kilmorey, who of course had been instrumental in the ill-feted Bunbury Agreement. Thomas and Frances had a son, another George, born in 1625, and then two daughters – both born in the late 1620s. Thomas was little more than sixteen years old when George was born.
Frances died in 1629, possibly connected to the birth of the second daughter (also called Frances, who may have died at birth or shortly after). In 1635, aged twenty six, Thomas married Elizabeth Calveley of Lea in Cheshire ( also twenty six years-old), the daughter of Sir George Calveley of Lea, and Mary Cholmondeley of Cholmondeley. Elizabeth died in 1648 after thirteen years of marriage, having given birth to two sons; Robert (1635) and the patriotically-named Charles (1637), and a daughter, Lettice.
1646 was a bad year for the house of Cotton. As well as Thomas dying around that time, the eldest son, George, seems to have died too, aged about twenty one; possibly then or in the following year. This was a disaster for the household, even though there was another son who could inherit and maintain the line.
Both George’s wife, Mary Smith of Wybunbury, who he had married just two years before in 1644 when he was nineteen, also died – as, it seems, did their daughter, also called Mary. Did the birth take the lives of both mother and daughter? We cannot know. In the same year, 1646, yet another Mary, Thomas’s eldest daughter, also died, aged nineteen and probably unmarried.
On October 22 1644 one Mark Folineux, who was described – slightly ominously – as ‘the Collector’, had been paid half a crown for a day’s work in sequestering the goods of Mr Cotton of Combermere. Folineux was very busy that autumn, enforcing his ‘Orders from Sequestrators’; in short, the agents of the victorious Parliamentarians fining those who had supported the Royalist cause, by way of punishment and retribution.
The Mr Cotton in question was the elder George Cotton, who had contributed “arms and plate” to the Royalist cause. Folineux earned his half crown “in the seizure of the estate of Mr Cotton” to the value of a thousand marks. An English mark was two-thirds of a pound, and the sum is given precisely in another document as £666 13s 4d. If he failed to pay the fine his family estates would be seized by Parliament. It is hard to imagine that a middling member of the gentry would have a sum of that size immediately available in cash, so presumably assets of every kind would have to be sold in a hurry if the house was to be kept, though of course everyone would know of the sequestration order, and Parliamentarian neighbours would be offering low prices for land, above all else, in return for hard cash.
We don’t know the total value of George Cotton’s estate, but one local equivalent can be seen in the fact that Sir Richard Brooke bought Norton Priory in 1545, and it is recorded that he paid £1,512 for the estate. We do not know if that was a discounted price for any reason, but it does suggest that, a century later and in more troubled times, a value of £2,000 for Combermere Abbey and its associated assets is not improbable, which means that his fine of a thousand marks was a third of his wealth.
We can assume that as a result of the war land and property prices were depressed, and those elements would have made up the bulk of George Cotton’s wealth. Equating modern values to historical prices is fraught with danger and error, but we do know that a day’s pay for a labourer during the Civil War was a shilling, and that an infantryman in the New Model Army was paid eight pence a day with all food and drink found; a cavalryman was paid two shillings a day, again, all found.
Seeing which way the war was going George Cotton hedged his bets by helping finance the Parliamentarian cause as well as the Royalist, perhaps in a move to try and avoid penalty. When he was summoned for sequestration he argued that his circumstances were poor, and begged for mercy; The deposition against him notes that, “Notwithstanding his contribution on the propositions, and his maintenance to this day of 6 men for the Parliament, has been sequestered by the County Committee, who were ordered by the Commissioners for Sequestrations to deliver up the goods seized, till hearing of his cause. Is 80 years old, has a great family, and many daughters unprovided for, and despairs of a hearing within any convenient time, so casts himself on the mercy of Parliament”.
On July 15 a further order from the financial inquisitors stated, “Those who follow his business are to bring in from the County Committee a certificate of his delinquency and his estate”. All had to be seen to be fair, so far as that went, and due process had to followed.
In October specific evidence was laid against him, namely that George Cotton had loaned his own horse to a neighbour for him to go into battle on at Edgehill (October 1642), and had sent his ‘plate’ to – it seems – be melted down in the Royalist mint at Shrewsbury (the establishment of which was ordered by the King when he was in the city in 1642 with his son, James, and Prince Rupert; and put into practise by one Thomas Bushell who simply moved all the equipment from the existing mint in Aberystwyth across the mountains to Shrewsbury), and the metal would have been turned into payment for the King’s army. The report says of George; “County Committee report that he sent his horse to Sir Thos. Aston at Edgehill; was at Chester when held by the enemy; advised the inhabitants to provide themselves with arms; sent his plate to the mint at Shrewsbury; expressed much malignancy, and called the Parliament party traitors; sent his arms to the enemy, not to the militia, and has not taken the Covenant”.A crown minted for the King at Shrewsbury during the Civil War
A well-bred and well-trained horse was a long-term investment, and was worth a huge amount of money. It was also, therefore, a very considerable symbol of one’s position in society. A horse which was large enough strong-hearted enough to be used in battle would be more valuable still, and the saddle and harness would add further to its worth. It is not necessarily surprising that members of the aristocracy and the wealthy, land-owning gentry would look to borrow a horse. They would certainly own horses of their own, but after more than a hundred and seventy years of peace within England, they would not have bothered breeding and training a mount for the terrors of war.Robert Devereux, Earl of of Essex (above) and John Fairfax, Parliamentarian commanders, on their hugely valuable war horses; contemporary illustrations
Sir Thomas Aston of Aston, who had been created Baronet by King Charles I in 1628 at the age of twenty seven. He had trained as a lawyer at Lincoln’s Inn, and by the start of the Civil War was both a Member of Parliament and the High Sheriff of Cheshire. We know for certain that he was at Edgehill, and that he later commanded the King’s army at The Battle of Middlewich in Cheshire in March 1643. A few days after defeat in that engagement he was captured at Pulford on the Cheshire border with Wales, south of Chester, but survived to fight at Macclesfield later in the year. He died of fever and wounds at Stafford in March 1645.
In 1639 Aston had taken Anne Willoughby of Risley in north Cheshire as his second wife. She was the daughter of Sir Henry Willoughby, Baronet. The name Willoughby appears in the Cotton family tree nearly two centuries later when Sir Wellington Henry Stapleton Cotton named one of his sons Willoughby (he became a lieutenant-colonel in the third Regiment of Guards, and later a general and commander in chief at Bombay.A Victorian engraving of the Battle of Edgehill
Another close associate of George Cotton’s who was at Edgehill was a man who appears often in this story; Earl Rivers. He was the first son of Thomas Savage, the first Viscount Savage. He inherited the Viscountcy on the death of his father in 1635, and the Earldom on his grandfather’s death five years later.
Despite being a recuscant Roman Catholic, Earl Rivers held the post of Steward of Halton. His seat in England was Halton Castle, and the family also had lands in Ireland. He held the manor of Frodsham, and owned the manor house of Rocksavage at Clifton, just east of Frodsham. Although he was a member of the committee which investigated complaints against Charles I he rapidly swung back to devoted support of the Royalist cause. As we know, he raised troops for the King in Cheshire in 1642 and had the distinction of having present when the King first raised his standard against Parliament. Earl Rivers’ army was said to be a “large and well-equipped force, well trained and with experienced officers who had seen service in Europe and Ireland”.
He lost his home at Halton Castle to Parliamentarians in 1643, but it was re-captured by Prince Rupert. The Royalists did not hold it for long however, and the Roundhead army took it and sacked it. They also completely ruined Rocksavage. Earl Rivers retreated to Frodsham Castle but died there on October 10 1654. Very soon afterwards the Parliamentarians set the castle on fire with the Earl’s body still insideThe Parliamentarian inspectors moved quickly and handed down their punishments rapidly. By way of festive greetings the fine of a thousand marks was imposed on George Cotton on Christmas Day 1644.
The sequestration order was then “suspended” however, following George’s death. A note states that “Accepted by the House, his estate of 600l. 16s. 6d. being but for life”. In June of that year Elizabeth Cotton, widow of Thomas and daughter-in-law of George, petitioned to have the seizure overturned on the basis that it was purely George’s offence, and the debt should die with him, and this argument was accepted on June 26 1646, and “restitution” was made to the widow Elizabeth – which suggests that she had already paid some or all of the dept. This date contradicts the year of George’s death being 1647, and we know that it was his crime and not the younger George’s as his age is mentioned. His demise must have been unfortunate but timely, in that the family wealth was preserved. As it happened Elizabeth died just three years later, a year shy of her fortieth birthday, and leaving three young children – two boys (Robert and Charles – as we shall see) and a six year old daughter, Lettice.
In Folineux’s authorisation to seize, George Cotton was described as “a delinquent”, as were all such Royalists. The word was used in the sense of describing one who fails to be mindful of the requirement of the laws of the land – or, in this case at least, the laws of the victors.
In the Hundred of Nantwich one hundred and twenty two estates were sequestered, among them many of the great families – the Royalist families, that is – of south Cheshire; As well as Cotton, the family names include Cholmondeley, Kilmorey (unsurprisingly), Aston. Delves, Calveley, Poole, Wilbraham, Bickerton, and Dodd. Unlike the Cottons they would have to wait until the Restoration in 1660 for any change of a return of their fines.
The list of families sequestered – and the value to which they were forfeit – is chilling. Many though were pardoned upon an apology for their Royalist sympathies. Another widow, that anonymous wife of Thomas Warburton, used the same argument as Elizabeth Cotton. Her husband had died during the War and her sequestration was quashed, and she was pardoned. The Warburtons were strongest in the north east of the county, in Tabley and Lymm.
It does seem that Combermere Abbey itself was untouched directly by military action. The house was not on any important routes and posed no threat to troops on the move, nor did it have any strategic importance. The Abbey was not defensible either, so was unlikely to be used as a fortress of any kind. The Abbey only makes one appearance in Daniel King’s accurate and fairly contemporaneous account of the Civil War in Cheshire. It did play host to an army however.
In the autumn of 1643 a large force of the King’s men, some two thousand in all, moved north from Royalist Shrewsbury and encountered six hundred Parliamentarian soldiers lead by Captain Bromhall at the village of Loppington, two miles due west of Wem. The larger settlement of Wem was a Parliamentarian stronghold, but Loppington stood for the King. The two sides opened fire on each other, but the encounter was more of a skirmish than a battle; realising that they were heavily out-numbered the Roundheads tried to return to Wem, but their way was blocked by the Royalist army.
The Roundhead forces had sited a gun on Ditches Hill on the Ellesmere road out of Wem and fired on Loppington, damaging the north wall of the church – into which they now fled. The church roof was then set alight by the Royalist to force them out and the roof and arcade were destroyed. It seems that in the chaos and possibly under cover of the smoke from the burning church, most of the Parliamentarians escaped. The whole episode had lasted just two hours. There was one tragedy for the Royalists though; a son of Lord Kilmorey (step-father of Thomas Cotton) was killed. We do not know his name, other than upon his death in 1653 Lord Kilmorey was succeeded by another son, also Robert, who became the third Viscount (the Needhams went through Viscounts in the Seventeenth century; Robert, third Viscount, died unmarried in 1657 and was successed by his brother Charles, who lived for only three years more. He was followed by his son, Charles, fifth Viscount Kilmorey, who died unmarried in 1668, and his brother, Thomas, became the sixth Viscount).
At Loppington the Royalists were commanded by the very capable Arthur Capell (or Capel), first Baron Capell of Hadham On the outbreak of the war he was appointed lieutenant-general of the King’s men in Shropshire, Cheshire and North Wales. In the middle of October of that year, with his army now swelled to three thousand six hundred men, one hundred and forty carriages, and “great ordnance” (including a formidable mortar piece), Lord Capell began moving towards Nantwich. It was the only town in the county still held for Parliament, and was garrisoned by two thousand men, commanded by General George Booth (who we shall meet again later).
We know that he split his army into three, for ease of billeting, and they settled at Combermere Abbey, the small village of Marbury – little more than a mile north west of Combermere, and just inside Cheshire – and Whitchurch, just into Shropshire, on October 14. As the Abbey was the forward point, nearest to Nantwich, and could offer the most space and comfort, it is likely that Lord Capell stayed at Combermere. Here he would have conferred with his officers, have learned what intelligence he could about the size and morale of the garrison in Nantwich. There would be many at Combermere Abbey who knew Nantwich very well indeed (large parts of the town, only six miles away, were owned by the Combermere estate), and a briefing from them would have been very useful indeed.
In due course the Royalist army removed to Acton, north of Nantwich, and the site of the subsequent battle, but Lord Capell was suddenly removed from command. Three years later Capell surrendered to Cromwell’s commander Lord Fairfax on the promise that his life was assured. The promise was broken though, and he was condemned to death by beheading by Parliament on 8 March 1649. The day after the execution his heart was removed and placed in a silver casket which was eventually presented to the King.
At Nantwich the Royalists fielded eighteen hundred cavalrymen and two thousand infantry, as well as the field pieces and all those carriages containing equipment, food and drink. There would have been a considerable number of non-combatants, and the number of horses would have been greater than the number of mounted soldiers as the wealthier cavalrymen would have spare mounts. The army would be accompanied by all jinds of necessary specialists, from blacksmiths to surgeons.
It is almost impossible nowadays to walk in the fields and woodland at the Abbey and imagine such a huge number of men and beasts covering the landscape. There would never have been a sight anything like it before in this tranquil corner of England – nor would there ever be again. Quite apart from the numbers of people and horses, the noise, the smell and the disruption must have been both terrifying and exciting. The atmosphere would have been a mixture of nervous anticipation, a degree of exhilaration and bravado, among a confusion of activity. Such expectation when the army eventually moved off, and such mess and chaos left behind – and the eventual news of the Royalist army’s defeat must have come as a very worrying blow to the household.
The Battle of Nantwich – in January 1644 – was the only major action fought close to the Abbey and there is no record of Combermere Abbey or the Cotton family being involved or affected.
We do know that towards the end of April 1643 there was a skirmish at Burleydam, very close to the Abbey, and part of the Combermere estate at that time. Royalist forces under Lord Capel approached Burleydam (sometimes seen as one word and sometimes two; the name meaning peasants’ clearing) from Whitchurch, and about a thousand Roundheads, who were involved in the siege at Nantwich to the north, came together by the chapel (built a hundred years earlier by the Cotton family) on the lane to Audlem (what is now the A525), less than a mile from the modern-day entrance to the Abbey.
The two sides opened fire upon each other, but for whatever reason battle was not joined. We do know of one unfortunate, Thomas Parker, who was taken prisoner and was then “transported to Whitchurch and on to Shrewsbury”. As both these towns were held by the Royalists at this point we can assume that poor Thomas was a Roundhead. We do not know what became of him.
There is a separate account that a few miles beyond Burleydam, Moss Farm in Audlem – a Parliamentarian house – had been raided by Royalists earlier that month, and sixty cattle, several horses and “other goods” were looted. A large Roundhead force was raised, which pursued the Royalists to Burleydam. The cows were retrieved, “two or three” Royalists were captured, and five were killed. This may actually be the same skirmish. The Audlem force was said to a thousand strong, so perhaps an aggrieved person from Moss Farm went to the garrison at Nantwich asking for assistance. The Royalists were probably hugely out-numbered and retreated rapidly, taking Parker with them. With their blood up, the Parliamentarians turned south and descended on Market Drayton, where they killed nine people and took their turn to loot and pillage.
Only about four miles away from Combermere as the crow flies, Wrenbury Hall was used as shelter by the Parliamentary forces in the same year, when Nantwich was besieged before the Battle of Nantwich. We can only guess at the state that the Hall was in once the troops had left; private houses used as garrisons often suffered badly (especially as cavalry-men often insisted on stabling their horses indoors). Further north, Oulton Hall – the site of the modern race track of Oulton Park – held a large garrison too.
Cholmondeley House, the site of the current Cholmondeley Castle, just north west of Combermere and the seat of close Royalist allies of the Cottons, was garrisoned, in 1643 by four hundred Royalists, who were attacked and defeated by yet more Parliamentary troops coming out from Nantwich. The King’s army lost fifty men and the astonishing number of six hundred horses. The house itself fell into the hands of the Parliamentarians, but was re-captured by the Royalists – who then lost it again in June 1644.
About eight miles from Combemere stood the bastion of Beeston Castle, built by the Norman lord Rannulf, Earl of Chester in the 1220s. It dominated the landscape across the Cheshire plain and the nearby Peckforton ridge, and was in an important strategic position. The castle also stood guard over two very important roads (now the A49 and the A51). The castle was taken by the Parliamentarian Cestrian, Sir William Brereton in February 1643, but was re-taken by a very small Royalist force of one officer and eight men who crept in on the night of December 13 in the same year. The castle’s commander surrendered immediately, and was subsequently tried and shot for failing to defend it. The King’s men lost the castle again in November 1645 after a terrible year-long siege, which reduced the garrison to starvation. The New Model Army then demolished the castle almost completely.
Just how badly private houses could suffer if they were caught up in the war was shown by the fate of the ancient, moated Beeston Hall, less than a mile from Beeston Castle. In March 1645, at the height of Cheshire’s involvement in the war, and while the Royalists still held the castle, Prince Rupert – Charles I’s nephew and military commander – dined at the Hall. After his dinner he thanked the lady of the house with the greatest courtesy but advised her to gather together her family and her personal effects as he was about to set fire to the house to ensure that the Parliamentarians could not use it as a garrison for their troops. All that remains of Beeston Hall to this day is a possible trace of the moat.
Vale Royal Abbey, to the north east of Combermere, had, like Combermere, been a Cistercian house, and was acquired by Thomas Holcroft in 1539. It was then, again like Combermere and others, turned into a private house following the demolition of the obviously-ecclesiastical buildings. By the time of the Civil War it was owned by the Cholmondeley family, who declared for the King. Parliamentarian forces under the command of General John Lambert split off from the main force besieging Beeston Castle and attacked the house. They ransacked it, stole everything that they could carry, and set fire to it. Part of the house was saved but it was left in a very sorry state indeed.
We can look for another parallel with Combermere at Norton Hall, a few miles east Runcorn, which had been built by Sir Richard Brooke in Elizabeth I’s reign from the dissolved Norton Priory, much as Combermere was created from the older ecclesiastical house – with the church, the cloisters and most of the original buildings demolished. In both houses the abbots’ rooms were retained and were incorporated into the new dwelling.
The Brookes had been the first family in Cheshire to declare for Parliament, and early in 1643 Royalist forces captained by Earl Rivers advanced on Norton from Halton Castle, only a couple of miles to the south-west. Norton was held by Sir Henry Brooke, grandson of the first Sir Richard, who was the first Baronet of Norton Priory (‘Priory’, interestingly, not ‘Hall’).
Sir Henry had eighty men in the Hall, and although the Royalist army had cannon – usually devastating in any attack on a house which had not been built with defence in mind – he threw off the attack. Sixteen Royalists died (including their expert ‘cannonier’) and they withdrew, but did burn the Hall’s barns and terrorised and plundered Sir Henry’s tenants for miles around. Such as the Royalists’ behaviour that a contemporary quote says that they “returned home with shame and the hatred of the country”. The following summer Sir Henry went on the offensive and as well as attacking Warrington from Norton, he besieged Halton Castle, which – doubtless very gratifyingly – rapidly surrendered to him.
It was possible to persuade the enemy not to burn and loot – by the simple medium of bribery. When the town of Oswestry, south-west of Combermere, was taken by the Earl of Denbigh’s Royalist army in June 1644 the townspeople raised the considerable sum of £500 and offered it to the troops on condition that they be left in peace. The offer was accepted and the terms of the agreement were honoured.
North Shropshire saw a fascinating development in December 1644 when the self-styled ‘Clubmen’ emerged in Wem, only a few miles south west of Combermere. This was an ad hoc movement, born of spontaneous anger and frustration, which lasted for some two years and spread to many other parts of England.
The Clubmen were disaffected men, most of whom had already served, and they included both Royalists and Parliamentarians, who had had enough of the war and if peace could not be found nationally, they at least wanted all their parts of the land to be free of all military activity. Clubman uprisings tended to occur in areas which had already suffered badly from plundering, free quartering of troops and other depredations of the war.
Clubmen first appeared at Wem in Shropshire in December 1644 when twelve hundred countrymen assembled to protest against plundering by Royalist garrisons at Stokesay Castle and Lea Hall. The Clubmen were led by the parson of Bishop’s Castle and local members of the gentry. The movement spread throughout the counties on the Welsh border during the winter of 1644-5.
In March 1645 a thousand Clubmen gathered on Woodbury Hill in Worcestershire under the leadership of Charles Nott, the parson of Shelsley Beauchamp. The Clubmen drew up a Declaration protesting at the violence of local Royalist soldiers and attempted to establish a league for mutual defence and protection. Despite their opposition to local troops, the Woodbury Clubmen professed loyalty to the King and presented the Declaration to the Royalist High Sheriff, Henry Bromley, whom they acknowledged as the lawful legal authority in the county.
The Clubmen movement petered out with the end of the first phase of the Civil War, but why this movement emerged in this corner of Shropshire – the part of the county where the Cotton family had similarly emerged centuries before – is impossible to say.
Robert Cotton was the fourth of Thomas Cotton’s children. Born in 1635, he was about eleven when he inherited the Combermere estate. By then what was to be the first phase of the Civil War had been won by the Parliamentarians, and the future was indeed bleak for the Royalist gentry.
In 1651, less than two years after his father had been executed by the Cromwellian faction in Parliament, Charles II returned, and was crowned in Scotland and the Civil War resumed. By the autumn though his army was defeated by the well-trained and disciplined Parliamentarian New Model Army and he fled to France, landing in Normandy in the middle of October.King Charles in exile after the first phase of the English Civil War
We know that Robert was abroad between 1651 and at least 1655. We know, as will be explained later, that he was in Cheshire in 1658. After the Restoration of King Charles II in 1660 Robert was very close to the King and was promoted and rewarded by him; he was knighted by the King in the same year that he was restored to the throne, and was elevated to a baronetcy in 1677 (he died at the age of 77). This is purely speculation at this point, but it is far from unlikely that Robert was in exile on the continent with the royal party. If, as a Royalist, he had been abroad independently, it would have been the most natural thing to have at least visited the monarch’s group in France. If he had been a part of Charles’s court in exile and was an impressive young courtier with obvious potential it makes sense that he would be elevated as the King rewarded the faithful.
Oliver Cromwell died on September 3 1658 and was briefly replaced as Protector by his uninspiring son, Richard. In that year, aged twenty three, Robert married Hester Salusbury of Llewenny in Denbighshire, so he already returned to England. Had he seen his chance to return as Oliver Cromwell’s health and influence were failing? Certainly, having seen how their Lord Protector had turned into both a dictator and a dynastic force, there was a huge movement if England for the restoration of the monarchy and the return of King Charles II, and it was probably safe for young Royalist gentlemen to return from the continent, especially to homes in remote country areas.
We do not know who administered and preserved Combermere’s estate and income following Robert’s early inheritance and his time abroad. We know that his step-mother, Elizabeth, had died in 1648, and his eldest sister (possibly the only surviving sister) had – as we have seen – died in 1646. Of Robert’s two younger brothers the elder was Charles (born 1637).
Perhaps Robert returned home in 1655 at the age of twenty, and lived quietly in rural Cheshire, keeping his metaphorical head down and his loyalties to himself – as so many did. We know about just one episode concerning Robert Cotton’s military activities during the Civil War, which needs a lengthy introduction.
In February 1645 Chester was held for the King; following the fall of the city of Bristol to Cromwell’s army it was the last sea port still in Royalist hands, and was therefore of critical importance. The Parliamentary army raided the suburb of Handbridge to the south, across the Dee from the city walls. They were driven off and the Royalist garrison razed everything in the area in an attempt to remove any cover for a further attack. The King then arrived in person, with his army. In September the Roundhead commander Colonel Jones, having taken Beeston Castle, took Saint Mary’s church, just to the east of the city walls. Here he set up a battery of cannon and began pummelling the walls. Towards the end of the month the rival armies met at Rowton Moor, just under two miles east of Chester, and in a very bloody encounter the Royalists were defeated, with six hundred men dead and a thousand captured.
The King fled to Denbigh Castle, ordering the city to withstand siege for ten days longer. In fact they held on for four terrible months through the winter. A demand from the besiegers that the city be surrendered received a written reply from Royalists John Byrons and Charles Walley; “We are ready to defend ourselves against the uttermost of your rage, not doubting God’s blessing and protection upon us”. The citizens were “reduced to a diet of horseflesh, vermin and domestic pets”. The city walls sustained near-continuous cannon-fire and the citizens were “kept in perpetual alarm”. The Parliamentarian forces, commanded by a Cheshire man, Sir William Brereton, were joined by Colonel Sir George Booth. The starving garrison finally surrendered on February 3 1646. It was later estimated that the siege had cost the city the massive sum of £200,000,
Booth then resigned his commission and became a member of the Commons, where he was greatly respected as a Parliamentarian war hero. However he became dissolutioned with the increasingly tyrannical behaviour of Oliver Cromwell and campaigned for reform. When the demands made by Booth’s group in the Commons were dismissed he took to arms once again. A rebellion was mounted in Cheshire, Lancashire and North Wales, Booth saying that, “arms had been taken up in vindication of the freedom of Parliament, of the known laws, liberty and property”. Several uprisings were planned, but only one happened; Booth took poor, battered Chester in 1659, assisted by a group of gentlemen from the county – one of whom was Richard Cotton of Combermere.
The rebels against the Protectorate were defeated by troops led by Major-General Lambert at Winnington Bridge near Northwich on August 19. By this point Richard Cromwell had resigned his post, having been Lord Protector for just 264 days, and The Rump Parliament took over his role.
Booth tried to escape from Winnington disguised as a woman, but was arrested and imprisoned in the Tower of London. The other rebel officers who were captured were Thomas and Francis Cholmondeley, Nathaniel Booth (George’s brother), Lord Kilmorey (who we have encountered before) and his brother Thomas Needham, Philip Egerton of Oulton, William Massey, William Tatton, Major General Egerton, John Daniel, Roger and Elisha Mainwaring, Colonel Legh, Thomas Grosvenor, William Stanley, Edward Done – and both Robert Cotton and his younger brother Charles. Robert had held the rank of Captain, and Charles was a Lieutenant-Colonel.
This was another potential disaster for the house of Cotton, of course. Both men were to be tried, both would be arraigned on charges of treason, and the penalty for treason was execution. Robert, as we know, was newly married but as yet had no heir. It seems that no charges were pressed against the rebels; indeed, the following spring George Booth was one of a dozen representatives of the Rump Parliament (of which he was a member) who travelled to Charles II and officially invite him to return to his kingdom after nine years in exile on the continent. Combermere was again secure.
The Civil War had caused the death of around 190,000 in England (out of about five million; perhaps ten per cent of all able-bodied men, with many more wounded), 60,000 in Scotland, and perhaps as many as 650,000 in Ireland. After the Restoration Charles was magnanimous, which greatly helped in healing the wounds in his kingdom. He only pursued a small number of Parliamentarian traitors, most particularly those who had signed his father’s death warrant. The number executed was very small. Royalist families who had suffered received restitution, and those who had remained faithful to the cause were generously rewarded.
Robert Cotton was knighted by King Charles on June 25 1660 (he was to be made a Baronet seventeen years later). He was still only twenty five years old. He went on to enjoy a very eventful and indeed successful career after the Restoration. He was of the Whig persuasion and was a member of Parliament on several occasions. He was a very active member of the Commons, and was involved in Welsh affairs after Lleweni came into his possession (see below). He aspired to a peerage and was said to be somewhat embittered when such an honour was not forthcoming.
Sir Robert Cotton, first Baronet, died on December 17 1712 at the age of seventy seven. He fathered eleven daughters and five sons. As many as seven of the children may have died at birth or in infancy though, including his first-born son, John. His second son, Hugh Calverley Cotton pre-deceased Robert, and his heir was Thomas, born in 1672. He was forty when he inherited but he only lived for another three years. He had also married a Salusbury – Philadelphia Lynch, a daughter of Sir Thomas Salusbury of Llewenni – in 1689 at the age of seventeen, and they also had sixteen children, over a period of years of just twenty three years; four probably died young. Philadelphia lived to be eighty three years old, notwithstanding so many pregnancies. After Thomas’s death the title and the estates were inherited by his brother, Sir Lynch Salusbury Cotton.
With Robert’s marriage came unexpected wealth. Hester Salusbury was the sister of Sir John Salusbury of Lleweni, fourth Baronet, but he died childless in 1684, aged just twenty four. Hester inherited the Lleweni estate and it joined Combermere as a Cotton asset. Lleweni was a larger estate than Combermere, and had a grander house, so Robert and Hester made it their principal seat. It remained in the Cotton family until the late-Eighteenth century, when it was sold by Sir Robert Salusbury Cotton, fifth Baronet – apparently rather badly – to his fellow MP, Thomas Fitzmaurice, heir to the Earl of Shelburne, who built a huge bleaching factory there. The Cottons took up residence at Combermere once again and remained there until selling and quitting in 1919.Both of these illustrations are said to be Llewenni Hall; the top one from around the time the Cotton family sold it to pay debts, and the lower one from just after it had passed out of the hands of the Cotton family. The top one looks like a newer and more sophisticated building though.
NOTE: Sir Robert Cotton of Combermere should not be confused with Sir Robert Cotton, 1st Baronet, of Connington, who lived from 1570 until 1631, and was an academic, an antiquarian, a patron of the cartographer John Speed, and a distinguished member of Parliament.