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The Abbey Stable Block – Curiously Not Gothic

Edward Blore was born in Derby in 1787, the son of an antiquarian. He trained as an engraver and illustrator of antiquarian subjects – a profession he remained in until early middle age.

In 1826, in his fortieth year, having created impressive illustrations of a number of English cathedrals and great houses, he was appointed surveyor to Westminster Abbey, and the following year he was engaged to furnish plans for the chancel fittings of Peterborough Cathedral.

Blore’s fastidiously detailed work at Westminster Abbey was much praised. It was said of the draughtmanship; “This was his great forte. He had studied and drawn detail so long and zealously that its design came quite naturally to him, and in this respect he was incomparably superior to his contemporaries”.

He obviously gained a considerable reputation in this ecclesiastical line because soon afterwards he was employed to restore Lambeth Palace, then in a state of near ruin. His work there included an innovation – the construction of a fire-proof room for the preservation of manuscripts and archives.

Over the following few years Blore metamorphosed into an architect – without any training or portfolio – and in 1847 he was commissioned to re-model Buckingham Palace for Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. He turned the C-shaped building in one with an enclosed central courtyard, much as we know it today (though King George V disliked it and had it further refined). At much the same time he enjoyed royal commissions to work on both Saint James’s Palace and Windsor Castle.

blorebuckThe entrance front of Buckingham Palace as designed by Edward Blore

bloreEdward Blore in late middle age

He was a close friend of the then-very fashionable author Sir Walter Scott, studied Scottish Baronial architecture with Scott, and went on to use it widely. Asked to design Prince Vorontsov’s massive palace at Alupka in the Crimea, he – schizophrenically – gave it a Scottish Baronial seawards façade, and a Moorish landwards face.

palaceAbove and below: The two contrasting facades of the palace Blore’s designed for Prince Vorontsov

palace 2That Crimean commission was atypical of Blore’s work as the vast majority of his commissions were across the British Empire – including the wonderfully inappropriately gothic Government House in Sydney. He was very much an establishment and imperial figure. He died in 1879 at the great age of ninety two, and is buried in Highgate Cemetery – in a plain and disappointingly unadventurous tomb.

All of which raises the fascinating question of how – and why – Edward Blore came to design the stable block at Combermere Abbey. Surely he was far too grand, and probably far too expensive, for such a modest commission?

The stables (which are now Grade II listed) were built in 1837 on or close to the site of the original Abbey farm, or grange. The range is about a thousand feet from the house, which seems like an inconveniently long way, and on slightly higher ground. They were built of local brick with stone detailing, under a slate roof. The plan is a long rectangle, more than three times longer than wide, running north east to south west. They included a number of staff cottages within the overall structure, which accommodated carriages as well as horses – enclosing a large, open cobbled courtyard.

Combermere glasshouse map 001A plan of the stable block in Edwardian times. It shows an absence of any buildings to the south-east of the main gate; this is correct – there is a wall but no structures.

A clue might lie in the year. Also in 1837 Blore was engaged to work on Crewe Hall, the home of Hungerford Crewe, the third Baron Crewe – who was a historian and aesthete, and went on to be a very enthusiastic and active fellow of both The Society of Antiquaries and The Royal Society.

Baron Crewe was one of the largest landowners ion Cheshire, with estates totalling more than ten thousand acres and bringing in £37,000 a year. He commissioned Blore to make alterations and enlargements to Crewe Hall, which was built between 1615 and 1634, at a total cost over five years of £30,000 – close to a year’s income for the Crewe estate (by way of comparison, in 1852 Victoria and Albert bought Balmoral Castle and fifty thousand acres for £32,000).

Baron Crewe’s brief to Blore was to make all the interiors more sympathetic to the external style of the original Jacobean house – most noticeably replacing the screens passage with an entrance hall, and covering over the central courtyard to create a single-storey hall. Blore also created a number of modernisations – including the installation of an innovative warm-air heating system.

Most interestingly for us, Blore added a centrepiece and a clock tower to the stables quadrangle and built a gate lodge. The original stables were very handsome. Built in red brick with a tiled roof, they were completed around 1636, and were contemporaneous with the house. The stable block was situated close to the house’s entrance front and at a right angle to it. It had, and still has, nine bays with an attic floor above.

Blore’s new centre-piece was a stone archway in the middle of the block, flanked by pilasters, with an ornamental stone balcony above, topped off by a tall brick and stone clock tower pierced by arrow slit windows, with a stone ogee cupola on top. To this day this confection looks like a slightly awkward addition.

pgds_20140828-210604_509px-crewe_halBlore’s new entrance and clock tower at Crewe Hall – hardly any distance from Combermere Abbey, and owned by an ex-soldier who Viscount Combermere doubtless knew well

Although everything else at Combermere Abbey was gothic by this period, the stable block which Edward Blore designed was neo-Jacobean, and not unlike the one at Crewe Hall – though less elaborate. It would not be at all surprising if Blore met Viscount Combermere while the former was at Crewe Hall – each would have known the other by reputation, in their different fields – and Combermere had asked the architect to build him a new stable block. It may have been socially embarrassing for Blore to refuse the request, and he may well have known that the fee could be earned easily and quickly.

One would have expected the block to be designed in the gothic style in concert with everything else at Combermere, but perhaps the Viscount failed to specify this, and perhaps Blore – or one of his assistants – rather dashed off a plan and elevations based on what was being worked on a dozen or so miles away at Crewe.

There would have been stables in use at the Abbey, in some form or other, for working horses across more than eight hundred years – from the creation of the Cistercian monastery at Combermere in 1133, right up to the post-War years in the middle of the Nineteenth century.

We know nothing about the use of horses at the Abbey before the Dissolution, though we do know that in 1309, during the reign of Edward II, one Richard of Fullshurst lead a band of aggrieved locals – who were probably owed money by the constantly-indebted Abbey – in a raid on the house, when goods to the value of £60 were stolen and three of the Abbey horses were killed.

After the Dissolution, when the wealthy and influential Cotton family were in possession of the estate, there would have been many horses in the stables (as well as hard-working horses stabled at the Abbey farm). Horses were vital for personal transport (for anyone of any wealth) as well as for senior servants out and about on Abbey business. In the Tilleman’s panoramic painting of the estate, created in the early Eighteenth century, we see a number of people on horse-back, mostly in two groups; one, including the then-master of the house, returning to the Abbey by what was then the main entrance, and a second, including a lady riding side-saddle, hunting deer.

2014-12-10 18.20.03From the Tillemans painting of the Abbey; above, horsemen approaching the house, and below, a hunting party on horse-back in pursuit of deer in the park

2014-12-10 18.16.23What may well have been the stables at that point are shown to the east of the house; a simple, timber-framed structure. A country house of this size would also have had tack stores, storage for fodder for the horses, and probably its own smith or metalworker, who had duties as a farrier.

The many men of the Cotton family who had military careers would have been expert horsemen, including of course the first Viscount Combermere, who made his name as a cavalry officer.

As early as 1859 the Abbey’s owner, the second Viscount Combermere, was offering his horses for sale, and in 1871 and 1882 further extensive sales of thoroughbreds and hunters were held. More on this can be read by clicking here.

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Sales particulars for the sale of horses from the second Viscount Combermere’s stables

In the late Nineteenth century the estate was leased to Elisabeth, Empress of Austria for two hunting seasons. We know that there were around three dozen horses which could be used for hunting in the Abbey stables (or elsewhere on the estate) at that point, but she augmented that number by bringing some of her own favourite hunters.

4540306081_06f02b3ffe_oAbove and below; photographs of Elisabeth, Empress of Austria sitting side-saddle on a hunter

1863-Empress-of-AustriaDespite the coming of the motor car there were horses at Combermere throughout the first half of the Twentieth century, many kept for hunting. After the death of Sir Kenneth Crossley in 1957 a small number of horses and ponies were kept in the stables for recreational use. A shed was built in the stable block to house tractors, and the carriage houses were used as garages for cars. The block boasted its own petrol pump for fuelling these cars. The original cobbled surface in the yard was concreted over, but fortunately it was possible to remove that and reveal the cobbles (complete with their drainage channels).

The stable block always included accommodation for staff, and they would have been very pleasant homes – fairly large, attractive, and, being south-east facing, very light.

In 1992, soon after Sir Kenneth Crossley’s great-granddaughter Sarah Callander Beckett took on the estate, it was decided to convert the block into a total of nine holiday cottages for short-term lets, sleeping, in all, up to forty nine people. By then the buildings were in a poor state of repair and mostly redundant, and this was to give the whole block a very worthwhile new lease of life – as well as providing a new source of revenue for the estate.

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The stable block during restoration and conversion into luxurious holiday cottages

ST2 001

St4 001

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ST7 001

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Prior to this date one cottage was still occupied, one had been vacated in the mid-Seventies, and one had been used by a tenant as a fish smokery for a while. Conversion work began in 1993, with the majority of the work being undertaken by a local building firm, Galliers and Son of Shrewsbury. They architects were Arrol and Snell, also from Shrewsbury, who have been associated with the Abbey for many years, and John Pidgeon of Shifnal in Shropshire was the quantity surveyors on the project. The conversion was completed the following year, each cottage was individually decorated, and a marketing operation was embarked upon immediately. The cottages are now very highly regarded and very popular. An upmarket wedding venue has now been created in the restored gardens behind the stable block, and the cottages are often taken en bloc by friends and family of the bride and groom.

The conversion of the block has won awards from the Country Landowners Association and the Rural Development Programme for England. The cottages themselves have won awards from Visit England, Green Tourism, Enjoy England, the Hudson Heritage Awards, and Marketing Cheshire – as well as the Visit England Gold award for self-catering, thus numbering the cottages among the very best in the England . They have frequently been the recipients of lavish praise in press reviews, both in print and online.

2015-10-14 15.55.50 Above and below; awards for the conversion of the stable block from national organisations

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RESTO stablesThe block from the park after restoration, looking from the south-east

2015-10-14 15.56.18The rear of the stable block, facing the southern end of The Walled Garden, looking to the south-east

2015-10-14 15.50.49Above and below; the cottage at the south-west corner of the block, seen from the park. The entrance arch is to the right

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2015-10-14 15.50.11The south-east corner of the main facade of the block, asymmetrical from the south-west corner

2015-10-14 15.49.26The north-eastern face of the block, from what is now the guests’ car park

2015-10-14 16.19.50Inside the stable courtyard, looking to the north-west

2015-10-14 16.18.48The north-west corner of the courtyard

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The carriages houses in the north-west range of the stable block

2015-10-14 16.17.59The south-west face


Above and below; cottage interiors after conversion




Combermere Abbey’s Distinctive – And Beautifully Restored – Game Larder

During the Eighteenth century life in country houses became markedly more civilised, and many changes improving conditions of all kinds began to be seen in the way that the houses were ordered. One was the appearance of detached game larders, which moved freshly killed food, destined for the table, away from where the family and servants lived and worked.

Once it was killed and disembowelled, game was stored in the larder until it was required, obviously, but also so that it could mature. The meat in question ranged from deer to game birds of all kinds, and rabbits and hares. The game larders were purpose-built to exclude vermin, and to stay cool. Their floors were raised from the ground, and they were securely fitted with fine mesh or gauze over the windows, and with close-fitting doors. The game larders often had over-hanging eaves to give shade, and were positioned so that they were not in direct sunlight. They were usually fitted out with stone or slate floors, and all horizontal surfaces were stone or even marble to help retain the lowest possible temperature; meat was often prepared in the larder as well as stored there. They were carefully fitted out so that the game was raised well above floor level (this kept the meat safe from the house’s cats and dogs, as well as from vermin).

Game larders were usually single storey; octagonal ones, as at Combermere, were not rare. Rather more rare is the hexagonal larder at Farnborough Hall in Warwickshire, which is an early example, dating from around 1750. Both Abbotsford House in Selkirkshire and Holkham Hall in Norfolk have circular game larders – the one at Abbotsford is a sham castle, and the one at Holkham is lined in alabaster.

Larders were usually built of stone or brick, though a few were wooden (as at Audley End House in Essex). Most were functional in appearance, while others – such as at Uppark in Sussex – were quite decorative.

Game Larder 1Combermere Abbey’s delightful gothic game larder after restoration

800px-Farnborough_Hall_Game_LarderA smaller, and noticeably more plain hexagonal game larder at Farnborough Hall in Warwickshire

The_game_larder, curious octagonal game larder at Audley End House in Essex – made of wood (note the brick piers keeping it off the ground, to avoid rot and help keep out rodents).

L311217The delightful, near-fantasy octagonal game larder at
a now-demolished house at Bromham in Wiltshire.  Photo: © Mr David Witherow FRICS

Game_larder, petite octagonal game larder at Haddo House in Aberdeenshire

406027_9f17049eAnother smaller octagonal game larder; this time at Tottenham House in Wiltshire

upparkAbove and below; the very pretty and ornate game larder (with a half-octagonal end) at Uppark in Sussex. Surprisingly the floor of the larder is not raised from the surrounding ground level


Across the county from Combermere, at Dunham Massey is north east Cheshire, deer were slaughtered in the lower of the larder’s two storeys, and then hung to mature above

Combermere Abbey’s game larder is now, after restoration, a very handsome structure, some fifteen feet across internally. On each face it has large, pointed gothic windows, in the manner of the Abbey itself. It is accessed through a double-door porch on the east side. The lower roof has wide eaves, and above that there is a cupola or lantern – also octagonal – again with lights, and topped with a smaller, deeply-eaved roof (neither roof was ever fitted with gutters). It is built of local Cheshire brick with a slate roof.

We do not know the exact date of the building, but it is thought to date from the reign of King William IV. It is attributed to the Irish architects Sir Richard and William Vitruvius Morrison (father and son). We know that the then-owner of the Abbey, the first Viscount Combermere, commissioned a design for a complete re-modelling of the Abbey from the Morrisons in 1829. It was never undertaken, but they did design The Stone Lodge – which stands at what is now the main entrance to the Abbey – so it is entirely possible that the game larder was their work. Viscount Combermere had gothicised the Abbey a few years earlier, so the gothic design of the game larder was entirely appropriate – indeed, anything else would doubtless have been utterly unacceptable to the Morrisons client.

The larder is located at the western end of a long, relatively narrow cobbled courtyard, which sits to the south of the house, with a long range of brick-built service rooms on each side. The larder is protected from the westerly light by a wall just a few paces away. It is Grade II* listed in itself, independently of the Abbey (which is Grade I listed). Its description in the English Heritage listing is as follows:

“Game larder. Early C19. Probably by Morrison. Whitewashed stretcher bond brick with a slate roof with lead flashings and a timber lantern to the apex of the roof. Single storey. Octagonal body with rectangular porch to the eastern face. Eastern face: central porch with 4-centered doorway to the centre with a stone surround and a Tudor hood mould above. Stone plinth, common to whole building and cyma moulded cornice with lead roof. Above this and to either side are a series of 2-light cusped headed windows, that above the porch being of less depth. Similar windows to all the faces with diamond patterned lattices of iron rods. Deep eaves. The lantern openings take the form of rectangular lights with trefoil heads and cills.”

2007-01-05 115 The Combermere game larder in a very sorry state before restoration

2007-01-05 1232007-01-05 231The wooden platform at the centre of the larder, from which larger game such as deer was hung on the higher hooks. The hooks on the rails around the platform itself were for rabbits, hares, and birds such as pigeon, pheasant and partridge

Game larder 3Above and below; the restored lantern or cupola, with its stretched quatrefoil windows and heavy-eaved roof

Game Larder 6

Garme larder 5The restored timber platform inside the Combermere game larder, with the original iron rails and hooks on which smaller game was hung

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The abbreviated gothic window over the door, seen from the inside

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Original ironwork, treated against further decay during the restoration, and the now-repaired window cills

In their 1995 survey of the Abbey and its associated buildings, the architects Arrol and Snell of Shrewsbury, described the game larder as “one of the most handsome of its kind”. The larder was obviously structurally unchanged from its original design, which was splendid.

They noted that the larder’s brickwork was in fairly good condition in general, though in some areas it had suffered as a result of rain and frost. Of greater concern at that point were the two roofs. The original slates had been of “very high quality” but the flashings were now missing for the most part, and many slates had moved. This had allowed rainwater to enter the building, and the rafters, lathes, plasterwork and fittings inside had suffered badly as a result.

The window frames needed extensive repair, unsurprisingly, and the original zinc mesh over the openings had largely disappeared. The small porch on the eastern face was found to be in fairly good repair, as was the stone steps leading to the entrance, and the door frame.

Inside the larder a lot of plastering was missing, but it was thought that this could be fairly easily replaced – and with a lime plaster as originally used. The stone-flagged floor was good, and just a small number of the tiles which formed the dado below the windows needing replacement.

All the ironwork – the rails and hooks (with they described, a little pompously, with the Italian expression ‘ferramenta’) – was present and repairable.

The game larder was restored thanks to a very generous – and enormously welcome – grant from The Country Houses Foundation, which covered the complete cost of the work. When completed in 2007 it was used as a visitor centre.

In their newsletter of Autumn 2008, The Country Houses Foundation said:

“One building that stood out in particular [at Combermere Abbey] was the unusual and distinctive octagonal Game Larder. With large gothic windows and original hanging stands inside, it had fallen into serious disrepair, with the roof structure weakened through loss of tiles and rotten timbers.

“Its prominent position in the centre of the service courtyard made its restoration a high priority and the Country Houses Foundation provided for this with a grant of £50,000.

“Work began on the Game Larder in the autumn of 2007 and was completed on time and within budget by the end of November. The plan is for the building to be used as an interpretation room where visitors can learn more about the historical background to this important historic site.”

RESTO game larder and clock tower before restorationAbove and below; the game larder before and after restoration, seen from the west in relation to the clock tower – also before that was restored (it has now found a very useful role as the Estate Office). The wall to the west of the game larder has been raised and topped with crenelation, and extended to the clock tower beyond the new gateway.

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The Craft Of Communication – via Parchment And Microsoft


A lot of what we know about life in England between the Ninth century and the middle of the Sixteenth comes to us from the pens of monks (pens made of cane, reed, bird quill, or metal) as scratched on to – in the main – parchment. They were one of the very few groups in society who were completely literate; clerks in government and great houses were literate too, but otherwise literacy was almost unknown among the populace until very late in this period. It is possible that even the majority of English monarchs across these seven centuries were unable to read or write, or at least, had only the most basic abilities.

Most of what monks wrote was of course routine. They copied out scriptures and prayer books, psalters and gospels. All that was routine ‘data entry’ in modern parlance. They also compiled the monastic accounts and kept records of goods in and money out; rents received and any number of the other payments which maintained the monasteries’ wealth.

The personalities of the scribes appeared only rarely, in scribbled asides and notes – sometimes witty but usually complaining. One gospel includes the simple complaint, “I am very cold”, and another has the scribbled and very human plea, ““Now I’ve written the whole thing, for Christ’s sake, give me a drink”. The illuminators had more fun – they often left their human touches by adding multi-coloured doodles of their own invention, and – especially – drawing distinctive (and sometimes scatological) faces, figures, and fantastical animals to manuscripts and documents.

So far as personal thoughts and opinions are concerned, these can be found in topical contemporary annals. Most famous are the accounts of Danish raiders kept by Northumbrian monks, describing the terror of the seemingly-endless waves of invaders and their savagery and heathen plundering. The cowed monks were understandably bewildered by the raiders’ contempt for the religion they lived to revere, and their regard of holy treasures as only so much portable bullion. In a tiny note of mitigation it should be said that the natives were capable of equal acts of butchery, especially in revenge, as can be seen in the mass grave of decapitated Vikings recently discovered in Dorset, and the ethnic cleansing of Danes in England on Saint Brice’s Day 1002.

The Anglo Saxon chronicles are an anthology of monastic writings – partly historical, partly contemporary – which were written between 891 and the mid-Twelfth century. Most important is the fact that seven of the nine documents which make up the Chronicle were written in vernacular English rather than scholastic Latin.

The Chronicle’s accounts of day-to-day life are fascinating, and the writers’ opinions and thoughts are often very clear. They are not impartial journalists, not by a long way, and they very definitely only reflect their world as seen through their eyes. The Chronicles mix local news with national, and even, on occasion, international topics – but some concerns are timeless; high taxation, poor weather, and the lack of respect of younger people for their elders.

One area of great value is the monks’ records of the weather and the effect that had on agriculture – so important to both the country’s economy and the monasteries’ fortunes. In the years running up to the establishment of Combermere Abbey in 1133 we are told that there were terrible storms in 1103, 1105, 1109, and 1110, whereas the winter of 1111 was very long and many men and animals perished. The following years saw a good harvest but an outbreak in plague, and the year after that the water level in the River Thames was so low that Londoners could wade from side to side. Storms, poor harvest and famine continued throughout the first years of the century, and there were destructive earthquakes in 1119 and 1133. The whole of the Twelfth century seems to be the most miserable time to be alive in England.

Combermere did not have a reputation as a great seat of learning and erudition – it was a small Abbey in an undistinguished corner of the kingdom, known only as a bulwark against the Welsh – nor do we have any great documents written there. What we do have though is The Book of the Abbot of Combermere, which is a compendium of the Abbey’s business documents between 1289 and 1529.

These are leases and covenants between the Abbey and its tenants. The accounts cover assets owned over a large area of the north midlands and north west England, and includes precise details of the dealings with a huge number of people who had business dealings with the Abbey. In the main these were tenants and lease-holders, townspeople and countrymen alike – even widows holding their leases for a peppercorn rent in their penury. There are around two and a half thousands individuals listed and named, so it is not hard to see why an Abbey like Combermere needed literate and numerate clerks to keep comprehensive records.

In many cases we see the same surname repeated, with different members of that family doing business with the Abbey – at the same time or in different generations. Eight members of the Banaster family are noted, and there are six Bickerstaths, six Birches, nine Cokes, and ten members of the Hale family. The surnames in themselves are fascinating; Wasshynton, Wykedlegh, Stotfoldshagh, Twynteringe, Stablehervy, Quitstones, Mirewraa, Osmoundrelawe and Cappelanus. Many surnames have evolved, been simplified, and are still in use today – very many have disappeared from use completely. Even allowing for freefall medieval spelling, is anyone nowadays called Querndoun, Taldrestath or Warthebrek?

What we don’t have for the Abbey is the day-to-day accounts. After the Dissolution these would have held no interest or value and would probably have been destroyed either by those who seized the Abbey or those who acquired it. Similar accounts do exist for some monastic houses, and they are a fascinating insight into the monasteries everyday economy. Very full domestic accounts for Ely Abbey, Christ Church cathedral priory, Canterbury, and Bury Saint Edmunds still exist intact.

As almost all the monastic buildings at Combermere were demolished after the Dissolution, and what remained was stripped out and re-built, it is far more likely than not that no records survived. We have a similar dearth of documentation for the following centuries too. What there was between the Dissolution and 1919, during the ownership of the Cotton family, seems to have been lost at the later date when the estate was sold. We have a map but precious little else. There are external sources, of course, but even so there wasn’t a huge amount of information in total and there were some large and intriguing gaps.

This website was created over a twenty two month period between October 2013 and July 2015 to both record the restoration of the North Wing of the Abbey, and as a platform for the compiler’s research into key periods and events at Combermere over the centuries.

The restoration process has involved fascinating and highly-talented craftspeople, and talking about them is as important as describing their work. One recurring aspect is that the way that many of the crafts are undertaken in the Twenty-first century is very similar to how their Twelfth or Sixteenth century forbears would have gone about the same job, and with tools which – with the exception, obviously, of electric saws and hydraulic lifts – looked the same and would have felt similar in the hand. Our contemporary carpenters could have worked with a Tudor joiner’s chisels and hammers, and Thomas le Plumer in the Twelfth century would have been entirely happy with the modern lead worker’s tools. The only major difference would have been steel replacing iron.

There have been great similarities in the materials used as well. Granted, the new oak came from Normandy in northern France rather than from a couple of miles radius of the Abbey, but that is far from inappropriate – the conquering baron who founded the Abbey was of course a Norman, and Normandy and England – one a dukedom and one a kingdom, under a single overlord – formed part of the same state for hundreds of years.

So far as the history of the Abbey is concerned, many periods and stories stand out. This is the first time that the accounts of the waywardness of the abbots and monks have been brought together in a single narrative. Bankruptcy, theft, counterfeiting, violence – by them and against them – and more than one murder; surely no other monastery in England had such a charge sheet.

After the huge national upset of the Dissolution the Abbey saw the arrival of the nouveau riche Cotton family – self-made Tudor men. Their family was to hold Combermere for almost four hundred years, often precariously, it should be said. The men of the Cotton family were good at marrying wealthy wives but very bad at then managing that money, let alone hanging on to it. Those wives though, as we have seen, were very good at producing children – and both mothers and offspring survived, in contradiction of modern perceptions of historic mother and infant mortality.

This comfortable family – solid rural gentry through and through – joined the aristocracy thanks to the military exploits of the Cotton who became the first Viscount Combermere, and the visit of his commander and friend The Duke of Wellington was a high point of glory for the house. The full family tree of the family, by the by, from the mid-Thirteenth century and the birth of Hugh of Hodnet, father of the man who first took Coton as his surname, to the present day, has not to our knowledge been compiled before. It has been fascinating to marry those names to the crests and shields in The Library, put in place by the first Viscount.

We now know that there were armies on Combermere Abbey land on two occasions; firstly ahead of the Battle of Nantwich in 1643, during the English Civil War, and again in the late Seventeenth century when King William III stayed at the Abbey ahead of embarking for Ireland to fight what would become The Battle of the Boyne. Extensive research has taught us a huge amount about how the Civil War affected Combermere, just as it affected country houses in almost all parts of the country, and especially Cheshire.

Thanks to the discovery of an Eighteenth century map of the estate and the cleaning of the Tillemans panorama, we have been able to deduce a lot of new information about the house and its surroundings in the Eighteenth century, and these two, very striking, images – when taken together –have proved invaluable.

From there we go on the first Viscount’s glittering career and the Abbey’s heyday, but that was followed in the later years of the Nineteenth century and the first years of the Twentieth by gradual, genteel decline. There were highlights though in the form of the hugely wealthy individuals who were tenants at Combermere; the Empress of Austria, Sir Richard and Lady Constance Sutton, and the Dowager Duchess of Westminster. All of this was new information gained through extensive research.

These glittering guests were followed by sales of horses, attempts to sell the estate, and finally the huge disposal of fixtures and fittings at a three-day auction on the Abbey lawn.

Much more is known about the Crossley family, into whose hands Combermere Abbey passed in 1919 after the departure of the Cottons; the current owner of the estate, Sarah Callander Beckett, is the great granddaughter of Sir Kenneth Crossley, the gifted engineer and entrepreneur who bought it. Three generations of the family live on the estate nowadays, so much is known. What was required here was to add to the information in hand and take the story wider, looking constantly for new tit-bits to add more facts and humanity. Much more could yet be written about the story of the Crossley family and their tenure of Combermere.

There are no truly huge gaps in our knowledge of Combermere Abbey and its occupants since 1133, but detail in many areas would be most welcome. Why was the Abbey in such desperate financial trouble in the Middle Ages, and for so long? What sort of men were the Abbots who attacked the Archbishop of Canterbury (of all people!) and lead an assault on a sister abbey? How did the Cotton brothers, Richard and George, come from nowhere to gain influence and wealth at the court of Henry VIII? Where exactly was the young Robert Cotton during Parliamentary rule of England? What did the first Viscount and The Iron Duke talk about over the dining table at the Abbey? Were later Viscounts stupid with their money or did they think that generating income was beneath men of their rank? Was the beautiful Empress of Austria as generous with her favours while in Cheshire as the local ladies of quality claimed? And – a simple fact but one which cannot be found, no matter how hard I have tried – how much died Sir Kenneth pay for the estate in 1919.

Answers to some of these questions may turn up in the future, but certainly not to all. At least though we have gathered knowledge, presented it to the very best of our abilities, and greatly increased the understanding of this fascinating and (as the Empress herself said) romantic house.

Steven Myatt, His Boke ( July 2015

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