The Library News

Work Begins Restoring The Heraldic Devices

With a full scaffolding platform in place in the Library the conservators can now get right up to the ceiling. This allows close examination of elements which have only previously been seen through binoculars or telephoto lenses.

The first thing that is obvious – even more apparent than it is from ground level – is how the plaster has twisted out of shape over the years. The two longer sides are both very distorted, but the conservators have tested the plasterwork and say that it is secure and in no danger of falling, which is very good news.

Combermere library jan 2014 028  The coving over where the east wall meets the ceiling shows considerable distortion.
Combermere library jan 2014 026If anything the coving on the west is more deformed, but the plaster is secure both in its fixings and in itself

The wood effect around the coats of arms was not painted onto the plaster, as first thought, but was printed paper. This presumably dates from early in Queen Victoria’s reign. We do not know whether it was printed especially for this application or was a commercially-available product.

Combermere library jan 2014 021Printed ‘wallpaper’ may have been bought in as is.

On the upper edges of the coving, close to the ceiling, there are a number of curious devices, individually placed and with no apparent relationship to each other. These are the crests of neighbouring Cheshire families, in each case taken out of context from the relevant coat of arms. Viscount Combermere was presumably associating himself with the other grandees of west Cheshire, especially those who were far grander and had held titles for much longer.

Combermere library jan 2014 018The hound with his tongue sticking out is the crest of the Grosvenor family; now the massively wealthy Dukes of Westminster. Their place in the aristocracy dates back to 1622 when Richard Grosvenor was created baronet. The line became earls in 1784, marquesses in 1831, and dukes in 1874 – so at the time of Viscount Combermere’s inserting their crest into his ceiling, the head of the house was the Marquess of Westminster (he was also Earl Grosvenor, Viscount Belgrave, Baron Grosvenor, so he stood well ahead of Combermere in the order of precedence.

The dog on the crest is a talbot, a breed of scent hound used for medieval hunting. The talbot has now died out – though the beagle and the bloodhound are descended from it. It was usually white and had large ears, and it is the crest of the Earls of Shrewsbury as well as the Dukes of Westminster (as well as other families – and the town of Sudbury in Suffolk.  In heraldry it is always shown with its tongue protruding, often lolling out of its mouth to its left side. The Talbot is a common name for a pub.

Combermere library jan 2014 015The griffin holding a knight’s helmet is the crest of the Marquess of Cholmondeley, whose northern seat, Cholmondeley Castle, is only a short distance from Combermere Abbey. Robert Cholmondeley was created viscount in 1661, his grandson – Hugh – was made an Earl in 1706, and they were created marquesses in 1815. The current Marquess, the seventh, is Lord Great Chamberlain of England. He became Knight Commander of the Royal Victorian Order in 2007.

Combermere library jan 2014 037Unlike the other crests, which are plaster mouldings, this bird has been painted directly on to the surface of the coving. Unsure of what we had here I asked for help from Martin Goldstraw, an expert in Cheshire heraldry. He says; “I can see that it is basically a bird that is black in colour upon a gold shield. The fifth quarter of the arms of Brereton of Brereton are those of Corbet. The arms of Corbet are Or, two ravens Sable (a gold shield upon which are two corbies or ravens black in colour). The basic arms of Corbet are Or, a (single) raven Sable”. That is fascinating on several counts. We know of connections between the Cottons and the Corbets, and the famous ghost photo of the second Viscount Combermere, taken during his funeral, was the work of Sybil Corbet, a close family friend.

Combermere library jan 2014 014This is an elephant and castle crest. This has many associations in England; it is the emblem of The Worshipful Company of Cutlers, it appears on the shield of arms of Coventry City Council, and the phrase is often thought to refer to Queen Eleanor, being a corruption of Infanta de Castille. Not far from Combermere, at Peckforton, there is a large stone carving of an elephant and Castle in front of a cottage. That dates from 1859 and is Grade II listed, but this crest bears no relation to Peckforton (or its then owner, Baron Tollemache). Once again it is a link to the Cortbet family of Shropshire. As Martin Goldstraw explains;  “The Corbet arms explain the connection with the elephant and castle as the Corbet crest is An elephant Argent, on his back a castle triple towered Or, trappings of the last and Sable.”

Combermere library jan 2014 019The eagle and child is the crest of the Stanley family; the Earls of Derby. The title was first granted to Robert Ferrers in 1139. The sixth Earl forfeited his property toward the end of the reign of Henry III and died in 1279. The title  was created again for the Stanley family in 1485, so it is a very ancient peerage. The seat of the Earls of Derby is at Knowsley in south Lancashire (now Merseyside); a few miles the other side of the River Mersey. The current Earl Derby is the nineteenth.

Combermere library jan 2014 020We first thought that this plaque is of a horse’s head, with reins, and the crescent probably indicates cadency (a younger branch of the family) – though a crescent can either note someone who has been honoured by their monarch, or they may date from the Crusades. Thankfully Martin Goldstraw could identify the animal better than we could; ” I would lay odds on your horse’s head being the bear’s head crest of Brereton of Ashley. It is their crest, a bear’s head erased Sable, muzzled Gules, a crescent for cadency or the crest of Brereton of Malpass.  The arms of Brereton of Malpas  do not have a crescent for cadency on the crest itself however the arms themselves do feature a crescent for the second son. ” Brereton is an ancient and distinguished Cheshire surname. Breretons have been gentry in various parts the county for centuries; Sir William Brereton was a Parliamentary commander during the English Civil War and he commanded the garrison at Nantwich through the Royalist siege of 1643.  Brereton Hall is a Grade I listed country house in east Cheshire dating from 1586.

Combermere library jan 2014 036The half quatrefoil  panels are filled with rather obscure images painted on to shaped pieces of paper. The images may become easier to understand once they have been cleaned.

Combermere library jan 2014 033This one, showing the Cotton crest and motto (“In Vitraque Foruna Paratos”) has been repaired. It seems that a new piece of paper has been rather roughly cut out and pasted over the original. The joins are very apparent up close.

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Combermere library jan 2014 016The original workmanship in the corners of the plaster coving is dreadful. A fairly complex chamfer is needed, but this seems to have been beyond the skill of the builders. These junctions are very awkward, and it is hard to understand why corrections were not demanded.

Combermere library jan 2014 032At the south end of the Library a wood carving of the Cotton crest of a falcon stands on a metal plinth. Its left claw rests on a torse, while the right is holding what may be a belt and buckle. This device appears appears elsewhere in slightly different form. There is nothing similar elsewhere on the Cotton or Combermere arms.

Combermere library jan 2014 013The shields are secured through the plaster to the beams by two bolts, one either side, two thirds of the way up each shield. The head of the bolt has then been covered in plaster in each case, which is moulded into a vertical piece. In several places there has been movement and the plaster moulding has cracked horizontally below the bolt head. Securing the nuts on the other end of the each bolt, deep in the roof space, must have a difficult task.

The wood-effect printed paper behind each coat of arms can be seen in the photograph above, with the bolts loosened off. This paper has been painted over at some point. Perhaps the brown of the wood-effect was too dark and didn’t allow the shields to be seen to their best advantage.

Combermere library jan 2014 022The conservators’ workbench, with their plan of the ceiling mouldings, and gold leaf taken from the ceiling. The first phase of the conservation work will take some five or six weeks. There will then be a two week drying-out gap before final work resumes.

Touching on Tudor Timber

Combermere library jan 2014 001The north end of the roof space, showing what seem to be early Tudor carved beams.

Being in the roof space above The Library at Combermere Abbey is a truly awe-inspiring experience. Everything you can see and touch has it own place in the history of this ancient building, and up here – where few humans have ever been – you are surrounded by very immediate evidence of hundreds of years of that history.

The Library has long been the most important room in the house. It is today, and it was previously The Abbot’s Lodging – the impressive and luxurious centre of the pre-Dissolution Abbey. A dendrochronology survey is mooted in the near future, and indeed only those results will really explain what we can see below the roof and above the Library ceiling. We know that the room was re-built in the reign of Henry VII, and may well have been altered by builders working for the Cotton family after the Dissolution.  We do not know if the roof was re-built on either occasion.

The arched beams at either end have been carved on their lower edges, and were obviously intended to be seen, so this must be the monastic open roof. There is carved foliage at each apex, where the curved sections meet, but in each case this has been sawn off (slightly roughly, but definitely not knocked off), and the reason for this is unclear. It may have been cut away for clearance when other timbers were inserted. None of the oak securing pegs, once pushed into place, have been cut off on either face of the main timbers, which is surprising, given that this was to be seen from below.

At the northern end there is a simple timber frame with infilling, and one lower panel in the centre has been left open, as if for access. It gives access to an area just a couple of feet in depth, and it is hard to say why there is this partition. It is in this section that there is definite evidence of a large baldacchino; a canopy which would have been draped with fabric on the two sides and perhaps the rear, indicated his status and keeping bat and bird droppings off his table.

Combermere library jan 2014 002In a number of places there is evidence of repair. This patching has been done very          crudely. Plaster has been daubed over a timber repair on the upper-most one.

The plaster ceiling in The Library was built towards the end of the Seventeenth century, and lathes will have been put in place under the main timbers at the point, from which to hang it – beneath new, curved, full-width beams.  There are much smaller, secondary beams to either side of these main cross-beams, which appear to be of a different timber. These look like latter additions, though it is unlikely that they were for extra support; perhaps they were installed to give a greater face area for the ceiling to be pinned to.  There are iron supporting staples throughout. These are hand-made and as there are no other signs of fixings or fixing holes, it is reasonable to assume that these are contemporaneous with the beams and lathes. There are also some iron straps supporting lengths of the older, arched beams, where cracks have appeared.

Combermere library jan 2014 004

Combermere library jan 2014 005

On the western side of the roof space a large timber has been introduced at some point, doubtless as a repair, to add support. It has been bolted to the (presumably) Tudor timbers where it crosses them. The older beams have been cut into to horizontally (and possibly vertically, to a smaller degree) to accommodate the later beam. Access to this timber is currently difficult, but it is about eighteen inches square, by more than thirty feet long.  This means it would weigh about four tonnes. How this was put in place, more than thirty feet from the ground, and with the earlier beams still in position, is hard to imagine. It could not have been introduced from either the north or the south, given that there are gables at both ends. As it sits on the later transverse beams it looks like a later repair, so it is unlikely that it was raised from within The Library (even then, getting it into the building would seem impossible).  The beam is straight and true, which could suggest that it is relatively modern; a dendrochronology date would be fascinating. No matter what its date, raising it and bringing it into place would have been a massive and very difficult undertaking.

On the eastern side of the roof space, running the full length, is a what looks like a two inch square beam – which at first glance seems odd. It is in fact the fully-boxed cable ducting, dating from when electricity was first introduced into the house in the mid-Twentieth century.

There have been some recent finds of detritus in the roof space; a bottle which at first glance looks to be early Victorian, several hand-made staples and nails, a small piece of light brown pottery (part of the rim of a drinking vessel or a jar), and a definitely Twentieth century (empty) packet of Woodbine cigarettes.

Combermere library jan 2014 010Finds from the roof space. It is horrifying to think that at some point (possibly when electricity was introduced to the Abbey) workmen have been smoking up there!


A Victorian Curiosity

Comb Victorian engraving 001

This is a strange image. It’s a picture of The Library – but it doesn’t make any sense. The detail is very fine and absolutely accurate; look at the joints in the coving in the two corners – they are different from each other, and reflect exactly how they do indeed look, and there is even the falcon above the central panel in the middle of the far wall – as there is today.All the portraits are correct, both between the windows and above the fireplace.

It could at first glance be the room in Tudor times, given the clothing on the figures, except for the fact that the ceiling wasn’t inserted until well over a century later, and the coats of arms on the coving in fact date from the mid-Nineteenth century. The central light fixture is wrong though (and how is it supposed to work; where are the candles?), and the table in the middle of the room is obviously High Victorian Gothick Revival. The clock inside the ‘cloche’ on the right is Victorian, as is the face-height screen to the right of the fire (designed to stop ladies’ faces flushing in the glow of the hearth). Also, it is highly unlikely that any Tudor would have such bookcases, filled to the ceiling  with regular-bound books.

This comes from a large format book called ‘Mansions of England and Wales’, which was published by a man called Edward Twycross, who was, at different times, a very highly regarded silversmith (his assay mark was TWY+),  a solicitor and an author – having been educated at Trinity College Dublin. He was born in 1803 and died at the age of forty nine. His books – there were five volumes in all – are much studied by architectural historians and genealogists.  The volumes were released between 1846 and 1850, and were hugely expensive; they were bound in Morocco leather, with gilded lettering.

The style of the illustration gives this away as being a steel engraving from the early years of Queen Victoria’s reign, and it is an imagining; it was a contemporary study of The Library in the time of the first Viscount Combermere, but figures in Tudor dress have been dropped in, in an attempt to re-create the look of the room not long after the Cotton family acquired it after the Dissolution. He would not have known how the room had changed over the centuries, and obviously decided not to bother with such niceties.

The arms at the bottom of the page are those of Viscount Combermere (the coronet symbolises his position in the peerage), but are rather stylised.

Cotton arms 001The motto; “In Utraque Foruna Paratos” is latin, and means (roughly) “Prepared, Whatever My Fortune”. Fortune as in ‘fate’, not as in Lottery win. The three figures of eight above and below the chevron in the centre are twists of cotton, from the Cotton family arms. The two supporters are falcons.



The Library

“A room of great decorative force”

The Library at the Abbey is the one room which we know is the same size as when it was part of the Cistercian Abbey, and is in the same place. We do not know the layout of the Abbey in detail (a huge programme of archaeology would be a great help), but there are a few clues. All Cistercian abbeys had a square cloistered courtyard at its hub, with the main buildings arranged around it and the abbey church taking up one side and extending beyond it at either end. The other definite is that the Abbey’s church or chapel would lie on an east-west axis, though is often off a true axis by ten or fifteen degrees – pragmatism enforced by the landscape being more important than architectural orthodoxy.

RESTO Library

The Library at Combermere Abbey; the most substantial room in the house. In the Middle Ages this room was The Abbot’s Lodging

No matter the overall size of the Abbey, the cloisters would be at least one hundred feet square; anything less than that would be impractical. Taking what is now called The Library – The Abbot’s Lodging as was – as the guide, the Abbey church could have been on the north side of the cloisters so that the altar was to the east.

Beyond those principles, any abbey’s layout was altered to suit the local topography. One imperative in choosing a site was a flow of water.  At Combermere there was a stream to the west, which flowed into the mere (it is now culvetted). The kitchens would always take water from the stream firstly, in this case probably from the south east, and kitchen and human waste would go in downstream – at Combermere this means to the south west.

If the plan of Combermere was broadly similar to that of Buildwas Abbey – a Cistercian monastery in Shropshire, started just two years after Combermere – the church would have run  from the north west corner of the site to the north east. This supposition arises due to marks on the ground which can be seen in aerial photos, showing a large, rectangular structure with thick walls, on the western side of the north west corner of the current building (the church would have been quite a way off the modern east-west axis, as it is at Buildwas).  If that is the case, the cloister would have been to the south, and some of the Twelfth century buildings may share foundations with the long range of service buildings which exist today. This makes sense because the stream, bringing fresh water and taking away foul, would be running just a short distance away, with no other buildings between the two. The Abbot’s Lodgings would then have been in the western range, overlooking the lake. The Abbot’s rooms are not usually so near to the Abbey church, but it’s far from impossible.

archesThis short arcade stretches north east from the most north easterly corner of the current building. Built of brick and rendered, this feature is obviously not a part of the original Abbey. It is almost certainly a part of the North Wing, which was demolished in 1952.

There is evidence that a large room in the current house, The Porter’s Hall, which stretches across of the width of the house may be part of the original Abbey plan. It has been suggested that it was a chapel, but it could also have been the Chapter House, echoing the Buildwas plan.

Buildwas plan

A Victorian plan of Buildwas Abbey. If the plan of Combermere Abbey was similar, the north eastern range of small service buildings would have had to have been inverted and run to the south east because of the lake. The Abbot’s Lodgings would have been where The Chapter House is at Buildwas (the rectangular, vaulted room in the centre of the plan).

Cistercians believed that their buildings should avoid superfluous ornamentation so as not to distract from the religious life. Cistercian architecture was simple and utilitarian. Abbeys were built of smooth, pale, stone; columns, pillars and windows always fell at the same base level, and all decoration, if seen at all, was kept simple. Most Cistercian abbeys were built in remote corners of the countryside, away from populated areas. This isolation and need for self-sustainability led to interesting innovations among the Cistercians.

After stone, the two most important building materials were wood and metal. The Cistercians were careful in the management and conservation of their forests. They were also skilled metallurgists, and their skill with metal has been associated directly with the development of Cistercian architecture, and the spread of Gothic architecture as a whole (we know that one monk at Combermere in the Thirteen century was a skilled plumber, who also worked on the royal castles in Wales; hence his name, Thomas le Plumer). Many Cistercian establishments display early examples of hydraulic engineering and waterwheels.

Relatively good records survive for Buildwas Abbey, and there is much of the architecture still above ground. Buildwas is interesting in that the earliest phase of its stone construction was in the Romanesque style, as would be expected, but it was never updated in the Gothic style. As at Combermere, the Abbot’s House was a large and prestigious room, and it too was the centrepiece of the private house created after the Dissolution (by the local Acton-Moseley family, who acquired the buildings and lands from Thomas Cromwell). This room is smaller than the Lodgings at Combermere Abbey, but has the same proportions. It too had a fireplace built centrally on one of the longer sides at some later point. The Lodgings is now the social club for the nearby Ironbridge power station, and jolly grand it is too for its Twenty First century use (though the 1970s carpets are an aesthetic disappointment).

Buildwas Abbey Dec 8 2013 026 Buildwas Abbey Dec 8 2013 025

Original monastic beams in the roof space at Buildwas, above what would have been The Abbot’s Lodgings.
Buildwas Abbey Dec 8 2013 027 Buildwas Abbey Dec 8 2013 029
A delicate and elegant internal Norman door at Buildwas, leading into The Abbot’s Lodgings, which was probably an exterior door originally. Right: an original lancet window, now gracing a Gents loo. Buildwas seems to have been very poorly endowed originally, and the abbot and monks lived in meagre wooden buildings for twenty years, until the arrival of dynamic Abbot Ranulf, who transformed it into an important monastic house.

Sir George died young, in 1545, only seven years after been gifted the Abbey, at which point his son and heir, Richard, was only six years old. It was to be another eighteen years before work on the construction of a new house at Combermere really got underway. Sir George Cotton may well have demolished the Chapel at Combermere, and other rooms and buildings for which they had no use (and were too monastic in feel), including the cloisters. Much of the stone and unwanted timers were probably sold – perhaps all.

It is possible that part of the delay was accounted for by the family building up the financial reserves to afford the new house. They had no inherited wealth and at the time of his death, the Abbey would have been Sir George’s greatest asset. We do not know who stood as Richard’s ward, but the bulk of the revenues received from the land during the wardship may well have got to his protector. Standing as a ward’s protector was a lucrative business, and was keenly sought-after; indeed, wardships could be bought and sold. We know nothing about Sir George’s widow, Lady Mary and her five daughters and one son during this period. Her family were the Onsleys (or Onleys) of Catesby Castle, Northamptonshire, and were wealthy (her father was John Onley, born 1463, married to Jane Pontesbury); she may have lived there.

Sir Richard Cotton started with The Abbot’s Lodging and had his new half-timbered house designed around it. The room was originally built to resemble a manorial great hall, so its transition to civilian use would have been easy. The major alteration was the construction of a floor; the room had previously reached upwards for more than twenty feet at wall level. A hundred years later a full-length and full-height screen was erected at the south end of the room, shielding a new staircase, which seems to have been made up of panelling from a number of sources.

The existing coved ceiling, ornamented with family shields, is early Victorian. One wall of panelling is the original cross-passage screen, and the rest of the panelling was installed relatively recently – brought in from other sites.

Combermere Sept 25 2013 009

The ‘shed’ in The Library is covering renovation work on the fireplace and chimney; sealed to avoid damage from centuries of soot and dust

The display of heraldry – which dates from the late 1830s – on the coving between the walls and the late-Sixteenth century ceiling, is one of the most extensive to be found in any country house in England. On the two longer walls there are twenty two shields of gentry associated with the house, commencing with those of Hugh de Malbanc, who founded the Abbey. On the north wall the crests run in three lines. There are seventy one shields in all. Every generation from the 1400s onward is shown. From the mid-Sixteenth century they are the heraldic devices of the Cotton family. A great amount of research must have gone into this, commissioned by the first Viscount Combermere, and it was very accurate.

As well as portraits, on canvas and carved in wood, of identifiable people, there are four mysterious portraits; one is of a German judge and councillor, Andreas von Gail, who lived between 1526 and 1587, and those of two gentlemen and one lady, which are unidentified.

Combermere Sept 25 2013 012

Above the ‘shed’, looking from the south, are four Sixteenth century and early Seventeenth portraits. Three are of English monarchs; Henry VIII, Elizabeth I, and James VI of Scotland I of England, and Sir Philip Cotton who rebuilt the Abbey after the Dissolution.

The fire hearth in The Abbot’s Lodging would have originally have been in the centre of the room (the evidence is still on the roof timbers above, in the roof space), with the smoke curling upwards and out through the roof. Although a chimney was installed at Conisborough Castle in Yorkshire in 1185, they weren’t really seen commonly until the Sixteenth century. This room gained its new hearth and chimney then, sited centrally on the long north east wall. The chimney has recently been the subject of specialist restoration, and a report on that work, together with a profile of the specialists who did the work, will be posted here soon.

Combermere Sept 25 2013 013

Inside the ‘shed'; the current hearth, installed within the earlier Fifteenth century fireplace.

The decay from the North Wing has begun to spread to The Library in recent years, and this caused great concern. Some restoration work has been undertaken ahead of the North Wing programme to arrest the damage, and stabilise the fabric. Again, all that on-going work will be documented on this web site.

This is what architectural historians have said about The Library at Combermere Abbey:

“A room of great decorative force, with strapwork ceiling, heraldic frieze and carved fireplace. Shields and Tudor portraits, coats of arms and grotesques cover every inch.” Sir Simon Jenkins

“The best interior, now called The Library, is the old great hall on the first floor, originally approached by an external flight of steps. It has a frieze with the arms of the Cottons and their connections from the Sixteenth century, and a geometrical ribbed plaster ceiling.” John Martin Robinson

“Concealed above its plaster ceiling is an extremely fine late medieval hammerbeam roof, its timbers decorated with the Abbey arms, a shield bearing a crozier. The hammerbeam roof is too grand for a refectory, too grand for a refectory, and this supports the theory that this room was the Abbot’s Hall, on the first floor of the west range of the cloister”. Peter de Figueiredo & Julian Treuherz

“The library has been adapted from the refectory, which in its original state was sixty feet long and twenty-eight feet high. The ancient oak roof is still preserved, and is richly ornamented with the carvings which were customary at that day. Upon the walls are the quarterings of the Cotton family from the time of King John, as also those of Salusbury, of Llewenny, now represented by Lord Combermere”. British Towns and Villages Network: Stately Homes of the United Kingdom

“The library at first floor level is divided from the landing by a wooden screen which has two sets of double doors with round-arched heads. Each door is of three raised and fielded panels and the slam plates are formed of a continuous band of alternating miniature caryatids and Ionic pilasters with cherub heads to the top. Between the doors are set painted panels showing figures in Sixteenth or early Seventeenth century costume. The side to the library has similar slam plates to the doors. To the spandrels are animated carvings of satyrs and the arches have projecting keystones of wood. To either side of these doors are Ionic pilasters divided by panels of diamond pointed rustication”. English Heritage