It is absolutely fascinating to have sight of this map – the earliest we have ever seen of the central portion of the Combermere estate. It has dates of both 1688 and 1707, which is slightly confusing – perhaps it was a 1707 copy of an earlier drawing, or it was updated in the early Eighteenth century.
The drawing is very charming; far from professional by our standards. The handwriting of the two cartouches looks very similar, and as the name ‘James Whitakers’ appears on the later one and the initials ‘JW’ on the earlier we can assume it was the same draughtsman.
The cartouche in the top right is topped by the Cotton falcon, with the Cotton arms below together with an inverted fleur de lys, and is supported to either side by two delightful figures. The one on the left is probably an angel, while the one on the right, although winged, looks like one of the ‘red indians’ on the Tudor fireplace in the Abbey’s Library.
The text reads:
‘A map of the demesne of Combermere in the hundred of Nantwich and County Palatine of Chester made 10 1688.JW 9′ There is a the abbreviation ‘per’ (Latin – ‘for’?) under the ‘10’ (which may denote the month of October).
With the spelling updated, the left hand cartouche, with its two winged (and possibly bearded) faces and its ornamental fleurs-de-lys, reads:
‘This ancient Abbey seat and estate belongs to Thomas Cotton, esquire also is in jointure to Philadelphia his wife and then settled upon their issue male who are Robert Salusbury, Stephen, John Salusbury, and Lynch Salusbury Cotton, so on to their heirs forever. Surveyed by Sir Thomas Taylor. Transcribed by James Whitakers. Anno Domini 1707.’
The word ‘jointure’ indicates that there was a legal entail in place which protected Philadelphia in the event of her becoming a widow. The estate would be settled on her alone for the period during which she survived her husband, put in place in lieu of a dower. She would be in this happy position because she had brought so much wealth into the family on her marriage, and it would have been part of a ‘pre-nup’ agreement. Only on her death would the estate go to the next generation.
In fact she did indeed take up the jointure. Her husband died in May 1715 and she survived until 1758, dying at the age of sixty nine (the mother of sixteen children – having seen all but two predecease her – and a widow for forty three years). Her son Sir Robert Salusbury inherited the baronetcy but not the estate. He died in 1748 having had no children (his wife being Elizabeth Tollemache), and he was succeeded by his brother, Sir Lynch Salusbury, who lived until 1775.
The naming of the four male heirs raises a question. This list definitely dates the map to 1707 rather than 1688; the latter date being before any of them were born – in fact, the year before Thomas and Philadelphia were married. Our understanding is that their first-born son was Thomas Salusbury, born in 1691. We believe that he died in 1710 but perhaps he was in fact already dead when the map was drawn; there can be no other reason for him to be excluded. Another son had been born in 1701 but had died in infancy. A further three sons were born after 1707, though one died very young, and another aged five. In 1707 there were three daughters and a fourth was born at some point during that year, but there are of little account and are not mentioned.
We do not know who the lowly artist James Whitakers was, but we know exactly who Sir Thomas was. Born on July 20 1662 in Dublin, Thomas Taylor was the son of Thomas Taylor and Anne Axtell. He became a great man in Ireland; Member of Parliament for Kells on four separate occasions, created baronet in June 1704 (as First Baronet of Kells, County Meath), and a member of the Irish Privy Council from 1726. He died on August 8 1736 at the good age of 74.
The other thing we know about him, and which explains how he came to survey Combermere, is that on June 20 1682, at the age of twenty, he married Anne Cotton (1661 – 1710), daughter of Sir Robert and Hester Salusbury Cotton. They had four boys, all sons, of whom the third-born, also Thomas Taylor, assumed the baronetcy on his father’s death and lived until 1747. His son – yet another Thomas – became the first Earl of Bective in 1766. His son became the first Marquess of Headfort, and was followed in that title by his son in turn, by his grandson as the third Marquess, by his great-grandson – and until the title died out in 1893 every last one of them was called Thomas, unimaginatively and confusingly.
In 1707 the head of the Cotton family was Sir Robert, Thomas’s father, who as we know died in 1715 aged 43 (but who had managed to father sixteen children by his ever-pregnant wife Philadelphia in their twenty six years of marriage). Thomas is noted as an esquire; he has not yet inherited the baronetcy, and he was the occupant of Combermere Abbey because his father lived at the larger and wealthier estate of Llewenny Hall in Denbighshire which, he had gained when he fortuitously married his wife, Hester Salusbury in 1658.
The scale in the bottom left, between the dividers (topped by the Cotton crest of a falcon) states that the map is drawn at forty perches (‘porches’) to the inch.
The perch as a measurement was used for area, length and volume, confusingly, but in this instance indicates length. The word comes from the Latin pertica, via the French perche, in both cases meaning pole and staff, which is how the lengths were measured.
From the 1400s onwards the perch was officially discouraged in England, but like buying beer by the pint rather than the 0.568261 of a litre nowadays, the practise continued among the people.
There was no standardisation of the length of a perch though; in the Middle Ages it could be eighteen, twenty, twenty two or twenty four feet. In a debate in the House of Commons it was noted to be sixteen and a half, eighteen, twenty one, twenty four, or even twenty five feet long. In France is was a mere ten feet. In 1607 the Anglo-Welsh clergyman, mathematician, geometer and astronomer Edmund Gunter decreed that a perch should be sixteen and a half feet long, and that four perches were equal to one chain. Taking this measure the width of the land depicted, from Hugh Owen’s Holding to the north and Hexon’s Lane to the south is just over 415.38 perches, or 6,853.85 feet. This is 1.298 miles. This is quite remarkable; I measured between the same two points of a number of different modern maps and got figures around 1.3 miles. The measurement is far more accurate than one might have suspected.
There is no compass shown, but south is very close to being at the top of the map, so it is inverted from modern convention.
To the left of the left hand cartouche the map is inscribed ‘The County of Salop The Mannor [sic] of Whitchurch’ but in fact the boundary between Cheshire and Shropshire would run through what is marked as ‘The Deere Park’ on the extreme right; the majority of the estate is in Cheshire.
One of the most important and historic features shown is ‘the black ditch’ in ‘the black dicth medow’. This was one of the first marks made on the landscape to delineate the monastic establishment, and it must date from the 1130s. It marked the northerly boundary of the demesne immediately surrounding the Abbey, and it drained the now-extensive pools shown on the map as the more modest ‘mosmere’ (‘moss’ indicating boggy land).
The main approach to the house, running down from the top of the map follows the line of the current drive so far as a point to the right of the courtyard building seen to the left of ‘the orchard’ (which we will discuss shortly) and veers off, to head above the group of buildings which comprise the Abbey. The tracks shown by single dotted lines are all still in use today.
At the top of the map the approach curves to the left, and a boundary goes straight on to the front of a building called ‘Bentley’, which has its own approach at right angles to the main track. This is presumably a dwelling, and would sit close to where the Nineteenth century Stone Lodge on the Whitchurch Road is now. We see that the road – the modern A530 – to its left, and that appears to now run through ‘Chesters holding’ though a crucial junction on the road at that point is not shown.
Many of the out-lying fields are noted by names which were those of their tenants (their ‘holdings’); Lloyd, Hugh Owen (a Welsh name), Richard Bennet, Josier Rider, John Bateman, and perhaps Bently. ‘Chesters Holding’ might be a surname or it might have a connection with the city through a tenancy.
Where a name is preceded by the definite article the wording is a description of the land’s role:
- lees – indicates a sheltered area protected from the worst of the weather by some feature
- ‘readings’ – riddings – is a common word in Cheshire from the 1200s onwards, is Old Norse in origin, and means a clearing
- ‘fothering house’ – a fother is a cart-load, often but not always of animal feed such as hay, so a fothering house is where carts were loaded
- ‘grange green’ – a grange was a farm owned by a monastery or abbey, and the grange itself may be the rectangular courtyard building show to the right of the grange green
- ‘hors’ may be a misspelling of horse – there’s a clue in the fact that it is pasture
- ‘pavement’ is not as we know it, but a description of any area with a hard, flat surface, from Old French ‘pavire’ – it would be trodden down soil in this context, especially as it stretches between the Abbey and the grange and would have been a well-trodden thoroughfare
- ‘Conegrews’ – unknown.
It is interesting indeed that a ‘Royall Wood’ is illustrated. In 1690 King William III stayed at the Abbey on his way to Ireland for the campaign which culminated in The Battle of the Boyne, which was between the two dates we have on the map.
The ‘Deere Parkes’ are interestingly close to the house. These areas are not large enough to be hunting grounds; perhaps semi-domesticated animals were kept there by way of a convenient larder.
The sites of two windmills are shown, both on high ground, as would be expected. They are annotated as ‘the great windmill field’ and ‘the little windmill field’. Interestingly though there is no evidence of the activity of milling – there is no track to and from either mill. The names might be memories and the mills, which a sizeable monastery could well have had, might have been gone by this date. Water mills were more common in this part of the world and one may have superseded the windmills (as we shall see).
The topography of the mere is very accurate when compared with a modern map; the only difference is that at a much later date the landscape was improved by joining together ‘Combermere’ and what is noted as ‘the Dansmeere’ and a new drive was created along the line of ‘the Road to Whitchurch’ (to this day the land thereabouts is as boggy as shown, and there are ponds in similar locations).
It is interesting to speculate if this smaller lake’s name was actually Dane’s Mere. It certainly wasn’t Dan’s Mere; although Daniel is an ancient name, found in many civilisations thousands of years ago, it never occurred in England in this period – except for Daniel Defoe (1660 – 1731), who was possibly completely alone in having that name in the late Seventeenth century.
The word ‘Dane’, indicating the presence of Danish raiders, appears several times in Cheshire. There are two places called Daneside and one Danesbury. The River Dane passes to the north east of Combermere, and there is a Dane’s Moss further east.
Although the Danes were primarily based north of the River Mersey, they did have substantial settlements on Wirral, and in November 2004 a huge hoard of Danish silver, dating from the early 900s, was found on the banks of the River Gowy, north-north west of Combermere by a little over ten miles. In 895 Danish raiders from the Wirral, with links to Wales, attacked and occupied the city of Chester, so they must have been a sizeable, well disciplined and well armed force. As well as coming from the seaward side of the county, we know that the Danes spread westwards from Yorjik – modern day York – after 867.
To the south of Combermere, in Shropshire, the Danes sacked the priory at Wenlock in 874, they were at Quatford on the River Severn in 896, and in 910 Danish raiders struck near Bridgnorth. There are two groups of Nordic stone crosses in Cheshire; one on the Wirral and in the hills in the far east of the county – but there is also one at Clutton, sixteen miles from Combermere.
There is no doubt that there were very mobile and aggressive Danes within spitting distance of Combermere in this period, and it is far from unlikely that Viking raiders gave their name to the small lake. Their presence would have been so remarkable – terrifying – to the indigenous people that it would be remarkable if their occupation, no matter how temporary, was not commemorated in some way.
The ‘Island of Freedome’ sounds most romantic, and sadly it does not survive to this day. A ‘fishing place’ is indicated on both Combermere and Danesmere. Most delightful of all is the little end-on depiction of ‘Ralph the Fisherman’ in his boat. He would doubtless be delighted to know that we are aware of his existence – and his occupation – more than three centuries later.
On the extreme right hand side of the map is ‘Hexons Lane’. This might relate to a surname. There is a public road there still but it is called Dark Lane.
The buildings shown are intriguing: The structure which can only be the Abbey (under the area marked as ‘garden’) is a courtyard building, with a gap or opening on the left hand side facing the lake, and a small abutment on the facing edge. Dotted lines forming a ‘T’ indicate pathways inside the rectangle. The top range is drawn as broader than the others.
It is a help to refer to the 1730 painting of the Abbey, which shows it from the south – so that the point of view is alongside the ‘Road to Whitchurch’ in the field marked as 7: 0: 30. What we see is now the west façade of the house.
The painting shows the Abbey running almost exactly north/south, as it does, its footprint being a rectangle with a ratio of slightly more than 2:1 – nothing like as narrow as on the map. It has rectangular walled areas in front and behind, with a secondary annexe and a garden to the right (there are corresponding buildings in that position today). In the foremost enclosed area the drive is circular, or elliptical. A garden is shown on the map in the equivalent position, but with a distinctive, angled westerly side. In the painting it is uniformly rectangular, and is quartered formally and cultivated.
There seems to be at least five detached buildings, not unlike timber-framed barns, on the extreme right, with with a cloistered building a further barn to the right on the very edge of the picture. A much larger timber-framed building can be seen on the left (with a four-wheeled carriage parked in front of it), on the lakeside, and with a similar but smaller one below it and at right angles to it. Beyond that there are two buildings (beyond the ‘fishing place’). These correspond with the map, though the map shows them one behind the other, rather than – as it seems on the painting – alongside each other. The building shown on the extreme left seems to have something not unlike a waterwheel to its right, and on the map it is represented with a triangular or semi-circular feature which could indicate the same.
We know that water-powered mills were common at abbeys, and indeed that there was one at Vale Royal Abbey, not very far away. One of the best preserved in England is at Fountains Abbey in Yorkshire, built in the 1140s and also a Cistercian house.
There is no water flow at that point nowadays though, and neither image shows a mill pool, as one would definitely expect, however the structure to the right of what might be a mill looks hollow and could be a raised sump which held a head of water until such time as the extra force was needed. A very clearly-defined white picket fence leads down from the ‘pavement’ to this structure.
On the 1730 painting the ‘pavement’ leading to the ‘grange’ is an established avenue of trees, and the drive leading directly to the eastern side of the house is much better defined than the single dotted line would suggest. One building at the ‘grange’, which sits at the head of what looks like a steep-sided, L-shaped canal has an ogee roof, not unlike the ones on the stables today – which might have been inspired by this earlier building. There is no trace of the canal or the other rectangular pools – presumably fish-breeding ponds – on the landscape today. The overall shape of this area above the Abbey corresponds well to the larger ‘deere park’ on the map. I have no idea what the two parallel, unconnected lines to the right of the Abbey represent.
All in all, the depiction of the Abbey itself is a mystery, and that in itself is both surprising and disappointing. It is also worth noting that the land behind the Abbey, to the east and south, is far more wooded than the map suggests; it shows open fields without any hint of woodland.The 1707 map (above) contrasted with a modern Ordnance Survey map of the same area, rotated to the same orientation.
The considerable effort which went into the surveying of the estate was undertaken for a purpose, and that would have been the enforcement of the tenancies. There would have been a general interest and a sense of proprietorial pride and reassurance in having such a map (a modern version hangs in the Abbey’s Estate Office today!), but its practical purpose was to enshrine the tenancies; who leased what, and where were the boundaries. Sir Thomas Taylor and his draughtsman James Whitakers did the Cotton family a great service. Perhaps this was the reason why the Abbey itself was so sketchily portrayed: it was the only part of the Abbey that did not have a working purpose so a survey of it was not needed.
The year of 1707 fell in the reign of the tragic Queen Anne, the great-grandaughter of the first Stuart monarch, James I. She was to be widowed in the autumn of 1708, after a marriage lasting just over thirty years – in which time the poor woman experienced all of seventeen pregnancies without any of her children surviving either birth or infancy.
The summer of 1707 was warm and dry, with clement weather beginning in March – though the nights were noted as being cold. July was extraordinarily hot, and many people are recorded as having died from the heat. Unfortunately it rained during the harvest and a blight afflicted the wheat crop, but wheat prices were stable at 28 shillings and 6 pence a quarter regardless. An early winter set in, with many very wet days making up for the heat of spring and summer. We don’t have a time of year for the 1707 survey, but Sir Thomas – perhaps with James at his side (running a chain to take measurements was a two-man job) – may have undertaken the task in either blistering sunshine or the autumn rains, but for the information which their work has given us more than three centuries later we are very grateful.