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 (email@example.com). July 2015