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).

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Original monastic beams in the roof space at Buildwas, above what would have been The Abbot’s Lodgings.
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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.

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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.

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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.

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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