The History of the Abbey – from Anglo-Saxons to Dissolution

Combermere Abbey, tucked away in a quiet corner of the kingdom, has had little impact on the nation’s history for most of its existence, but has played its part at some of the most critical moments; in the tumultuous years of change following the Norman Conquest, during the Dissolution of the monasteries, in the maelstrom of the English Civil War, and during the wars against Napoleon Bonaparte.

The Abbey sits at the heart of a thousand acres of farmland, woodland and park, within the curve of a 150-acre lake – one of the largest stretches of water in either Cheshire or Shropshire – though for most of its history the holdings of land associated with the Abbey would have been far greater.

We argue elsewhere in this archive that there is some evidence of Danes having been at Combermere around the year 900. In Roman times two roads stretched northwards from Whitchurch; the Shrewsbury (Vironconium) to Chester (Deva) road, running more or less north, and the Whitchurch (Mediolanum) to Middlewich (Salinae) road which stretched north east. Combermere was fairly close to both these highways but there is neither archeological or documented evidence for any Roman presence at Combermere.

The name seems to be Celtic, and is related to Cymri (or Cymru), which is the Welsh name for Wales, and means ‘fellow countrymen’ (in short, ‘us’, as many national names suggest). The same word was used for the country and its people. It dates from before the Seventh century.  The same derivation gives Cumbria its name, which was originally ‘Cumbric’ and became Cumbria when it was rendered into Latin. A mere is a very common Cheshire word for a lake.

By 1086, when Domesday Book was being compiled, a man who had been on the winning side at the invasion twenty years earlier, William Malbank – by then the first Baron Wich Malbank –  had been gifted considerable areas of south Cheshire and on into Staffordshire and Shropshire by the Conqueror.  In total he was either the owner or the tenant of 128 manors. Combermere is not mentioned in Domesday, but before the Conquest the lord of the manor which encompassed the land where Combermere Abbey was founded was possibly held by one of two Anglo-Saxon lords; Karli, or Dot of Huyton – both of whom held small manors to the north. To the west, the manor of Marbury was part of the royal estate of Harold Godwin. Combermere wasn’t a manor in its own right; the land where the Abbey was built would have been a mixture of open land and  woodland made up almost entirely  oak trees.

Like most of the rest of the north of England, Cheshire had resisted the Normans, and by way of revenge King William embarked on the “harrying of the north” up until the year 1070. His men systematically burned everything standing, crops and homes included, and killed every beast they could find. The result was starvation and destitution. More than twenty years after the invasion, when Domesday was compiled, most of the north was wasteland “wasta”).

In 1070 the Saxon city of Chester was besieged, taken, and then sacked completely. Another Saxon rebellion emerged in 1069, which was suppressed, and its leader, Saxon Earl Edwin of Mercia, the brother-in-law of the last Saxon king, Harald, was forfeit of all his lands and his title was abolished – to be replaced by created a new Earldom of Chester, which was of course granted to a Norman knight, Hugh d’Avranches (who founded Saint Werburgh’s Abbey in the city). Half of all the Saxon buildings in Chester were replaced by a great Norman castle.

Baron Wich Malbank built a small castle at what is now Nantwich, to the north of Combermere, to guard the ford over the River Weaver (where salt had been mined since Roman times). On his death he was succeeded by his son, also William, who was probably about two years old at the time of the Norman invasion. He died just before 1130 and was succeeded in turn by his son, Hugh, who was then in his late twenties. It was Hugh, the third Baron (William junior’s son with his wife, Adelia), who endowed the Abbey at Combermere in 1133, and granted it the new chapel of ease in Nantwich (now Saint Mary’s church).

The elder William, Hugh’s grandfather, had already endowed a hospital dedicated to Saint Nicolas in Nantwich in 1084, and partly paid for the building of a new nave at Westminster Abbey. When he died – date unknown – he bequeathed land to Saint Werburgh’s Abbey in Chester, founded in 1092 by Hugh, Earl of Chester. These massive stone edifices would have left the native Saxons in no doubt that the Normans were here to stay, and that they a very different view of the kingdom than their old rulers had possessed.

Hugh’s son, yet another William, had been born the year before and there may have been an element of thanking God for the delivery of an heir in the foundation of a religious house. However Hugh died around 1163, leaving three daughters by his wife, Petronilla, and the title died with him – so the young William must have pre-deceased him. His holdings were dispersed among the three daughters, and passed in each case to their husbands. The eldest daughter, Philippa, inherited Nantwich, including the new castle, and married Lord Basset of Headington in Oxfordshire, so the ownership passed out of the county.

By the start of the Twelfth century the Normans had consolidated their control of England, and had become immensely wealthy on land seized from Anglo-Saxon manorial lords. Many of the great abbeys of England were founded at this time, usually very richly endowed, and they rapidly grew to become a huge force in the country. The founding of Combermere was witnessed by even greater men that the Baron; William’s over-lord, Rannulph Earl of Chester, and Roger de Clinton, Bishop of Coventry.

Combermere was originally endowed of the Savigny order (named after a hermitage in the Savigny forest which dated from 1105), and dedicated to the Virgin Mary and Saint Michael. In 1147, along with more than a dozen other monastic houses in England, Combermere became a Cistercian house (the Savigniacs had, in effect, gone bust, and each of the newly affiliated houses was ‘surveyed’, and ‘illuminated with the Cistercian way of life’). The list of manors and other holdings endowed upon Combermere is extensive, and further gifts and bequests followed. Although the number of monks was never great there were many more lay brothers, and it would have been a sizeable local business and employer, directly and indirectly.

The arms of the CIstercian order                          The arms of the Cistercian order

Soon though, all was not well in this quiet corner of the kingdom. Although the Abbey’s income was considerable, it was often if financial difficulties, presumably due to poor management. Combermere Abbey was frequently involved in legal disputes regarding land and inheritances, but this was not particularly uncommon. Far more disturbing was the reputation which the Abbot and his monks got for dissolute living, and there were accusations of “pillage, rape and murder”; in 1414 the Abbot was accused of counterfeiting! It hardly fitted the image of the God-fearing, pious servant of the Lord.

In the middle of the Fourteenth century the Black Death came to England, and brought agony and death to Cheshire and Shropshire. The Member of Parliament for Shropshire, who had fought at Crecy, saw his son die, and then himself died. Well over a hundred people died in Whitchurch, just to the south of Combermere, and the Black Death also visited Nantwich to the north. The middle of the century saw several very wet summers and harsh winters. Crops failed and many poorer people starved to death. On account of both disease and famine many parts of the land were abandoned and left uncultivated for years. We do not know how this affected the Abbey, or if the monks gave refuge to the sick, or indeed succumbed themselves, but rental income for the Abbey’s coffers would have been reduced.

For most English people Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries was neither a surprise nor unwelcome. He didn’t just dream it up; the movement had been afoot for decades. With the sort of reputation which the monks of Combermere had earned it was probably a popular move so far as this part of the world was concerned. The Abbot tried to fight a desperate rear-guard action, as many did, but Henry’s right hand man, Thomas Cromwell, was having none of it. The last Abbot, John Massey, surrendered the abbey in 1538, and the monks were pensioned off. Unlike at some abbeys there was no bloodshed at Combermere, and the Abbot and the monks accepted pensions and left quietly. The Abbey’s income at that point was around £250 per annum, derived from manorial rents across south Cheshire, West Staffordshire, north Shropshire and even parts of Derbyshire.

By August 1539, ownership of Combermere had passed to Sir George Cotton, who was an Esquire of the Body to King Henry. He was a second son, born in 1505 in the village of Cotton near Wem in Shropshire. He joined the royal court as a young man, gained a position (as Comptroller to Henry VIII’s illegitimate son, the Duke of Richmond), found favour and wealth, and wanted – as every Englishman did – a country estate, and the security of land ownership. What he needed in this glorious place was a dynastic home. He followed a pattern seen across England as royal favourites and well-placed local grandees demolished the abbey church and the other, obviously religious buildings, and created a substantial home on the site.

The main part of Sir George’s new home was certainly the highest-status part of the monastery, with the Abbot’s Lodgings – now the Library – (built only eighty years before the Dissolution) at its centre. This range exists to this day and you will see reference to it in these pages.

No one knows what the Abbey looked like, sadly, but from what remains it is possible to make informed guesses. In theory abbeys were built to fairly uniform plans, varying only in size, but in practise local topography and any number of other factors affected the plan. Buildwas Abbey in Shropshire was of the same Order as Combermere, and work on it started two years after Combermere. Much of it can still be seen and the overall plan is easy to make out (even down to its fish ponds to the west of the Abbey). Although the plan may have differed, in architectural terms Combermere will have had a lot in common with Buildwas.

Buildwas Abbey Dec 8 2013 019 Buildwas Abbey Dec 8 2013 020

 The triple lancet Early English windows of Buildwas Abbey’s east face might well have been similar to those at Combermere. The pillars, with their hefty, circular Norman columns and their slightly pointed arches were virtually standard for the early Twelfth century. These are from the eastern range of Buildwas’s cloister.

Historians from the University of London & History of Parliament Trust have said, “The abbey buildings lay on a level terrace on a south-facing hill-slope. The claustral buildings were south of the church and the surviving portions, which are now incorporated in the house, are the south cloister and adjacent rooms, including those at the south-west corner which were probably kitchens, and a short length of the east range. The decoratively timber framed upper storey of the south range includes in its eastern part the late medieval refectory which has a hammer-beam roof with the arms of the abbey on each main spandrel. Abutting the east end of the south side of the refectory a smaller room may have been the misericord”.

An architectural history report commissioned by the Abbey’s current owner a few years ago says, “Of the claustral [cloister] buildings, no trace remains above ground. Indeed, one cannot even be certain as to their position or actual layout, because of the relatively steeply contoured ground and the existence of the mere nearby.  A reasonable guess can be made, assuming that a “standard” Cistercian plan was adopted, but this relies on placing the large cloister so that both kitchens and reredorter are placed above the line of the stream (now in culvert) draining from the stable yard down to the mere.  This would suggest that the surviving medieval buildings on site were part of a north-western small courtyard housing, perhaps, the Abbot’s Lodging (or a Guesten Hall) and the Infirmary. A possible position for the church and claustral buildings [has] the central part of the extant buildings (the Library and the medieval masonry section to its north-east) might have formed part of the small courtyard.”

RESTO 1727 engravingThis drawing dates from 1727, almost 200 years after the Dissolution, and much may have changed since the 1530s, but at heart this must be stylistically close to the house which Richard Cotton built.

A sketch included in a 2003 document compiled by the architects Arrol and Snell, who have been involved with restoration work at the Abbey for almost a quarter of a century – and of unknown authorship – offers a possible arrangement for the original abbey buildings. This places the existing house at the northern end of the group of buildings, with a small cloister stretching to the north, east, and south. The abbey church is then to the south of this quadrangle, sitting over where the existing service wing is situated.  A large cloistered quadrangle lies to the south and completes a reasonably acceptable Cistercian abbey plan.

The plan suggests a reredorter – the monk’s toilet block – to the north east corner, which would have it crossing a natural water supply, but this is the point where that supply first touches the abbey plan, so there would have to have been a culvert higher up – further to the north east – to bring clean water to the kitchens. This plan does locate the abbey on level ground, but it brings it close to what is now marshy land – and might always have been (if the water course hasn’t changed in nearly nine hundred years then maybe the condition of the surrounding land hasn’t altered either).  The two areas where one might go looking for clues on the ground – to the east of the service block and to its south – are now wooded, making investigation difficult.

abbey plan2003 sketch map showing a possible location of the abbey buildings.

Sir George did not live long enough to see the house built. He died at Combermere in March 1545, and was succeeded by his only son, the then-six year old Richard. It was Richard who is credited with the building work at Combermere in the 1560s. A date stone at the Abbey, dated 1563, is inscribed: “Master Richard Cotton and his sons three, both for their pleasure and commoditie, this building did edifie, in fifteen hundred and sixty three”.

In 1586 the poet Geoffrey Whitney wrote these lines, dedicated “To Richard Cotton Esquire”:

A stately seat, who like is hard to find.
Where mighty Jove, the horn of plenty lends;
With fish, and fowl, and cattle sundry flocks;
Where crystal springs do gush out of the rocks;
There, fertile fields, there, meadows large extend;
There, store of grain with water and with wood.
And in this place, your golden time you spend;
Unto your praise, and to your country’s good
This is the hive, the tenants are the bees –
And in the same, have places by degrees.

Richard’s first wife died less than a year after their wedding, but his second wife – Mary Mainwaring– bore him eight children over thirteen years. The two eldest, George and Arthur both lived to the age of 87.