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The Story of Coombe Abbey - click for Contents Page

Chapter IV - An Age of Intrigue

After the dissolution of the monastery, its site and buildings were granted, together with the manor of Smite, to Mary, Duchess of Somerset and Richmond, for life.  The Duchess immediately (1539) leased various parts of the estate, not including the site and buildings, to Sir William Raynsford for periods of sixty and forty years, and in 1545 a reversion for twenty one years after the death of the Duchess was granted him for a yearly rental of £24 6s 8d.  In 1547 she granted the reversion of the rest of the property to John Dudley, Earl of Warwick and later Viscount L'Isle and Duke of Northumberland, who had found great favour with Henry VIII and Edward VI.  Dudley transferred the deeds of the Abbey to Warwick Castle.  In 1550, Dudley settled his reversion of the main parts of the estate on his son and heir John, afterwards Viscount L'Isle, and Alice, his wife.

Dudley, however, was not satisfied with his titles, and was particularly jealous of Thomas, Lord Seymour, and his brother the Duke of Somerset, the Lord Protector, who were uncles of Edward VI, and so he contrived their downfall.  Thomas was attainted for high treason and was beheaded in 1549 and his brother followed him to the block three years later.  Dudley was now all powerful, but the King was visibly ailing and Dudley feared a reverse of fortunes in the event of the King's death.  He therefore decided to link his family with that of some other powerful nobleman by marriage.  He chose the family of the Duke of Suffolk, whose daughter, the Lady Jane Grey was descended from Henry VII through the female line.  He accordingly married his fourth son, Lord Guildford Dudley, to Lady Jane, in May 1553, his three sons being already married.  Edward VI was highly pleased with this match and agreed to bear a large part of the cost of the wedding.  It was obvious at this time that he was very near to death, and so Dudley went to see him and persuaded him that his sister Mary who was next in the line of succession was not a fit person to rule the country - she would undo all the good work of the Reformation, and anyway, both she and her sister Elizabeth had been declared illegitimate.  The most suitable person to rule the country was Dudley's daughter-in-law, the Lady Jane Grey.  The King was persuaded to break his father's will in the favour of Lady Jane, and a document was drawn up which was signed and witnessed by the King's council and by the judges, many of whom signed under protest.  The King died on the 6th of July 1553, and on the 10th of July the Lady Jane Grey, who was only sixteen years old at the time, was proclaimed Queen.  She accepted the office rather unwillingly, and there was considerable opposition to the appointment from the majority of the people, who wanted Mary to be Queen.  Mary herself went to Norfolk and raised the local nobility to defend her cause.  Dudley set off with an army to meet her, but at Newmarket his men deserted and he was forced to return.  Meanwhile, in London, the council reconsidered the position and decided to revoke their former acts and to declare Mary Queen.  Dudley and his confederates were arrested and beheaded immediately, but the case of Lady Jane Grey, who had not been sorry to give up the throne, and of her husband, was under revue until the following year when it was decided that they should be executed.  This sentence was carried out on February the 12th 1554.

Drawn and engraved by Daniel King and published in 1656

After Dudley's death, his son Viscount L'Isle took up his reversion on Combe Abbey, but he died the following year and his widow married Sir Edward Unton who held the property until the death of the Duchess of Richmond in 1557, when he gave up the manors of Combe and Smite to William and Mary, who, in 1559, were succeeded on the throne by Queen Elizabeth.  The property, less that which was leased to Sir William Raynsford who took up his twenty one years reversion, was now leased to Robert Kelway, Surveyor of the Court of Wards and Liveries, for forty years at an annual rent of £196 8s 1d.  It must have been during this period that the major part of the monastic buildings was demolished.  In 1578 Sir William Raynsford's lease expired and the whole of the estate was leased to Kelway.  In 1581 Kelway died, leaving the estate to his daughter Elizabeth, then aged thirty and married to Sir John Harington of Exton in Rutland.  Harington managed to have the lease, which should have expired in 1597, extended for a further nine years. 

Sir John, born about 1540, was a cousin of the other Sir John Harington who was known as a wit, poet and satirical writer, and who is also remembered for having invented a flush toilet. He immediately put in hand the building of a gentleman's residence at Combe, utilising some of the ruins of the old monastery.

Harington was of Scottish descent, being a descendant of Robert Bruce, and when it became clear that James VI of Scotland was to be the next King of England, Harington used his ancestry to win favour.  In 1603 he sent Lady Harington to Edinburgh to be with James' Queen, while he himself welcomed James at Rutland on the journey to London.  About two months later, on the 25th of June, Queen Anne, Prince Henry and the Princess Elizabeth, who was just seven years old, made the journey south, and Elizabeth parted from her mother and brother at Dingley in Leicestershire to stay for four days with the Haringtons at Combe Abbey.  On the 21st of July, after James' Coronation, Harington was made a Baron of the Realm, and took the title of Lord Harington of Exton.  In October of the same year the King issued a Privy Seal Order which declared "we have thought fit to commit the keeping and education of the Lady Elizabeth our daughter to the Lord Harington and the Lady his wife".  It should be noted that even at this time it was normal for the children of nobility to be separated from their parents at an early age, just as today they send their children to boarding school.  Thus Elizabeth was to live at Combe Abbey, which was from this time the main residence of the Haringtons, in order to be educated as became her rank and to be instructed in sound Protestant principles.  Her tutor and chaplain was Master John Tovey, A.M., the headmaster of the Free School at Coventry.  He was renounced for his uncompromising Protestantism and it is said that his death in 1614 was the result of slow poison administered by Jesuits.  Elizabeth's favourite childhood companion was Ann Dudley, a niece of Lord Harington, and with her she formed a lasting friendship.

On the 3rd of April 1604, the Princess made a public entrance into Coventry.  She visited the Free School, giving books to the library there and was entertained to a banquet in St. Mary's Hall when she was presented with a massive silver cup which cost the city £29 16s 8d.  She also visited St. Michael's Church where she heard Master Tovey preach a sermon.

During the early years of the reign of James I there was considerable Catholic feeling in England, so much so that in 1604 the famous gunpowder plot was hatched.  King James and his two Sons were to be killed, leaving the Princess Elizabeth, still a child, as Queen.  Elizabeth was to be seized and a Catholic Regent appointed to rule the country in her minority, during which time she was to be married to a Catholic and educated in Catholicism.  With the capture of Elizabeth in view, a hunting match to which Harington was invited, was arranged by the Catholic gentry to take place on the 6th of November 1605 at Dunchurch, only a few miles from Combe.  On receipt of news of events in London, the plotters were to march to Combe and seize the Princess, who was then nine years of age, from the unguarded house.  When the news from London showed that the main plot had failed, they decided to continue with their part of the plot, and so they marched on to Combe.  Lord Harington, however, had received word of the rising that morning, and fearing for Elizabeth's safety, had sent her in the custody of Sir Thomas Holcroft into the walled city of Coventry where she lodged with a Mr. Hopkins of Palace Yard, off the High Street.  The Mayor, Mr. Collyns, and nine other citizens mounted guard, drawing bows, pikes, blackbills, corslets, partisans, halberds and gloves from the city armoury for this purpose.  Thus, when the plotters arrived at Combe they found Elizabeth gone.  Realising that they were wanted men, they went to ground in various parts of the Midlands where they were soon found by loyal armies.  Most of them were killed while trying to escape, but a few were captured and taken to London where they were hung drawn and quartered.  Harington was enraged by the plot and he himself spent five days searching out the plotters.  When things had quietened down, the Princess returned to Combe and continued to live there permanently until 1608, after which time she seems to have spent some time at Court, although she was still under the guardianship of Lord Harington.  Keeping a young Princess must have been quite expensive, as a large retinue had always to be in attendance.  The King had originally given Harington a grant of £1,500 per annum, but this proved too little and a further grant of £1,000 was made.

In September 1612, Elizabeth, after having had many suitors, decided to marry Frederick, Elector of the Palatinate, who was a staunch Protestant.  Queen Anne was not in favour of this arrangement, as she was more kindly disposed towards the Catholic Royal Family of Spain.  The King, however, was delighted.  The engagement was announced publicly on the 17th December 1612, only a few weeks after the tragic death of Prince Henry.  The marriage ceremony took place in the chapel of Whitehall Palace on St. Valentine's day 1613.  Lord Harington paid for all the bridal equipments, and was some £3,500 out of pocket.  The King was unable, or unwilling, to reimburse him, and so, instead, granted him, on the 19th May 1613, a Royal Patent to coin brass farthing tokens which were to be valid throughout the realm.

The newly married couple remained in London until the end of April, when they were accompanied to their new home at Heidelberg by Lord and Lady Harington.  The Haringtons stayed with them during the summer, and set off for England in August.  When they reached Worms, only a few hours ride from Heidelburg, Lord Harington died, and it must have been a sorrowful homecoming for his widow.  There had been four children, but the eldest son, Kelway, had died before his father and so the heir was the sole remaining son, John, who became the second Lord Harington.  Harington had died leaving many debts, including that of £3,500 for the wedding.  In order to settle these debts, John was forced to sell the family estate at Exton, which he did in February 1614.  He died from smallpox the following week and his two sisters, Lucy, wife of Edward, Earl of Bedford, and Frances, wife of Sir Robert Chichester, were declared co-heiresses.  Lucy took two thirds of the estates, including all of Combe.

In 1616 James I gave the Lordship of the manors of Combe and Smite to George Villiers, from whom the Countess of Bedford held the lease.  In 1620 she sub-let parts of the manor to Ralph Freeman and others, and in 1621 to William Littleton and George Purefay.  Burdened with debt from riotous living, she was forced, in 1622, to sell all her interests in Combe and Smite.  The buyer was Elizabeth, widow of Sir William Craven, who had been Lord Mayor of London in 1610-1611 and was one of the richest men of his day.  The price was £36,000 and the contract was signed on the 24th of October 1622.

Sir William had amassed his fortune through his own efforts, having been bound apprentice to a merchant tailor in the early days of Queen Elizabeth's reign.  In 1624 Elizabeth settled the Combe estate on her eldest son William, a professional soldier who had been born in 1606, and he became the rightful owner on her death in 1636.


N.B. - Sir John Harington" is sometimes spelt "Sir John Harrington" ( with double r ) - we believe this is incorrect, so have consistently used a single r.  However Harrington is the more frequently used spelling today.

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