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The Story of Coombe Abbey - click for Contents Page

Chapter V - Virtus in Actione Consistit

Let us now return to Elizabeth and Frederick, who we had left at Heidelberg in 1613.  It is generally agreed by historians that Elizabeth was over ambitious, and that her husband's downfall was in part due to her ambition. 

In 1615 Elizabeth persuaded Frederick to stand as Head of the Protestant Union.  Three years later the thirty years war began with the withdrawal by Emperor Rudolf II of concessions to the Protestants of Bohemia.  After an insurrection in Prague, Frederick was pushed by his wife and other Protestants into accepting the Bohemian Throne, which he did in November 1619.  He did not, however, rule for long, and it is from this that he got the title of the "Winter's King", for on the 8th of November 1620 he was completely defeated by the army of the Duke Maximilian of Bavaria at the battle of Weisseburg, near Prague.  It is said by some that he fled the battlefield as soon as he saw the opposing forces.  He and his wife were forced into exile in Holland, as the Palatinate had been occupied by Spaniards and Bavarians.  He was banned from the Empire in 1621 and in 1623 the Electorship of the Palatine was given to Duke Maximilian.  Frederick spent the rest of his life trying to enlist the help of various Sovereigns to win back the Palatinate.

Here a strange coincidence occurs.  Sir William Craven, the new owner of Combe Abbey was in Holland in 1626 fighting under Maurice, Prince of Orange, and is it possible that his first meeting with Elizabeth and Frederick was at this time.  He returned to England, and on the 12th of March 1627, at the age of only twenty-one, he was created Baron Craven of Hampstead Marshall.

In 1630 King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden joined the Protestant cause and made war on Germany.  In the following year the Marquis of Hamilton levied troops in England for Gustavus Adolphus, and Lord Craven was chosen as one of his commanders.  Lord Craven was very soon on good terms with both Gustavus and Elizabeth, and in 1632 the two of them stood sponsor to Elizabeth's thirteenth child.  The war pressed on and by November of 1632 the Palatinate had almost been reconquered.  But then a blow fell.  Gustavus Adolphus was killed in the battle of Lutzen on November the 6th and before the month was out, Frederick had died of the plague at Mainz.  The cause was lost, and it was not until the peace of Westphalia in 1648 that the Electorate of the Palatine was restored to Elizabeth's eldest son, Charles Louis.

Lord Craven returned to England in 1633 and in the following year he obtained permission from Charles I to enclose six hundred and fifty acres of land at Combe Abbey to make a park.  He returned to the continent, and after taking part in a vain military expedition in 1637, was captured and imprisoned, along with Elizabeth's sons Rupert and Maurice.  He remained in prison until 1639 when he ransomed himself out.  He went to Holland and joined Elizabeth's household there, helping her through considerable financial difficulties.  Owing to the overthrow of the Monarchy in England at this time, they were not able to return, and had to remain on the continent until the restoration in 1660.  In 1651 the wrath of the Commonwealth was brought to bear on Lord Craven for his continued support of the Stuart cause.  His estates were confiscated and sold, and some of the houses were demolished.  Combe Abbey, however, escaped this fate as it had been settled on Lord Craven's heirs.

In 1660, Lord Craven with Elizabeth, whom some authorities say was by now his wife, returned to England, when Lord Craven's property was returned to him by Charles II, who was Elizabeth's nephew.  Charles was not willing to provide a house for his aunt, and so Elizabeth lived in Drury House, Lord Craven's town house.  Charles did, however, obtain a Parliamentary Grant to pay off his aunt's debts at the Hague.  On the 23rd of February, 1662, Elizabeth died and left Lord Craven her collection of Stuart Family paintings which included pictures by such masters as Rubens, Van Dyck and Honthorst.  These pictures remained at Combe Abbey until the beginning of the present century.  Elizabeth's thirteen children included, in addition to Charles Louis, Rupert, the "Mad Cavalier" of whose exploits much has been written, and Maurice, who also fought in the English Civil War.  Of her daughters, all turned Roman Catholic except Sophia, who was to be the mother of King George I of England.

In March 1664 Lord Craven was raised to an Earldom and was created Viscount Craven of Uffington, Berks, and Earl of Craven.  The family motto Virtus in Actione Consistit was probably adopted at this time and refers to the Earl's illustrious career.

At this period, Isaac Gibson appears to have been the Earl's tenant at Combe Abbey.  In 1667 Gibson built a new wing onto the house, projecting westwards from the south end of the west wing.  Gibson was knighted in 1674 and apparently left Combe Abbey about 1680.  The next tenant seems to have been Sir William Craven of Appletrewick, the heir and second cousin once removed of the Earl of Craven.  On the instructions of the Earl, he immediately put in hand a partial rebuilding of the west and north wings of the house, which were said to be very rotten and leaning.  This new building was designed by William Winde in a grand Palladian style and was completed about 1684.


Sir William died in 1695, and on the death without issue of the Earl of Craven in 1697, Combe passed to Sir William's son William, who became Baron Craven of Hampstead Marshall, the second Lord Craven.  He died in 1711 leaving Combe and the title to his eldest son William.  On his death in 1739 it passed to his brother Fulwar who became the fourth Lord, dying in 1764.  The fifth Lord was his cousin William, who died in 1769 leaving Combe and the title of sixth Lord Craven to his nephew William.

In 1767 William had married the Lady Elizabeth Berkeley, a very beautiful girl of sixteen.  She was very artistic, was popular in society and fancied herself as a playwright.  In 1771 she engaged Capability Brown to landscape the park for her.  Although she had seven children to Lord Craven, the marriage was not successful and very soon scandal was being put about by both parties.  In 1780 the marriage broke up and after the death of Lord Craven, Elizabeth married the Margrave of Anspach and was later created Princess Berkeley of the Holy Roman Empire.  A few years before her death in 1828 she published her autobiography under the title "Memoirs of the Margravine of Anspach".

Water colour by Maria Johnston : Dated 1797.  William Winde's Classical West Wing overlooks the earlier buildings.

The sixth Lord died in 1791, and his eldest son William succeeded to Combe and the title of seventh Lord Craven.  In 1801 a new Earldom was created and the seventh Lord was promoted to become the first Earl of Craven and Viscount Uffington.  He immediately achieved notoriety by taking as mistress the 15 year old Harriette Wilson, who was to be the most famous and successful courtesan of her day.  However, in 1807 he married Louisa Brunton, a popular and beautiful, though not great, actress who bore him four children.

When the first Earl died in 1825, his son William became the second Earl.  In 1835 he married the Lady Emily Mary Grimston, who was to bear him nine children.  An interesting insight into life in the great house is provided by the National Census carried out in March 1851.  The Earl and Countess, seven of their children and two other members of the family were in residence at Combe where they were attended by two governesses and 33 servants, only three of whom had been born in Warwickshire.  There were also five visitors present, who had brought with them a further three servants.   Living on the estate were a Head Gardener and 10 garden labourers, a Decoy Man with two helpers, a Coachman, two Park Keepers, two Game Keepers and two helpers.   Combe was not the only grand house owned by the Craven family and they would often move between them taking the household servants with them.

Photo by Wingrave, half of a stereo pair held by Coventry Libraries.  Reproduced by permission

In 1860 the second Earl engaged William Eden Nesfield to carry out major alterations to the house at Combe.  New servants quarters were built, the east wing and part of the north wing were demolished and rebuilt in a completely different style, and ornamental gardens were laid out, complete with moat.  This work was completed in 1865.

The second Earl died in 1866, leaving Combe to his son George, who, in the following year, married the Hon. Evelyn Laura Barrington, who bore him six children.  At the time of the April 1881 Census the Countess was in her Berkshire house with her children and personal staff.  The Earl may have been out of the country.  Combe Abbey was occupied only by a housekeeper, three laundry maids and two house maids, who were presumably ready to receive the family and larger household whenever they should decide to visit.

from the 1923 sales catalogue

George, the third Earl, died in 1883 leaving Combe and the title of fourth Earl of Craven to his fourteen year old son William George Robert.  The family estate at this time comprised forty thousand acres and three country seats.  In 1893 the fourth Earl married Miss Cornelia Bradley Martin, an heiress from New York.  In the same year he began a programme of renovation and restoration of the fabric of Combe Abbey, which continued until 1908.  This work included improvements to the servants' accommodation and partial re-roofing.   In 1921 the Earl was killed in a sailing accident in the Solent, and his heir, who became the fifth Earl of Craven was his son William George.

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