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Combe Abbey


OUR miles from Coventry, in a pleasant park, lies the fine old mansion of Combe Abbey. It has particular attractions as an ancient monastic building, and as the scene of some remarkable events.

Here the Princess Elizabeth, daughter of James 1., and afterwards the beautiful Queen of Bohemia, was placed by her royal parents, under the care of the Earl of Harrington, then the owner of the abbey From this safe shelter the conspirators in the Gunpowder Plot determined to seize and carry her off, when they had exterminated her parents, elder brother, the whole House of Peers and that of Commons, intending to make her queen. It was the fact of her being in Warwickshire that drew them, after the plot was discovered, into that neighbourhood, and because, also, they had friends and connections in the county as well as in Worcestershire and Staffordshire.

The three Midland counties, Worcester. shire, Staffordshire, and Warwickshire, were inhabited by more Roman Catholic families than any other part of England.

Catesby, the originator of the Gunpowder Plot, was intimately connected with families in these counties. He was lineally descended from the Catesby of Richard III.'s time, whose fame is preserved in the old rhyme,-

"The Rat (Ratcliffe), the Cat (Catesby), and Lovel the dog,
Rule all England under the Hog." 1

Robert Catesby, the descendant of the "Cat," was one of the greatest bigots that ever lived He was the friend of Garnet, the principal of the Jesuits in England, and had been concerned in all the plots against Elizabeth. On her death the Roman Catholics were in great hopes that their form of religion would be restored, for James was the son of Mary, Queen of Scots, who had suffered so much from Elizabeth, and whom they looked on as a martyr; surely he would at least tolerate and be indulgent to the professors of his mother's faith. They were disappointed. James was rather ready to put the laws against Popish recusants into rigorous force than to grant more toleration, and when the King of Spain concluded a peace with the king, in which no stipulation was made for the relief of the English Catholics, they were in despair.

Catesby resolved to settle the matter by blowing up the king, queen, Prince of Wales, and all the Parliament. How the plot was discovered is well known.

Of the conspirators, Sir Everard Digby had been employed to remain at Dunchurch for the purpose of seizing and carrying off the Princess Elizabeth; and when the day came, and all was discovered, Catesby, Percy, the Lyttletons, and others of the conspirators, "as if struck by infatuation," instead of making their escape abroad, all hastened down to Dunchurch in the wild hope of securing the person of the little princess, and raising a civil war in her name. 2 But Lord Harrington had at once conveyed Elizabeth to Coventry, and the celebrated Sir Fulke Greville, who was deputy lieutenant of the county, raised a force and marched against them.

He seized the arms and horses of all whom he suspected of complicity in the plot; the sheriff raised the county, and the conspirators found that the people, far from being on their side, were as keen in the pursuit of them as the cavalry were.

They fled in confusion across the country into Worcestershire; some taking refuge at Hendlip Hall, the house of Thomas Habington, Esq., who was a secret favourer of their plots, but the greater number, with Sir Everard Digby, took shelter at Holbeach House, the seat of Stephen Lyttleton, where they resolved to make a strong resistance. But by a decree of divine providence, the very death they had planned for others nearly became their own. Their gunpowder exploded and blew up the roof, wounding some of them and rendering the house untenable. They were therefore compelled to sally forth and endeavour to escape elsewhere; but their enemies had now reached them. Percy, Catesby, and some others were killed, and Sir Everard Digby and the rest made prisoners, and doomed to suffer the dreadful death of traitors. Stephen Lyttleton and Winter made their escape; but they were in a country swarming with pursuers, and were obliged to skulk in woods to hide themselves, in fear and starvation. At length Humphrey, the cousin of Stephen Lyttleton, conducted them to Hagley, belonging to his late brother John's widow.

Happily, the lady was from home and could not be blamed for sheltering them; but one of her servants betrayed them and they were taken prisoners.

They were all afterwards executed.

These men had, some of them, very remarkable family histories, and were undoubtedly descended from more or less guilty ancestors.

Sir Everard Digby, himself a generous, chivalrous young man, was descended from Simon Digby, Keeper of the Tower, who had been the accuser of De Montfort, in the reign of Henry VII., of having sent money to Perkin Warbeck, whom de Montfort firmly believed to be the son of Edward IV. For this he was tried for high treason in Guildhall, in 1494, was condemned, hanged, and quartered, and his vast estates confiscated. But soon afterwards Simon Digby became possessor of the dead man's estate and seat, Coleshill Hall.

This raised suspicion of the motive of poor De Montfort's betrayal, and people remembered it when Digby's descendant suffered for treason, though no one could refuse pity and sympathy to the gifted young man who had been the victim of others.

To the Lyttletons a most sensational story belonged.

In Shirford, near Nuneaton, in Warwickshire, there stood once an old hall, which, with a fine estate, belonged to a Sir Walter Smith. About the middle of the sixteenth century this gentleman, then an aged man, lost his wife; and thought it right to marry his grown-up son to a gentlewoman in the neighbourhood; probably that they might have a lady in the house. He asked Mr. Chetwyn, a gentleman of old family and large estate, to give one of his daughters to his son. Mr. Chetwyn consented, and was willing to bestow on his daughter Dorothy a portion of five hundred pounds. But no sooner had the old knight seen the beautiful girl, than he fell in love with her, proposed to marry her himself, and to induce her father to consent to the change of bridegrooms he offered to give the five hundred pounds portion to him, instead of receiving it himself, and to settle a large jointure on the bride. Mr. Chetwyn agreed, and the old knight married the lovely Dorothy.

But she was as wicked as she was beautiful. She fell in love with a Mr. William Robinson, of Drayton Basset, son of Sir George Robinson, a rich mercer of London, and hoping that he would marry her if she were a widow, she, with the assistance of her maid and a groom, strangled her husband, when asleep, with a long towel.

She managed to appear overwhelmed with grief at having found her husband dead; no suspicion was entertained or examination made, and not long after she went to London. But, luckily for him, Mr. Robinson did not marry her, and within two years the groom, who had been retained in Mr. Richard Smith's service, confessed the crime to his master, when intoxicated. Afterwards he denied his confession; but upon being brought to trial confirmed it. His statement was borne out by several circumstances, and the murderess was found guilty and condemned to be burnt - the punishment then adjudged by law to a wife who killed her husband.

She died at the stake near the Hermitage, on Wolvey Heath, towards the side of Shirford lordship. Her servants were executed at Warwick.

Mr. Richard Smith had only one daughter, Margaret, and treated of a marriage for her with Sir John Lyttleton's son, of Frankley, in Worcestershire.

The intended bridegroom was William Lyttleton, the third son of Sir John, a boy of nine years old, Margaret Smith being of the same age. These children were married; and lived with Sir John. But before the wedding Mr. Smith had arranged to settle all his lands in remainder after his death on his daughter and her heirs, if he should not have any other child; he had the deeds drawn up and gave them to Sir John to get them engrossed.

A fraud was perpetrated. Sir John had deeds drawn out which gave the estate to William and Margaret, but if either died without children, it was to pass to William's heir-atlaw, his brother Gilbert.

Mr. Smith was cheated into signing away his estates (without reading the deeds, of course) by the gamekeeper hurrying him to go and shoot some fat bucks, and did not know anything about it (as no claim was made) till after William's death, which happened when he was about fifteen, by a fall from his horse. Mr. Smith then wished his daughter to return to him, but Sir John objected, saying that he meant to marry her to his second son, George. The father objected, and there was a quarrel, when the truth about the deed came out, and Mr. Smith found himself landless. He was unable to recover either his lands or his daughter, who was married to George, her brother -in-law. From Gilbert these stolen lands descended to his son John, though Mr. Smith tried to recover them by several suits at law. " But misfortune," says Mr. Howitt, "descended with it." John Lyttleton, Gilbert's son, was executed for high treason in Elizabeth's reign, and the estate was confiscated.

James 1., however, on the widow petitioning him, granted the estate to his widow, and she, being fearful of more lawsuits, sold it to Sergeant Hale, a great lawyer

Sir John's grandson, the son of George and Margaret Smith, was one of the conspirators, as we have seen, in the gunpowder plot, and lost his life and estates in consequence.

The conspirators who had concealed themselves in Hendlip Hall were all discovered in the end ; though the Habingtons had carefully hidden them; and Hendlip had been built so as to render it a most perfect place of concealment. There was scarcely an apartment in it that had not secret ways of getting in or going out; some had back stairs concealed in the walls; others, places of concealment in the chimneys; some had trap-doors; in short, the whole edifice was full of hiding-places.

When the sheriff, Sir Henry Bromley, and his men came to search Hendlip, Habington denied that any one was hidden there; but Sir Henry ordered a strict search to be made, and then in the gallery over the gate were found two very cleverly contrived conveyances in the main brick wall; three hiding-places were discovered in the chimney, most wonderfully arranged. Eleven hiding-places and secret stains in all were found, but in them only the articles used at the mass.

Three days went by, and the sheriff began to despair of finding any one, nay, even to believe that no one was there, when on the fourth day, in the morning, from behind the wainscot in the gallery came forth two men who had been starved into surrender; for they had had only one apple for sustenance for three days. One of them was named Owen, and he afterwards killed himself in the Tower; the other was Chambers.

Ten days afterwards, Fathers Garnet and Hall came forth also voluntarily from their confinement. They came forth for air, the closet they were in having become stifling. They had not suffered from hunger, as they had even then food in their hiding-place, and Mrs. Habington had passed them warm and nutritive drinks through a reed put into the chimney; the secret closet being in her own bedroom.

They were conducted to Worcester, and from thence to London.

The old hall was pulled down many years ago, but has been handsomely rebuilt by Lord Southwell.

Elizabeth, Queen of Bohemia, returned to Combe Abbey in her latter years. She is supposed to have privately married Lord Craven, who had devoted his life to her service.

The abbey is full of Stuart portraits, and has a fine collection also of pictures by the great masters.

The gallery is a fine old wainscoted room. There are old tapestry, old paintings, and old and valuable cabinets here, and it is even now in appearance, and by its contents, just such a home as fancy would place the beautiful and unfortunate Queen of Bohemia in; it is full of memories of fair Elizabeth Stuart.

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Picturesque England - Matthew Spong 2004