Britannia: Coughton Court, Warwickshire
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Coughton Court

by Jennifer O'Brien and David Herber

Coughton Court

In the cold early hours of November 6th, 1605 Thomas Bates, servant to Robert Catesby, rode over the moat bridge of Coughton Court and climbed the stairs to the Drawing Room on the first floor of the Gatehouse, with its wide view of the surrounding countryside.

The group of people he found there were all closely involved in the then illegal Catholic community and were all used to danger and the fear of discovery. But what they were about to hear meant peril beyond anything they had experienced, and was to change their lives forever.

There were two Jesuit priests - Father Henry Garnet, who had celebrated a clandestine mass for the Feast of All Saints in the house just a few days before, and Father Oswald Tesimond, the confessor to Robert Catesby. There was the family of Sir Everard Digby who had rented the house, Nicholas Owen, the famous priest-hide builder, and finally the Vaux sisters who aided Father Garnet, and who were related to the Throckmorton owners of the house, to Bates' master Robert Catesby, and to several of the men they were about to hear of.

Thomas Bates did not have good news. He had to tell those gathered there of the details of the Gunpowder Plot, the plan to blow up the Houses of Parliament, of its failure, and that the conspirators included Robert Catesby, Sir Everard Digby, and the Wintour brothers among others, were now all running for their lives.

Lady Digby was overcome with distress at the danger her young husband found himself in, while Father Garnet was angered at such an action that he had warned against in principle, and in failure could only mean extreme hardship for the already beleaguered Catholic community.

But no matter their thoughts of the Plot, they all must have felt extreme anxiety and fear for their friends and relations with whom they had a close relationship for many years, as well as for themselves.

Father Tesimond left with Bates to join the conspirators, and later managed to flee to the continent. Although the women managed to escape with just questioning, the others were not so lucky. Father Garnet was implicated in the Plot and later captured at Hindlip House along with Nicholas Owen, and executed, while Owen died under torture in the Tower.

Although the moat is now gone and the carriageway into the courtyard now converted to an entrance hall, this beautiful gatehouse is still intact along with much of the original building work of Sir George Throckmorton in the early 16th century, and you can envision see the place much as these people did 400 years ago. Coughton Court is still a classic example of a recusant gentry house which has survived to the present day.

Coughton stands in richly timbered countryside close to the forest of Arden. Described by the 17th Century historian Dugdale as a 'stetely castle-like Gate-house of freestone', it is three storeys high with mullioned oriels and octagonal battlemented turrets, and soars above the entrance archway which is surmounted by the Royal Arms of Henry VIII and the arms of the Throckmorton family.

You can still visit the Drawing Room, which was reopened in 1956 after being blocked up for some 130 years. Although now decorated in a much later style, it maintains the original stone chimney-piece, and the windows contain heraldic glass commemorating the marriages of the Throckmortons to the leading catholic families, including the Catesbys and Treshams. The mothers of two of the conspirators, Robert Catesby and Francis Tresham were the sisters Anne and Muriel Throckmorton, granddaughters of the original builder, Sir George Throckmorton, and sisters as well of the lord of the manor in 1605, Thomas Throckmorton. Two other conspirators, Robert and Thomas Wintour, were also great-grandchildren of Sir George Throckmorton.

This was not the first, and far from the only time the Throckmortons and Coughton Court have been embroiled in Catholic events. The house has been continuously in their hands for over 600 years, and since the Reformation they have been notable in their deep and continuous adherence to the Catholic faith, in spite of the costs.

History of the Throckmortons & Coughton Court

Sir George Throckmorton (d. 1553) was a knight in King Henry VIII's household, but opposed the King's break with Rome. Of the King's divorce and pending marriage to Anne Boleyn, Sir George said that the King had 'meddled with both the mother and the sister'. He had to bring his aunt Elizabeth, the abbess of Denny, to live with him when her convent was closed in 1537 under the Dissolution of the Monasteries, making 25 nuns homeless. She brought with her a dole-gate, through which help was given to the poor, and upon which her name is carved. This can still be seen today in the Dining-Room.

Sir George married Catherine Vaux, daughter of Nicholas, 1st Baron Vaux of Harrowden, and became Lord of Coughton in 1519. He consistently opposed the changes in religion, and although the vast majority of his 19 children and 112 grandchildren were ardent Catholics, there were some who were staunch Protestants, including his sons Clement, who founded a puritan family branch, and Sir Nicholas, who was unfortunate enough to be an avid champion of Protestantism during the reign of Mary I (although it is written that his Protestantism was said to wax and wane). Sir Nicholas was found not guilty on a charge of treason in connection with Thomas Wyatt's rebellion (he was freed, but the jury was arrested!), and went on to be a minor player in the court of Queen Elizabeth, bringing her the ring as proof of her sister's death, and acting as an emissary to Mary, Queen of Scots.

Sir George's son and heir, Sir Robert Throckmorton (d.1581), continued the family in the Catholic tradition. He married his children into the leading Catholic families, and in these generations the increased persecution of the Catholic spawned many relatives who became involved in plots against the throne. The sons of his daughters Anne and Muriel, Robert Catesby and Francis Tresham have been previously mentioned, and a third daughter Mary was married to Edward Arden, who was also convicted of treason and executed for his part in a plot to assassinate Queen Elizabeth in 1583. This daughter kept an excellent record of a woman persecuted for recusancy, documenting the fines and searches made at Coughton Court, that is still in the family archives. A nephew, Francis Throckmorton, was executed in 1584 for acting as a go-between for Mary Queen of Scots and the Spanish Ambassador in an attempt to invade England and place Mary on the throne. A niece Elizabeth, the daughter of Sir Nicholas and lady-in-waiting to Queen Elizabeth, also got into trouble by secretly marrying Sir Walter Ralegh.

In the time of Sir Robert Throckmorton, and his son and heir Thomas (1533-1614), Coughton became a centre for Catholic recusants. The Tower Room of Coughton Court with its panoramic view for monitoring any approach to the house made it an ideal location for the secret celebration of the Mass, and there was also an ingenious double hiding place built by Nicholas Owen in one of the turrets for the priests in the event of a raid. The Throckmortons not only provided a relatively safe place for people to worship; they also assisted in the underground movements of the priests and established colleges abroad for training English clergy. They were a crucial part of the network of families that enabled Catholicism to remain alive throughout the reformation.

Thomas Throckmorton, along with his brothers-in-law Sir William Catesby and Sir Thomas Tresham, were amongst the leading recusants of their time. He was frequently fined and spent sixteen years in prison for his non-attendance at church. In the Tower Room you can see a painted tapestry called the Tabula Eliensis, dated 1596, that notes his coat of arms and the arms of all the Catholic gentry who were imprisoned for recusancy during Elizabeth I's reign, grouped by their places of imprisonment.

His grandson Robert was made a baronet by Charles I in 1642 and was a Royalist, as were succeeding generations. Coughton Court was occupied by the Parliamentarians during the English Civil War, and was bombarded by the Royalist armies in order to drive the Parliamentarians out. As they were being driven out, they set the house on fire. Robert died during the war and left a son of nine and Coughton Court under sequestration. Many years of neglect passed before young Francis could start to repair the damage. The restoration continued with his son Sir Robert, 3rd Baronet, who unfortunately met with a setback in 1688 when a Protestant mob destroyed a 'newly erected Catholic Church', taking the east wing of the house with it. The ruins remained for 100 years.

Subsequent generations of the Throckmortons maintained their Catholic faith, with many of the daughters becoming nuns. The family continued to marry only into other prominent Catholic families, and continued to hear mass at Coughton Court, although with time their situation became easier than those of their ancestors. The recusancy laws were repealed in 1792, and members of the family were accepted into the command ranks of the armed forces in 1819. The Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829 allowed them into national office for the first time in almost three hundred years, which Sir Robert George Throckmorton, 8th Baronet, took quick advantage of, becoming one of the first Catholic MPs in 1831. He also built the new Catholic church at the end of the south drive, alongside the ruin of the church built by the earlier Sir Robert in the 15th century and confiscated from the family during the Reformation.

During the Second World War the family fortunes ebbed, and although the house was spared being sold, unlike much of the estate, it was occupied by a Convent School for a while. Lady Lillian Throckmorton, widow of Courtney Throckmorton and mother of Sir Robert, the 11th Baronet, was given power of attorney while her son was in the Fleet Air Arm, and she decided to turn Coughton Court over to the National Trust. Under special arrangement, the National Trust leased Coughton Court back to Sir Robert and his heirs for a 300 year term.

Sir Robert died in 1989, passing the lease of Coughton Court to his cousin, Sir Anthony Throckmorton, the last male heir. Sir Anthony died in 1994 and the title died with him. However, Sir Robert's niece Clare bought Sir Anthony's life interest in the lease and she manages the estate today with her husband and three children.

Coughton Court Today

As you would expect from a family and a house with such a long and interesting past, the house has many fascinating items and features from all periods that are extremely well presented.

There are too many to list here, but the most interesting to me were a collection of family documents on display many dealing with recusant issues the family had to face, and other reminders of their catholic history, such as a 17th century veneered cabinet that reveals a secret recess for the Host during Mass, a chemise which has stitched upon it 'of the holy martyr, Mary, Queen of Scots' (later tests prove that the linen was woven in the year of Mary's death), a garter ribbon of Prince Charles Edward, a glove of the Old Pretender, James III as well as locks of their hair, and a perfectly preserved and beautiful velvet cope embroidered in gold by Queen Catherine of Aragon and her ladies-in-waiting, as well as several hiding places throughout the house.

In addition you will find the famous Newbury Coat, the original abdication letter of King Edward VIII, a chair reputed to be made of the wood of the bed where Richard III spent his last night before the Battle of Bosworth, a tremendous collection of portraits and furnishings, and above all the glorious gardens, which have recently been restored.

Reproduced by kind permission of the Gunpowder Plot Society

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