On Saturday I paid a visit to Coughton Court in Warwickshire. I have often driven past it on my way out of Birmingham into the countryside, but had never stopped before to have a look round. I have to admit it has always distracted me from driving as I should, as it looks spectacular from the road.
Like Harvington Hall Coughton (pronounced Coe-ton) was home to a Catholic family who refused to renounce their faith and practice during the reformation. The Throckmorton family were very highly connected. Sir George Throckmorton (d. 1553) was a knight at the court of Henry VIII, and was in charge of the royal Forest of Arden. He spoke out vociferously against the annulment of Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon, and was imprisoned several times without trial for his outspoken views – being released once Henry believed he had calmed down – only to end up back in prison again!
George’s aunt, Elizabeth, the abbess of Denny, came to live at Coughton when her convent was closed in 1537 during the Dissolution of the Monasteries. Another sister came with her, and together they lived a secluded life, continuing with the daily office in two rooms in the house. The dole-gate from the convent is now at Coughton Court, having been found relatively recently. You can see the hatch through which the sisters would have spoken to visitors, and given out alms.
In the time of Sir Robert Throckmorton, and his son and heir Thomas (1533-1614), Coughton became a centre for Catholic recusants. It is believed that Mass was celebrated in the Tower Room from which you can see in all directions. There is a priest hole there, built by Nicholas Owen who made many of the priest holes at Harvington Hall. The hide at Coughton was so secret that members of the Throckmorton family did not know where it was even when it was in use. Its location was so closely guarded that it was not discovered until work on the house in 1945.
The family were subjected to heavy fines for their non-attendance at the established Church of England, and Thomas spent 16 years in prison (on and off) for the same offence. In the Tower Room you can see the Tabula Eliensis – rediscovered in the mid-twentieth century – which is a tapestry showing the names and portraits of Catholics imprisoned for their faith. It is believed this was displayed during mass in the house.
Coughton Court houses many other historical treasures including a chair reputed to be made of the wood of the bed where Richard III spent his last night before the Battle of Bosworth in 1485, a chemise which has stitched upon it ‘of the holy martyr, Mary, Queen of Scots’ (carbon dating tests prove that the linen was woven in the year of Mary’s death in 1587), a perfectly preserved and beautiful velvet cope embroidered in gold by Queen Catherine of Aragon and her ladies-in-waiting, and the original abdication letter of King Edward VIII in 1936.
NB See the second part of this post