Approaching Coughton Court, the ancestral seat of the Throckmortons, near Alcester in Warwickshire, we may admire the mellow sandstone sixteenth century house with its dramatic battlemented gatehouse tower and lovely timbered north and south wings.
In front is the most exquisitely laid-out garden packed with abundant lavenders.
Everything about this house and its surrounding grounds and gardens speaks graciousness, fine proportions, serenity: all that tends to make us feel relaxed, good-humoured and full of positive anticipation. But that has by no means always been the case. In the past this house has known betrayal, terror and conspiracy.
This house has been held by the Throckmorton family for over 600 years and during that time the vast majority of them have been fervent Catholics, remaining loyal throughout times of great persecution. Several generations of the Throckmortons have been closely involved with some of the major events of English history.
The first Throckmortons to own land in Coughton were John and Eleanor in 1412 and John became the founder of this historically-important family. A later Throckmorton, Robert, was knighted in 1494 along with Prince Henry, the future Henry VIII, thus beginning the family’s long association with the Tudor monarchy, sometimes profitable, always dangerous, and ultimately fateful.
His son George was to discover the folly of opposing Henry VIII in his attempt to divorce Katherine of Aragon; the mortification of being a dissenting guest at Anne Boleyn’s coronation; the inadvisability of thwarting Thomas Cromwell in a land dispute; and, no doubt, a rather uncharitable sense of vindication at finding himself prosecution witness at Thomas’s trial and in a position to seal his fate.
Robert’s son Nicholas stands out among the Throckmortons as having been a Protestant; and I cannot help wondering how that affected his family relationships, coming as he did from an otherwise unbroken line of devout Catholics. Nicholas too discovered the slipperiness of close involvement with the Tudor monarchy.
He had a very narrow escape when his support of Lady Jane Grey ended in defeat; found himself in prison after opposing Queen Mary’s marriage to Philip of Spain; and suffered the thanklessness of Elizabeth after he had acted as confidant to the young princess, brought the news of Mary’s death to her, and finally acted as her emissary to Mary Queen of Scots. All of this failed to win for him the high office at court which he had hoped for.
After Nicholas’s death, the family resumed its activities on behalf of the Catholic side with renewed zeal. In 1584 his nephew Francis was executed for trying to depose Elizabeth and place Mary Queen of Scots on the throne.
In 1858 a 16th century priest-hole was rediscovered in the Tower Room: a double hide, one chamber on top of the other, so the priest hiding in the chamber below would have been highly unlikely to be discovered, even if the upper chamber came to light.
The Tower room is where the family kept a small altar with everything needful to celebrate Mass according to their Catholic faith; the windows both sides of the room gave extensive views out onto the surrounding countryside so they would be alerted to anyone approaching the house from a considerable distance away. Certainly they would have had plenty of warning if Elizabeth I’s priest-hunters were approaching, and enough time to hide the priest together with all the objects of Catholic worship in that ingenious hiding place.
When you begin your tour of the house, you are soon shown through a well-laid-out exhibition about the Gunpowder Plot; and after visiting that, as you enter the drawing room on the first floor of the Gatehouse, you cannot but be very aware that this was the room where the first news of the plot’s failure was broken to those who waited here. In the early hours of 6th November 1605, Lady Digby, the wife of Sir Everard Digby, one of the Plotters, sat in this drawing room, anxiously awaiting news.
At 6am Thomas Bates, servant to Robert Catesby (charismatic mastermind of the plot) galloped across the bridge over the moat and climbed the stairs to the drawing room. No doubt drenched with sweat, wild haired and eyes full of terror, Thomas broke the news which would have filled her with horror and fear: the plot had been discovered, Guy Fawkes arrested, her husband Sir Everard captured, and his fellow conspirators were all on the run in fear of their lives. She would have had no doubt whatsoever about what lay in store for her husband and his friends. The fate that awaited all those found guilty of treason was a vile and brutal punishment: hanging, drawing and quartering. It was, however, a fate that many chose to risk. They were desperate times. The stakes were high, and hot-headed, religious zealots were willing to run that risk for their passionate beliefs.
Following this, the party at Coughton Court quickly dispersed to various locations, among them two priests, Nicholas Owen the master priest-hole builder, and the Vaux sisters who had rented Baddesley Clinton for the express purpose of providing a safe meeting place for priests, together with concealed chambers they could hide in during raids. Meanwhile, the plotters fled to the house of another Catholic friend, hoping for support, which they did not receive: instead they headed off to Holbeach Hall, where final disaster awaited them.
Of those who fled to Holbeach Hall, we learn in the special exhibition at Coughton Court, four suffered the least painful, and the quickest, death. They (incredibly) betrayed their presence by trying to dry their gunpowder in front of the fire. Not surprisingly (but presumably, it surprised them) their gunpowder exploded. The noise alerted the Sheriff of Worcestershire who came with his troops and surrounded the house. In the ensuing gunfight the next morning, four conspirators were shot dead, including Robert Catesby the charismatic mastermind of the plot. Of the others, six were tried on 27th January 1606 and executed at the end of that month. One other, Francis Tresham, was arrested on 12th November and fortuitously died of a natural illness in the Tower on 23rd December.
The room in which Lady Digby received Thomas Bates’ news is a beautiful one to our eyes, and we might expect to find a lingering atmosphere of fear and dread. But indeed no such feeling hangs around this room, and our emotional response to the story may be most clearly elicited in the room which holds the exhibition. The information about the Plot is imaginatively displayed, thus giving visitors their best chance to remember the names of the people involved and the details of their desperate flight and foolhardy actions during those final fateful hours after Guy Fawkes was discovered in the cellars beneath the Houses of Parliament.
Whatever we may think now of the issues at stake during years of turmoil in which England swung back and forth between Catholicism and Protestantism, nevertheless, when viewed on the human scale, we see individuals chancing their lives and family destinies, on the hoped-for success of desperate strategies, utterly at the mercy of the State’s ruthless response to their own religious zeal, often leading to heart-rending and grisly outcomes.
Here at Coughton Court, home of the Throckmortons who were so closely connected to those dramatic events, we may see this played out through generations of unswerving Catholic devotion both before the events of 1605 and for centuries after, right down to the present day. After Sir Robert Throckmorton became Lord of Coughton in 1680, he built an illegal Catholic chapel, only to see it burned down by a Protestant mob, during the anti-catholic riots which were followed by the exile of James II. The mob also burned the east side of the house, and the ruins stayed there for another century.
When I enter a house such as Coughton Court, the rich surroundings, the elegant and lofty rooms, the grand family portraits and the harmonious decor play their part; but most powerful of all is the story of the house, brought alive by the artefacts that are displayed here. We may find the chemise that Mary Queen of Scots wore on the day of her execution; the dole-gate that one of the family, Elisabeth Throckmorton, Abbess of Denny, brought with her as a poignant memento as she fled the dissolution of the monasteries; the chair made out of wood originally used for the bed Richard III slept on before he fought the Battle of Bosworth.
And, too, we may view the family photographs of the present-day members of the Throckmorton family – two of them, Clare McLaren-Throckmorton and her daughter Christina, responsible for the design and creation of the enchanting walled garden. These photos also have a poignancy to them, when you remember the contemporary family’s forbears. We may consider this a luxury few may claim, to know your family history back 600 years; but I believe there may be a certain burden in carrying this, a certain weight on your shoulders, a weight of knowledge of the details of your ancestors’ vices and virtues, their hopes and failures, their deeds, their triumphs and disasters.
How to get there: