A Visit to Coughton Court

My boyfriend and I are National Trust members and we often take the opportunity to visit one of the National Trust’s lovely properties. This weekend we looked around Coughton Court, an English Tudor country house which has a close connection with the infamous Gunpowder Plot.

The house and grounds are gorgeous and I’d definitely recommend a visit if you’re in the area. My only word of warning would be that the tea-room is a bit pricey (£9.95 for bangers and mash, and over £3 for a slice of some of their cakes!), so you might want to bring a picnic (they have two nice picnic areas).

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Image: Gardens at Coughton Court

The house has a wonderful exhibition on the Gunpowder Plot at the moment, which really plunges you into an emotional engagement with the plotters, the (persecuted) early-modern English Roman Catholic community, and their world. The National Trust exhibition doesn’t take on side or either, but lets you make up your own mind who your sympathies lie with.

I definitely felt some sympathy for the plotters – life for English Roman Catholics under a repressive and highly punitive Protestant regime had become almost unbearable – and although I don’t think resorting to violence was the right solution, I think we tend to forget that early-modern politics and society were still driven to a significant degree by warfare and violence (for example, going to public executions was a popular day out!), and so in the context of its day the Gunpowder Plot was not such an egregious act as we consider it to be today, but rather one of a long line of violent rebellions against the current regime (comparable perhaps to the English Civil War of forty years later).

My sympathies really lay most with the persecuted Roman Catholic priests and the pacific majority of the Roman Catholic population, though. During Elizabeth I’s reign being a practising Roman Catholicism became essentially outlawed. Not attending Church of England services was punished with a ‘recusancy‘ fine; hearing Mass was punished with a fine of 100 marks; owning rosary beads or Agnus Dei blessed the Pope or a Roman Catholic priest was punishable by loss of your lands and goods; and organising for Mass to be said, saying Mass, or hiding a seminary or Jesuit priest (these were priests who had been ordained abroad) was considered high treason and punishable by being drawn to the gallows on a hurdle, hung (from the scaffold), and quartered (you were cut down from the scaffold while still alive, and you would then be castrated, cut open and your insides pulled out, beheaded, and then cut into four pieces).

By the 1570s, the priests who had been ordained before Elizabeth’s reign and who had stayed as Roman Catholics and performed secret Masses were getting few in number and elderly. This was exactly the Elizabethan governments’ plan – they wanted the Catholic population to fade away slowly as their supply of priests disappeared. The Roman Catholics, of course, foresaw this. So seminaries were set up abroad to ordained new priests, who then entered into England and travelled around in disguise and secrecy, performing the sacraments and giving spiritual guidance to the Roman Catholic population. There was a monetary reward for catching these priests and/or those who knowing helped or sheltered them, and so the priests were at constant risk of being discovered by spies, ‘priest hunters’, or any member of the population who disliked Roman Catholics and/or wanted the reward money (which two things combined probably made up a lot of people!) and suspected who they were and reported them to the authorities. It was a very risky business both being a priest and sheltering a priest – people were often betrayed by servants and family members of the house the priest was staying at.

Like at Coughton Court, there were often ‘priest holes’. The one at Coughton Court is a tiny secret room (not even wide enough to lie down in), under another secret room (so that if the priest hunters found the first secret room they might not think to look for the second one underneath!), under the floor of what seems to have been a walk-in-wardrobe. Many of these priest holes across the country were designed and built single-handedly by a physically frail and disabled but determined, courageous and pious Catholic man called Nicholas Owen, who tended to work at night and when there were already building works going on in the house (so his work would be less likely to be noticed), often cutting through thick stonework, to creating ingenious hiding places for Roman Catholic priests.

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Image: Priest hole at Coughton Court

Life was perilous for these ‘missionary priests’ and many of them, and their helpers (such as Nicholas Owen himself), ended up dying in squalid and disease-ridden prisons and in torture chambers and in public executions. Despite all this, the two Roman Catholic priests who became aware of the plot (Father Oswald Tesimond and his Father Superior Henry Garnett) did not advocate for the Gunpowder Plot nor participate in the plotting, indeed Garnett was deeply dismayed when he heard of it. Nonetheless, they were captured in the aftermath of the plot, and executed on the accusation of having being implicated in it.

Coughton Court possesses a unique artefact, the Tabula Eliensis, which protests against the Elizabethan government’s treatment of the Catholic nobility. It is a large painted piece of canvas, now sadly very faded in places. At the top it shows Ely Cathedral, and reminds the viewer that under William the Conqueror a group of nobles were sent to monitor the monks of Ely (whom William suspected of being disloyal to his regime) – after several years, William authorised them to cease monitoring, but (so the tale on the canvas relates) the monks and the nobles had developed such a strong friendship that they were sorry to have to part. The cloth then travels through the line of succession of the English kings and queens until Elizabeth I. At the bottom of the cloth, it has lists of names of Roman Catholic nobles and their crests, divided up by the prisons where they are being kept. It is thought that one of the key protests made by the cloth is that the nobility of England have never before been treated in this way – being imprisoned and deprived of their lands and liberty en masse like this (let alone for their traditional religious beliefs).

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Image: Tabula Eliensis

But to drag myself away, with difficulty (!), from the details of early-modern history history and return to the rest of Coughton Court… The house as a whole is very pretty, and it also has a moving display at the moment commemorating the centenary of the first-world war and the fates of some of the soldiers who were linked to Coughton Court. The gardens are sweet too, and it would probably be lovely to lie on the lawn and sit in the formal gardens on a sunny summer’s day.

Finally, the two churches on the estate are worth a visit too. The Roman Catholic church (which is very distinctively Roman Catholic – I knew which church I was in, without consulting my map, as soon as I walked through the door!), was built after Roman Catholicism was legalised in the nineteenth century. The Anglican church is much older, and full of interesting early-modern history. The Throckmortons (the Roman Catholic family who owned Coughton Court) continued to be buried here, as it was their church, where their ancestors had been buried, and of which presumably they continued to fund the upkeep (as many Roman Catholic families did, even during the worst times of persecution), probably hoping that one day the country might return to Roman Catholicism or at least that their faith would be legalised. There is a touching tomb beside the altar of Sir John Throckmorton (d. 1580) and his wife Marjorie. Their effigies are holding hands as they lie in the sleep of death (a wonderfully loving , and I would guess probably very unusual, gesture). Around the sides of the tomb are carved their children, kneeling in prayer (which I think is a subtle gesture to Roman Catholic beliefs – I think it indicates that they are praying for their dead parents, and perhaps also it is intended to ask the viewer to do likewise [pre-Reformation tombs usually asked viewers to pray for the deceased lying there, and there is evidence that this practice continued in a more subtle form on Catholic tombs in Protestant England]).

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Image: Some of the praying children [presumably technically called ‘weepers’?] on Sir John Throckmorton and his wife’s tomb.

I would definitely recommend a visit to this house as a lovely afternoon (it took us about four or five hours, including lunch!) out in the beautiful midlands countryside 🙂

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