From the second you walk into Coughton Court (pronounced Coaton), you will be assailed by Throckmortons, with virtually every inch of wall covered with family portraits. Twenty generations of the family have lived there since 1409 when Sir John Throckmorton married Coughton heiress Eleanor de Spiney and their distant descendants still occupy parts of the house today. They also seem to have been a highly fertile family so there were consequently a lot of potential subjects for said portraits. The family tree in the back of the guidebook is a double-page spread but even that is heavily edited to include only the more important family members. Hardly surprising considering that just one specific Throckmorton pair – Sir George, the third owner of the house, and his wife Katherine Vaux – had 19 children and 112 grandchildren!
One can’t help but associate this prolific level of procreation with the fact that the Throckmortons were a staunch Catholic family, but I imagine it probably had more to do with the attitudes of the time (when extending a family’s numbers and influence was very much the thing) and with the obviously fertile genes in the Throckmorton line. Luck must also have played a major part as it is surprising that such large numbers of mothers and their children survived during a time when childbirth and childhood could be fairly risky enterprises.
Whatever the background to the explosion of Throckmortons during the 16th and 17th centuries, it has left them with a family tree that is also chock full of interest: in one generation alone, two Throckmorton daughters married into the Catesby and Tresham families – both names that are familiar to many through their involvement in the Gunpowder Plot – and another married Sir Walter Raleigh. (Thomas Tresham, who married Muriel Throckmorton, has already appeared in this blog as the builder of Lyveden New Bield, something of a shrine to his Catholicism.) Much further down the family line in the 1900s, a sister of Clare McLaren-Throckmorton (the current resident of the ancestral home) married Roald Dahl.
The story of the Gunpowder Plot is currently being exhibited in the Yellow Drawing Room and if you can manoeuvre around the other visitors in the fairly cramped space, you can learn a lot of interesting facts about the plot and the plotters, their backgrounds and their various fates, which ranged from not very nice to pretty grisly… all except for one wily priest who managed to escape to the Continent with life and limbs intact.
Although no Throckmorton was directly involved in the plot, both Robert Catesby, the primary conspirator, and Francis Tresham – as mentioned above – were cousins. Coughton Court itself, though, was very much embroiled in the story as it was intended to serve as a safe house for the plotters. At the time, Thomas Throckmorton was absent from the house, which was being rented to one of the conspirators, Sir Everard Digby, who was supposedly there to ‘hunt’ but who was actually planning to kidnap the King’s 9-year-old daughter as a later part of the enterprise.
There is very much a Tudor feel to Coughton Court: the timbered wings on either side as you walk towards the rather grander Gatehouse (itself also built in the 1500s) are very much Tudor in appearance, while wooden panelling inside the house and the spiral stone staircases up to the top of the tower also date the property. The hidden priest’s hole (built over two storeys so that if the top hole were to be discovered, the one below may be overlooked) is also clear evidence of the house’s history and its religious leanings during Elizabeth I’s reign. The house has gone through some tough times since then, having been badly damaged by Cromwell’s soldiers during the Civil War and being set alight by a Protestant mob about 20 years later. It was sympathetically restored each time though, while later modernisation was also conducted with great respect for its history.
Although Catholicism coursed through the veins of the Throckmortons, there is always a black sheep of the family and in this instance it would be Sir Nicholas Throckmorton (the uncle of the more faithful Throckmortons who married into the Tresham and Catesby families). He chose to convert to the new Protestant religion after serving in the household of his cousin, Catherine Parr, and he prospered at court, first under Henry VIII and then the short-lived King Edward VI. Amazingly, he survived a trial for treason during Bloody Mary’s reign, but although serving as English ambassador in France, he could never convince Elizabeth to bring him back to court when she later succeeded her sister, despite shamelessly showering her with gifts. I am not at all sure I would have liked Sir Nicholas.
In terms of what to see at Coughton, there are few particularly outstanding rooms in the house, although the wood-panelled Dining Room is quite impressive, as is the Saloon with its grand entrance down a wooden staircase, while the Priest’s Hole is worth a shivery look as you imagine a poor priest hiding away down there as the hunters seek him out. The views from the Tower are also worth taking in on a clear day.
I was also very impressed by the gardens. I took a stroll along the Riverside Walk, through the Bog Garden and orchards and back through the sizeable kitchen garden to the more formal Walled Gardens with the various ‘rooms’ housing fountains, herbaceous borders, strongly scented lavenders and wisteria ‘trees’. I tried to get into the two churches that are on site but one seemed to be locked and I couldn’t find the way to the other one. There are two because one is Protestant and the other – added in 1851 – is Catholic. It was only in 1829 that the Catholic Emancipation Act allowed Catholics to worship openly again and opened the doors of Parliament to Catholics, something of which Sir Robert Throckmorton, the 8th baronet, quickly took advantage. (There are a lot of Roberts in the Throckmortons’ line; they may have been keen to procreate but clearly couldn’t be bothered to think up new names… since 1450 no fewer than eight Roberts have owned Coughton.)
Another couple of things that really caught my eye at Coughton were the velvet cope on display in the Tribune room and the Steward’s Cup in the Dining Room. The former is an ornate 16th century purple velvet garment embroidered with gold thread, which is said to have been the work of Katherine of Aragon and her ladies-in-waiting and which has been restored by the National Trust’s specialist textile workshop at Blickling Hall. It is a stunning item, particularly if you get a volunteer to shed a little more light on it with his/her torch. The other item – the Steward’s Cup – is a horse racing trophy won by the 9th Baronet’s horse Herald at Goodwood in 1877; this is of personal interest to me as I once knew the owner of a horse called Hard To Figure, who failed narrowly to win the Steward’s Cup in the 1990s. Seeing the stunning silver trophy on the sideboard brought back fond memories of the old grey sprinter and happy days at the racecourse.
Highlights: The Throckmortons’ Catholic history; the Gunpowder Plot exhibition; the Walled Garden
Refreshments: Pepper, tomato and cheese tart with salad and roast potatoes; Jammie Dodger ice cream cone (one of my readers likes to see what I ate on my visits so this one is for her – I could have had a plain old vanilla cone but I decided she’d appreciate it more if I plumped for one of the specials instead!)
Purchase(s): Guidebook; ‘The Strange Fate of Kitty Easton’ by Elizabeth Speller from the excellent secondhand bookshop
NT Connections: Lyveden New Bield whose builder Thomas Tresham was related to the Throckmortons by marriage and was father of the Gunpowder plotter Francis Tresham