A History of the County of Warwick: Volume 6, Knightlow Hundred. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1951.
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Acreage: 3,720 (4,310 since 1932). (fn. 1)
This district, originally the parish of Smite and later extraparochial, is now a civil parish containing no village, about 5 miles east of Coventry. The northwestern boundary is formed by the Withybrook, and the eastern by a small stream running south into the Smite Brook, which itself, running westward, forms the southern boundary as far as Priest's Bridge and then continues across the parish. A mile farther west, near the remains of the monastic fish-ponds, it is dammed to form the Pool (90 acres) in the grounds of Combe Abbey. The original courses of the brook and of a small stream coming from the south to join it, though now covered by the Pool, are shown on the 6-inch O.S. map (1889) as the boundaries of the southwest corner of the parish.
The ground rises gently from 240 ft. in the southwest to 350 ft. in the north and east; it is for the most part open, with one extensive block of woodland at High Wood, just east of the Abbey Park. A road from Coventry to Brinklow skirts the southern edge of the Park, and another from Brinklow to Anstey runs northwestwards, parallel to the Oxford Canal (fn. 2) and the Trent Valley section of the old L.N.W. Railway (later L.M.S.R.). There are brick-works and disused clayand gravel-pits. Part of the parish is now occupied by the Anstey aerodrome.
A 'tumulus' marked on the O.S. maps, north of the Abbey, is of doubtful antiquity. Due east of it is Peter Hall, a farmhouse largely of 18th-century red brick but incorporating the remains of the church of Smite, consisting of chancel, nave, and south aisle, built of red sandstone ashlar, which survives to first-floor level and in places up to the eaves. At the east end there are buttresses to the angles, in two weathered stages, and below the gable is the hood-mould of a destroyed square-headed window. On the north side there is a late-13th-century pointed, roll-moulded doorway. After the Dissolution, when the estates of Combe Abbey were granted to Mary, Duchess of Richmond, she leased a messuage adjoining Peterchurche and a pond called Peterpole to William Raynsford. (fn. 3)
Combe Abbey occupies the site and includes a few remains of the Cistercian abbey. Towards the end of the 16th century John (afterwards Lord) Harington built a house incorporating three sides of the 15thcentury cloister–the south side had been destroyed with the church. The next alteration seems to have been in 1667, when Isaac Gibson built a wing projecting westwards from the south end of the west wing. (fn. 4) Gibson was presumably the tenant of Lord Craven; he was knighted in 1674 and was described then and as late as January 1680 (fn. 5) as of Combe Abbey but must have moved shortly afterwards to Worcester, where he was living in 1682 and in 1700. (fn. 6) In 1680 Lord Craven put in hand the enlargement and partial rebuilding of the house, his agent being his nephew Sir William Craven. (fn. 7) Part of the old building was said to be 'very rotten and leaning'. The existing west wing was built from the designs of Capt. William Winde, (fn. 8) the mason in charge being Jonathan Willcox, the carpenter William Coules, and the very fine plasterwork of the interior by Edward Gouge. In 1861–4 the east wing was pulled down and replaced by a block designed by W. E. Nesfield in a sort of French gothic style; this has recently been pulled down, with the exception of parts of the ground-floor arcades.
The only fragment of the original 12th-century structure surviving is the entrance to the chapter-house. This, which was in the east walk of the cloister, was spared by Nesfield and in the destruction of his work. It is built of red sandstone ashlar and has a roundheaded doorway of four orders, the outer decorated with shallow cheverons. The orders rise from three attached and one detached shafts, all with floriated capitals, moulded bases, and moulded imposts which are carried on to serve flanking round-headed open windows. Each of these is of two orders, the outer decorated with cheverons, and contains, below a solid masonry tympanum, two round-headed arches supported on short shafts, five on each side and four in the centre, with carved capitals and moulded bases.
The two remaining sides of the cloister court keep most of their late-16th-century features. The north side is of three stories; on the ground floor are three bays of the cloister with four-light windows; above these project on brackets four-light transomed windows with gable heads, and on the top floor low four-light windows. The west side is similar, but of only two stories and of seven bays. The south end of this range ends in three ogee-shaped gables, containing a scallopshell ornament and the three-light mullioned windows of the attics. On the first floor in the centre is an original seven-light mullioned window, with three transoms. The two-light transomed windows farther west in this front belong to the Gibson building of 1667. This forms a block projecting at the south end of the west front and terminating in three equal gables, with contemporary mullioned windows.
The west, and principal, front, overlooking the terrace and formal garden, is built of light-coloured stone ashlar, two stories in height, with dormer windows to the attics in the low-pitched slated roof. At the north end a wing projects to the depth of one bay. Between this and the projecting Gibson wing is the Palladian front, surmounted by a central pediment, containing the Craven coat surrounded by swags, and a modillion cornice. There are seven windows to each story, all with moulded architraves; the centre window on the ground floor has a segmental pediment and the one above it a flat moulded hood, supported on scroll brackets. The leaden rainwater heads and pipes bear the Craven coat and a C surmounted by a coronet. The north front and its return have been rendered with cement and present no features of interest.
The interior has been somewhat modernized, but several rooms retain their original decoration. (fn. 9) The ball-room, or great dining-room, about 50 ft. long, has a ceiling with fine and elaborate plaster ornament; the walls are panelled and the architraves of the doors have pediments with the Craven monogram and in one instance the date 1684. The dining-room is panelled in tall bolection-moulded panels; a beam across the ceiling, supported on twin Ionic columns, has a panelled soffit with bead and reel decoration. The library, which appears to have been the original kitchen, has been dismantled, its doors, covered with dummy bookbacks, being used for cupboards elsewhere. There is a fine contemporary staircase, some good chimneypieces, and plasterwork.
The beautiful grounds were laid out by 'Capability' Brown, and the most attractive feature of Nesfield's work was the moat which he constructed on the south and east of the house and which is connected with the lake, of 90 acres, in the grounds. There are two lodge gates; the western, mid-18th-century, in the form of a Roman triumphal arch, the eastern in the gothic style of the early 19th century.
In the 11th century part of the district afterwards known as Combe Fields was occupied by the manor of SMITE. Comprising 6 hides, it had been held freely in the time of Edward the Confessor by Harding; after 1066 it was granted to Earl Aubrey, but by 1086 it was being managed for the King by Geoffrey Wirce, or de la Guerche. (fn. 10) In 1150 Richard de Camville founded a monastery of the Cistercian order, colonized from Waverley (Surrey), (fn. 11) granting to the latter 'all my land of Smite which I hold of Roger de Mowbray by the service of one knight'. (fn. 12) Roger confirmed the grant, (fn. 13) as did also Robert, Earl of Leicester, (fn. 14) to whom the overlordship had come, who released the monks from military service; and Henry II; (fn. 15) and in 1290 the Abbot of Combe and his successors were granted free warren in their demesne lands. (fn. 16)
After the dissolution of the monastery its site and buildings were granted, together with the manor of Smite, to Mary, Duchess of Richmond and Somerset in 1539 for life, (fn. 17) and in 1547 the reversion thereof was assigned to John, Earl of Warwick. (fn. 18) In 1539 the Duchess had leased, for terms of 60 and 40 years, various parts of the abbey estates to William Raynsford, to whom in 1545 a reversion for 21 years after the death of the duchess was granted for a yearly rent of £24 6s. 8d. (fn. 19) The Earl of Warwick, afterwards Duke of Northumberland, settled his reversion to the main portion of the estates on his son John, Lord Lisle, and Alice his wife in 1550. After Lord Lisle's death in 1554 his widow married Sir Edward Unton, (fn. 20) and they together granted the manors of Smite and Combe to the king and queen in 1557. (fn. 21) In the same year the Duchess of Richmond died, and a 40-year lease of the monastic estates, less the portions she had leased to (Sir) William Raynsford, who now took up his 21-year reversion (fn. 22), was granted for a yearly rent of £196 8s. 1d. to Robert Keylway. (fn. 23) This portion, including the site and buildings, was then in the hands of Sir William Wigston as subtenant. Keylway, who was Surveyor of the Court of Wards and Liveries, died in 1581, when his daughter and heiress Elizabeth was 30 and married to John Harington of Exton, Rutland. (fn. 24) He was created Baron Harington at the coronation of James I, (fn. 25) and between 1603 and 1608 had the guardianship of the Princess Elizabeth, afterwards Queen of Bohemia, at Combe Abbey. (fn. 26) He died in 1613 and his son the following year, leaving two sisters as coheiresses, Lucy, wife of Edward, Earl of Bedford, who took two-thirds of the family estates, including Combe, and Frances, wife of Sir Robert Chichester. (fn. 27) In 1616 the lordship of the manors of Combe and Smite was granted to George Villiers, (fn. 28) from whom the Countess of Bedford held as tenant; with her husband and others she granted sub-leases of the manors to Ralph Freeman and others in 1620 (fn. 29) and to William Littleton and George Purefey in the following year. (fn. 30) In 1622 the Earl and Countess of Bedford and others sold their interest in the manors of Combe and Smite, and the lands of the former monastery, to Elizabeth widow of Sir William Craven, Lord Mayor of London in 1610–11, for £36,000. (fn. 31) In 1624 she settled the estate on her sons William, then aged 18, John, and Thomas. (fn. 32) William, who became Baron Craven of Hampstead Marshall (Berks.) in 1627, obtained licence in 1634 to inclose 650 acres of the demesne land to make a park, and to have free warren therein. (fn. 33) From this time the Craven family are styled lords of the manors of Combe and Smite. William, then Earl of Craven, before his death in 1697 apparently relinquished control of the Combe Abbey property to his cousin, Sir William Craven, described as 'of Combe Abbey', who died in 1695. (fn. 34) The son of this latter, another William, 2nd Baron Craven by special remainder, (fn. 35) died in 1711 and his son was lord in 1730. (fn. 36) The Craven family were still in possession of Combe Abbey until 1923, when it was sold by the 11th Baron and 5th Earl (of the creation of 1801) to John George Gray, esq., (fn. 37) the present owner.
The church of Smite was evidently given by Roger de Mowbray to Samson d'Aubigny, who was a clerk of Roger de Clinton, Bishop of Chester (1129–48), as Samson gave the church with its chapel of Brinklow to Kenilworth Priory, his gift being confirmed by Roger de Mowbray (fn. 38) and later by Henry II. (fn. 39) When the abbey of Combe was founded the monks must have acquired the church from Kenilworth and no more is heard of it. The fabric was still standing, with a cemetery attached to it, (fn. 40) having presumably been used as a chapel served by the monks, until the dissolution of the abbey, after which it was allowed to decay and was converted into the present house of Peter Hall.