Honest Old Thomas Cotes

On New Year’s Day we decided to walk off some of the festive overeating and over drinking with a country walk at the Buckinghamshire village of Wing. The village is blessed with an extraordinary Saxon church, possibly dating from as early as the late 7th century and with a 9th century (the earliest in the country). The church was open, so we took advantage and went inside. I have been many times before, but this was the first time I noticed a memorial plaque on the south wall. The inscription reads:

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Honest old Thomas Cotes, that somtime was porter at Ascott Hall, hath now (alas) left his key, lodg, fyre, friends and all to have a roome in heaven. This is that good mans grave reader, prepare for thine, for none can tell but that you two may meete to night, farewell.

He dyed the 20th of November 1648

Set up at the apoyntment and charges of his friend Geo. Houghton

Above the inscription is an image of Thomas Cotes, holding out his arms (presumably to heaven), with his hat and key beside him.

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Wing also boasts a National Trust property, Ascott House. I assumed that this was where Thomas Cotes was porter, but a bit of research showed it was not quite so simple. The present Ascott House is based on an early 17th century farmhouse, very much altered and extended by the Rothschild family in the 19th century. When Baron Meyer de Rothschild bought the farmhouse in 1873 it was known as Ascott Hall, and Ascott Hall is where Thomas Cotes was said to be porter. However, it seems most unlikely that a mere farmhouse would have had a porter’s lodge, especially as there was a great house close by. This was the original Ascott House, which stood on a site to the south-west, nearer to the village.

The old Ascott House was built on the site of a medieval priory by the Dormer family in the 16th century. In 1554 it provided lodgings for Princess (later Queen) Elizabeth on her way to London as her sister’s prisoner. Jane, a daughter of Sir William Dormer of Ascott, was a favoured lady-in-waiting to Queen Mary who later married into the Spanish nobility, so the Dormers must have been seen as safe custodians for the princess. In the early 17th century the Dormers were a family on the rise. Sir Robert Dormer was created Lord Dormer of Wing in 1615 and his grandson, another Robert, was created Viscount Ascott and Earl of Caernarvon in 1628. The earl fought on the Royalist side during the Civil War and was killed at the first battle of Newbury in 1643. The Victoria County History says that his son, the 2nd Earl of Caernarvon, “kept great hospitality at Ascott House, and his fine bowling green, which can still be traced, was much appreciated”. In 1645 King Charles I stayed at Ascott while his army sheltered nearby. We can imagine “honest old Thomas” the porter granting admittance to his beleaguered King. Unfortunately, in the early 18th century Ascott House fell into disuse and decay; today only earthworks remain to mark the site.

Thoughts on the imagery of the monument to Thomas Cotes and the role of a porter in the 17th century can be found in this blog post, “I pray you remember the porter” by Early Modern Whale. I can’t add any more information about Thomas, but his benefactor George Houghton was sufficiently affluent that his will had to be proved in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury when he died in 1655.

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