His career as a courtier
The first Coffin to have made a name for
himself in English history was William, the younger brother of the
Richard Coffin who was lord of the manor of Alwington and High Sheriff
of Devon in the late 15th century.
William was born about 1495, and made his
career at the Court of Henry VIII. He joined
the King's household about 1515, and took part, as a gentleman of the
privy chamber, in the tournament between Henry VIII and the French
King held at Guisnes in 1519 -
despite the strictures of canon law (which denied Christian burial to
anyone killed at such jousts), and in contravention of the statute
which required forfeiture of an offender's estate. The following year
William accompanied the King to the Field of the Cloth of Gold.
In 1529 he became a Member of Parliament for
Derbyshire, having acquired a connection with that county through his
marriage to Margaret, the widow since 1517 of Sir Richard Vernon, of
Haddon Hall, and the daughter of the Hereditary Royal Champion, Sir
Robert Dymoke of Scrivelsby, Lincolnshire.
On his way northwards to Derbyshire
(according to John Prince, the 17th century antiquarian) William
Coffin passed a churchyard where he saw a crowd of people. They told
him they had brought a corpse thither to be buried, but that the
priest would not bury him without being given the dead man's cow as a
mortuary (a traditional gift to whoever officiated at a funeral).
William sent for the priest, who again
refused to perform his office to the dead; whereupon Sir William
ordered him to be put into the grave (which had already been dug) and
earth thrown in upon him. The priest persisted in his refusal, so
still more earth was thrown in until he was nearly suffocated.
thus to handle a priest in those days"
(says Prince) "was
a very bold adventure; but Sir William Coffin, with the favour he had
at court, diverted the storm".
In fact, Coffin seems to have represented the mischievous consequences
of priests' arbitrary behaviour to such effect that the payment of
mortuaries was soon afterwards controlled by statute.
At the coronation of Queen Anne Boleyn in
1533 he was her Master of the Horse, and seems to have managed to
please his mistress -
not an easy thing to do, without at the same time incurring the wrath
and suspicion of her husband and his sovereign. But after Anne's trial
and execution, he continued in the same office to her successor, Jane
On 18 October 1537 William Coffin was
knighted, having by then become steward not only of Queen Jane's manor
and liberties of Standon in Herfordshire, but also (in 1535) of
Hitchin, another royal manor in the same county. In that capacity, it
was his duty on 17 October 1538 to receive the surrender to the Crown
of the priory of Hitchin from the Prior and his brethren.
But within two months, on 8 December 1538,
Sir William was dead of the plague. His widow wrote from Standon to
the King's chief minister, Thomas Cromwell, asking him to inform the
King that her husband had "died
of the great sickness, full of God's marks all over his body",
and begging Cromwell to let her know how she and her servants now
A biographical note on William Coffin in
Prince's Worthies of Devon
(1710) says that he bequeathed to the King all his hawks, his best
horses and a cart. But the will made on the day Sir William died, and
proved on 17 May 1539 (P.C.C. 27 Dygneley), made no mention of this.
It provided for farms, leases and goods to
go to his wife Margaret. Two old servants, Henry Ireland and Robert
Ros, were to share lands at Bakewell, Derbyshire, between them, and
all the Devon lands were to go to Sir William's nephews, William
Coffin the elder and William Coffin the younger. His other nephew and
residual heir, Richard Coffin, received the park and manor of Heanton
in Devon, but was to pay Margaret £29 a year from the rents thereof.
Lady Coffin was not left a widow (for the
second time) for long after Sir William's death: on 26 April 1539 John
Hussey, a regular corrspondent of Lady Lisle, wrote to her that "Mr
Richard Manners is to marry my Lady Coffin".
Sir William was buried in the parish church
of Standon, dedicated to St. Mary the Virgin, where he is commemorated
by an inscription on a slab at the foot of the chancel steps. (Prior
to the church's restoration in 1864, this slab had been in the centre
of the chancel immediately above the steps). The inscription reads:
William Coffin, Knight, sometime of the privy chamber with his
sovereign Lord King Henry the eighth, Master of the Horse unto queen
Jane the most lawful wife unto the aforesaid King Henry the eighth,
and high steward of all the liberty [and] manor of Standon in the
county of Hertford, which William deceased the eighth day of december
Anno domini 1538, [in] the thirtieth year of the reign of King Henry
the eighth (.........)"
The closing invocation has been cut off.
A shield above the inscription bears the
arms of Coffin impaling those of Dymoke. The Coffin arms are:
1 & 4 : Azure, semée of cross crosslets
or, three bezants (Coffin ancient);
2 & 3 : Argent, a chevron between three voided mullets sable
(Coffin of Portledge).
The Dymoke impalement bears six quarterings:-
1. Sable, two lions passant argent, crowned or (Dymoke of Scrivelsby)
2. Or, a lion rampant double queued sable, armed and langued gules (Welles)
3. Gules, a fess dancetée between six cross crosslets or (Engayne)
4. Barry of six, ermine and gules, three crescents sable (Waterton)
5. Vair, a fess gules pretty or (Marmion)
6. Ermine, five fusils in fess gules (Hebden)
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