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EARLY COFFIN HISTORY

 

More details on Nantucket in The Coffin Family, edited by Louis Coffin with an introduction by Will Gardner, Nantucket Historical Association, 1962, LC: 62-18214. Thomas Mayhew was another person who helped to settle Nantucket.

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                            COFFIN FAMILY IN ENGLAND

There is an unproved, but generally accepted, belief that a Sir Richard Coffin accompanied William the Conqueror, as a general, from Normandy to England at the time of the Conquest in 1066. His estate, called Courtiton, was near Falaise, which is about 20 miles south of Caen, a large city near the coast, about half way between Le Havre and Cherbourg.

This estate belonged to the Coffin family in France until 1796. Nothing I have read says what happened to it then, but it seems reasonable to suppose that the French Revolution, which began in 1789, had something to do with it.

After the Norman Conquest Sir William Coffin was given an estate, the Manor of Alwington, a few miles from Bideford, in the northwestern part of Devonshire, which is in the southwestern part of England. During the following centuries, descendants of Sir Richard spread throughout Devonshire and the neighboring counties of Somerset, Dorset, Wiltshire, and Cornwall. By 1252 the name, variously spelled Colvin, Corvin, and Cophen, as well as Coffin and Coffyn, was frequently found in records. Some well-known men of the family were as follows:

Sir Richard in the time of Henry II,   1154 - 1189
Sir Elias   "   "    "  "  King John,  1199 - 1216
Sir Jeffrey "   "    "  "  Henry III,  1216 - 1272
Sir Richard "   "    "  "  Edward II,  1307 - 1327
Sir Richard "   "    "  "  Henry IV,   1399 - 1413
Sir William "   "    "  "  Henry VIII, 1509 - 1547

Sir William, the last one listed, was Sheriff of County Devon, was Master of the Horse at the Coronation of Queen Anne Boleyn, and was one of the eighteen assistants at the Tourney of the Cloth of Gold in Guienne, France, in 1519

The earliest direct ancestor that we know about was Tristram Coffin, the great-grandfather of the Tristram who came to America. He and his descendants lived in Brixham, a harbor town in eastern Devonshire, about 20 miles east of Plymouth. Tristram had a son Nicholas, who had a son Peter, who married Joanna Thumber, and they had five children: Tristram, Joan, Deborah, Eunice and Mary


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Sir William Coffin

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.

"Now 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 Seymour.

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 stood.

His bequests

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".

His memorial

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: "Here lies 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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Notable members of the family
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