History associated with the Vawer family

The Birdcombe Court Years

David Vawer

Birdcombe Court Wraxall February 2006

Birdcombe Court was the family seat of the Vawers for two centuries. It has a fascinating history. It is important to include here a little of the property's history prior to their occupation, as well as looking at the Vawer occupancy, which is our main interest.

According to the Collections for a Parochial History of Wraxall by the Rev George S. Master, M.A.it appears that the original Court was owned by the Courtenayes, Earls of Devon, the notable Somerset family, (styled variously Bythemore, Delamore, and Attemore).

The Bythemores have a long history, and were associated with the Perceval family, becoming merged with them about 1500. The name was contracted to "More" when the property was settled on John More and his wife Alice in 1437. The extravagance of David Perceval, who had married the heiress of the Bythemores, and thereby succeeded in her right to the property, may perhaps account for its sale about 1500 to Knight Sir Edmund Gorges, of Wraxall.

In 1511 Edmund bequeathed Birdcombe to his second son, William Gorges "the manor of Birdcombe, with all its appurtenances lying in Wraxhale, Naylsee, Tykenham, and Portished, and also the Hole House and the Mogge House with all theirappurtenances lying in Tykenham Parish to the foresaid William Gorges and his heyres in fee for ever." When Leland made his visitation to Somerset in 1540, it was William, now himself Knighted, who was living there. Leland described it as follows - "Wrokeshale (i.e. Wraxall) is a three miles from Wyke (Court de Wyk) towards Brightstow. Here hath Syr William Gorge a meane (perhaps moderate sized) old manor place in a valley, and on eche side of it on the hills is a fayre parke."

It would appear that this Sir William died unmarried, as the property seems to have reverted to the elder brother, Edward Gorges of Wraxall, Esq., who then bequeathed it to his younger son, Ferdinando Gorges. Ferdinando was only four years of age at the time. He was left according to Edward's will "my manor of Birdcombe with appurtenances, to have and to hold to him and his assigns during twenty four years, if he so long shall live." A mature Sir Ferdinando became the founder of the State of Maine. He is referred to as "Sir Ferdinando Gorges of Birdcombe" in 1605 and the foundation of Maine is celebrated in the New World Tapestry which shows the event with a picture of Birdcombe court.

At the expiration of the 24 years after his bequest, Ferdinando's elder brother, sold (in the words of George S.Master - "alienated") Birdcombe to William Vawer, Merchant in 1592

William had already therefore made a mark financially by this time, as he was purchasing a sizable property. The details of William's life and achievements are detailed elsewhere in association with his individual web record. However, it is relevant here to mark the terms in WIlliam's will which are quite detailed in the disposal of Birdcombe after his death. The will was made 14th September 1619. William died within days, and was buried as he requested on 29th September 1649. The will was proved on 23rd May 1620

William Vawer of Bristol, Merchant. His Will dated 14 Sep 1619.

To be buried in the Churchyard of St. Nicolas, with my wife. William son of my son Thomas Vawer. His Uncle Philip Langley and John Vawer shall have the wardship of him, and two days after my burial shall ride to London to obtain it, and to certify that my son died in debt £500, and left five small children behind him. As concerning my Manors of Birdcombe and Laneclose and my little tenement in Tickenham, I have entailed it to William Vawer, son of Thomas Vawer, and his heirs, then to John Vawer, then to Thomas Vawer, then to Jenkyn Vawer’s son William Vawer, then to James Vawer. If there come any ‘extent’ against my manor of Birdcombe for any debts of Sir William Gorge thereon--------a writing which will avoid all extents in two leaves of paper, or Confession by Mr Popham, the late Queen’s Attorny General, which is amongst my writings and which will avoid all extents, and is in three leaves of paper, and was recorded in the Exchequer in the 32nd year of the Queen’s reign, and is contained in the 278 Rules. I have devised to my son James Vawer, by learned Counsel in the law, the Chapple of the Bridge at Bristol. My brother Sir John Benet, knight. There is a statute among my writings of Sir Edward Gorge of Wraxall, of £1,000 for the warrantey of one moiety of Birdcombe, and a bond of Sir Edmund Gorge, of London, of £1,000 for the Warrenty of the other moiety of the said Manor of Birdcombe.

William Merchant's son, Thomas had married the sister of Philip Langley. Thomas died in 1615, and so William Merchant had left Birdcombe to Thomas' eldest son, William. William Merchant's firstborn was also called William. He was baptised in 1575, and matriculated from St John's College Oxford in 1591, and was admitted as a barrister at law by the middle temple in 1603. He died however when a fellow shortly before 17th January 1607 (old date - would be 1608 modern style). His Nephew William was born about 1606, and died in 1658, being buried on 20th March of that year.

This William left his mark as he was responsible for erecting a weather vane on the roof of the tower, and this bears his initials and the date - 1633. The Vane's arrow is still at Birdcombe today. It also bears the date 1838 and the initials CTC. These were the initials of Charles Thornton Coathupe, who was born at Birdcombe in 1801. This is still among the Birdcombe possessions today. The picture below was kindly provided by Jean Woodward. The following extract also indicates his importance in the Portbury Hundred being appointed as a constable, which appears to be not without its problems.

Extract from the Western Circuit Assize Orders, 1629-1648: a calendar
by the Royal Historical Society (Great Britain)
and published by the Offices of the Royal Historical Society, 1976


Wheras this court is enformed that William Maskall of Abbotts Leigh was lately chosen constable of the Hundred of Portbury and in an obstinate manner standeth out and will not be sworne to execute the same office, whereby the weight of the Kinges service within the Hundred lyeth wholly upon William Vawer, the other Constable of the same Hundred, notwithstanding the said Maskell hath been divers tymes ordered and payed in the Leete of Portbury to take upon him the execution of the said Office; it is therefore ordered by this court that the said Maskell upon sight of this Order shall go before one of the next Justices of the Peace within or neare the said Hundred and take his oath for the execution of the said office; and in default thereof the said next Justice of the Peace on complaint to him made of his neglect therein; shall send for the said Maskell and commit him to the goale of this County, there to remayne until he shall do the same.

Maskell a gentleman, was bound to the Epiphany Quarter Sessions 1637/8 for refusing to take the Oath of Office. Having manifested reasons, he was discharged and one Mathew Coxe of Flax Bourton was ordered to serve, if William Capell J P found he was a continual inhabitant of the Hundred; otherwise, Maskell was to serve. It is apparent that Maskells adversaries, having lost at the previous sessions, were trying again, at Assizes.

There is no record as yet found of a marriage, or children, from William. It appears that in 1658 Birdcombe was passed to his brother, John (identified as John1 hereafter), who had been born in 1608. John1 was married to Mary. When he died in 1666/7 his relict(i.e. widow) Mary inherited the Court, however when her will was proved in 1674, no mention was made of Birdcombe Court being in her ownership or mentioned as part of her bequest. It seems that it had already passed to her son John (referred to as John2), who also married a lady called Mary, or possibly missed a generation and passed to her grandson, also John (John3). Our researches seem to be hampered by the problems in record keeping between the early 1640s and 1660 (i.e. during the English Civil Wars (1642-46, 1648-49, and 1649-51), the so called "Rump Parliament" of 1649 -53, the "Protectorate" of Cromwell (1652-59) and the collapse of 1659-60 on Cromwell's death).

1674, 22nd June - Will of Mary Vawer, of Tickenham, Somerset, spinster.

My kinsman Thomas Vawer, £20. My kinswoman, Mary and Martha Vawer, when they kum to agge. My sister Wilmot. My kinswoman Gwylliam. For my burial, £20. My kinswoman Hannah Vawer, Evecutor. Proved 3 Sep 1674 by Hannah Vawer.

Widow Mary's son John2, who was baptised in 1637 at All Saints Church in Bristol, was married to a lady also named Mary. John2 and Mary had four children who were, in order, Mary, John3, Thomas and Martha. We suspect that it was John2 and Mary's son, John3, who was the inheritor of Birdcombe. The following history, however has to rely on conjecture, as, although the theory fits, we do not have the records to help. If John2 (1637) had married at, say, 25 years of age, his children would have been born, possibly, Mary in 1653, John3 in 1655, Thomas in 1657 and Martha in 1659. Which would have had John3 aged, say, 25 marrying Elizabeth in 1680 (we know their first child, Hannah, was born in about 1682). This is where the church records problem comes into play. In fact Mary was recorded as being baptised in 1666, and John3, Thomas and Martha together in 1671. They were clearly not infants, and had presumably not had access to baptism at the usual age, and we assume that this was because of the national turmoil. But would John have been baptised at 16 years of age (if born in 1655 as would have been possible)?

It seems therefore probable that it was Mary's Grandson John3 who married Elizabeth and mortgaged Birdcombe in 1688 to Robert Yates and Robert Henley. He is described as a "Gentleman". There is also record of a John Sawyer (we suspect a mis-spelling) and Elizabeth his wife also mortgaging to Yates and Henley in 1689. If these transactions occured over March/April, then the two transactions may have been the same ones, April 1st being New Year at that time. This clearly appears to be John2 and Mary's son John3 and his wife. It was shortly after this time that the roof of the tower was changed from its original flat finish to the ogee roof which is seen today.

John3 and Elizabeth had 16 children born over a span of 26 years. So Elizabeth must have been very young (possibly less than 20) when they married. It may be that John3 was only about 20 years old also, and judging by their fecundity, the first child could have been born 9 months later. So if he married at age 20 in 1682, this would have had John3 born in 1662 and aged 6 at baptism. The question then is why was he not baptised with Mary in 1666?

If the line of descent is not, biblically, John1 (1608) begat John2 (1637) begat John3 (166?) then we have no real explanation as to the origins of this last John. At the present time this remains a conundrum.

John3 and Elizabeth's eldest son was William. He was born in 1683/4 and in 1728 married Judith Shapp. The marriage settlement made by William at the time refers to John Vawer, deceased and Elizabeth his wife, and a deed pole executed by them in 1718.

William and Judith had only one child. She was baptised Elizabeth after her mother in 1732. On 21st April 1749 she married Luke Hollister in Bath Abbey. William's Will dated 1748 and was proved in 1750 by Elizabeth Hollister his daughter "my beloved and only child".

28th April 1748 - Will of William Vawer, of Birdcombe Court, Wraxall, Somerset, gent.

Household goods to my beloved and only child Elizabeth Vawer.Annuities of £10 each to my brothers John and Thomas Vawer. William, son of my brother James Vawer. My sister Hanna Butcher. Mill House etc in Wraxall. My late wife. Lands etc to Edward Kington of St. George’s, gent and Richard Blake in Trust etc.

Birdcombe seems to have passed to Elizabeth and Luke's son, also baptised Luke, and in 1790 it "passed to W P Brigstock, MP for Somerset." In 1793 it is recorded that Birdcombe was purchased by William C Coathupe. In fact, it appears that the lease was purchased rather than the property, and as such the family remained as tennants until the 1850s. At the time of this agreement, William C Coathupe was a parner in the Nailsea Glassworks, which had been founded in 1788. The family remained as partners until Oliver Coathupe sold out in 1855. The glassworks closed in 1874.

Birdcombe court had thus been in the ownership and occupation of branches of the Vawer family for almost 200 years. However, that was not the end of the story as far as Vawers were concerned. An article in the Bristol Mirror of 10th February 1810 outlines the story of a challenge by William Vawer (1779-1860) to the ownership of Birdcombe, and the legallity of its sale.

Bristol Mirror 10th February 1810.

William Vawer, Esq. Mayor of Bristol, 1602, and brother-in-law of Sir Ralph Sadler, our Ambassador at the Court of Scotland, negotiating the marriage of Mary, the Infant Queen of Scots, with our Edward the Sixth, and who (the English running away at the battle of Pinkey, with Sir Ralph Vane, rallied the English army, renewed the engagement and gained the day), entailed considerable estates on his grandson, William Vawer, and his male heirs forever. The most considerable part oif these estates have not been enjoyed by the heir at law for some few years, and are not yet irredeemable. But WILLIAM VAWER, of Nailsea, the object of this appeal, the lineal and direct heir male of the said William Vawer, Mayor of Bristol, and in whose veins still flows the blood of the illustrious Sir Ralph Sadler, s now in possession of 14 acres, which his ancestors of the male line have possessed, without interruption, let, or hindrance, since the 15th century, it having never been an hour out of their hands from that to the present day. He is now, however, served with an ejectment, at the suit of a person who claims a right by a real or pretended, a private and clandestine purchase, from a descendant in the female lin; and in whose property and conscience, if he should succeed in so unjust a design, it will prove, by every calculation on the morality of human nature, a worm that dieth not; nor can it descend in such undepurated blood to the second generation!

William Vawer is poor, illiterate and friendless. The writer of this, a Clergyman of the Established Church, and of small preferment , observing no other persons advance to save this lineal representative of a Mayor of Bristol from total ruin, instigated only from motives of disinterested benevolence, has already laboured much, and will still labour more, to secure his deliverance, has already, from a kindred sympathy, shed many tears of pity on his account – And if this appeal to the feelings of the benevolent, to the inhabitants of a city long dignified by its acts of charity, shall, unhappily, not be effectual to induce them to contribute some small matter to enable him to defend this action, overwhelmed by his disappointment in, what he thinks, a pious attempt to save the remains of a virtuous and innocent Aristocracy, ruminating on the vanity of all sublunary affairs, cannot fail to shed many more. Worthy citizens of Bristol!Fathers! Mothers! Sons! Daughters! Ye Pious and Virtuous of all Denominations! Lovers of Justice! Think what, amidst the contingencies of human life, the posterity of even the fourth generation may come to! And contribute to this poor man’s salvation; for the smallest donation for the benefit of WM. VAWER the SEVENTH LINEAL HEIR of the MAYOR OF BRISTOL in 1602, and maternally of Sir R. Sadler, will be most thankfully received at the different Banking Houses of this City.

Had this action succeeded, we should now be the proud owners of Birdcombe Court. Not so, sadly. The following article appeared some weeks later, after the case had been heard at the Somerset County Assizes.

Bristol Mirror

Boulter v. Vawer – This was an ejectment cause tried at the above assizes, and which excited no inconsiderable degree of attention. Our readers may remember an advertisement some few weeks ago in this paper, calling upon the benevolent to aid the Defendant in this cause, (who was represented as the lineal descendant of the Mayor of Bristol of the same name) in the support of his possession of about 14 acres of land, which he was stated to have held since the 15th century. We are sorry to be obliged to state, that the benevolence of the public appears in this instance to have been misplaced; a verdict having been obtained by the Plaintiff, who, the learned Judge observed, had clearly proved his title over and over again. Upon the event of this reial the title to other estates of very considerable value depended.

Jean Woodward visited in 2007. The following is an extract from her account of the modern day house.

...The present owner of the part with the tower very kindly showed me round the property. It's gorgeous. You enter through the stone-vaulted porch below the tower into the southern part of the medieval hall. To the right the first William Vawer had added a proper fireplace with a white-painted stone or brick tiered chimney-breast, for all the world looking like a Mesopotamian ziggurat. Opposite there is a gallery where the previous owner prior to 1984, attached shields bearing the arms of all the previous owners, including the Vawers, who owned the place from about 1591 to 1790. Just beyond the fireplace is a tiny chapel, not much bigger than a cupboard, still used. A licence was given for the chapel in the past - I don't think I was told when, but it was as a Roman Catholic chapel originally. Somewhere in the house is a priest-hole.


I was taken to see the magnificent black medieval cruck-beams in the roof of the hall - a wonderful sight. The present lounge/drawing room is in the solar with its lovely ancient black beams. There are several different levels caused by the gradual settlement of the building over the centuries. The tower has dwelling rooms in it, reached by a central stone spiral staircase. I didn't go up the tower, but I handled and took a photo of a weather-vane which was once on the top, an arrow with the initials WV 1633 cut out of the arrow's tail....

In 2011 the Bristol Post wrote a story about Birdcombe Court as it was up for sale. Unfortunately they did not mention the Vawers in the article, but the asking price was 1.25 million pounds sterling. Sadly there are no remaining Vawers who could afford it!

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