The Corbett One Name Study

 Frances (Prynce) Corbet 1701-60

The story of a Georgian marriage
by Barbara Coultonİ

When Celia Fiennes made her "Great Journey" of 1698 she rode through Corbet territory, on her way south from Whitchurch to Shrewsbury; what she noted were the long miles and the wind blowing very cold, though it was not winter. In this flat area lay Shawbury Park, south of the abandoned castle and house of Moreton Corbet; it was the home at that time of Captain Richard Corbet and his wife Judith, daughter of Sir John Bridgeman of Castle Bromwich. The fifth of their children, George, was born in that year, following Judith, Andrew, Vincent and Richard; the children were baptised at Shawbury Church. Moreton Corbet and Acton Reynold, the seventeenth century homes of the Corbets, were then in the possession of Corbet Kynaston, descendant in the elder line of the Royalist Sir Vincent of Civil War times. 

Captain Richard Corbet was the son of Sir Vincent's brother. He still had some rights in Moreton Corbet and in 1696 obtained permission from the Bishop of Coventry and Lichfield to build a funerary chapel at the church there. He still possessed numerous estates in the area; others were recovered after Corbet Kynaston died childless in June 1740.

As Celia Fiennes continued on her way she viewed the pleasant old houses of Shrewsbury, and the remains of its abbey, across the Severn to the south-east of the town. In the abbey gardens grew orange and lemon trees, myrtles and hollies, with curious flowers and plants in greenhouses. Of a Wednesday ladies and gentlemen would walk along the gravelled paths, as in London's St James's Park. 

There was a busy fair there the day Celia Fiennes rode by. Near this livelier scene was the home of a friend of Captain Corbet. Captain William Prince had a fine house with panelled rooms and a long gallery. (It is known as Whitehall, though it is not white.) In front of the gatehouse a grassy park known by its medieval name, the Gaye, led to Horse Fair.

Captain Prince and his wife Frances had a son who died when a boy; their daughter Frances was born in 1701. The abbey, then known as Holy Cross, was their parish church; their son was buried near the altar as was Captain Prince who died in 1703. His widow did not remarry but was devoted to her little daughter, her ewe lamb (the younger Frances's own description). They were close to the town with all its company and activity - something which young Frances would miss when she married Andrew Corbet of Shawbury Captain Corbet's wife Judith died in 1701, when her daughter and eldest child, her namesake, was only seven. In the same year Richard Corbet was returned as MP for Shropshire. His two eldest sons found a patron in their uncle Sir John Bridgeman of Blodwell in Shropshire, and a companion in his son Orlando. The three boys were educated together by a clergyman at Knockin, and then at Oxford University. 

In April 1718 Richard Corbet made his will, appointing Bridgeman and Sir Robert Corbet of Adderley as trustees, empowering them to sell property to raise money to pay debts and provide the portions for his daughter and younger sons. Judith was to have £60 a year (she would have had much more if she married) and all her father's books. Vincent, Vin, was still at Oxford and was to have £45 a year until he was 24, also £200 and the family livings of Moreton Corbet and Stanton when they fell vacant. George was to be maintained at the Inns of Court; he became a lawyer. Richard held a commission in the First Regiment of Horse; he and George were to have some of their father's cases of pistols, though the best of these, and all the guns and swords, certain clothes, furniture and plate, and the best saddle horse, were for the heir, Andrew, now aged 23. Captain Corbet was buried on 21 April with due ceremony - shields, escutcheons, silk streamers, silver sconces, candles and tapers, bearers in mourning - at Moreton Corbet, where his wife already lay.

When one had landed property and debts it was better to raise money than to sell land. The trustees resorted to the obvious expedient: marriage to the late Captain Prince's daughter would bring a dowry of £7000. According to the marriage settlement this sum was specifically for the payment of debts and portions; if widowed Frances Price would have a jointure of £600 a year - the usual rate was ten per cent of the dowry. The heavy document comprises numerous skins of parchment and innumerable legal details. So, at the age of seventeen, Frances Prince was led, a sacrificial lamb, to the altar of Holy Cross on 25 May 1719. The parting between mother and daughter must have been very painful; and Frances was going among strangers, to the cold winds and colder comfort of Shawbury Park. Her sister-in-law Judith was probably a formidable figure rather than a friend; a reputed beauty, who never married but lived an independent life at nearby Grinshill, she was eight years older than her brother's wife. Andrew Corbet was a year younger than his sister, who idolized her brothers. Frances's situation is not hard to imagine.

The marriage was typical of the early Georgian gentry. A woman lost even legal identity when she married; she was expected to be submissive and was restricted to a domestic role. Few women were fortunate enough to enjoy freedom or to have a voice. Judith Corbet could afford to remain single in comfort but generally marriage was the goal, if not of the woman herself then of her family; the only hope for independence then was widowhood.

Society was dominated by men, notorious in England for their hard drinking, swearing, fighting, gambling, as well as the widely accepted rights of wenching and whoring. Married women were further subject to the discomfort and danger of frequent childbearing; average life expectancy for them was thirty-five years. Frances Corbet bore her first child the year following her marriage, a son and heir, Andrew, so her first duty was accomplished.

A year later Elizabeth was born, and in the November of that year, 1721, Frances's mother died in London and was brought back to Shrewsbury to be buried with her husband and son. Added to this loss, in the following year, a daughter named Frances was born and died in December 1726. It was over four years before another child survived, Catherine, born in 1731. A second son, Richard Prince, was born in 1734 and the last surviving child, Judith, in 1739. In that year Frances Corbet reached her 38th birthday and had endured rather than enjoyed twenty years of marriage.

Most women in her situation remain silent for us, but by chance numerous letters written in haste or anguish by Frances Corbet survived; they are nor precisely dated but internal clues and supplementary research suggest that they begin in 1739 when ill health exacerbated Frances's distress.

She wrote secretly to the family lawyer begging his and his wife's help. Henry Jenks practised in Shrewsbury, in a house in High St. His home was out of town, at the Birches; he had a devoted wife in Jane (as her notes to him reveal) whose second marriage it was. Another chance survival, a letter from a friend of Frances's son Andrew, written on board ship one New Year off the coast of Malabar, paints a sentimental picture of Shawbury Park - "retired Shabre" - its trees snow-laden, beagles and spaniels in the hall, a welcome fireside in the paternal home. The reality for Frances Corbet was less romantic. Shawbury was so cold in winter that one might as well live under one of the Poles, she wrote; she felt imprisoned, unable to leave the place when her own horse fell lame. To the usual domestic cares were often added the presence of her bachelor brothers-in-law: the Major kept late hours, Vin spied on her and made mischief, George sided with his brothers; as good keep an inn as slave for such a family. As for her husband, he is revealed (and other references support the picture) as morose, ill-tempered, given to violent swearing and threats to his wife, critical of visits she made, forbidding her to have friends of her own, and keeping a wench in his own bed. She was also concerned for one of her daughters who had fits, and for another who was sent away to school in London. No wonder she wanted to get away to Bath during the winter of 1739-40.

She had the support of her doctor, and of the Jenks, but she warned Mr Jenks not to reveal what she had written to him, when he visited Shawbury or when Mr Corbet dined at the Birches - he must not have a scent of any plot. Her aim was achieved in the spring of 1740 and she was in Bath during May, but her husband was with her (she wondered why he chose to have "his cross" with him as he never gave her a good word or smile). He would not let her buy new clothes nor attend the Public Rooms, though he himself seems to have lost money at Hazard. Doctors advised a prolonged stay, and she would gladly have been left there without her husband, but he would not allow it. He did offer what she called a "sugar plum" in allowing her to write to Jenks about taking a house in Shrewsbury for the winter, but she knew he might go back on his word - no Corbet had ever taken a town house he said, and he must have shied at such additional expense. Nevertheless she wrote about the matter; her husband never liked writing letters (this too is confirmed by his eldest son). There was talk of Lady Charlton giving up tenancy of the house she had in Shrewsbury and Frances wrote to that lady and her representative Mr Stanier, am apothecary. The house belonged to Sir Richard Corbett and would need repairs; he was willing to let Andrew Corbet have it by Michaelmas, especially if Mr Vincent Corbet could be included in the assessment for electoral purposes, Sir Richard being MP for Shrewsbury.

The death of Corbet Kynaston in the summer of 1740 meant that certain family properties might be regained, notably Acton Reynald and the Buckinghamshire estate of Linslade, both tenanted, as was Harcourt Park. Andrew Corbet was reluctant to stir himself even in these matters and it was Frances who begged Mr Jenks and other lawyers to urge him to action lest they lose the properties. She was concerned for her children's sake, but her husband was proving "supine in this as in all other affairs"; though their son Andrew was ready to agree things amiably, the "Lord and Master" was being difficult.

Another vexation was Sir Richard's dilatoriness at having repairs done to the Shrewsbury house, though he was eager to have the rent: "I'll never take house of a Corbet more, such an indolent tribe I never saw". For all her husband's contempt of her as a woman, when it suited him he entrusted her to deal with business, such as paying the servants. She was probably a capable woman, had she been given freedom to manage affairs beyond the purely domestic.

She had spirit, depressed though she was, and has sharp turns of phrase, often with allusions which suggest serious reading ("Hudibras" and "Don Quixote" are examples). Her husband was like Pharaoh to the children of Israel, or he looked as "big" at her as the Zsar of Muscovy. He said he could not live without her, nor she without him, but, she remarked, he was wrong in that for she would gladly have a separate maintenance if she could. As for Vin, it was punishment enough to have his company once or twice a week without his meddling in her affairs as well. She took pleasure in Mr Jenks conversation and in company, but if she went visiting (which she rarely did) she was accused of only being easy when galloping abroad. But at home she was alone except at meals, and then was met with silence and moroseness. "I cannot accuse myself of anything I've done to deserve the usage I have yet am a spaniel" - a dog to be kicked, not a pet, presumably. Her distress aroused the concern of a former servant Elizabeth Brewin who called on her and wrote to Mr Jenks that her mistress was truly unhappy - her state would move anyone to pity. This was written one June, possibly in 1741, soon after Elizabeth Wynn married the Corbet's servant John Brewin at St Julians in Shrewsbury.

In June 1741 Andrew, junior, now of age, was writing to Mr Jenks about the possibility of borrowing money, and his hopes of recovering Linslade, on which he had set his heart. His mother wrote once that he had neither his father's meanness or crossness of temper, and he seems to have found his father difficult to deal with. He told Jenks that he knew little of landed affairs and was willing to take advice. He was at Major Robert's Academy in London at this time and had to be consulted by his father about possible sales of property: "Don't acquaint your mother with this for she always tells me her jointure is upon the whole estate but God help her she does not know what she talks on." (In fact he himself had less of an awareness of local matters, being unwilling to read all documents.) He also wanted his son to dismiss some of his teachers; this would save money.

Another set of letters suggests continued misery at home for Frances and an urgent desire to have a house or lodging in Shrewsbury. She may even have been trying for a separate establishment. Her husband's temper perhaps moderated with age and he may have relied more on his wife. When their old and valued steward died in April 1748 Andrew wrote to his son: "Tom Downs lies in Shabre [Shawbury] Church by your Mother's desire ... your mother wrote to Vin to come to Park and pay the Labourers and give orders to the servants." By 1749, when her youngest child was ten, Frances may have won a measure of independence, for the accounts include monthly sums of £20 sent to her through servants. We can imagine her happily esconced in her own wainscot parlour, perhaps with her younger daughters, entertaining her friends, returning visits, and going about as she chose in the busy town she had known with her mother when young. The winters of the early 1750's were very severe so the Park would have been a more uncomfortable prison as ever.

At the end of 1753 Henry Jenks died, having preserved Frances Corbet's letters. In February 1757 Andrew Corbet died and was buried at Moreton Corbet. Frances Corbet had at last arrived at the independence of widowhood, though we have no record of her feelings. She had once expressed concern at an illness of her husband, saying she had no wish to be a widow, but then she had young children to care for and would perhaps have been at the mercy of Vin and the others. Now her youngest daughter, Judith, (poor Miss Judy as people referred to her in later life) was grown up - the age Frances Prince had been when she married. None of her children married during her life-time. In November 1760, when she was fifty-nine, Frances Corbet died. She was not buried at Moreton (she escaped eternity in that family vault) but at her old parish of Holy Cross, in the Abbey with her own family. Their memorial stone is near the altar where Frances had been married over forty years earlier.

What was the legacy of this marriage? The year after Frances Corbet's death her younger son Richard married; he set up a memorial to his mother in the church at Moreton. Judith Corbet had acted as doyenne of the family even before her sister-in-law's death. When Vin died in 1759 she wrote to her nephew Andrew that she had promised "the late Dear Rector of Moreton" to give the church a silver communion plate and cup. In July 1763 she was with her brother Richard at Bristol: "We hourly expect the Dear Major's Departure".
She asked Andrew if he could be buried in the chancel of Moreton Church, with space left for a second coffin (probably her own); he was interred with military honours. A few weeks later George died. Judith set up a memorial to her four brothers - with no mention of Andrew's wife Frances - celebrating their supposed virtues: honour, sweetness of disposition, affability. She died in 1776, aged 83, attended by Frances Corbet's eldest daughter Elizabeth who had made a sedate marriage when she was forty, to Dr Washington Cotes, dean of Lismore; he had died in Bath in 1762 so she was soon left a widow of comfortable means. The gossip was that she would get most of her aunt's fortune, and she had the house at Grinshill. The third daughter, Catherine, managed to find a husband when she was past thirty, an impoverished clergyman named William Clarke whom she dominated by her status as a Corbet. She bore one daughter and then seems to have dismissed William from marital duties; she wrote to her brother Andrew that "for Prudent reasons" she hoped there would be no brother or sister for the little one. She was for ever soliciting favours from her amiable brother Andrew, taking her child to stay at the Park for weeks on end. Andrew appointed Clarke to the living at Moreton when it fell vacant in 1768.

Andrew never married; he was a kind head of family and a benevolent squire. Richard had a contented married life at High Hatton Hall. Poor Miss Judy suffered ill-health but was the only one to call on Catherine when she was ill. Some of the sisters were mutually suspicious and critical of each other: Catherine of Elizabeth's friendship with aunt Judith, Charlotte of Catherine's sponging upon their brother Andrew. We do not know how Mrs Cotes, Elizabeth, felt but she was well enough placed to be superior to the others. When she died in 1790 Catherine had the house at Grinshill. Her memories grew sweeter and she put up a memorial to Charlotte, Judith (Judy), and her own husband William. She outlived them all, even her nephews, surviving until 1800: the trouble given her by her daughter Kitty who got pregnant before marriage and afterwards wanted to divorce her husband is another story.

The public memorials are there for all to read, but the real story behind the marble tablets can be discerned only through the private documents which have by chance survived.
November 1992.

Barbara's contribution is most welcome and as ever brings to life not only some of the Corbets who have, until now, just been names but the countryside and the times,
The memorials which she mentions were photographed by Joe and I when we visited Moreton Corbet in June 1992 so I am now able to give the words which appear upon them. Firstly that of Frances Corbet nee Prynce.

Sacred to the Memory of FRANCES the wife of ANDREW CORBET of Shawbury Park in this County, Esq. only Daughter and Heir of WILLIAM PRYNCE of Shrewsbury, Esq. and whose Remains were interred in the Abbey Church of that Town the 21st day of November 1760, aged 83 years. Also of RICHARD PRYNCE CORBET of High Hatton in this County, Esq. youngest son of the said ANDREW and FRANCES CORBET who married MARY only Daughter and Heir of John Wickstead of Wem of this County Gentleman and whose Descendants perpetuate this Family. He died on 31st day of January 1779 aged 44 years. Also of ELIZABETH eldest Daughter of the said ANDREW and FRANCES CORBET and wife of Revd. Washington Cotes, M.A. Dean of Lismore in the Kingdom of Ireland who departed this life 10the day of June 1790, aged 66 Years. And also of ANDREW CORBET of Shawbury Park Esq the eldest son of the said ANDREW and FRANCES CORBET who died a Bachelor on the ... April 1796 aged 76 (?) Years.
Sacred also to the Memory of JUDITH CORBET and RICHARD CORBET two of the children of the before mentioned RICHARD PRYNCE CORBET who died in their infancy.

Next the memorial erected by Judith Corbet to her four brothers:
Within this Church lye Interred the four Sons of Richard Corbet Esq of Shawbury and Lady Judeth his wife daughter of Sir John Bridgeman Bart of Castle Bromwich in the county of Warwick. ANDREW the eldest whose descendants perpetuate the Family. VINCENT the second son was Rector of Stoke upon Tern and of this Church. RICHARD the third son was Major in the first Regiment of Horse on the Irish Establishment. GEORGE the youngest was called to the Bar.
Their just notions of Honour, Sweetness of Disposition and Distinguished Affability procured them an Universal Esteem And from the sincerest affection Judeth Corbet their only sister erects this Monument to their Memories. 1770. Happy in Transmitting to Posterity this true and grateful reflection that their Love for each other never knew an Interruption A Blessing equally shared by their sorrowful survivor.
JUDETH CORBET died December 2nd 1776 Aged 83 Having imitated Christ in all imitable Virtues, She cheerfully departed with a holy Trust committing her Soul unto God as unto a faithful Creator.

Charlotte's memorial (daughter of Andrew and Frances Corbet nee Prynce)
Sacred to the Memory of CHARLOTTE CORBET third daughter of ANDREW CORBET of Shawbury Hall Esqr who departed this Life .. June 1 .. Aged 30 (?)
Also of the Revd. WILLIAM CLARKE who was 18 Years Rector of this Parish departed this Life much beloved and lamented April 1786 Aged 60 who married CATHARINE only daughter of the above ANDREW CORBET Esqr and left an only daughter CATHARINE.
Also of JUDITH CORBET fifth daughter of ANDREW CORBET Esqr She departed this Life 29th June 1786 Aged 37 (?) Her Sweetness of Temper Patience under Afflictions and other Christian Virtues were highly worthy of Imitation And of CATHARINE Relict of the above Revd. WILLIAM CLARKE who erected this Monument as a testimony of Her affectionate regard to her beloved Relatives. THIS MONUMENT was erected by CATHARINE Widow of the above Revd. WILLIAM CLARKE as a token of the sincere Affection she had for her departed Relatives.

Mary/Margaret Corbet nee Wickstead, Richard Prynce Corbet's wife:
Sacred to the Memory of MARGARET, Relict of RICHARD PRYNCE CORBET of High Hatton Esq and MOTHER of SIR ANDREW CORBET of Acton Reynold Hall, Bart. Her mannered mildness and benevolence of disposition added to a constantly prevailing sense of the duties and promises of Religion which they invariably procured for her thro' the whole of her life the .... and unfeigned affection and respect of all to whom her amiable qualities were known, rendered the moments in which She resigned it peculiarly tranquil and serene, animated as they were, with the full and certain hope of a BLESSED IMMORTALITY. She died July 31st 1813 aged 73 years.

The son of Richard Prynce Corbet and Margaret nee Wickstead, Andrew Corbet (later Sir) of Shawbury Park took out insurance on the mansion in 1797 and again in 1802. (This item was detailed in an earlier issue of the journal. It gives us some idea of the estates facilities: Shawbury Park and Mansion house, laundry & brewhouse, range of stabling, 2nd range of stabling, barn & buildings, household furniture & linen, stock of grain & hay.

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