Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 9/An old mansion at Yarmouth

Illustrated by Thomas Sulman.


Great Chamber (OAW).png
The Great Chamber.

On the Quay, at Great Yarmouth, in Norfolk, described in a recent number,[1] there stands a house, built in the reign of Queen Elizabeth by a wealthy merchant named Benjamin Cowper, who represented that borough in parliament, when it was the custom, if not the law, for towns to return resident “burgesses,” and for counties to send up veritable “knights.” He was a member of the company of “Merchant Adventurers” incorporated by that queen, and their shield of arms, put up by him, still remains in one of the apartments. It is probable that he shared in the “rich spoyles” obtained from the expeditions fitted out by Raleigh, Drake, and Norris; for Yarmouth supplied these bold seamen with ships and money, and took an especial interest in the expedition to Cadiz under Essex, who, shortly after his successful exploit, became High Steward of the borough.

Be this as it may, Cowper erected a spacious mansion surrounding the four sides of an inner court, and adorned the panelled apartments with carvings of great beauty, in the style now so well known as Elizabethan. To one of the rooms a peculiar interest is attached, because there is a tradition, well supported by corroborative circumstances, that in it the death of King Charles I. on the scaffold was finally decided on.

Clarendon tells us, that after the unfortunate monarch had been brought to Hampton Court, and the army had mastered the parliament, “there were many secret consults what to do with the king;” the Independents being of opinion that “they should never be able to settle a new form of government whilst he lived.” It is certain that a secret conference of great importance was held in the chamber above alluded to, by some of the friends and adherents of Cromwell, and many of the leading officers of the army. The apartment in which it took place is on the first floor, having three windows looking upon the Quay. It is thirty feet long by eighteen feet wide. The walls are panelled from floor to ceiling, and richly adorned with carved work. At one end is a chimney-piece of massive but elegant design, profusely and exquisitely carved. The ceiling is enriched by projecting mouldings, with pendant bosses at the intersections, and the compartments into which it is divided are ornamented with fruits and flowers, among which the rose, the grape, and the pomegranate predominate.

At the time of which we are speaking this house was in the possession of John Carter, an acknowledged leader of the Independents, and a firm adherent of Cromwell, with whose family his own became intimately connected by marriage.[2] Carter was one of the bailiffs or chief magistrates at Yarmouth, when the town declared for the Parliament. He immediately concerted measures to put it into a state of defence, raised a regiment of militia, of which he undertook the command, subscribed the Solemn League and Covenant, and greatly influenced the municipal counsels during that great national struggle, which ended in the defeat and imprisonment of the king.

Let us imagine the conference.

At an oaken table in this long and somewhat gloomy apartment, the door of which was strictly guarded, sat the determined owner of the house, dressed in the buff jerkin which is still religiously preserved. Beside him was the Recorder, Miles Corbet, an astute lawyer and resolute partizan, ready and willing to sit in judgment on his sovereign, and to send him to an ignominious death. William Burton, another burgess and leading elder (whose son married a daughter of Desborough, and whose name was, at the Restoration, ordered to be erased from all public documents), was probably there, with Bendish and some others; whilst on the other side sat Ireton, Cromwell’s son-in-law; Desborough, his brother-in-law, a stern republican; Fleetwood and Bradshaw; Barkstead, whose regiment had garrisoned the town; Scroope, who had previously been sent to Yarmouth by the Committee of Parliament; and Goffe, who, with Burton, afterwards represented the town in the parliament of the Commonwealth. These men deliberated upon the crimes committed by the king against the liberties of the people, descanted upon the dissatisfaction of the army, urged the impossibility of trusting to any engagement entered into by the king, and insisted that any compromise would end in their own destruction.

The subject was, however, too weighty a one to be slightly disposed of. It was a grave matter, especially in those days, to talk about killing a king! The debate was consequently an animated and protracted one. At what hour this momentous conference commenced we are not informed, but we are told that the dinner which had been ordered at four o’clock, was put off from time to time till eleven o’clock at night. Those who had been so long in conference then came down-stairs, took a hasty repast, and immediately departed, some for London and others for the quarters of the army.

A commission was soon afterwards issued for the trial of the king. We all know that he refused to plead to the “pretended High Court of Justice.” Nevertheless, he was condemned; and Bradshaw, Cromwell, Ireton, Fleetwood, Barkstead, Scroope, Goffe, and Corbet, with many others, signed the warrant for his execution.

We present our readers with an engraving of the room in which this conference was held. The house is now the property and residence of Charles J. Palmer, Esq., F.S.A., who some years since published, for private distribution, forty engraved illustrations of it.

  1. See page 275.
  2. Carter’s son married a daughter of General Ireton, Cromwell’s son in-law.