Viscount Combermere and the Mystery of the Moving Coffins
Charismatic figures of high social rank became essential to Freemasonry, especially after the dark and difficult years of the early nineteenth century that some lodges had experienced. These influential figures attracted aspiring social-climbing men to the lodges that they were associated with, playing a part in making the Craft popular again. One such charismatic figure was Viscount Combermere, who became Provincial Grand Master of Cheshire in 1830.
Combermere was born Stapleton Cotton in 1773, the second son of Sir Robert Cotton, who had also served as Provincial Grand Master of Cheshire from 1785-1810. Stapleton Cotton, 1st Viscount Combermere, was a war hero having fought in the Peninsula Wars and was a close friend of the Duke of Wellington who was also a Freemason.
He had served as commander of Wellington’s cavalry earning a reputation for fearless bravery and received personal thanks from Wellington himself.
Combermere renovated his home at Combermere Abbey in Cheshire extensively and constructed the Wellington Wing especially to commemorate the Duke’s visit to the house in 1820. His popularity as a local war hero was evident when the Provincial Grand Lodge met in Macclesfield in 1852 where the procession route to the meeting place at the Macclesfield Arms Hotel was crammed with flags and banners, and in front of the hotel a lofty triumphal arch of evergreens was erected, from which descended banners bearing Welcome Combermere and Salamanca. When the Provincial Grand Lodge met in Congleton in 1855, Combermere again received a rapturous hero’s welcome; the public celebrations for the arrival of this Cheshire Hero being ecstatic.
Combermere’s standing among the masonic community of Cheshire was so great that he was toasted as ‘The Hero of Cheshire’ at the Provincial Grand Lodge and his son, Wellington Cotton, followed in his footsteps becoming a high-ranking Freemason within the Cheshire Province.
On the death of the Duke of Wellington in 1852, Combermere gave a speech to the Provincial Grand Lodge, in which he said:
‘He had been associated with him [Wellington] since 1793. Perhaps it was not generally known that the Duke was a Mason, he was made in Ireland, and often when in Spain, where Masonry was prohibited, in conversation with his Lordship, he regretted repeatedly how sorry he was that his military duties had prevented him taking the active part his feelings dictated, for it was his opinion that Masonry was a great and royal art, beneficial to the individual and to the community.’
The Duke of Wellington’s masonic career had begun in 1790, when he entered into his family lodge in Ireland, but after 1795 he distanced himself from the Craft even opposing masonic processions and meetings when in Lisbon, Portugal, in 1810, realising it was sensitive to the local population.
Governor Of Barbados
After the Napoleonic wars, in 1817, Combermere was appointed Governor of Barbados, and it was there that an infamous incident occurred that has since made Combermere the focus of many a book on the paranormal. The macabre ‘moving coffins of Barbados’ have since been much discussed and researched by countless paranormal investigators; in fact, the incidents caused such a stir on the island in 1819 that Combermere himself became directly involved. They centred on the tomb of the Chase family, a vault which lies in the graveyard of Christ Church in Oistins, situated in the south-west of Barbados. The curious events had actually started a number of years before with the burial of Mrs Thomasina Goddard in 1807. The tomb however had been there for nearly a century before; being the resting place for a certain Honourable James Elliott who was buried there in 1724, but by the time of Mrs Goddard’s burial, Elliot’s coffin had vanished. A few months after Mrs Goddard’s burial, the tomb was reopened to bury Mary Ann Chase, the infant daughter of the Hon. Thomas Chase, a local plantation owner. On 6 July 1812, the tomb was again reopened for the burial of another daughter, and the following month, Thomas Chase himself passed away and the tomb was reopened once more.
This time, however, when the tomb was opened, the tiny lead coffins of his children were found to have mysteriously and inexplicably moved, especially the coffin of Mary Ann which appeared to have been thrown from one side of the tomb to the other, leaning head down in the corner. Later, when another infant was buried, the coffins were again displaced and strewn around the tomb. The burial, a few weeks after, of Samuel Brewster, who had been murdered by slaves, revealed further disarray with the coffins again having been mysteriously moved around. By the time yet another burial took place on 7 July 1819 the nervous locals had an idea of what to find and sure enough the tomb was yet again in a mess; the coffins had been moved again and the coffin of Mrs Goddard had been completely smashed.
Rumour and superstition spread through the community and crowds gathered around the tomb to see the unearthly chaos and it was then that Combermere himself became involved personally supervising the investigation into how the disturbances occurred; checking for secret tunnels and placing the coffins neatly in order again and recording the layout with a sketch. When the slab was replaced to conceal the entrance of the tomb, Combermere made a series of secret marks and symbols within the cement to alert him to further tampering. Ten months later, Combermere and some friends returned to the tomb to check on the outcome of their investigation, and sure enough after carefully opening the tomb, the coffins were again in chaos, the children’s coffins having been thrown to the back of the vault. Nothing had been disturbed on the outside of the tomb, the appearance being perfect and Combermere’s secret marks still being visible. Another sketch of the coffins in their chaotic state was done to record the event and the vault was closed once more. To this day the mystery has never been solved.