There were some large and flourishing Combs families in Warwickshire[Co, EN] in Shakepere's time. Some of them lived at Stratford-on-Avon, and had various dealings with the bard. There were Combses at Stratford as early as the late fourteenth century. A number of stories bearing on the relations of the Combses with Shakspere have come down to us, based supposedly on the records of the time, and on word of the literary critics. One cannot vouch for their authenticity, but some of them are perhaps true. In his last will and testament Shakspere leaves his sword to "Mr. Thomas Combe." (This is the Thomas who lived with his brother William, at Welcombe [Manor, Warwickshire, EN]). The will is dated March 25,1616.
An indenture now in the Stratford Museum shows that in Stratford, in 1602, Shakspere purchased a hundred and seven acres of arable land from William and John Combe, for a consideration of three hundred and twenty pounds. The vendors affix their signatures as "W Combe" and Jo Combe." The records also show that Shakspere purchased from John and William an additional hundred and twenty-seven acres for a hundred pounds; also another tract of twenty acres. In 1614, the year of John's death, Shakspere, a close friend of this family, opposed the Stratford Corporation, which opposed the efforts of William and Thomas Combe (brothers) to enclose certain common lands at Welcombe, a village near Stratford.
The relationship of the Warwickshire Combses is somewhat confusing. Touching upon such names as William, John and Thomas, Miss Marchette Chute, in her Shakespeare of London (1949), has made some research. This is how Miss Chute lines them up: the older William, who with John sold the land to Shakepere, was a prominent lawyer of Warwickshire, and later the high sheriff. John was his
nephew, the usurer, and subject of the famous epitaph (below); he was a wealthy bachelor, and lived at Welcombe. The younger William, and his brother Thomas, of the celebrated enclosure litigation, were nephews of John. One Thomas, who died around 1608, names a son William in his will. I assume that this older Thomas is the father of brothers William and Thomas. The John in question had two brothers, George and John, believe it or not.
It may not be stretching a point to identify the younger Thomas Combe with the one of 1620 and 1630, who, from London [EN], and as a stockholder in the Virginia Company, was whooping it up for the Company at Jamestown [James City/County, VA]. Since Shakspere lived in London for quite a while, and had business associates there, Thomas's interests may also have led him there. In a later chapter I shall have more to say about the apparent connections between the Stratford and London Combses, and the Archdales and Palmers.
There is a story (to be taken with a grain of salt) to the effect that William Combe, the lawyer and high sheriff, got the youth, Shakspere, out of trouble when the latter was accused of stealing deer on the estate of Sir Thomas Lucy. It has not been definitely established that Shakspere was guilty of such theft; but if he stole the glory of that is due somebody else for writing the so-called Shaksperian plays, as he probably did, the theft of a whole herd of deer might be considered by him as a mere bagatelle.
And now, the famous four lines of verse, written purportedly by Shakspere as an epitaph for old John Combe:
"Ten in the hundred lies here ingrav'd:
'Tis a hundred to ten his soul is not sav'd:
If any man ask, Who lies in this tomb?
Oh! Oh! quoth the devil, 'tis my John-a-Combe."
Old John was a money lender, and was accused of exacting usurious rates of interest. Another version runs:
"Ten in the hundred the devil allows,
But Combes will have twelve, he swears and avows;
If any one asks who lies in this tomb,
'Ho!' quoth the devil, ' 'tis my John o'Combe'."
"Here lies the body of John O'Combe,
At last the devil hath claimed his own."
The story current in the neighborhood for a long time had it that the old gent. never forgave Shakspere for the lines. Yet when old John died he left in his will (proved Nov. 10, 1615) the sum of five pounds to William Shakepere.
Let us look into the famous epitaph a little further, and quote some original sources. Whether or not Shakepere wrote the lines is beside the question. Only one early source attributes them to him, a Lt. Hammond, visiting Stratford in 1634: "A neat Monument of that famous English poet, Mr. William Shakespeare; who was borne heere. And one of an old Gentleman a Batchelor, Mr. Combe, vpon whose name, they sayd Poet, did merrily fann vp some witty, and facetious verses, which time would nott giue vs leaue to sacke vp."
Perhaps the earliest written source is that of Richard Brathwaite, in his Remains after Death (1619). He writes: "An Epitaph vpon one John Combe of Stratford vpon Auen, a notable vsurer, fastened vpon a Tombe that he had caused to be built in his lifetime:
Ten in the hundred must lie in his graue,
But a hundred to ten whether God will him haue?
Who must then be interr'd in this Tombe?
Oh (quoth the Diuell) my John a Combe.
Ferther [sic]: "In 1673 I Robert Dobyns being at Stratford upon Avon and visiting the church there transcribed these two Epitaphs, the first is on William Shakespear's monument . . . . . . the other is upon ye monument of a noted usurer:
Tenn in the hundred herelyeth engraved
A hundred to tenn his soul is not saved
If anny one ask who lyeth in this Tombe
Oh ho quoth the Divell tis my John a Combe.
"Since my being at Stratford the heires of Mr. Combe have caused these verses to be razed, so yt (that) now they are not legible."
Those Stratford Combses seemed to invite epitaphs. Writes one Rev. Francis Peck, in his New Memoirs of Milton (1740): "Every body knows Shakespeare's epitaph for John a Combe. And I am told he afterwards wrote another for Tom a Combe, alias Thin-Beard, brother of the said John; & that it was never yet printed . . . .:
Thin in beard, and thick in purse;
Never man beloved worse;
He went to the grave with many a curse;
The Devil and He had both one nurse.
The Reverend adds: "This is very sour."
When you go to Stratford-on-Avon, stroll out to the modest little church hard by the Avon; therein you may see the simple stone of William Shakepere and his dates. A few feet away, the magnificent, recumbent statue of John Combe.
The names of three later, distinguished Combses might be mentioned here: Combe, William (1741-1823), born in Bristol [EN]; contributor to magazines; author of the celebrated Three Tours of Dr. Syntax, a satire on pedagogues. Combe, George (1788-1858), of Edinburgh [Midlothian, Scotland]; phrenologist, essayist, traveler, author of a number of books. Combe, Andrew (1797-1847), of Edinburgh; physiologist, author of a number of books.
A word about armorial bearings may seem appropriate here. Combs coats of arms varied, depending on the family. At least one lion is present on practically all of them. Every family whose cost of arms bore one or more lions was a staunch follower of the king. Says Ellis, in his Antiquities of Heraldry: "We have seen that the royal Lion, or Leopard of England was proudly borne by all those families whose alliance with royalty sanctioned its use." One of the best known coats-of-arms of any English Combs family is ermine, three Lions passant in pale, gules; crest: an arm in armor. But Combs families in the New World need not be too concerned about armorial bearings, since so few of them may lay claim to this honor among the English ancestors. Yet, as far as my own line of the family is concerned, I must mention a transaction which took place in Old Rappahannock County ([later] Caroline) [VA] on November 2, 1675: Archdale Combs and his wife, Elizabeth, conveyed a tract of land (in the present Westmoreland County [VA]) to Capt. William Ball, Mary Washington's grandfather, of Lancaster County [VA]. Along with their signatures, Archdale and his wife affix a wax seal bearing the crest of a vulning pelican; encircling the crest is the Latin motto: sic bis quos diligo.
But the seal used by Archdale Combs was not necessarily his own, and not prima facie evidence that Archdale even had a crest. Away from home (probably down at Tappahannock [then Old Rappa, now Essex Co, VA], the old county seat), he used somebody else's seal, to flatten out or spread the wax. The records of the College of Arms do not indicate that any Combs family in the British Isles ever used the vulning pelican as a crest.
But let's be in no hurry to pull old Archdale Combs out of his armorial bearings, as he was probably armigerous. John Combs, of London, was granted a coat of arms in July, 1603. The records show that no other Combs of London was ever an armiger that early. Now, if this John Combs is identical with John Combs, "Merchant, of London," as he may well be, then Archdale Combs and his descendants may claim armorial bearings. The arms and crest of armigerous John Combs, of London, are as follows: Arms: argent on a band raguly gules, a lion passant sable; Crest: out of a ducal coronet a lion's gamb argent holding a staff raguly gules. John Combs, Shakspere's friend, of Stratford-on-Avon, was granted armorial bearings in 1574, as follows: Arms: Ermine three lions passant in pale gules; Crest: an arm enbowed in armor sable garnished or, wreathed about the arm argent and gules, holding in the gauntlet a broken tilted spear gold. Nearly all Combs arms bore approximately the same motto, with slight variations: nec (nil) timere, nec (nil) temere (Neither timid nor bold). An armiger in those days was usually styled "Gent(leman)" The records of Old Rappahannock County list here and there "Archdale Combe, Gent." Incidentally, "Mr." stood for Master, and "Ors." [nb: Mrs.?] for Mistress. "Mister" and "Mizzes" are of more modern origin.