History re the name of Chaffcombe

The ‘Chafys’ and their moated manor or castle at Chaffcombe

Long ago and far away are the Chafys, of ‘Caffecombe’.

In fact if you ask around Chaffcombe, near Chard, today few will know they ever lived there, and for over 300 years held a great moated manor within stone’s throw of the parish church.

Perhaps this is not surprising when one realises that those 350 years lay between the beginning of the 11th century and 1376 A.D. when the last of the family, Andrew de Chafecombe, to quote the family history, “quit the cradle of his race” and settled in Bridgwater.

 ‘Fifth column’

How they came to Chaffcombe, or Caffecombe as it was then called, from the Saxon “caf” (winding) and “combe” (valley), is an interesting story itself, shedding light of what could be called a sort of “fifth column” in this country prior to the Norman Conquest.

In 1002 Ethelred II (the “Unready”)

brought as his bride to England, Emma of Normandy, marking one of the main stages in events leading up to the Conquest 64 years later, and opening the door for Normans and other French-speaking people to come over and, in some cases, to assume high English offices.

Attending Emma who, incidentally, is recorded as being “beautiful and accomplished”, as steward was one Hugo.  There appears to have been no love lost between Ethelred and Emma, who got her own back for her husband’s unfaithfulness by their raids in England encouraging the Danes in.   To this end she sent Hugo, who was then her confidential attendant, as Chief Commander of Exeter.  When the Danes made their next raid on the city he allowed the garrison to capitulate, either from negligence or treason, with the result that they sacked the city and returned to their ships laden with spoils.


It was possibly this service which resulted in Hugo being settled at Caffecombe in 1002, where he and his descendants stayed unhindered during the troubled times that followed.   The history of Hugo de Chafecombe and his descendants is contained in a massive volume known as the “Chafey Book”, in the possession of Rev. W Smith, Rectory of Chaffcombe.

It was compiled in 1910 by the Rev. W. K. W. Chafy of Sherbourne and presented to the parish in 1922 by Mr Hugh Chafey.  The early portion came to light as a result of researches in the Record Office, the “Black Book of the Exchequer”, Early Chronicles, etc. and, in particular the “Exon Domesday”, which was a form of pilot survey scheme done two years before the Domesday proper, and was in connection with a war-tax levied by King William.

This was the Gheld-Inquest and the sole fragment of it remaining is the Collectors’ Return for the five South-Western counties – Wilts, Dorset,Somerset, Devon and Cornwall– completed by 1084.  The entry for “Caffecombe” (Fol. 136b) showed that it was held by the Bishop of Coutances, and that Red Ralph (Hugo’s grandson) held it of the Bishop.   It appears to have been divided into four manors, all of which were held by Ralph and these again sub-divided into “hides” (approximately 248 acres), virgates (60 acres), with villans (farm labourers) and borderers (cottagers) listed accordingly.

The Anglo-Saxon chronicler observes that there was not “an ox, nor a cow, nor a swine” that was not “set down in writing”, and the sum totals on the Manors seems to have excited the indignation and disgust of the people at the time.   A “manor” in this sense denotes land tenure rather than its later meaning of a dwelling.

Conquerer’s gift

From this it would appear that when William the Conqueror gave the land to the Bishop, the latter allowed “Red” Ralph de Chafecombe to remain as tenant, and under the newly-devised feudal system the tenant was practically the owner.  Records attest that Ralph was succeeded by his son, Robert, who in turn was succeeded by Ranulf, who had two sons, Robert and Ranulf.   Robert had an only child, a daughter Agnes, who became Lady de Chafecombe in her own right.  The family then seems to have run into its first female line troubles.   Agnes had two daughters and there are records of litigation between them in 1275 regarding the inheritance.  The property reverted to the male line in person of Agnes’s uncle, Ranulf whose son, Robert, figures in a lawsuit in 1281.  His son was Thomas de Chafecombe who appears to be the first of the family to adopt Chafe as a surname.

 Two other Thomases followed this one.  The last one again produced only daughters so the estate went to his brother, Andrew, who was resident inBridgewaterand does not seem to have been inclined to move to the family seat in Chaffcombe.  Of this family seat there is hardly any trace today.  The grassy sloping field, known asChurchPark, just below the church has definite indications of some form of early occupation.   There is a distinct plateau surrounded by a series of shallow grassy trenches indicative of a dry moat, and the whole layout is similar to known medieval sites.

Mr Chris Gould of Court Farm, Chaffcombe, says he has always understood this to be the site of an ancient manor house, and that a medieval fish pond is believed to exist still in a large shallow bowl situated where water from the moat would have drained.  “It is said to be just below the surface still intact”, said Mr Gould.   “In its day it would probably have been lined with clay and contained coarse fish of the kind that could have existed in the dirty stagnant water of the pond.”

A local “dowser”, Mr A C Hedley of Avill House, Chaffcombe, has divined a rectangular outline of stone foundations on the top of plateau and defined a smaller paced area with a well, also indications of an approach leading in the direction of the Cricket Malherbie road.

Earlier references to the existence of the manor house on this site come from successive rectors of the parish.  In 1867 Rev. Charles Penny records “There appears to have been a residence near the church, t least there seems to be the remains of a moat”.   And in 1887 Rev. C H Norwood reports “There exists a hilly grass field, near the church, a trench which is said to mark the site of the manor house”.   And more lately, an extract from Somerset and Devon Notes and Queries quotes the Rev. H Moxon of Chaffcombe, in 1923:  “Adjoining the church enclosure is till to be seen what was once a moated castle or a manor house with a fosse”.     The field is at present owned by Mr and Mrs W G Palmer of Martock.

970 years ago

So there the story ends.   The Chafys are gone, spread through Devonshire and Wiltshire, although the name Chaffey still lingers on locally.   It is 970 years since Hugo came her to build his home, but it would be interesting to think that, perhaps, he has left descendants here to this day.

Much of the above is as reported by Marjorie Edmunds of the Chard & Ilminster News,  in the 1970’s?

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