Coombe Abbey: Menageries in Warwickshire

Coombe Abbey, from Kip and Knyff's Britannia Illustrata (circa 1708)
Picture sourced from Wikimedia Commons

I hadn’t associated Warwickshire with menageries, but a blog by Parks & Gardens UK drew my attention to two at Coombe Abbey.

Princess Elizabeth, 1603-1608

The Abbey was purchased by John Harington of Kelston in 1581. He was created Baron Harington at the coronation of King James I in 1603 and was guardian of James’s daughter, Princess Elizabeth from 1603-1608. The princess’s stay at Coombe is recorded in the memoirs of one of her ladies-in-waiting, Lady Frances Erskine, Memoirs Relating to the Queen of Bohemia. The Princess, though very young, was  “extremely fond of all the feathered Tribe, and never read or heard of any beautiful or uncommon Bird, or Fowl, but she wanted to see it; and she now formed the Design of collecting, in this, little Paradise, all the different Kinds that are in Nature; which, though she could not accomplish, yet she soon had a greater Variety than I ever saw”. She asked everyone she knew “who ever had any Thing curious, or could procure it from any of their Acquaintances, in other Parts of the World [and] they hastened to present it to the little Princess. Her Garden and Green house, were as well stored with Curiosities, and exotic Plants, as her Minagerie, with Creatures.”

An island on the estate

Elizabeth was given “an island” on the estate, and there she ordered “a little thatched cottage” to be built for “a poor widow and her children” to live in, “take care of  the different sort of Fowls that were-to be kept there; the out-side of this House was to have some Alteration made in it, to give it the Appearance of an Hermitage, and near it a Grotto, the Adorning of which with Shells and Moss, was the Amusement of many of her leisure Hours”.  She also ordered an aviary “like that she had heard Queen Elizabeth had admired so much, at the late Earl Of Leicester’s [in Kenilworth Castle] in Imitation of which, the Top of this was round, with coloured Glais, that looked, at a little Distance, like rough Emeralds and Rubies, seemingly the Produce of a Rock, overgrown with Moss, which formed the Back and Roof of the Aviary; the rest was inclosed with a Net of gilt Wire: Within were many Bushes, for the Birds to perch upon, and Water falling continually from the artificial Rock, into a shallow Marble Bason, in which the pretty little feathered Inhabitants drank and bathed at Pleasure, and Recesses were made in the Rock for them to build their Nests in.”  The princess went on to become ‘the Winter Queen’ of Bohemia. It’s through her that George I claimed the British throne in 1714. Lord Harington accompanied her to Bohemia in 1613 but died on his way home.

Capability Brown, 1771

The abbey descended to the sixth Lord Craven. In 1771 he commissioned Capability Brown to landscape the park:  “I desire you to exert your utmost abilities to improve the place and shall leave everything else to you.” Brown included a menagerie, tucked away in woodland at the extreme eastern end of the parkland, close to the lake. The various new outbuildings around the estate were designed either by Brown himself or more probably his son-in-law Henry Holland. It is possible that the inspiration for the design came from Versailles, which Holland had almost certainly visited. The central building was not for the animals themselves but designed for the owner and his guests to view them from in comfort. Close by were the keeper’s house and other associated buildings for storage and shelter for the animals.


The estate was sold in 1923 and large parts of the mansion demolished with the rest stripped for saleable items.  It was bought in 1964 by Coventry City Council and is now a hotel and country park.  The menagerie pavilion was eventually sold off as a wreck but has been rescued and converted into a five bedroomed house.


For more information on the two menageries see:

The blog of Parks & Gardens UK

Sally Festing, ‘Menageries and the landscape garden,’ Journal of Garden History, 1988, 8:4, p104-117

Christopher Plumb, Exotic Animals in Eighteenth-Century Britain, A thesis submitted to The University of Manchester for the degree of PhD in Museology in the Faculty of Humanities, 2010

Coombe Country Park Management Plan 2012 – 2017 .

More from Coombe Abbey