Born about 1495, younger brother of Richard Coffin, lord of the manor of Alwington and High Sheriff of Devon in the late 15th century. He joined Henry VIII’s household about 1515, and took part, as a gentleman of the privy chamber, in the tournament between Henry VIII and the French King held at Guisnes in 1519. The following year William accompanied the King to the Field of the Cloth of Gold.
In 1529 he became a Member of Parliament for Derbyshire, having acquired a connectionIn 1529 he became a Member of Parliament for Derbyshire, having acquired a connection with that county through his marriage to Margaret, the daughter of the Hereditary Royal Champion, Sir Robert Dymoke of Scrivelsby, Lincolnshire; sister of Sir Edward Dymoke; and the widow since 1517 of Sir Richard Vernon of Haddon Hall.
On his way northwards to Derbyshire (according to John Prince, the 17th century antiquarian) William Coffin passed a churchyard where he saw a crowd of people. They told him they had brought a corpse thither to be buried, but that the priest would not bury him without being given the dead man’s cow as a mortuary (a traditional gift to whoever officiated at a funeral).
William sent for the priest, who again refused to perform his office to the dead; whereupon Sir William ordered him to be put into the grave (which had already been dug) and earth thrown in upon him. The priest persisted in his refusal, so still more earth was thrown in until he was nearly suffocated.
Now thus to handle a priest in those days was a very bold adventure; but Sir William Coffin, with the favour he had at court, diverted the storm. In fact, Coffin seems to have represented the mischievous consequences of priests’ arbitrary behaviour to such effect that the payment of mortuaries was soon afterwards controlled by statute.
At the coronation of Queen Anne Boleyn in 1533 he was her Master of the Horse, and seems to have managed to please his mistress – not an easy thing to do, without at the same time incurring the wrath and suspicion of her husband and his sovereign. But after Anne’s trial and execution, he continued in the same office to her successor, Jane Seymour.
On 18 Oct 1537 William Coffin was knighted, having by then become steward not only of Queen Jane’s manor and liberties of Standon in Herfordshire, but also (in 1535) of Hitchin, another royal manor in the same county. In that capacity, it was his duty on 17 Oct 1538 to receive the surrender to the Crown of the priory of Hitchin from the Prior and his brethren.
But within two months, on 8 Dec 1538, Sir William was dead of the plague. His widow wrote from Standon to the King’s chief minister, Thomas Cromwell, asking him to inform the King that her husband had “died of the great sickness, full of God’s marks all over his body”, and begging Cromwell to let her know how she and her servants now stood.
A biographical note on William Coffin in Prince’s Worthies of Devon (1710) says that he bequeathed to the King all his hawks, his best horses and a cart. But the will made on the day Sir William died, and proved on 17 May 1539 (P.C.C. 27 Dygneley), made no mention of this. It provided for farms, leases and goods to go to his wife Margaret. Two old servants, Henry Ireland and Robert Ros, were to share lands at Bakewell, Derbyshire, between them, and all the Devon lands were to go to Sir William’s nephews, William Coffin the elder and William Coffin the younger. His other nephew and residual heir, Richard Coffin, received the park and manor of Heanton in Devon, but was to pay Margaret £29 a year from the rents thereof.
Lady Coffin was not left a widow (for the second time) for long after Sir William’s death: on 26 Apr 1539 John Husse, a regular correspondent of Lady Lisle, wrote to her that Richard Manners “is to marry my Lady Coffin”.
Sir William was buried in the parish church of Standon, dedicated to St. Mary the Virgin, where he is commemorated by an inscription on a slab at the foot of the chancel steps. (Prior to the church’s restoration in 1864, this slab had been in the centre of the chancel immediately above the steps). The inscription reads:
“Here lies William Coffin, Knight, sometime of the privy chamber with his sovereign Lord King Henry the eighth, Master of the Horse unto queen Jane the most lawful wife unto the aforesaid King Henry the eighth, and high steward of all the liberty [and] manor of Standon in the county of Hertford, which William deceased the eighth day of december Anno domini 1538, [in] the thirtieth year of the reign of King Henry the eighth (………)”
The closing invocation has been cut off.
A shield above the inscription bears the arms of Coffin impaling those of Dymoke. The Coffin arms are:
1 & 4 : Azure, semée of cross crosslets or, three bezants (Coffin ancient);
2 & 3 : Argent, a chevron between three voided mullets sable (Coffin of Portledge).
The Dymoke impalement bears six quarterings:-
1. Sable, two lions passant argent, crowned or (Dymoke of Scrivelsby)
2. Or, a lion rampant double queued sable, armed and langued gules (Welles)
3. Gules, a fess dancetée between six cross crosslets or (Engayne)
4. Barry of six, ermine and gules, three crescents sable (Waterton)
5. Vair, a fess gules pretty or (Marmion)
6. Ermine, five fusils in fess gules (Hebden)
William’s ancestor, Sir Richard Coffin, knight, accompanied
WILLIAM THE CONQUEROR from Normandy to England in
the year 1066, and the manor of Alwington, со. Devon,
was assigned to him.