Mayflower 400: Tide and time at Cotehele

The Geometry tapestry, on display at Cotehele, Cornwall

Cotehele and its collections at first glance might seem ‘quintessentially English,’ but a closer look reveals that the furnishings and collections have come from all over the world.

A Tudor house with global connections

From 18th century wassail cups made from exotic woods imported from the Caribbean and a native American birch box made for the tourist market, to 17th century woodwork and pewter made by Devon craftspeople who later emigrated and made their careers in New England, Cotehele has been at the centre of transatlantic voyage for centuries.

On the 400th anniversary of the sailing of the Mayflower, we're reflecting on English relations with America throughout history and the impact of British colonialism on ‘life at home’ in a new trail through Cotehele house - Tide and time.

Two 18th-century wassail bowls made from Lignum vitae on show in the Punch Room at Cotehele, Cornwall
wassail bowls
Two 18th-century wassail bowls made from Lignum vitae on show in the Punch Room at Cotehele, Cornwall

Trans-Atlantic trade and influence saw the influx of new, seemingly exotic, materials, objects, plants and food to English homes. The Edgcumbe family’s wealth, their privileged status and their connections gave them the opportunity and the ability to collect the items you see at Cotehele today. Conversely, many of the collection items represent English goods or crafts that were exported to America.

Transatlantic trade 

From the 16th century, voyages of discovery were made to the Americas, aiming to tap into trade and the natural resources available there. Voyages were made by the adventurous few who managed to secure royal backing – south west seafarers such as Grenville, Drake and Raleigh amongst these.

From the 17th century and the establishment of English colonies, trade grew. The Navigation Acts ensured that the English colonies could only trade with England and English ships,  ensuring a monopoly on trade. During this time, settlements in the Caribbean (Barbados 1612 and Jamaica 1655) were also made for trading purposes. The English appetite for sugar, cotton and tobacco fuelled and sustained trade into the 18th century. 

 

The decoration on the birch box shows Native Americans and Europeans living their different lives side-by-side
The birch box, on display for the Tide and Time trail at Cotehele, Cornwall
The decoration on the birch box shows Native Americans and Europeans living their different lives side-by-side

What was exported to the Americas? 

In the 17th century, English exports to the colonies included some raw materials but was mainly in commodities: brass and copperware, ironware, silk, linen, glass, earthenware, leather as well as the skills of hat making, tailoring, woodworking. 

A tomahawk is displayed with the weaponry on the walls of Cotehele's Great Hall
Visitors viewing the weaponry on display in the Great Hall at Cotehele, Cornwall
A tomahawk is displayed with the weaponry on the walls of Cotehele's Great Hall

What was imported from the Americas? 

Mainly valuable natural resources including timber (at first for practical building and later for furniture making), fur, fish and whale products. The Hudson Bay company imported skins and furs from the North of the country (now Canada). From Virginia, tobacco was a huge export.

The Caribbean colonies provided the perfect growing conditions for cotton and sugar, the appetite for which prompted and fed the growth of the trans-Atlantic slave trade and England’s dominance of it. The taste for the exotic in England that opened up as a result of global trade, meant that more unusual products from the South Americas were also in demand; from exotic woods for furniture inlay to turtles for feasting on.

The Edgcumbes

The majority of the collections seen in the house today came to Cotehele from the 1750s. These were older family possessions (which had until then furnished Mount Edgcumbe) supplemented with late 18th century collecting, with the aim of presenting Cotehele as if from the “olden times.” Many collection items exemplify the trans-Atlantic context.

Textiles, like the embroidered bed hangings in the White Room were often taken overseas by emigrants
The White Room in the Tudor house at Cotehele, Cornwall
Textiles, like the embroidered bed hangings in the White Room were often taken overseas by emigrants

The American connections of Richard, 1st Baron Edgcumbe (1680-1758)

Richard was a Whig and supporter of Robert Walpole. The Whigs generally drew support from emerging industrialists and wealthy merchants (rather than the Tories who drew from landed interest and royalty.) Therefore, Richard would have had many connections to trade and opportunities to buy from merchants. The Whigs generally supported the American Revolutionary cause and it is possibly because of Edgcumbe’s role as Lord of the Treasury and the Whigs' support of the Revolutionary effort. that Edgcombe County, North Carolina was named for him. 

 

 

A glimpse of Cotehele house through the rhododendrons on the East Terrace
View of the rhododendrons and house from the East Terrace garden at Cotehele
A glimpse of Cotehele house through the rhododendrons on the East Terrace