Skip to content

The history of Cotehele

Visitors in the Great Hall at Cotehele, Cornwall
Visitors in the Great Hall at Cotehele | © National Trust Images/John Millar

Cotehele estate has a vast history spanning back centuries. As you explore the house and its interiors, layers of its past are revealed. Cotehele was a medieval home, owned by the Edgecumbe family and developed after Richard Edgecumbe was rewarded for his part in Battle of Bosworth. A Tudor house with connections to early transatlantic trade became the family estate gifted to the National Trust after the Second World War.

Cotehele's medieval origins

The Edgcumbe family acquired the medieval estate of Cotehele through William Edgcumbe’s marriage to heiress Hilaria de Cotehele in 1353. By the mid 15th century, the house was centred around the Great Hall and the central courtyard, with the Chapel dating from 1411.

The Battle of Bosworth

Richard Edgcumbe was knighted on the battlefield at Bosworth by King Henry VII in 1485. He was well-rewarded for supporting Henry Tudor in the War of the Roses with honours and more land.

After this, the house at Cotehele, specifically the buildings around the courtyard, underwent major development.

Following generations of Edcgumbes all contributed to remodelling, extending and furnishing the house that we see today.

Georgian renovations at Cotehele

In the 18th century, the Edgcumbes had mostly left Cotehele to live in their newly built house on Mount Edgcumbe, which was closer to Plymouth and their business interests.

Cotehele was their second home and it’s around this time that its interiors become romanticised and early tourists arrived to admire its ‘quaintness’. In fact, the visitor route is much the same today.

Piers Edgcumbe's sword and memorial plaque at Cotehele, Cornwall
Piers Edgcumbe's sword and memorial plaque | © National Trust Images/John Hammond

Royal visitors

The Edgcumbes took visitors to Cotehele – most notably in 1789, King George III and Queen Charlotte. The Queen commented on the novelty of such an ‘ancient’ family home: ‘At breakfast we eat off the old family pewter, and used silver knives, forks and spoons which have been time immemorial in the family and have always been kept at this place.”

Cotehele was largely unlived in until 1862 when the dowager Countess of Mount Edgcumbe returned to live in an adapted East range.

Cotehele and the Second World War

Cotehele suddenly and unexpectedly became the main home for the family in 1941, when Mount Edgcumbe was destroyed during the Plymouth Blitz.

Then, in 1947, Kenelm (5th Earl of Edgcumbe) and Lilian Edgcumbe, gave the Cotehele estate to the National Trust.

Cotehele given to the National Trust

The estate was formally acquired through the National Land Fund (now known as the National Heritage Memorial Fund) which was originally set up to purchase land and buildings as memorials for those who gave their lives in the Second World War.

A war memorial

The Edgcumbes considered Cotehele to be a war memorial in remembrance of their son, Lieutenant Piers Edgcumbe, who was killed in action near Dunkirk on 27 May 1940.

His sword can be seen hanging in Cotehele, as a visible reminder of Piers and the 300,000 men and women who fell in the Second World War.

View of the Old Drawing Room at Cotehele, Cornwall, showing the screen, window and Dutch walnut cabinet
View of the Old Drawing Room | © National Trust Images/Andreas von Einsiedel

A Tudor house with global connections

At first glance Cotehele and its collections might seem quintessentially English, but a closer look reveals that many of the furnishings have come from all over the globe.

There are 18th-century wassail cups made from woods imported from the Caribbean and 17th-century woodwork made by Devon craftspeople who later emigrated to New England. Cotehele has been at the centre of transatlantic voyage for centuries.

England and transatlantic trade

From the 16th century, seafarers voyaged to the Americas intent on tapping into its natural resources and trade opportunities. The trips were made by a few adventurous explorers including, from the South West, Richard Grenville, Francis Drake and Walter Raleigh.

In North America and the Caribbean, the continued growth and prosperity of Britain’s colonies were supported by the transatlantic slave trade. European appetite for sugar, cotton and tobacco fuelled this trade well into the 19th century.

The impact of transatlantic trade

As transatlantic trade grew, new materials, objects, plants and foods flooded into English homes. Initially the main imports from the Americas were valuable natural resources, such as timber, tobacco, fur, fish and whale products.

Transatlantic trade in Cotehele house

Many of the items in Cotehele house are typical of a time when transatlantic trade was booming. Most of the collection seen today arrived here in the 1750s.

Some of the objects were older family possessions, moved over from the family mansion at Mount Edgcumbe, while others were the result of collecting items in the late 18th century.

Items with global connections

Here are items at Cotehele that reveal the impact of the transatlantic trade

Wassail bowls at Cotehele, Cornwall
Wassail bowls at Cotehele | © National Trust Images/John Hammond

Wassail bowls

These two 18th-century wassail bowls are found in the Punch Room at Cotehele. They're made from Lignum vitae, which literally means ‘tree of life’, and is a special wood imported from the Caribbean.

1 of 3

The Edgecumbes' American connections

The Edgcumbes were an established Cornish family. Many generations were highly active in regional politics, military and mining activities. Edgecombe County in North Carolina was named after Richard Edgcumbe in 1741, who was made 1st Baron Edgcumbe the following year.

Who was Richard Edgcumbe?

He was a member of the Board of Trade which, along with the Secretaries of State, was responsible for British colonial affairs, particularly those in North America.

According to the American Geological Survey of 1950, a settlement called Edgecomb in Lincoln County, Maine, was ‘named for Lord Edgecombe, a friend of the American colonies’.

Visitors exploring the garden in spring at Cotehele, Cornwall

Discover more at Cotehele

Find out when Cotehele is open, how to get here, the things to see and do and more.

You might also be interested in

The Quay on the Tamar River at dawn, at Cotehele, near Saltash, Cornwall

Exploring the Cotehele estate 

There's lots to discover at the Cotehele estate. Miles of pathways lead you through ancient woodland, past a historic chapel, and to an important Victorian quay.

One visitor poses for a photo in front of a garden wall in the gardens at Cotehele, Cornwall

Visiting Cotehele's garden 

Take a stroll around the 5.5 hectares of Cotehele's garden where you’ll discover terraced herbaceous borders, a lily pond as well as a medieval stewpond and dovecote.

Visitors looking at crafts within the Bull Pen Gallery at Cotehele

Eating and shopping at Cotehele 

Tuck into a cream tea at one of Cotehele’s cafés, find an eco-friendly gift or plant at the shop, and discover local artists at The Bull Pen Gallery.

Overhead view of an octagonal table with the figure of Silenus, a drunken follower of Bacchu, in The Library at Claydon House in Buckinghamshire


Learn about people from the past, discover remarkable works of art and brush up on your knowledge of architecture and gardens.

Two visitors look up admiring the details of the Great Hall at Cotehele, Cornwall

Cotehele's collections 

Explore the objects and works of art we care for at Cotehele on the National Trust Collections website.