Origin of Coker


From the writings of Dr Robert E Coker possibly in the 1930's.





I would make clear at the start that, so far as I am aware, no Cokers in American trace ancestry from any particular Coker in England.  All immigrant Cokers seem to have come from England, and there a good many who arrived in the first years of settlement of Virginia, from about 1620 to the latter part of that century.  One or two others landed in Massachusetts during the same period.  So far as I have been able to learn, Cokers in England all derive from a single place and one family.


Interest in origin of the name prompted inquiry into its beginnings in England

and into the history of the place form which the surname was derived.  The story, as I have gotten it, seems of sufficient general interest to justify this informal record, especially as Coker in Somerset County is one of the more interesting historical sites in the British Isles.




Batten describes Coker, a "large tract of land adjoining Yeovil on the south and about 3,400 acres in extent."  It is in southern Somerset.  It includes several manors, some of which he describes and illustrates.  The principal manor is that of East Coker, now known as the Coker Court.  Close by are the

ancient church and vicarage of East Coker.  The vicarage, it may be remarked, has an unbroken list of rectors and vicars from 1297 to the present time.

Other manors, "mansions," or "Houses" are in West Coker and North Coker.  East Coker is particularly known for its gardens and for the many signs of antiquity, including evidences of Roman occupation - tessellated pavements of a Roman Villa, road pavement, baths, statuary, and votive tablet.  Indications

of an earlier community are also found.  Much ahs been written about the place.  Incidentally, T.S. Elliot makes "East Coker" the title of one of his poems.


On a road map I have examined, East Coker, Coker Court, West Coker, and North Coker appear in a network of primary and secondary roads a couple of miles south and westward of Yeovil.  All are close to the line between Somerset and Dorset Counties.  Since several other shires have to be mentioned in this sketch, it may be noted now that Somerset is adjoined southeastward by Dorset, southwestward by Devon in which is Exeter, and northeastward by Wilts; its northwest shores are washed by the waters of Bridgewater Bay and the Bristol Channel.


The area has a great variety of soils as was mentioned incidentally in DAMPIER'S VOYAGES, Dampier being native to the place.  Batten and others consulted little about the industrial and agricultural life of the community.  At one time, the place seems to have had some fame as a textile and bleaching center.  "Coker clothe" is said to be still a trade name of some of the best qualities of sail cloth made in the neighborhood of Crew erne.  Coker is between Yeovil and Crew erne.


The origin of the name Cokre has perplexed students of language.  In early Norman rule it was "Cocre," anglicized to a little later "Coker."  An earlier spelling seems to have been "Codhra."  Powell mentions that an explanation was sought  in the Cymric, or ancient British language.  "Coch" in Cymric, or Welsh Celtic, means "red" and "ra" mens "arable land;" the explanation sees to fall, he says, because the adjective in Cymric should follow the noun; "redlands" "ra coch" not "coch ra."  Batten reported that a high authority in Anglo-Saxon literature was unable to explain the origin or meaning of the word.  As Powell concluded, "The origin of the name must remain obscure."



From the writings of Dr Robert E Coker probably in the 1940's.





"East Coker, as pretty a place as there is, with church and court well  roped

together," is Hutton's appraisal.  Unfortunately, but not unnaturally, records prior to the conquest are scant.  In the time of Edward the Confessor (1043-1066), next to the last of kings of the "the English Restoration," Coker belonged to Cytha, widow of Earl Godwine and mother of Harold, last King before the Conquest.  Hardington, nearby, belonged to Harold's sister.  "They came, therefore, to William the Conqueror, 'jure conquesti,' and were Royal Manors at the time of the Domesday survey."  (Page 109).  Some have thought that title to Coker was given by the Crown (William II or Henry I) to the Abbey of St Stephen at Caen in Normandy in bargaining for return of a crown, jewels and regalia which William I, in his last years, had given to the abbey that he, as Duke of Normandy, had founded and magnificently endowed.  Batten finds no evidence that the Abbey ever had possession of Coker, but every reason to believe that Coker was given by Henry I (1100-1135) to his favorite, Richard de Redvers. (Page 113)


Baldwin de Redvers, second Earl of Devon, styling himself, also as Earl of Exeter, presented Coker as a sub-fee to de Mandeville, a Norman, prominent in service to the King, and as extensive landowner in Normandy and England. (Interconnections of Coker and Exeter will appear frequently.)  The undated acquisitions of Coker by de Mandeville seems to have been in the early 1100s although Senders mentions ownership by this family only from 1272.  After a

number of generations, and because of some offense against the King by a young Robert de Mandeville IV, Robert was "outlawed" and the lands of both East and West Coker escheated to a new "First Earl of Devon," Lord Hugh de Courteney.


This was in 34 Edward I (1306).  Actual transfer seems to have been in 1308.  It should not be passed over here that Hugh de Courteney, Second Earl of Devon, in order to assure burial of himself and his wife in a chantry of the Cathedral of Exeter, granted the rectory of East Coker, IN PERPETUM, to the dean and chapter of the Cathedral.  (Page 143)  This is why East Coker has been a vicarage for nearly six centuries.


In 1591, Sir William de Courtenay, last of his line, sold East Coker and East

Coker Parke to Robert Dillon, Esq., who, after only seven years sol it in 1558

to Edward Phelippe of Mantagu.  Just a few years afterward, Robert Phelippe sold to the Very Reverend William Holyer, Canon of the Cathedral of Exeter and Archdeacon of Barn staple.  To this day the court of East Coker remains in the Helyar family, the owner in 1944 when the Reverend I G Sanders, Vicar of East Coker, wrote me, being Mrs. G Walker-Heneage (nee Helyar) Thus after early occupation by de Mandeville, ownership of East Coker was in the Courtenays from 1316 (or 1308) to 1591, a period of two and three-quarters centuries or more, and in the Helyars for more than three and a third centuries, 1616 to now - six centuries of ownership in only two families.



From the writings of Dr Robert E Coker in the 1940's




West Coker has its own history, as well as its own church and vicarage.  Having been forfeited to the Crown, it was granted by Henry VIII (1485-1509) to Edward Courtenay, created Earl of Devon.  (Page 137)  Released again to the King, it was granted to Sir William Knyett.  It must have been surrendered again, since, by special act of Parliament, West Coker was entailed to the issue of Lord William Courteney, with reversion, failing issue, to "the King and his heirs forever."  Forfeited to the King, again, it was bestowed by Henry VIII, about 1540, on Edward Seymour, the Protector, and First Duke of Somerset. (page 138)  As told in another place, Seymour, the "Protector" (for his nephew, King Edward VI) was a great great grandson of Elizabeth Coker Seymour, daughter of Sir Robert Coker and wife of Sir John Seymour.


Seymour, the Protector, traded West Coker to the Bishop of Bath and Wells, from whom it reverted to the Crown (Queen Elizabeth).  Finally, it passed to the Fortmans, and, in 1894, the arms of Sir John Fortman (1612) and those of his wife were still over the entrance to the old manor.  (Page 138)  Much of the land had been disposed of, but a part was then still owned by Viscount Fortman.   The manor is described and illustrated by Batten.





This was more closely associated with East Coker.  Long ago, the old chapel was converted into a home for the poor.  Batten though Collinson in error in speaking of a manor of North Coker, "it being part and parcel of the manor East Coker."  In the reign of Richard I (1189-1199), the family of de Argentine disputed possession of it with Geoffrey de Mandeville and his son Robert III.  Lord of Coker, some division was effected.  In 1390, the First Baron of Montecute and his wife held Coker Mill, now known as Pavyet's Mill.


A family in North Coker, still called chetworth or Morton's Farm, was formerly

owned by de Cokers.  In 1321, it was owned by John de Coker (page 172) but shortly passed to the Chetworths; it is in other hands now.  There is record of a Coker-sham, held by John Coker in 1393, but no indication of its exact location given.





De Mandeville’s are of special interest in this connection.  They were owners of East Coker and most of North Coker from early time after the Conquest of 1066.  Batten points out that Geoffrey de Mandeville, in the reign of Henry II (1154-1189)m was distinguished by "Geoffrey de Cocre."  At least as early as the 12th and 13th centuries, there were signatures such as Gerold de Cocre, Geoffrey de Cocre, Roger de Cocre (1236) and many others.  Gerold de Cocre was a witness with Geoffrey de Mandeville IV on a deed to the priory of Montecute, between 1269 and 1284.  (page 139)


At the time of publication in 1894, Batten was uncertain as to the connection

given by Hutchins between Cokers of Coker and those of Worle, undoubted ancestors of the Mapowder Cokers; he thought it would be a very inportant genealogical fact if it could be established.  batten suggest that the Cokers must have been descended from Geoffrey de Mandeville (Geoffrey de Cocre).  The land ownership of Robert de Cocre, named above as of 1236.  In both Coker and Marshwood (also de Mandeville lands), he thought, strengthens that probability.



Actually, the present genealogical chart, "Coker of Mapowder and Bicester," and Burke begins with Robert de Cocre, a witness to a charter of Robert de Mandeville in 1272, which would be a generation or two later than the Robert de Cocre of 1236, mentioned above from Batten.  Doubtless this is because that is where John Coker began his genealogical charts in his SURVEY OF THE COUNTY OF DORSET published about 1570, the chart reproduced by Hutchins (1774 circa).  The further succession to the present time is found in the chart first mentioned. 


At first, I assumed that the "Coker Manor" of the chart would not have been that of East Coker, know to have been a de Mandeville possession in the early period.  That objection loses validity, however, if "de Cocre" in England was in some lines a substitute for the Norman French "de Mandeville."  Both were place names, one in Normandy, one in England, and the new home.  But Hutton says that the "Venerable" Nash House at North Coker is the original Coker Manor.