A History of Lancashire


Roman Lancashire

The Romans began the conquest of Britain in 43 A.D., almost a century after Julius Caesar had first crossed the Channel from Gaul. Five years fighting gave them control of most of the south-eastern half of Britain, and by 60 A.D., Suetonius Paulinus had carried the conquest as far as Chester and North Wales. But the Romans did not hold the south-east sufficiently strongly to justify so rapid an advance. The revolt of the Iceni under Queen Boudicca forced Suetonius Paulinus to rush his troops south again order to defend London, and not until the 70s did the Romans attempt to conquer the backward Brigantes who occupied most of northern Britain. In the early days of the conquest the Romans had found the Brigantes under their queen, Cartimandua, amenable and co-operative, but before 70 A.D., these early Iron-Age Britons had become hostile and troublesome. Between 71 and 74 the Ninth Legion built a fort at York (Eburacum) and pushed north-westward as far as Carlisle (Luguvallium). This campaign established Roman control north of Lancashire. In 78 Agricola brought the Twentieth Legion, Valeria Victrix, to Chester (Deva). After he had subdued the Ordovices in North Wales, he led his soldiers across the Mersey by the ford at Latchford, and marched north towards the Ribble and east towards the Pennines. He soon built earth ramparts to defend the small garrisons he left at Ribchester (Bremetennacum), Manchester (Mamucium), and Overborough (Galacum), and during the next three years his men constructed rough roads to link these forts to Carlisle, Illey (Olicana) and York. Agricola himself led the relentless march to the north. By 82 A.D., he was across the Tay, and in 84 A.D., he won the decisive battle of Mons Graupius against the Caledonians in the Eastern Highlands of Scotland.

So far the Romans had done little but march straight through the area we now call Lancashire. The Roman historian, Tacitus, son-in-law of Agricola, described how the Romans ‘with sudden attacks and punishments’ terrified the Brigantes. ‘When Agricola had alarmed and terrified them sufficiently, he next tried the effects of good usage and the attractions of peace.’ Certainly his officers forced the Brigantes into road-making and trench-digging. Everything was done to keep the advance going. But Agricola was recalled in 84 A.D., and under the Emperors Trajan (98-117) and Hadrian (117-138) the plan to conquer the northern Highlands was abandoned. Hadrian’s Wall (122-128) eventually restricted the area of Roman occupation, and made it necessary to have safe and good roads leading to it from the legionary centres of Chester and York. Therefore during the first half of the second century the roads through Lancashire were increased in number and made more permanent . The old forts were made bigger and stronger, stone walls or timber palisades replaced earth ramparts, and additional strong points were built at Wilderspool, Wigan (Coccium), Walton-le-Dale, Kirkham, Lancaster and possibly at Colne. This Roman consolidation and expansion at first prompted the Brigantes to resist whenever they could. It is recorded that Antoninus Pius, who succeeded Hadrian as emperor in 138, had to suppress a revolt in the north, but the Brigantes could do little against the military superiority of the Romans. To the Romans Lancashire was unattractive because of its climate and its distance from Europe, and there is little evidence that Roman civilians ever settled there. No sites of Roman villas have been found in Lancashire. Some ex-soldiers married local girls and stayed on to farm in the Ribble valley and probably in the neighbourhood of Mamucium. Some Roman traders may have lived for short periods in or near one of the bigger forts, but most Romans who came to Lancashire were active soldiers on defence duties. Once they had finished their tour of duty they moved elsewhere, and were no more permanent than British soldiers are today in Germany. Lancashire is poor country for the archaeologist. Industrial development during the last three hundred years has destroyed or overbuilt much of the evidence the archaeologist would like to discover. New knowledge of the fort of Manucium has been found under cellar floors of warehouses near Knott Hill station and by rescue digs when nearby property was rebuilt. At Walton-le-Dale excavation had to await the convenience of the market gardeners who occupied the site. The Roman sites at Lancaster, Wigan, Warrington, and Ribchester are thick with property. Even so, during the last hundred and fifty years some interesting Roman finds have been made. Inscribed altar-stones and tomb-stones have been found at Lancaster, Ribchester, Warrington and Manchester, and preserved in local museums. Various Roman coins and pieces of jewellery have been dug up, and the Walton site has yielded a large quantity of Samian ware, which is red glazed pottery imported from Europe. In 1796 an elaborately-carved bronze helmet was discovered at Ribchester, and last century there were unearthed a bronze statuette of Jupiter at Manchester, a bronze bust of Minerva at Warrington, part of a Roman altar at Wigan, and various stretches of the original gravel surface of Roman roads, usually about thirteen feet wide/3.9m. Since 1945, there have been enlightening excavations at Lancaster, Manchester, Castleshaw, Walton, Kirkham, and Ribchester.


The Anglian Settlement

Archaeology has been able to discover little about the settlement of the Angles in Lancashire. Celtic writers were too vague and general to be of much help, and the Anglo-Saxon chroniclers, so informative about busier and more important areas, make few references to the area which became Lancashire. However, place-name and fortunately this is strong enough to form a reasonably clear picture of what took place.

The Angles came into Lancashire from the east, from Yorkshire (Deira) and from Northumberland and Durham (Bernicia). About 570 A.D., small family groups began to cross the Pennines, and settle on fairly high ground in the Lune and Ribble valleys, and so isolated sites clear of the marshland on the coastal plain. The ‘inga’ place-names such Billing, Melling, Billinge, these are places early in the period, Melling is the place-name where the followers or family of Mealla settled; Billinge, an early name but not necessarily ‘inga’ in form, means either the home of Bylla’s family, or the home of the people on the hill, or, simply the place on the hill. The ‘ingaham’ names such as Aldingham, Whittingham, Padiham suggest a second wave of settlement about 600 A.D. Most likely both these settlements were peacefully made. But with King Ethelfrith of Berncia, the conqueror of Deira, came war. He made two armed thrusts westwards. The first probably came down the Lune valley towards Morecombe Bay and ended in 603 A.D., with victory for the Angles at Degsaston, an undiscovered battle-site. The second crossed the Pennines further south, and drove through Manchester area and across the Mersey before achieving a triumphant climax in the decisive defeat of the British at Chester in 615 A.D. A third wave of Anglian colonists followed on the heels of this military conquest. The ‘ingaton’ names such as Pennington, Eccleston, Warrington, Whittington indicate some of their places of settlement. From that time until the eleventh century the Angle population in Lancashire steadily increased. It is not possible to say how many settlements they made. More than two hundred ‘tun’ names of this later period have been identified with certainty, but many more must have been obliterated by Norse and Danish names in the following centuries.

It is hard to discover whether the Angles and Romano-British inhabitants of Lancashire lived peaceably together or not. Gildas a Celtic writer, described the Anglian invasion as ‘a fire from the East which burned sea to sea’ and ‘did not die down until, consuming almost all the island that stood above ground, it licked the Western Ocean with its red tongue’. Even Bede the Anglian historian wrote of Ethelfrith’s conquest as ruthless, and told how the Angles viciously attacked a large group of non-combatant priests who accompanied the British soldiers at Chester. On the other hand certain facts suggest that the angles at least tolerated the Britons. Some codes of Anglo-Saxon law gave the British a lowly but recognized standing; some Angles of leading families were given British personal names, a fact which suggests intermarriage between the Angles and British; and the revival of Celtic art after the Anglian invasion shows that British craftsmen were able and probably encouraged to continue their work.

In Lancashire more than fifty British place-names have survived. Almost all of them are found south of the Ribble, centred round Wigan and Manchester. There are none at all in the Lune valley which the Angles made a principle area of settlement, and, with the exception of Ince Blundell, none in the coastal area of south Lancashire, which the Norse later occupied in force. Wigan is derived from a British personal name, ‘Treales’ from a British habitation name, and ‘Makerfield’ from a British district name, but most of the others are topographical manes, embodying such British words as ‘pen’ (hill), ‘cet’ (wood), ‘ince’ (island in the marsh), ‘ecles’ (church) or ‘cader’ (hill-fort). These topographical names were often accepted by the Angles, not always with full understanding of the meaning of the British word. Thus to ‘pen’ they added their own name for ‘hill’ to produce Pendle, and later generations even added a third ‘hill’ to give us ‘Pendle Hill’. Similarly to ‘cet’ was added ‘wood’ to give ‘Cheetwood’, now an area in Manchester. The Angles and Norse distinguished isolated British communities with such names as ‘Walton, Ulnes Walton and Brettargh Holt. In those areas there could not have been any British settlements, or else such a designation as ‘Walton’, ‘the settlement of the British’. would have no point.

The Celtic Britons could not prevent the English from steadily making themselves masters of the area between the Mersey and Morecombe Bay, even though they managed eventually to convert their new masters to Christianity. By 900 A.D., English control was strong enough to subdue the many new Scandinavian settlements in the area.

Apart from several small finds of Anglo-Saxon coins, three hoards have been found in Lancashire; one at Little Crosby near Liverpool in 1611, one on Halton Moor near Lancaster in 1815, and one at Cuerdale near Preston in 1840. The last contained no less than ten thousand silver coins and almost a thousand ounces of silver ingots, all packed into a leaden chest. The treasure is thought to have been hidden away by the Danish army in its flight before Edward the Elder in 911 A.D. most of the coins were Danish and had been minted in York, but among them were almost a thousand coins of Alfred the Great and about fifty of Edward the Elder.

Danes and Norsemen

The seventh century was the golden age of Northumbria. Originally consisting of two independent kingdoms, Bernicia and Deira, it was united in 605 A.D., and during the reign of Edwin expanded into the most powerful of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. It stretched from the Humber to the Forth and the western coast and included the isle of Anglesey and Man. But in the following century Mercia replaced it as the most important English kingdom, although Northumbria continued for some time as a principle seat of learning and literary activity. In the ninth century the leadership of the English passed from the Mercia to the kingdom of Wessex.

Therefore on Wessex fell the heaviest burden of organizing resistance against the Danish invasions, which began with isolated raids on the east and south coasts of England in the later years of the eighth century, but which developed into damaging campaigns inland during the next hundred years. In 865 A.D., the Great Army of the Danes landed in East Anglia intent on beginning a permanent conquest of England. By 874 A.D., the king of Mercia – the present-day Derbyshire, Leicester and Northamptonshire – the Danes were already establishing settlements. Most of south-western Northumbria (i.e. Lancashire) escaped these devastating attacks, but place-names in the Manchester area, such as Hulme, Oldham (Aldhulme), Flixton, Urmston, and Hulme near Winwick, reveal the north-western fringe of Danish settlement. The track of this invasion can be traced back through eastern Cheshire in such place-names as Cheadle Hulme, Holmes Chapel, Hulme Walfield, Kettleshulme, Knutsford and Toft.

About 900 A.D., however, the western coast of Northumbria and the north-west of Mercia were invaded by many boatloads of Norsemen, who sailed from northern Ireland and the Isle of Man. The forefathers of these invaders had journeyed from Scandinavia round the north of Scotland to find new homes in the Western Isles and in Ireland. Many had become Christians. To Lancashire these Norsemen appear to have come as fairly peaceful settlers. The position of their homesteads and the evidence from ‘Domesday Book’ suggest that they were living as friendly neighbours with the Angles, and often were content to farm inferior land.

Undoubtedly there were occasional skirmishes especially in the early stages of the settlement, but the Norse filtered into Lancashire rather than invaded it. Their language came to be dominant in many districts of the area for several generations. For years after the French-Norman Conquest Lancashire men were measuring land not in Anglian hides and yardlands, but in Norse carucates (or ploughlands) and bovates (or oxgangs), and reckoning values not by the English silver penny but by the Norse ora. Even as late as the twelfth and thirteenth centuries many a Lancashire boy was christened Stainulf or Thurstan or Siward as his Norse ancestors had been.

Norse and Danish place-names often took alike. ‘Kir(k)by’ or ‘Ormskirk’ could be either Norse or Danish in origin. But so many place-names in western Lancashire have distinctive Norse characteristics that it is not difficult to show that this extensive Scandinavian settlement was Norse not Danish. There is no doubt about place-names such as Scarisbrick, Norbeck, Lowgill, Brinscall, Scales, Ashlack or Nettleslack, and some place-names, such as Goosnargh, Grimsargh, Anglezarke and Becconsall, are even partly Irish as well as partly Norse.

After the death of Alfred the Great the defence of England fell chiefly on the shoulders of two of Alfred’s children, Edward the Elder, the new king of Wessex, and AEthelflaed, Lady of the Mercians. Brother and sister built a series of defensive forts. The fort at Runcorn, situated at the base of the present Runcorn railway bridge, itself called afterAEthelflaed, guarded the Mersey at one of its narrowest points. In 919 A.D., the year after AEthelflaed’s death, Edward built forts at Thelwall and at Manchester to strengthen the English position in the Mersey valley, and eventually forced the Norse army in Yorkshire to surrender. AEthelstan, his son, did even better. He carried the fight north of the Ribble, and in 937 A.D., at the battle of Brunanburgh, the site of which is still unknown, he defeated an important coalition of his enemies, and was everywhere acknowledged as king of the English. Brunanburgh marked the beginning of a most welcome period of peace, which lasted until 980 A.D. Then a new series of Danish attacks, which culminated in Canute’s conquest of England, renewed the struggle.

Until the days of Edward the Elder and AEthelstan, the Mersey had been the boundary between the kingdoms of Mercia and Northumbria. But in the general settlement after Brunanburgh, the Ribble became the new southern limit of Northumbria, and the land between the Ribble and the Mersey passed into the hands of the king. He kept it separate from Mercia, and in the following century it did not become part of the earldom of Mercia. It remained as a royal domain until after the French-Norman Conquest.

The coming of Christianity

The Christian gospel reached Britain well before the last century of the Roman occupation; but, with the exception of two Roman coins bearing Christian symbols, archaeologists so far have found nothing to suggest that there could have been Christian communities as early as this in the area we now call Lancashire. On the other hand there are several reasons for believing that soon after the departure of the Romans, Christian missionaries began to convert the native Romano-Britons, and, later, the Anglian settlers who crossed the Pennines from Deira. First, there is a persistent legend that St. Patrick (c 389-461) was once wrecked off the shore of Morecombe Bay. Legend can be most misleading, but today on a cliff-head at Heysham stil stands in ruins of St. Patrick’s Chapel, built by the Angles probably before the year 800 A.D. Hard by St. Patrick’s Chapel the Angles built a second church dedicated to St. Peter, a striking proof that the early Christians held this site particularly sacred. Secondly, about 1200 A.D., one of the monks of Furness Abbey recorded that, in the middle of the sixth century, Bishop Kentigern of Glasgow had led a Christian crusade from Cumberland to Wales mostly along the seashore, a journey which must have taken him into dozens of west Lancashire settlements. Thirdly, in the second half of the seventh century, Bishop Wilfred of Ripon wrote not only of ‘those holy places in divers regions which the British clergy had deserted’ in the face of the Anglian invasion, but also of the lands and buildings in the Ribble valley and in Cartmel, which the kings of Northumbria had presented to the Church. Fourthly, the presence of the British word ‘ecles’, a church, in such place-names as Eccles and Eccleston, suggest the existence of Christian communities before, or at least in the early stages of, the Anglian settlement. Moreover, there is the evidence of the dedication to Anglian saints of at least five pre-Conquest churches (at Winwick, Poulton-le-Fylde, Lytham, Preston and Halton in the Lune valley), and the existence of Anglian crosses at Whalley, Lancaster, Bolton and other places, all of which strengthens the impression that there was a lively Christian Church working in Lancashire at least as early as the seventh and eighth centuries.

Irish Christians, the followers of St. Columba and St. Aidan, were the pioneer missionaries of this Church, but after the Synod of Whitby in 663 A.D., Celtic and Roman Christians joined forces. York became the administrative centre of the Northumbrian church, but when AEthelstan seized the land between the Ribble and the Mersey, he transferred his conquest into the Mercian diocese of Lichfield. There it remained until the creation of Chester diocese in 1541, but the church in northern Lancashire continued to be administered from York.

The Norse settlers who swarmed into Lancashire about 900 A.D., left behind them evidence of their Christian activity. As the Angles did before them, they too marked their sacred places with stone crosses. A Norse cross can usually be recognized by its chain-pattern decorations, its carved snakes and dragons, and its wheel-head, or circle of stone running between the arms of the cross. Good examples of Norse stone crosses, now weather-worn and broken, can be seen at Winwick, Lancaster, Halton and Urswick; and at Heysham and Bolton-le-Sands still remain crudely-decorated stone Norse tombs known as hogbacks. These date from about the year 1000.

Christianity did not entirely drive out the old pagan beliefs. On the cross at Halton one side of the cross-shaft carries a sculptured representation of the Ascension of Christ, but the opposite side unmistakably depicts the pagan story of Stigurd the Volsung. Small stone crosses were used for marking important graves, but a preaching cross primed a customary place of worship until labour and material were available to build a church on the site. The investigators who compiled ‘Domeday Book’ in 1086 mentioned fifteen churches in Lancashire, and referred indirectly to two others. In the north they recorded churches at Tatham and Tunstall and implied that there were churches at Cartmel and at (Kirk) Lancaster. In Amounderness they stated there were three churches, probably Kirkham, Poulton and St. Michael-on-Wyre. South of the Ribble they named churches at Blackburn, at Walton, St. Mary’s at Whalley, St. Mary’s at Manchester, St. Michael’s at Ashton-under-Lyne, St. Oswald’s at Winwick, St. Elfin’s at Warrington, and the ‘church of the manor’ of Newton wapentake, which was probably Wigan church. They also spoke of priests holding land both at Childwall and in Leyland wapentake. But since the investigators did not set to record churches, their list is incomplete. It does not include the churches at Preston, Lytham, Melling, Halton, Bolton-le-Sands and Heysham, which certainly were then in existence, nor those at such places as Ormskirk, Garstang, Sefton, Eccles and Prescot, which were probably pre-Conquest in origin.

Domesday Survey and Lancashire

Twenty years after the battle of Senlac Ridge/Hastings, the Duke now pronounced himself king held a detailed enquiry into the way in which land was owned and taxed in England. he sent out officials into all parts of England except the most northerly areas to ask questions about the extent of land under the plough, the number of plough-teams, mills and fishponds, and to record owners and value of all estates both in 1066 and 1086, the year in which the enquiry was being made. This information arranged by counties was recorded in two volumes of ‘Domeday Book’, nearly 1700 pages all told. Lancashire does not appear because the county did not even exist as an administrative unit, but the one and a half pages concluding the description of Cheshire are headed between the Ribble and the Mersey, and the parts of Lancashire north of the Ribble are included in the Yorkshire section. The detail given is patchy and at times difficult to understand, but these three pages of Latin, with their abbreviations and strangely-spelt names, are the earliest surviving description of the land between the Mersey and the Cumbrian hills.

At the time of the Conquest the royal estate between the Mersey and the Ribble was divided into six unequal divisions called wapentakes by the Norse settlers, and hundreds by the English. Each wapentake took its name from the royal manor within its border. The king’s reeve farmed the manor lands. The rest he divided into small estates or berewicks, to be farmed by thanes, drengs and freemen, who paid rent to the king partly in money in service. In Newton wapentake fifteen drengs farmed berewicks. Each dreng paid the king two shillings rent a year in addition to his customary services. In Warrington wapentake there were thirty-four dengs; in West Derby, sixty-five thanes, and in Salford, twenty-one; and in Blackburn, twenty-eight freemen, and in Leyland, twelve. There royal tenants each farmed two or three carucates of land. A carucate was equal to eight bovates or oxgangs, and, in Lancashire though not elsewhere, six carucates constituted one hide. It is possible to give the equivalent of these measures in acres. Originally a bovate was the area of land which one ox could plough each year, probably about fifteen acres, but by 1086 all these measures seem to have become tax-assessment figures only. The different names by which the tenants were known probably indicated different services and duties, for thanes, freemen and drengs seem to have possessed equivalent social status. Lower down the social scale there were villiens, borders or cotters, and serfs.

Domesday Book paints a picture of south Lancashire as an area of woodland and mosses, in which relatively small patches of land had been cleared and cultivated. Many thousands of acres were described as waste and the plentiful pasture was probably very rough grassland. There were no towns at all. People lived in scattered farmsteads or groups of cottages, and there could hardly have been ten thousand inhabitants in the whole area between the Ribble and the Mersey. Today twice ten thousand spectators are considered to be a poor ‘gate’ for a first-class football match. The land north of the Ribble was divided into two extensive wapentakes, Amounderness, centred upon the manor of Preston, and ‘the king’s land in Euricscire (Yorkshire)’, which included the areas later known as Lonsdale, Kendal, Cartmel and Furness. Before 1066 these lands had belonged to an English noble, Earl Tostig, whom his brother, King Harold, defeated at Stamford Bridge a few days before the battle of Senlac ridge/Hastings. Within five years this northern area had suffered two ruthless invasions, the one in 1065-6 by Tostig’s English enemies, and the other in 1069 when the French-Normans ‘harried the north’ as a punishment for revolt. Domesday Book records that in 1086 only sixteen of the sixty-two berewicks in Amounderness were inhabited, and it gives the impression that Lonsdale was a stricken and impoverished land. The area south of the Ribble could count itself fortunate. In 1086 its estates were assessed at £120 a year, a mere £25 less than their value in the days of Edward the confessor.