Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-Century County Durham

Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-Century County Durham

The jurisdiction of Liberties Act of 1536 had wiped away those privileges which had accrued to the office of Bishop of Durham, that is of appointing sheriffs, coroners and judges, collecting taxes, minting palatinate coin­age, and administering civil and criminal law. Ecclesiastical privilege was seen by the monarch to be as insidiously dangerous as the growth of the great estates of the grandees of the county, the Neville, Lumley, Hylton and Eure families.

Although citizens of the area continued to use the courts of the bishop for legal redress, and the chancery of the bishop continued to issue writs, a significant break had occurred in the management of the bishopric. justice  was now seen to be done in the name of the monarch, and the bishops, beginning with Cuthbert Tunstall, gradually ceased to protect their medieval rights. Nonetheless disputes relating to the apportion­ment of offices great and small continued between the bishops and the great families into the 19th century. The 16th century saw the growth of the gentry class.

The year 1536 also saw the reaction to Thomas Cromwell, the Vicar-General of King Henry VIII who had lately assumed the title of Supreme Head of the Church of England by the Act of Supremacy of 1534. Cromwell’s Machiavellian regime of fear intimidated clergy and nobility alike, and they feared, quite rightly, the threatening changes to their lives and institutions. The major county families, Nevilles, Hyl­tons, Lumleys, Bowes and Tempests, all played their part in joining the Pilgrimage of Grace, a remarkable movement of disaffection which encompassed the whole of northern England. The followers of this particularly demanded a re-union with the church of Rome and, in Durham, the restoration of the ‘liberties’ of the Palatinate. Only the Eures stood aside. Thirty thousand rebels moved on to Pontefract in Yorkshire where a Parliament of the North conceded the demands of the insurgents. The rebels disbanded. A further rising in January 1537 provided King Henry VIII with a pretext for ruthless and widespread repression, and Roger Lumley was executed for treason. Every concession was withdrawn.

The Visitation of the Monasteries in 1536 saw the attrition of the power of Durham monastery. In the cathedral the Commissioners of King Henry VIII, Doctors Lee and Henley and Master Blythman, defaced the shrines of St Cuthbert and the Venerable Bede. Behind the high altar in the area of the major shrine of St Cuthbert they had found ‘many woorthie and goodly jewels . . . which by the estimate of those 3 visitors and their skilfull lapidaries that was of value sufficient to redeme a prince’. Remarkably, the near contemporary account of the last days of the monastery and also its customs and buildings, Rites of Durham, records that the Commissioners found the body of the seventh-century hermit saint from the Fames incorrupt. It is related that ‘[Henley] did command them to take [the body of St Cuthbert] down, and so it happened contrary to their expectation that not only his body was whole and incorrupted, but the vestment wherein his body lay and wherewithall he was accustomed to say mass, was fresh, safe, and not consumed’. Saints and relics were in disrepute and subject to disrespect at the time, but a residual fear of the miraculous survived in the most hardened and sceptical of hearts.

The monastic establishment at Durham was surrendered to the King on 31 December 1 539. The last prior of the old monastery and the first Dean (12 May 154 1) were one and the same, Hugh Whitehead; 12 former monks became the first prebendaries or residentiary canons. The new age at Durham came in smoothly through the Reformation zeal of two succeeding deans, Robert Home and William Whittingham, whose periods of office saw the understandable, though relatively modest, attempts to erase the religious features of the cathedral’s old regime. Images were broken up and we read in Rites that the banner of St Cuthbert, which had been a symbol at the battles ofNeville’s Cross and Flodden, ‘fell into the possession of one Dean Whittingham whose wife called Katherine . . . did most injuriously burn and consume the same in her fire in the notable contempt and disgrace of all ancient and goodly relics’.

Disaffection, and nostalgia for what had passed, led to the Northern Rising of 1 569 – incited by the presence in prison at Tutbury in Staffordshire of Mary, Queen of Scots. Charles Neville, sixth Earl of Westmorland, who had married into the Roman Catholic Howard family, was her ally. In the autumn of 1569 Westmorland together with Thomas Percy, Earl of Northumberland, led a force from Raby Castle, near Staindrop, to Durham. The new Bibles printed in English were defaced and the old Mass was restored at the cathedral. The two earls had been in communication with the Spanish Ambassador, and the rebel forces held Hartlepool to keep open a passage from the continent. When Queen Mary was moved south to Coventry the rebels attempted to hold the North. The countryside as a whole favoured the rising, and in mid-November 1 569 the two earls proceeded from Brancepeth to Barnard Castle, which was held by Sir. George Bowes, loyal to Queen Elizabeth. Sir George, with an insufficient and arguably unreliable garrison, was under great pressure: ‘. . . very hard dyett and great want of bread, drynck and water; which was our only drynck, save I myxed yt with some wyne. I fownde the people in the castle in continuall mutenyes, seaking . . . to leape the walls and run to the rebells . . . I could hold no longer’ – and he surrendered. But Alnwick and Warkworth castles had submitted to the loyal Sir John Forster and Sir Henry Percy. On 15 December, at a skirmish at Chester Dene to the north of Durham City, the two rebel earls were beaten, fleeing to Hexham. Charles Neville was attainted in 1571 and his estates in Durham forfeited to the crown, rather than to the bishop. The reason given was that the crown had had the business of defending them. Raby Castle remained crown property until 1645 when it was bought by the Vane family which later, by alliance with the Tempests, emerged as a major coal-owner. Thomas Percy was executed at York, the castles of Durham and Hartlepool were garrisoned, and over three hundred people were executed throughout the Palatinate.

Throughout the 16th century landlord-tenant conflict was common. During a time when prices were rising rapidly it was in the interest of the tenant to contest any attempt to increase rents. The great landlords, the Bishop of Durham and the Dean and Chapter, and the leading county families were, in the climate of the times, anxious to appear compassionate and not to act as rackrenters. Lesser gentry and yeomanry found opportunities to enhance their wealth by this holding-down of rents; they also achieved increasing influence byjoining the bureaucracy which administered the county. The power of the old families decreased and the prerogatives of the bishops were challenged. The lively tenants of the bishop’s Weardale estates disputed the judgement against them of the bishop’s chancery court in 1620. They threatened to petition parliament for their case to be heard outside the county. They were concerned that their copyholds by inheritance at fixed rents or fines, or customary tenures, were in danger of attrition to tenancies at will – where a lease might be granted to someone other than the customary heir. Tenant right was protected under Common Law after a further agitation in 1639, this time by the tenants of the Dean and Chapter. The leaders of this campaign, later influential Parliamentarians, were George Grey, a coal-owner of Southwick, and Anthony Smith, a Durham lawyer.

Though County Durham continued to be predominantly a society whose economy was based on land and agriculture, lead-mining de­veloped in the uplands of Teesdale, Weardale and Derwentside, and coal-mining along the rivers Tyne and Wear. Newcastle and Sunderland were the great harbours which received the coal transported in keels from the riverside staiths at each colliery. The agricultural landscape at Whickham and Gateshead was transformed by pit-shafts. In 1589 Robert Bowes ofBiddick started the production of sea-salt at Sunderland, an industry which also grew at South Shields. Bowes also owned collieries at Offerton. Other Wearside entrepreneurial coal-mining fam­ilies were the Lumleys, the Lambtons, the Hedworths of Harraton and the Bellasises of Morton. At the beginning of the 17th century Sunder­land hardly rivalled Newcastle as an exporter of coal. During the Civil War, however, when Newcastle was a Royalist stronghold, shipments of coal increased four-fold, and the area was dominated by the Parlia­mentarian families of Lilburne, Fenwick and Haselrigg.

Although Durham saw considerable action in August 1640 during the Bishops’ War, after which part of the successful Scottish army was billeted on the county for nearly a year, it was not until January 1644 that the full impact of the Civil War was felt. Durham was the battlefield when Lord Leven’s troops crossed the Tweed. He entered Sunderland, a parliamentarian borough, on 4 March and took South Shields on the 20th, thus commanding the entrances to the rivers Tyne and Wear and controlling ship-borne supplies. Montrose made some keen efforts to reverse the order of things and South Shields fort was recaptured in May. It was only a temporary respite, for by 27 July Newcastle, the last royalist bastion in the North, had fallen and the Scottish army was quartered in County Durham until February 1647.

Much privation and destruction was suffered. In 1640 the Council of the North was abolished by Act of Parliament, to be followed in 1646 by the bishopric and its privileges, and in 1648 by the Dean and Chapter of Durham. Plague broke out in 1644; horse-racing was forbidden at Auckland and Woodham. After the Act of 1646 episcopal property was put up for sale, and among the many beneficiaries the most successful was Sir Arthur Haselrigg. He bought the manor of Bishop Auckland, including the ancient palace of the bishops, for a little over £6,000. Stockton Castle, another refuge of the bishops, was demolished in 1652, and after the Battle of Dunbar, in September 1650, about three thousand of the defeated Scots prisoners were incarcerated in Durham Cathedral where they caused as much damage as had been done at the Reformation. The Neville chantry tombs were spoiled and the surviving portion of the medieval great paschal candlestick was stolen.

It was not until 1654-6 that the county was enfranchised for the first time, and then only temporarily, because of the Civil War. In April 1642 the Parliament in London had passed a bill that permitted Durham County and Durham City to elect two representatives each. Until that time the County Palatine, that is the Bishop of Durham, was the County’s only representative in Parliament, with the continued right of being a justice of the peace. Parliament had taxed Durham in 1610. Sir Edwin Sandys, the contemporary advocate of constitutional monarchy, quite rightly argued that the people of County Durham should not ‘be governed by laws whereunto they be no parties’. Although some pro­tested that it was the county’s traditional ‘privilege’ not to send members to Parliament, the moves for representation grew, and the bishop of the time, William James, felt threatened. Prominent amongst those in favour of the change were the coal-owners, and this was seen in some quarters as an attempt to create trouble for the ecclesiastical magnates, the Bishop and the Dean and Chapter, and to undermine their prerogatives. At the time of change in 1 642 proposals to enlarge the franchise to give members specifically for Barnard Castle and Hartlepool were thrown out. With the restoration of the monarchy and the election ofJohn Cosin to the See of Durham, it was stated that representation threatened the bishop’s ‘power and prerogative’. The county was not properly enfranchised until February 1672/73 after Cosin had died and before Lord Crewe had been translated to the see. The rightful grievance of freeholders and tenants was at last resolved.

John  Cosin may seem obscurantist in respect of his care for his rights, but he was a man of great influence both nationally and locally. He restored the magnificent chapel at Auckland Castle and parts of the castle at Durham, and mid- 1 7th-century ornate woodwork in churches in the county is often due to his encouragement. He endowed almshouses at Bishop Auckland and Durham, and reintroduced elaborate and stately worship with ornaments and music which had been the subject of much litigation in the 1620s and 1630s when Cosin was a canon at Durham. Motive notwithstanding, the princely building ofCosin would not have been possible without the resumed opulence of the bishopric. The Reformation may have reduced the power, but it was to be another two centuries before the line of ‘golden bishops’ yielded to a redistri­bution of revenues in a second Reformation of the 1830s.

The latter half of the 17th century saw County Durham housing ecclesiastics of the first order of learning. In 1657, during the Common­wealth, letters patent had been issued in response to a succession of petitions from the inhabitants of County Durham to establish a college, school or academy for the Northern Counties in Durham. Philip Hunton, author of Treatise concerning Monarchy, was appointed first Provost of Durham College. Unfortunately, the College did not survive the Resto­ration, and the scheme was not revised until the founding of Durham University in 1832.

Cosin’s successor as bishop was Nathaniel Lord Crewe who was again keen to exercise a temporal as well as a spiritual authority in the fashion of his medieval predecessors. A man much in favour with Charles II and James II, he was appointed Lord Lieutenant of the County Palatine on 4 November 1674 and entered his diocese on 9June 1675 as much as a secular lord as a pastor, with a considerable cavalcade accompanied by running footmen. The 1687 Declaration of Indulgence cancelled the penal laws which had previously discriminated against Nonconformists and Roman Catholics, including religious tests as qualifications for any office. Crewe tried to put this policy into operation but found himself isolated and without support. At the Glorious Revolution the Dean of Durham, Denis Granville, fled the country in support of King James. Crewe vacillated and stayed, siding with William of Orange by voting for the motion of -the Convention of January 1689 that James ‘having withdrawn himself out the kingdom, has abdicated the Government, and that the throne is hereby vacant’.

In 1700, at the age of 67, Crewe married a second time. His bride was a young heiress aged 24, Dorothy Forster of Bamburgh in Northumber­land. She predeceased him and their combined wealth provided the basis of his extensive charitable works which survive into the 20th century. He died in 1721.

It was in Crewe’s episcopate that Sir John Duck moved into promin­ence. Duck was a humble butcher’s apprentice in Durham City. The omen of a gold jacobus coin dropped at his feet by a raven inspired a career of increasing prosperity in coal-owning. In 1680 Duck was mayor of Durham and a justice of the peace. After being made a baronet in 1687 he endowed a hospital at Great Lumley. Duck died in 1691 – an archetypal member of the new gentry that was emerging in the county.