The History of Northumberland

The History of Northumberland After 1066

The Norman Conquest and Feudal Northumberland

After the Norman Conquest of 1066, William I and his son William Rufus tried to continue the rule of Northumberland through the earldom. It was not a successful policy. A whole succession of native and Norman earls were either murdered or led rebellions themselves, despite a punitive devastation of northern lands by William in 1080. When Eilaf the hereditary priest of Hexham went there shortly after, there was no cultivation and for two years he had to support his family by hunting. After Robert Mowbray’s rebellion in the 1090s, in which he was besieged in Bamburgh Castle, the earldom was suppressed and its lands taken by the King, who began to grant them to his followers.

Under Henry I these grants were extensive. The Granvills got the barony of Ellingham, the de Umfravilles Prudhoe, the Muschamps Wooler, the de Vescis Ainwick. These Norman barons in turn granted parts of their estates to others, many from Norman families already settled in Yorkshire. The de Vescis, and the Tisons, to whom they granted Shilbottle, are examples. In 1166  Craster was held for a knight’s fee by Albert de Crawcestre, who probably came from the Cleveland district of Yorkshire. Many of the earliest surviving castles date from this period. The Bertrams built the motte-and-bailey castle at Mitford, initially of wood and soil, but by 1138 it had the curtain-wall that can still be seen. The Umfravilles built Elsdon, and the Bishop of Durham a castle at Norham to protect his estates by the Tweed.

Map of Medieval Northumberland
Medieval Northumberland

A major problem was the expansionist Scots. In the 11th century they had invaded at any time of Norman political weakness, and after Henry I’s death in 1 135 they intervened in the civil war that followed. David of Scotland invaded through Northumberland, but was defeated at Northallerton in 1138. By the treaty of 1 139 the earldom of Northumberland was given to the heir to the Scots’ throne, who claimed it as heir to earl Waitheof, the last native earl. In 1 157 Henry II took back the earldom, later giving the dispossessed earl Tynedale as compensation, to be held as an independent regality by homage only. When William the Lion became Scots’ king in 1165 Henry refused him the earldom. William invaded in 1174, but was unable to capture Alnwick and Wark. He was captured at Ainwick, at the same time as Duncan of Fife was burning the town of Warkworth and killing the inhabitants, including those who took refuge in St. Lawrence’s church. The defeat of William the Lion gave Northumber­land a century of relative peace on the border until 1296.

The Norman take-over was one of aristocratic transplantation, not large-scale immigration. In 1166  there were 21 barons and 64 knights in the county, and not all of these were Normans. W. P. Hedley, the Northumbrian genealogist, has estimated that, with all their retainers, the Normans in Northumberland totalled less than four hundred. Because Norman settlement took place some 50 years later here than further south, many more Anglo-Saxon landowners survived in Northumberland.

Under the Norman feudal system, the King granted land to barons in return for military service. The barons, in their turn, might grant part of their estates to knights, also in return for military service. In the old Anglo-Saxon system there was no such formal relation between land-holding and duties to the King or earl. Below the earl there were the thanes, who held groups of villages or ‘shires’, and the drengs, who held smaller villages or townships, and had to do more menial services for them. As Prof. Barrow notes, ‘it is probable that most of the baronies of Northumberland were created out of land previously held in thanage’. Baronies might vary greatly in size and contain different numbers of knights’ fees. In 1166 the de Vesci barony of Alnwick contained 13 knights’ fees, whereas Roger of Warkworth had sub-granted none of his barony.

A number of thanages and drengships survived, however. In 1166 there were two thanages, at Halton near Corbridge, and at Hepple in upper Coquetdale. Drengships still existed at Whittingham and Eslington, and at Mousen and Beadnell near Bamburgh, and at Throckley near Newburn. These had probably survived through relation to royal lands: the royal boroughs of Bamburgh and Newburn and a complicated assemblage of crown lands in Whittingham Vale. The services of a drengship were fairly menial: the dreng of Mousen had to pay a rent of 30s., carry 15 tree trunks a year to Bamburgh, and plough, carry and reap on the demesne lands at Bamburgh. Over the years, however, these Saxon survivals were put under pressure to conform to the Norman system. Thanes and drengs had to pay heavy taxes, notably the cornage, that knights were exempt from, and from 1159 to 1169 a sizeable cornage was demanded every other year. Gradually, the tenures were altered to knights’ fees, or, in one case, a barony.

There were also social influences. Norman names became fashion­able. Before 1161, Waltheof of Hepple had been succeeded by his son William. But the Anglo-Saxon Liulfs, Waltheofs, Maidreds and Uchtreds survived a long time, especially in the lower ranks of society, and the 1296 Lay Subsidy Roll for the county lists many of them. In later years only a few Northumbrian families could trace their ancestry back to native families (notably the Gospatrics; others are the Ildertons and Roddams, but these do not date back to 1066), but this is because the early records are poor and only encompass the highest ranks of society. The vast bulk of the population was of pre-Norman origin, a mixture of Anglian, Celtic, and, to a much lesser extent, Scandinavian stock.

The actual working of the land continued to be done by this native population, whether bonds or neyfs. The latter were definitely unfree, but the status of bonds is often difficult to determine. The basic feudal services in the Norman system were an obligation to work the lord’s lands, or demesne, in return for the right to work land for yourself. In 1295 John Miller of Preston in Tynemouth held 36 acres as a bond of the prior of Tynemouth. His duties included two days’ work each week on the dernesne, ploughing, harrowing and seeding. At harvest he had to reap two days a week, bringing two other labourers with him, cart the harvest to the manorial grange, and help thresh wheat daily in the prior’s barn. He also had to take his own corn to the manorial mill. But the classic village manorial system sat uneasily on the shire-based heritage of Northum­beriand, and many of the feudal duties were relics of pre-Conquest services to a mobile roual court: carting goods, food-rents and hospitality, and seasonal agricultural work, but little weekly labour on a demesne. At Shoreston in Bamburghshire the duties included carrying goods on horseback between the Coquet and the Tweed, and on the journey they were allowed bread and one drink. In 1 245 they complained that in the last seven years they had had no food on these journeys., which numbered 1,440, or over 200 a year.

The landowners were keen to retain or increase their numbers of unfree serfs, and there are many legal cases over whether a man was free or unfree. At the 1256 Assizes, Henry, the dreng of Mousen, claimed two brothers, Adam and Walter, were his fugitive serfs or neyfs. Fortunately, they were able to show that their grandfather, Walter Coltebayn, was an immigrant from Flanders, and that they were free men. William of Killingworth was less lucky, and was delivered with all his family and goods to his master, Gaifridus of Weteslade, at the same Assize. In 1292 Richard of Craster claimed a man named William as a fugitive serf, even producing William’s brother, who admitted he was unfree. William denied this, saying his grandfather was a free man who had migrated to Craster from  Acklington and that his brother might also be free had he not made ‘his foolish confession’. William won, and Richard acknowledged his family’s freedom.

The whole of Northumberland was not split into military baronies. Some estates were held for official services, like the south Northum­berland coronr’s lands at Nafferton and West Maften. Extensive lands were held by the church in Tynemouthshire, Hexhamshire (belonging to the archbishopric of York), and the Durham bishopric, which had estates along the Tweed and near Lindisfarne as Norham shire and Islandshire, as well as Bedlingtonshire in south-east Northumberland. Each of these were ‘liberties’ of ‘franchises’, separate from the administration of the rest of the county. The sheriff and his officers had no powers there. Tynedale was also a liberty in the hands of the Scots’ king, and Redesdale was granted to the powerful Umfraville family as a franchise.

These separate jurisdictions created problems in the administration of law and justice. This is illustrated by the case of accidental death of Adam Aydrunken (the records also have such names as Robert Pusekat, Robert Unkouth, and Richard Whirlepipyn the minstrel). In the Assize at Wark-on-Tyne in 1279 the Scots’ king’s justices recorded  misadventure when Adam fell out of a boat and drowned. Normally the goods involved in a crime or unnatural death were forfeited to the King’s officers as a deodand, but in this case the jury said that the boat could not be claimed as it had drifted across to the Northumbrian bank in the King of England’s land. More seriously these liberties provided a refuge for criminals because ‘the King’s writ did not run there’. Crime was probably no greater in Northumberland than elsewhere in England, but it was less often punished. Sanctuary could also be claimed at churches, and the Scottish border was not far away. After sanctuary, the criminal was given the choice of submitting to trial or leaving the country. Tynemouth was notorious for the way the Prior was willing to take wanted men, so when William Faber of Warkworth stabbed Roger Paraventur’ in the heart with a knife, he fled to Tynemouth and was outlawed at the 1279 Northumberland Assize. In a seaport brawl Robert of Alnmouth hit William of Lothian on the head with a hatchet whilst on a ship on the river Am. William died, and Robert fled and was outlawed. The 1256 Assize Roll records the case of Roger, son of Thomas of Easingwold. Roger stole some clothes in Acklington, and, having to flee, he sought sanctuary in the church at Bolam (at that time one of the larger villages in the county). When he was seen by the coroner he opted to leave the country. The village of Acklington was reprimanded for not having given pursuit, and the village of Bolam also, for not pursuing him when the hue and cry was raised. Sometimes the criminals were not even identified: two young women, Evota and Femota, were returning from a visit to Mitford through Stobswood forest when they were attacked and robbed by ‘unknown malfactors’, and although the hue and cry was raised, the robbers got away, and the neighbouring villages were later reprimanded for not giving pursuit. The criminal who was caught could face very summary justice, even the 13th-century form of Lynch Law: William Yrrumpurs burgled a house in Wooler and stole seven skins, but the local men chased and caught him, and promptly beheaded him. When a Gilbert of Niddesdale was crossing a moor with a hermit called Semmanus of Bottelesham, he attacked the hermit, robbing him and leaving him naked and injured. However, Gilbert was arrested on suspicion by Ralph of Belford, a King’s serjeant, and taken to Ainwick. The hermit also came to Alnwick, and when Gilbert confessed, the serjeant had the hermit decapitate Gilbert, and the sheriff and coroner both later testified that this was the custom in the county.

As well as the criminal cases, the Assize Rolls contain the coroner’s records of tragic deaths. What drove Beatrix de Roddam to hang herself in the tower at Newton-on-the-Moor? The 1256 Assize Roll records that Roger of Swarland took his corn to Felton mill, but was crushed to death by two of the grinding stones. The same Roll also gives the case of Peter Graper of Colewell, who shot an arrow at a pigeon and unfortunately hit Uctred, the carpenter from Bockenfield. Uctred died, and Peter fled and was outlawed, but he later returned and was pardoned as it was an accident. The 1279 Assize records that Thomas of Hoburn was gutting fish at Seaton Delaval when with his knife he accidentally struck on the head a woman begging alms, and killed her.