Yorkshire in the Middle Ages

Yorkshire in the Middle Ages

As Yorkshire began to recover from the devastation inflicted by the Harrying of the North, the process of incorporating the county into the social, administrative and ecclesiastical life of Norman England began. Large tracts of land were given by William to his supporters, many of whom were Frenchmen who had come over in the invading army in 1066, like Ilbert de Lacy. The main stronghold of the de Lacys was at Pontefract, and they built fortresses at Almondbury and Barwick in Elmet. Upper Airedale was controlled from Skipton, by the Romilles; and the domain of the Warennes occupied the south-eastern corner along the Derbyshire and Lincolnshire borders, from Tickhill and Conisborough to Thome Moors and the Hatfield Chase. The Percys held most of the Ouse valley south of York and also had estates in the East Riding around Beverley. The use of the name Percy as an element in many place names on the modem map of Yorkshire gives some indication of their influence (e.g. Wharram Percy, Bolton Percy).

The Norman barons were given their feudal privileges in return for imposing the King’s Peace on their subordinates and in defending the realm against foreign enemies—and in Yorkshire this meant in particular the marauding Scots. If the Scottish invaders were able to breach the defences of the County Palatine of Durham, where the Prince Bishop held sway, the way was open through the Vales of Mowbray and York, into the heart of England. William I built his New Castle on the Tyne as a bastion against the Scots, and he and his successors encouraged the Yorkshire barons to erect fortifications at strategic locations throughout the county. At first they were fortresses of the motte and bailey type, with wooden palisades on the tops of natural or artificial mounds, surrounded by a moat. Early motte and bailey castles are known at Pontefract, Richmond, Skipsea and Tickhill, as well as the original Clifford’s Tower at York. During the 12th century, most of the wooden castles were replaced by stone structures, and it is the ruins of these castles which are to be seen today. Richmond Castle, in its imposing setting on a loop of the Swale, was probably built of stone from the beginning. Oddly enough it is one of the few castles that never suffered a serious siege, and it remains today in better shape of preservation than do most other Norman castles.

The barons, who were given virtually the powers of princes in their new estates, were not always prepared to do what the King required of them. There were frequent revolts as the barons struggled with the King for supremacy, and many of the original families were dispossessed of their estates and replaced by others, who were considered to be more trustworthy. During the reign of William Rufus (1087-1100), the Conqueror’s second son, Robert de Mowbray was thrown into prison, where he died, after attempting a rebellion. His widow later remarried and her new husband was granted lands in north Yorkshire and in the Isle of Axholme, some of which had been taken from the Stutevilles, who had lost their land when they unsuccessfully supported the claims of the Conqueror’s eldest son, Robert, against those of William Rufus. Occasionally disaffected nobles joined forces with the Scots and suffered the loss of their estates, as happened to Eustace FitzJohn of Knaresborough Castle in 1136.

Although it was officially necessary to receive royal permission before building a castle, many of the barons acted on their own initiative and built ‘adulterine’ castles. If the King felt strong enough he would either order the demolition of castles built without his approval, or would turn out the owners and take possession for the crown. William le Gros, who built a castle at Scarborough, was forced to surrender it in 1155 and it was later replaced by a royal castle. In 1154 Philip de Tolleville’s castle at Drax was taken by storm and destroyed, and the Mowbrays saw their castles at Kirby Maizeard and Thirsk demolished in the 1170s. These were amongst the first acts of Henry II which made their impact on Yorkshire after the disastrous reign of Stephen of Blois, who occupied the throne between 1135 and 1154.

Stephen’s reign was known as the Nineteen Long Winters. During this period the Scots, under King David I, twice invaded England. On the first occasion, in 1136, the Scots were bought off, but they left behind a garrison at Malton, where Eustace FitzJohn was left in charge. The most serious incursion was in 1138, when the Scots, aided by some English traitors, advanced through Northumberland and Durham and arrived in the North Riding. King Stephen was otherwise occupied, and the Yorkshire barons were left to their own devices. They gathered in York, where the redoubtable Archbishop Thurston took the lead. He ordered his priests to muster the men of each parish and to lead them against the invaders. Thurston himself, although old and infirm, was with difficulty dissuaded from acting as a general. The army which marched to meet the Scots near Northallerton included many of the famous Yorkshire barons—the Mowbrays, the de Lacys and the Percys. Battle was joined in a field three miles north of Northallerton, on 22 August 1138, and after two hours of fierce fighting the Scots were routed. Thurston’s suffragan, the Bishop of Orkney, said Mass for the Norman and English soldiers in front of a ship’s mast fastened to a ‘mighty huge chariot supported with wheels’. On top of the mast was a pyx—a silver box, containing the wafer bread of the Mass, ‘that Christ Himself might be their leader in the fight’. On cross­pieces below the pyx were fixed the sacred banners of St Peter of York, St Cuthbert of Durham, St Wilfred of Ripon and St John of Beverley. The battle thus became known as the Battle of the Standard.

The victory at Northallerton removed the Scottish threat for a time, although in 1175 William the Lion advanced from Scotland with a powerful force, hoping to take advantage of Henry II’s involvement in wars in France and rebellion at home. William was stopped at Ainwick. He was imprisoned in Richmond Castle and later brought to York, where he was forced to pay homage to Henry before the altar of York Minster. As a token of his submission his helmet, spear and saddle were left on the altar.

Yorkshire barons showed a degree of independence during the 13th century, in the reigns of the evil John and the weak Henry III. They were involved in several revolts, at times allying themselves with the Scots. In 1213, when John attempted to recover Poitou, which had been lost in 1206, seven of the chief Yorkshire barons, including de Lacy, Percy and Mowbray, refused to follow him, and some of them were amongst the ‘Guardians of the Charter’ who unsuccessfully petitioned Louis of France to seize the throne of England. John was often in Yorkshire, trying to enforce his rule over the unruly barons. On the last occasion, in 1216, he seized several Yorkshire castles, including Skelton, Danby and Pontefract, but was unable to take Helmsley.

York, the second city in England, had become an important commercial and administrative centre during the 12th century, as well as a garrison town and the ecclesiastical capital of northern England. Amongst its citizens were hundreds of Jews who were allowed to live in the city under the protection of the King. Although they prospered as money lenders, because ‘usury’ was forbidden to Christians; and, as merchants, they were often viewed with primitive fear and hatred by their Christian neighbours. The events which led to the slaughter of Jews in York in 1190 began in London, where it was put about that the presence of Jews at the celebrations for Richard I’s coronation would be a bad omen for the new reign. In fact, some Jews appeared, including two from York, bearing gifts, and were set upon by a mob. One died at Northampton on the way home. In March 1190 a mob attacked and killed his widow and children. The other Jews—some reports say 500 men and their families—took refuge in Clifford’s Tower, where they were besieged by a large body of people from York and the surrounding district, incited by their priests. Threatened with death, many of the Jews killed themselves, fathers often slaughtering their wives and families before killing themselves. When the crowd finally broke in to the Tower the surviving Jews were murdered and the Jewish quarter of the town was burnt down. The King, who was then taking part in the Third Crusade, was unable to intervene himself, but he made his displeasure known when he heard of this terrible pogrom, and William Longchamp, the Justiciar, or Regent, dismissed the Sheriff and levied a fine on the city. Jews returned to York during the next fifty years and soon resumed their position in the commercial life of the city, until they were expelled, along with Jews throughout England, by Edward I in 1290.

Yorkshire barons were involved in the dynastic struggles in Scotland when in 1290 the Scottish throne became vacant following the death of Queen Margaret, the Maid of Norway. Two Yorkshire nobles, at different times in the 1290s during the reign of Edward I, were put in charge of Scotland—FitzAlan of Bedale and John, Earl of Richmond. York became the centre of government for England when the King moved north to deal with Wallace and Bruce. In 1300, while the Court was based in Yorkshire, the Queen gave birth to a son, Thomas of Brotherton, named after his birthplace.

Edward II presented his barons with two major problems. The first arose from his infatuation with a Gascon adventurer, Piers Gaveston, who until his execution in 1312 exercised a baleful influence over the King. The King gave several estates in Yorkshire to his favourite, including Knaresborough, Skipton, Holderness and Scarborough. Although excommunicated by the Church and twice forced into exile, Gaveston came to York in 1311 with the King. A group of barons, including the Percys, Cliffords and Warennes from Yorkshire, determined to remove Gaveston’s evil influence. In 1312 the King and Gaveston fled to Newcastle, then travelled by sea to Scarborough, where the King went on to York, leaving his friend to defend Scarborough Castle. Gaveston was persuaded to leave Scar­borough and was arrested and executed in 1312.

The second problem concerned the Scottish wars which continued during the reign of Edward II. In 1314 Edward’s forces were ignominiously defeated at Bannockburn by Robert the Bruce; and Scottish forces, in alliance with the Earl of Lancaster, invaded Yorkshire. At Myton-on-Swale in 1319, in a battle in which a large number of clergy took part—hence the engagement was known as the Chapter (church meeting) of Myton—Edward was defeated. The King had a useful victory at Boroughbridge in March 1322, when Lancaster was taken pris­oner along with Clifford and Mowbray. They were taken to Pontefract Castle, where they were tried for treason. Lancaster was beheaded outside the castle walls and the others were hanged in York. The Scots, however, remained in Yorkshire, pillaging and terrorising the countryside, although they were unable to take York or any of the major towns.

In October 1322 Robert the Bruce surprised and nearly caught the King, who was dining at Byland Abbey. Byland and Rievaulx Abbeys were looted and raids were made in the Vale of Pickering and in the East Riding. Ripon was set on fire by the main Scottish force, who returned home in October, but a section of their men wintered in Morley, until a truce was patched up which gave Yorkshire a respite. When the Scots later broke the truce, in 1327, the Court was again based in York, but Edward II had by then been deposed and later that year be was murdered. Isabella, Edward’s queen, became the real ruler, managing the affairs of state on behalf of her young son, Edward III, whose marriage to Philippa of Hainault Isabella arranged from York.

The last episode in the wars with the Scots in which Yorkshire was involved, before the country was ravaged by the Black Death, was an invasion begun by David II of Scotland, with French encouragement, in 1346. He reached the out­skirts of York but was unable to take the city. Archbishop de la Zouche rallied the Yorkshiremen to resist, and, supported by the Percys, Neviles and Mowbrays, inflicted a crushing defeat at Nevill’s Cross. David was imprisoned, first at Richmond, then at York, but was released in 1357 as part of a truce in the Hundred Years’ War with the French.

The Black Death (a form of bubonic plague) hit Yorkshire in March 1349, decimating all classes from the nobility and clergy to the peasants. The great abbeys lost many of their inmates—eight out of ten from Meaux Abbey in Holderness, for example—and almost half the clergy in the West Riding perished. In the Deanery of Doncaster alone, two-thirds of the beneficed clergy died in 1349. In the rural areas there was a heavier rate of mortality in the more densely populated East Riding than in Cleveland, where direct contact between infected persons was less common in the scattered and isolated villages on the bleak uplands. Thus, whilst 21 per cent died in the deanery of Cleveland, there was a 61 per cent mortality in Dickering on the Wolds. In York, where the plague reached its height during the summer, a third of the population died, yet in 1377 the population of York was 50 per cent higher than in 1348. Although the Black Death undoubtedly contributed to the depopulation of many villages, recent researches have suggested that it merely accelerated a decline which had been taking place for most of the previous century. Pestilence and famine were fairly common in 14th-century England, and in Yorkshire the position was made worse by the endemic state of civil turmoil.

The really important part of north country history in the Middle Ages (from the Norman Conquest to Tudor times) is not, however, the perpetual bloodshed which took place between English and Scots. Much more important, even in the poor, barren and warlike north, is the story of art and civilisation. The most interesting record of this is to be seen in the architecture of the parish churches. Of some 11,000 ancient parish churches in England there are more than 600 in Yorkshire. These include fine examples of every one of the four medieval styles:

 

Later Romanesque……………………….. 1 Norman
(round arches) ……………………………… 1a Transitional
Gothic…………………………………………. 2 Early English
(pointed arches)…………………………… 3 Decorated
………………………………………………….. 4 Perpendicular

There are also here and there odd survivals, usually mere fragments, of the Saxon (early Romanesque) architecture which was fashionable up to about 1050 in the south of England, and which remained so a little later in the north. Again, although Gothic architecture generally died out for a time in England after the Reformation, in the north there are interesting examples of good Gothic work as late as the mid-17th century.

There is a fair number of fragments of Saxon work-crosses, cross heads and hog-back stones in the North and West Ridings. Substantial pieces of Saxon work remain in the North Riding at Appleton-le-Street, Kirkby Hill, Kirkdale, Hovingbam and Middleton; in the West Riding at Bardsey, Ledsham, Laughton-en-le-Morthen and Monk Fryston; in the East Riding at Skipworth and at Wharram-le-Street. At Ripon there is under the Minster a fine Saxon crypt, one of only six in England, and at Kirk Hammerton there is a complete Saxon church tower, chancel and nave, which now serves as a south aisle to the modem 19th-century church. York has fine examples of Saxon, as indeed of every other period of English church architecture, far too numerous to mention here.

Most of the interesting Yorkshire churches belong to medieval times, and their architecture is best studied having in mind the five classes or styles mentioned above. More than half the old Yorkshire churches show examples of Norman or Transitional Norman work. The Norman style is seen to great advantage in the churches of Adel and Birkin. There is fine Transitional Norman work in the chancel at Farnham and the tower at Riccall. The Early English style is exemplified in scores of churches, great and small. The whole eastern half of Beverley Minster, perhaps the loveliest church in Yorkshire, is Early English. Fine Decorated work is to be seen at Otley and at Skipton, in the lovely choirs at Ripon and Selby, and at its best in the superb church at Patrington. There are examples of Perpendicular work in almost very ancient church in the county; at the very least there are likely to be one or two windows in this style, inserted into earlier fabric. Most of the great town churches of the West Riding—Halifax, Rotherham, Sheffield and Wakefield—are mainly Perpendicular. There is a famous and very beautiful Perpendicular nave at Almondbury, near Huddersfield. The church of Thirsk is usually thought to be one of the best examples in Yorkshire of Perpendicular work. In every part of each of the three Ridings fine Perpendicular towers are a prominent feature of the landscape.