Yorkshire History


Brief notes on the History of Yorkshire

My old Grammar School “Houses” were named after the settlements of Celts (Bronze and iron-Age people who migrated to the British Isles from mainland Europe in about 450 BC) and the Angles, Saxons and Danes who invaded the north of England after the Romans left in the 5th Century and pushed the Celts westwards.

Early Days

The early tribes in Yorkshire were the Brigantes and the Parisii. The Brigantes controlled the areas which later became the North and West Ridings and Yorkshire, as it was to become was one of their main strongholds. The Parisii (may have been of French origin) controlled the East of the region, later to become the East Riding.

By 500 AD, the Angles and Saxons of Europe had made inroads as far as York and Ripon and for several hundred years, they plundered then settled and drove out the previous inhabitants, bringing their own language from which our broad Yorkshire dialect originates.

After the Romans left, the Celts took possession again, the Ebruac taking possession of territory around York and another tribe formed the Kingdom of Elmet in West Yorkshire, both eventually being supplanted by the Northumbrians in the 7th Century.

In 867 the two rival Anglian kings of Northumbria were killed at the storming of York by invading Danish armies. The Danes then took possession of York or, as they called, it Jorvik. The Danes made York the base of their power until the time of the Norman conquest, in 1066. They established themselves along the coasts and along navigable rivers, built towns and villages, intermarrying with the Anglo-Saxon population. They farmed the land and traded from the River Humber with all of the countries in which they had influence. The north and east of the country was called the Danelaw and was ruled by Danish Kings, extending south to Nottingham and Leicester.

The Danes gave their name to the Ridings of Yorkshire. “Riding” is derived from a Danish word “thridding” meaning a Third. The Danes called representatives from each thridding to a meeting and established the Ridings system, dividing the area into thirds of North, East and West. The villages that were to become, so much later, the area now called Kirklees, were situated in the West Riding.

Over many years, conflict existed between the Danes in the North and the Kingdoms in the South. In 1066, the Viking claimant to the throne of England was defeated by Harold Godwinson of Wessex at Stamford Bridge. The English army under King Harold Godwinson fought an invading Norwegian force led by King Harald Hardrada of Norway and the English king’s brother Tostig Godwinson. After a horrific battle, both Hardrada and Tostig were killed along with most of their armies. But Harold Godwinson’s victory was short-lived, as he was famously defeated and killed by the Normans less than three weeks later at the Battle of the Grey Apple Tree near Hastings.

Norman Yorkshire

With William of Normandy’s victory in 1066, the whole country now came under Norman Rule. Edgar the Atheling, a young boy, was still the rightful Saxon claimant to the English throne, being the last male heir of the Royal House of Wessex, a grandson of King Edmund Ironside. Harold Godwinson, who had the confidence of the Witan (the powerful noblemen), had seized the throne from him on the death of King Edward (the Confessor). So now, with Harold’s defeat at Hastings, Edgar was proclaimed King by the Witan, who recognised Edgar Atheling’s claim over the claim of the Norman invader.

However, eventually the Witan submitted Edgar to the invader and William the Conqueror kept him in custody and took him to Normandy. From there, Edwin fled to Scotland with his mother and sisters and took refuge with Malcolm III of the Scots. Edwin’s followers linked up with a force of Danes under King Swein II of Denmark and northern rebels and they rose against and overwhelmed the Normans at York. However, their advantage did not last long and William’s army regained control, paying off the Vikings to go home. He then took terrible retribution on the people of the north for daring to oppose him.

The Harrying of the North

The Harrying (or Harrowing) of the North was a series of campaigns waged by William the Conqueror in the winter of 1069–1070 to subjugate northern England. Yorkshire, at the time, was a land of many free farmers and people of Saxon and Viking descent. It seems that the main objective of the harrying was to lay waste the northern shires and eliminate the possibility of further revolts. Men, women and children were massacred by William’s soldiers; the stored crops, the ploughs, the carts, were burned, farms and homes were destroyed, the oxen and sheep were killed. Thousands died and many tens of thousands are said to have died in the wake of the famine that followed.

In 1069, the chronicler Orderic Vitalis, had written::

“Nowhere else had William shown so much cruelty. Shamefully he succumbed to this vice, for he made no effort to restrain his fury and punished the innocent with the guilty. In his anger he commanded that all crops and herds, chattels and food of every kind should be brought together and burned to ashes with consuming fire, so that the whole region north of the Humber might be stripped of all means of sustenance. In consequence, so serious a scarcity was felt in England, and so terrible a famine fell upon the humble and defenceless populace, that more than 100,000 Christian folk of both sexes, young and old alike, perished of hunger.”

and from Ossett.net:

“The survivors were reduced to cannibalism, with one report stating that the skulls of the dead were cracked open so that the brains could be eaten. Bodies were left to rot as there was no-one left to bury them and this eventually lead to a plague.”

The total death toll from slaughter, disease and hunger is believed to be over 150,000. Those who had fled and succeeded in hiding from William’s wrath, were now struggling to feed themselves and their families. There were not enough healthy men left to tend the land and twenty years later, little had changed.

Feudal System

Feudalism had existed for several hundred years in Europe. Even before the Norman Conquest, peasants in England had worked the land for their lords. After William gained control over the whole country, he needed a way to govern the country and he also had lands in Normandy to govern and feudalism was the most effective way. William divided England into large areas of land, which were redistributed to those noblemen who had fought bravely for him in battle. They had to swear an oath of loyalty to the king and had to collect taxes in their area for him and they had to provide the king with soldiers if they were told to do so. The men who acquired these parcels of land would have been barons, earls and dukes and became known as the tenants-in-chief. These barons divided up the land further and gave the plots to Norman knights who had served the King in battle. These knights had the duty to maintain law and order in their districts and keep the people under the control of the Normans.

Twenty years after the conquest of England by the Normans, King William ordered a great survey of his realm. The book would record who owed him taxes and once it was recorded the decision would be final.

“While spending the Christmas time of 1085 in Gloucester, William had deep speech with his counsellors and sent men all over England to each shire to find out what or how much each landholder had in land and livestock, and what it was worth” (Anglo-Saxon Chronicle).

The survey took less than a year and is a remarkable record of England in the late 11th Century. It is called the Domesday Book. The questions asked in each hamlet, village  or town were:

How many ploughs are there in the manor ?
How many mills and fishponds ?
How many freemen, villagers and slaves are there in the manor ?
How much woodland, pasture, meadow ?
What does each freeman owe in the manor ?
How much is the manor worth ?

They also recorded:

How much it was worth before the invasion of 1066
How much it was worth during the invasion and
How much it was worth after the invasion

It was said:

“so very thoroughly did William have the enquiry carried out, that there was not a single piece of land, not even an ox, cow or pig which escaped the notice of the survey.”

Everybody had to pay their tax to the king. This meant that no lord or other nobleman could build up enough money to raise a private army to challenge the King’s authority.

The Great Famine

In the History of Sowood Farm, by Alan Howe:

“The conditions for farming in the early 1300’s were often desperate and perhaps this was one of the reasons for the changes and for prosecutions and fines of the earlier 14th Century. The Great Famine of 1315 – 1317, as it was later called, struck the whole of Europe and was the worst of several such famines to strike in the 14th century. It began with poor weather conditions in spring 1315 and continued for more than two years with devastating effect. Not surprisingly, because the harvests had been largely decimated, there was little to eat and starvation on a massive scale with life expectancy dropping to an even lower level than its norm. Between 1301 and 1325 people were fortunate to reach the age of thirty.”

The whole of this document is downloadable from Stephen Wilson’s site ossett.net and gives a fascinating and detailed history of an Ossett  manor and farm throughout the centuries.

Mark Ormrod, co-editor of “The Black Death in England”, says that medieval society was more resilient to natural disasters like the plague than would be the case today.

“Famine and starvation were regular occurrences, as were diseases related to malnutrition,” he says. “In fact, the country had already suffered a famine during the early 14th century that had reduced the population by between 10 and 15 per cent. Medieval society was arguably far more conditioned than us to the fact that natural disasters and diseases could have a profound impact on the population.”

The most pessimistic estimate is that 25% of the population died from the effects of famine between 1315 and 1317. There was still worse to come.

The Great Pestilence

The Black Death swept across Europe was responsible for the death of more than a third of the whole population. The plague entered England in 1348 and had another devastating effect on the population here. Spreading rapidly across counties, it would not be long before the people of the West Riding were affected and it would kill up to half of the remaining population, bringing numbers down again to not much more than existed at the time of the Domesday Book.

From Yorkshire Past and Present:

“The conventional theory of why so many died is that a virulent outbreak of bubonic plague, most likely combined with a strain of pneumonic plague. The bubonic plague, a disease still present in some areas of the world, is now known to have spread via fleas living on rats, and was identified by the appearance of black swellings in the armpit and groin, the size of which could vary from that of a small egg to an apple. Once buboes appeared on the body, the victim would probably have had around three days left to live – as few as three in ten sufferers are thought to have survived the disease. The pneumonic plague was even more deadly, with virtually everyone contracting it succumbing in a matter of days. Unlike the bubonic form of the disease, the pneumonic variant was spread through direct contact with the afflicted.”

The septicaemic plague, though less common, was also a feature of this period, spread by fleas which caused the bacteria entering the bloodstream and causing a blood poisoning, which caused rapid death. This also affected livestock. The mortality rate was 99-100%

With no effective remedy, the suffering population could only turn to their religion. The rich left for the country in the hope of escaping contagion…but the plagues would not be stopped before they had killed up to half of the inhabitants of Yorkshire.

Consequences of the Plague

Yet, again, the consequence of the various plagues that had decimated the population was that there were insufficient healthy people to look after the land. As a result, in 1348 and 1349, international trade plummeted. This presented a problem for the Lords of the Manors, whose income had plummeted…the surviving poor were in a strong position to demand better wages and working conditions. But the ruling classes retaliated by refusing to pay increased wages and introducing harsh penalties to those who refused to labour. All of this contributed to the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, when a later generation of workers became aware that they could command more for their labour and enjoy a better standard of living if only the economy was allowed to develop naturally.

Meanwhile, there was a respite from the plague around during the 1350s. This may have co-incided with a downturn in temperatures, as a period of climate change known as the “Little Ice Age” began. But for the peasants who had survived the outbreaks of the plague, life became slightly improved for a while. There was abandoned land to be taken over and peasants could demand  higher wages to work for their Lord. However, it wasn’t to last. In 1350, the Statute of Labourers was passed, compelling all unemployed people to take work at the 1346 rate and those who refused were severely punished.

However, in 1360 a second outbreak occurred. Fortunately this was not as devastating as the first, perhaps due to the immunity of those who had not been infected the first time around. It was nevertheless damaging in another way. This plague was called the “Children’s Plague” as they were the hardest hit. As a result, the population of the villages of Yorkshire did not rise for a century.

The Poll Tax

The poll tax was a tax per head, rather than on goods. It was levied just three times, in 1377, 1379 and 1381. Each time the basis was slightly different. In 1377, everyone over the age of 14 and not exempt had to pay a groat (2p) to the Crown. By 1379 that had been graded by social class, with the lower limit raised to 16, (and 15 two years later). Exemption of the poor means that about 40% of inhabitants of any village or town were not counted. Because they were poor, they would not be recorded as making wills either. Perhaps Manor Court records might pick up a few errant poor people, but on the whole, unless a family had a certain level of means, they do not appear in records from this period.

The later Poll Tax of 1381 was the final straw for many peasants. Richard II imposed a tax of one shilling a head on the whole population, regardless of rank or wealth. The better off had no problem paying this, but the poor peasants, tied to working on the land, were unable to raise the tax. Non-payment invoked harsh punishment and eventually, the poor could no longer tolerate their oppression. Uprisings all over the country occurred, with burning of court records and forced opening of gaols. The unrest, which started in the South, soon spread to cities like York. Revolting peasants were rounded up and most of the leaders were eventually executed. The Peasants’ Revolt may not have immediately liberated the peoples of West Riding towns, but it was, in some respects, a defining moment in the future of the Feudal System.

Wars of the Roses

The Wars of the Roses, between rival factions of the Plantagenets, the Houses of Lancaster and York, took place between 1455 and 1487. There were sporadic episodes of fighting between the two factions, which probably resulted from the weak rule of King Henry VI, who experienced intermittent bouts of madness throughout his reign. In December 1460, a major battle occurred at Sandal Magna, Wakefield, when the Yorkists under the Lord Protector, the Duke of York, were destroyed by forces of the Lancastrians under Henry’s Queen, Margaret, who were much superior in number. The Duke of York was unseated from his horse and killed and his head was displayed at York.

But King Henry was soon deposed by the late Duke’s son Edward, the new Duke of York and on 4th March 1461, Edward took the throne as King Edward IV, shortly after which he put down the Lancastrian army at the Battle of Towton Moor, near Tadcaster.

In the West Riding of Yorkshire, as in other shires, Edward could now put his own men in charge. Consequently, Sir John Savile of Thornhill, an influential Yorkist, was appointed to the stewardship of Wakefield and played an important role in the government of the area during Edward’s reign.

To be continued…