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MIDDLEHAM: Geographical and Historical information from the year 1890.

Wapentake and Petty Sessional Division of Hang West - Poor Law Union and County Court District of Leyburn - Rural Deanery of Catterick West - Archdeaconry of Richmond - Diocese of Ripon.

This parish is situated on the south bank of the Yore, between Spennithorne and Coverham, and comprises an area of 2,118 acres (exclusive of water), of which about 1,700 acres are under assessment, and the rest moorland. The gross rental is £4,452; the rateable value, £3,953; and the population, in 1881, was 818. S. Cunliffe Lister, Esq. (lord of the manor), A. C. T. Orde-Powlett, Esq., Miss Annie Topham, and Thomas Other, Esq., are the most extensive landowners.

Few places in the district possess more stirring memories or more interesting associations than Middleham. Its castle, now in ruins, was one of the seats of the princely and potent line of Neville, and here Lord Lytton has laid some of the finest scenes in his romance, "The Last of the Barons."

Nothing is recorded of Middleham prior to the Norman Conquest. In the time of Edward the Confessor, the manor belonged to Ghilpatric, but his lands were wasted by the Conqueror, and a few years later given to Alan Rufus, earl of Richmond. Alan conferred it upon his brother Ribald, who married Beatrix, daughter of Ivo de Taillebois, the powerful earl of Kendal, by Lucy, the sister of the English Earl Morcar. After the death of his wife, Ribald quitted the world for the cloister, and became a monk in St. Mary's abbey, York. His lands and possessions were transferred to his son Ralph, surnamed Taillebois, to whom they were confirmed by charter, and the delivery of a Danish Axe,* by his uncle Stephen, Earl of Richmond. Robert, surnamed Fitz Randolph, the son of this Ralph, commenced the erection of Middleham Castle about the year 1190. After his death, his widow, Helewisa, daughter of Ralph de Glanville, chief justiciary of Henry II., with the consent of Walran, her eldest son, founded a monastery of White Canons, at Swainby, in which she was buried in 1195. Ralph Fitz Robert, who succeeded to the estate on the death of his brother Walran without issue, translated the monks of Swainby to the abbey which he had founded at Coverham, in 1214, and to which the bones of his mother were removed from their former resting place. He died in 1251, and was buried within the abbey church, of which but little now remains. He was succeeded by his son Ralph, surnamed Fitz Randolph, the last lord of this knightly line, who died in 1270. He was the patron of one monastery and the founder of another, and at his death he was divided between them. His body was interred with his ancestors in the choir of Coverham, and his heart was deposited in the church of the Grey Friars, at Richmond. He had, by his wife Anastasia, daughter of William, Lord Percy, three daughters, one of whom, "Mary of Middleham," eventually became sole heiress. She married Robert de Neville, Lord of Raby, who soon after, violating the sanctity of another domestic hearth, met with speedy retribution. Being detected in one of his clandestine visits to a lady in Craven, he was so horribly mutilated by her husband that he died of his wounds, on the 6th of June, 1271. Mary of Middleham did not again enter the bonds of wedlock, but lived on her own inheritance, and dying, in 1320, was buried beside her husband in the choir at Coverham. Ralph, the only child of the marriage, inherited Raby, on the death of his grandfather; but he was so indolent and careless in the management of his affairs, that his mother settled Middleham and the rest of her manors on her grandson, Robert Neville, commonly called "The Peacock of the North." The origin of this appellation is not positively known, but it was probably his armorial badge. In the inner wall of the large gateway, on the north side of the castle, is a stone bearing a rudely sculptured figure of a peacock, probably intended for the badge of this Robert. He was brave, but turbulent and lawless, characteristics scarcely in accord with the vanity symbolized in his cognomen, the peacock. It is related of him, that he assaulted and slew Richard Fitz Marmaduke, on Elvet Bridge, Durham, when the latter was proceeding on his way to open the courts as the bishop's seneschal. He was slain the following year in a border fight, to which he had dared Earl Douglas. His younger brother, Ralph, succeeded to the Raby and Middleham estates, and figures very conspicuously in the history of the time. He took a prominent part in the Scotch and French wars under Edward III.; but the most conspicuous event in his life was his victory over the Scots, on the Red Hills, near Durham, popularly known as the battle of Neville's Cross. He died in 1367, and was buried in the nave of Durham Cathedral. John, Lord Neville, his eldest son and heir, another warrior baron, was retained by indenture to serve John of Gaunt in war and peace. By his bravery and talents he contributed much to the aggrandisement of the house of Raby, and at his death was possessed of more than sixty manors. He died in 1389, and was succeeded by his eldest son, Ralph Neville, created Earl of Westmoreland by Richard II., in 1398. He is variously styled, by the ancient chroniclers, Du Raby, Darabi, Dauraby, and Dan Raby, probably from Dom. Raby, wherein Dom. is the abbreviation of Dominus (Latin), lord. The earl obtained from Richard II., in 1388, a charter for a weekly market on Monday, at Middleham, and an annual fair on the feast of St. Akelda, virgin, a local saint. He was very partial to Middleham, and made many additions to the castle. Though he had received numerous favours from Richard II., when the sun of that sovereign began to sink behind the dark and ominous clouds that were gathering on the political horizon, the earl transferred his services to Henry, Duke of Lancaster, and had no small share in the deposition of Richard and the elevation of the duke to the throne. Henry rewarded his services by the grant for life of the Honour of Richmond; and he further secured his adhesion by giving him, after the death of his first wife, Joan, his own half-sister in marriage. He had issue by both wives, between which he divided his immense estates.

* This curious tenure of holding his lands by the presentation of an axe was probably a sly allusion to the origin of the name Taillebois, which is equivalent to woodcutter.

Richard Neville, the eldest son of the second marriage, received Middleham, and thus ceased the connection between this castle and that of Raby. "The mighty stream of wealth and honours with which the family might be said to be almost flooded, was here divided; one portion flowed southwards through the almost regal line of Warwick; whilst the other rolled on through the elder and less ambitious line of Westmoreland." Richard Neville, above mentioned, was Warden of the East and Middle Marches; he was created Earl of Salisbury by Henry VI., in 1442, Governor of Carlisle in 1448, and Grand Chamberlain of England in 1460. Middleham was now entering upon the most brilliant, and perhaps the most troublous period of its history. The tocsin of war was resounding through the land; from Middleham went forth the gathering cry, and 5,000 men of Richmondshire obeyed the summons. Led by the earl, they marched through Craven into Lancashire, and gave good account of themselves at the battle of Bloreheath, in Staffordshire (1459). The following year he was captured, after the battle of Wakefield, and beheaded next day at Pontefract by the Lancastrians. He had allied himself with the Yorkists against the house of Lancaster, which his father had been mainly instrumental in placing on the throne; he was, therefore, attainted of treason, and his estates forfeited to the Crown. The success of the Lancastrians was but temporary; before the expiration of one year Henry VI. was deposed, and the young Duke of York ascended the throne, and, as Mr. Longstaffe observes, "the rise of the sun of York brought back the towers of Middleham to the blood of the Neville."

By his wife Anne, daughter and sole heiress of Montacute, the earl had issue, Richard, the famous Earl of Warwick; John, Marquis of Montague and Chancellor of England; Sir Thomas Neville, slain at the battle, with his father; and George Neville, who was born at Middleham, educated for the church, and was afterwards Archbishop of York. At his consecration he gave a prodigious feast to the nobility, gentry, and clergy, as the following bill of fare will show:- 300 quarters of wheat, 330 tuns of ale, 104 tuns of wine, 1 pipe of spiced wine, above 400 bucks, does, and roebucks, 80 fat oxen, 6 wild bulls, 1,000 wethers, 300 calves, 200 kids, 300 hogs, 300 pigs, 4,000 rabbits, 3,000 capons, 100 peacocks, 200 cranes, 3,000 geese, 2,000 chickens, 4,000 pigeons, 200 bitterns, 4,000 ducks, 400 hernsews, 200 pheasants, 500 partridges, 4,000 woodcocks, 400 plovers, 100 curlews, 100 quails, 1,000 egretts, 200 reese, 1,506 hot venison pasties, 4,000 cold venison pasties, 1,000 dishes of jelly parted, 4,000 dishes of plain jelly, 4,000 cold custards, 2,000 hot custards, 300 pike, 300 breams, 8 seals, 4 porpoises, and 400 tarts. To prepare and serve this entertainment there were employed 62 cooks, 515 kitcheners, and 1,000 servitors.

Richard, Earl of Warwick, the eldest son, to whom the forfeited lands of his father were restored, married the wealthy heiress of Beauchamp, and with her received the fortress of the Baliols at Barnard Castle. Middleham, however, was his favourite residence; and here he several times entertained Edward IV. The earl's vast estates enabled him to wield such an immense power in the military affairs of the country, that he has since been known as the Kingmaker. He feasted daily, it is said, 30,000 persons in his castle halls, and he could rally the same number of men to fight under his standard when and where he listed. Warwick subsequently taking offence at Edward's marriage with Elizabeth Woodville, and the favours heaped upon that family, transferred his services to the imprisoned king, Henry VI., and joined the Yorkshire insurgents. Edward was captured in his camp at Olney, and carried a prisoner to Middleham Castle, where he was committed to the care of the Archbishop of York, "fell Warwick's brother." He was permitted to enjoy the pleasures of the park, and one day some of his friends who had discovered the place of his imprisonment, lay in ambush till Edward approached, and then overpowering his attendant guards, carried him off. Such is the story told by the old chroniclers, and adopted by Shakespeare, but several modern historians treat it as pure romance, and endeavour to prove that Edward was exercising his kingly authority at the very time he is said to have been a prisoner at Middleham.

Warwick fell in the battle of Barnet in 1471, and his vast estates were confiscated; but as Warwick's attainder could not affect the hereditary estate of his Countess, a cruel act stripped her of her possessions, and transferred them to her two daughters. Middleham and Barnard Castles were given to Anne, wife of Richard, Duke of Gloucester, afterwards Richard III. Middleham was a favourite residence of this prince, and here was born his only son, Edward, who died here in the 11th year of his age. The room in which he expired is still known as the Prince's Chamber. It is in the Round Tower at the south-west angle of the castle.

In 1471, the Bastard Falconbridge, a partizan of Henry VI., was beheaded in the castle by order of the Duke of Gloucester, although he had received King Edward's pardon for his treason. Richard did not reside at Middleham after his accession to the throne, and in 1484, visited it for the last time. His household book contains some curious entries illustrating the manners and customs of the age. Amongst the items of expenditure are the following: for choosing a King of West Witton, 5s.; and 6s. 8d. for choosing a King of Middleham, a character that frequently figured in the pastimes of our ancestors, as did the village mayor in later times; 12d. to Martyn the fole" (fool); 6s. 8d. to Metcalf and Peacock, for running on foot by the side of my Lord Prince"; a "prymmer "for the young prince cost 13s. 4d, and the black satin for covering it and a "sawter" (psalter), 7s. 10d.

On Richard's death at the battle of Bosworth in 1485, which has been immortalised by the pen of Shakespeare, the victor, Henry VII., took possession of Middleham and his other estates, and from this time the castle almost disappears from history. Henry VIII., in the first year of his reign, appointed Sir William Conyers, constable of the castle for the Crown, and his descendants, the dukes of Leeds, claim the office. The nominal duties to which, until recently, a salary was attached, were relegated to another. The last constable of the castle was Mr. John Topham, and since his death in 1888, there has been no one appointed to the office. In 1609, the castle was the property and residence of Sir Henry Linley, and at his death that year he transmitted it to his daughter; but how, or on what conditions it was granted to him, has not been ascertained. Lord Loftus married Sir Henry's daughter, and with her received possession of the castle, but in 1662 he disposed of it, and five acres of curtilage, to Edward Wood, Esq,, of Littleton, Middlesex. Eight years later, Thomas, son and heir of the said Edward Wood, purchased the manor and lordship of Middleham from the citizens of London, to whom it had been sold by Charles I. in 1628, and his descendant, Capt. Thos. Wood, of Gurney Park, Breconshire, sold the castle and' manor to S. Cunliffe Lister, Esq., of Swinton Park, Masham, about a year ago for the sum of £70,000. A court leet is held yearly at the White Swan Inn.

In 1646, the Parliamentary Committee sitting at York ordered this castle to be rendered untenable, which was effected with gunpowder, and hence arose the tradition that it was blown down by Cromwell's cannon.

The Castle was quadrangular in form, with a tower at each angle, that at the south-west being circular. The thickness of the walls show that it must have been of amazing strength, and, as a further protection, it was surrounded by a moat, which was supplied with water from a spring in the higher ground. The oldest part of the castle is the keep, the original building, erected by Fitz Randolph, in 1190; and the towers and connecting buildings which complete the fortress as it now stands were added by Ralph Neville, earl of Westmoreland, in the reign of Richard II. The only entrance was by a gateway, still quite perfect, on the north side, which was protected by a portcullis and machicolations; and on each side of the archway there still remain the stone seats of the warders. For several years the castle appears to have been regarded as a sort of "Every Man's" property, and various portions of it were converted into workshops by the village tradesmen. But these were removed, and a wall built, encircling the ruins, by the late Col. Wood. He also commenced an exploration of the ruins, by removing the rubbish which had accumulated on the floors to the depth of six or seven feet. Several interesting discoveries have resulted. A large circular oven, 16 feet across, was laid bare, and two or three of smaller dimensions. These, it is conjectured, were erected after the dismantlement of the castle and its abandonment as a residence, by the village bakers, who were famous for the making of brown bread, which they conveyed to the surrounding villages, on the backs of pack horses. The freestone foundations have been laid bare, and in one of the apartments of the keep a draw-well, in perfect preservation, containing excellent water, was discovered.

The curtain wall of the castle was 30 feet in height, and inclosed a space measuring 210 feet by 175 feet. The keep is 55 feet high, and is divided into three stories, which were reached by a circular stair, in the south-east angle, ascending to the battlements. On the basement floor are two gloomy dungeon-like apartments, each 80 feet in length and 25 feet and 19 feet in width. The wider vault has a round-arched groined roof, supported by a row of piers. The roof of the other is a single span, pointed and groined. On the first floor was the great hall of the Nevilles, and adjoining, on the western side, are several other rooms, but the particular purpose of each is enveloped in doubt. The walls of the keep are nine feet thick, and grouted with mortar as hard and durable as stone itself. Three of the angles are flanked by projecting buttresses, formerly capped by turrets, and at the fourth corner (S.E.) is the barbican tower, 48 feet by 33 feet. Here was the chapel, and underneath a crypt; the winding stone staircase communicating therewith still remains. The chapel is Early English, and has a vaulted roof. Several of the apartments have had fire places, the flues of which are carried up the thickness of the walls.

About 500 yards south of the castle are two artificial mounds, and other appearances of an ancient British camp, which was probably afterwards occupied by the Romans, whose military road was here.* Ghilpatrick, the Danish or Saxon owner of Middleham, had, it is said, his residence here, and gave to them their name, which, by some curious process of etymological evolution, has become William's Hills." There is a tradition to the effect that whoever runs nine times round this fort, without stopping, will find a door open in the mound, admitting the runner to immense treasures. "But this feat has never been attempted, simply because it is physically impossible."†

* In 1881, whilst some workmen were mending a ditch, about a quarter of a mile east of the castle, they accidently came upon the foundations of a Roman villa. Drawings were taken on the spot, by Mr. Croft; and amongst the debris in the interior were found portions of a Roman bowl, and a small handmill, partly mutilated.

† The Three Days of Wensleydale.

The town of Middleham is built upon uneven ground, near the castle, and consists chiefly of one street of well-built houses, occupied by professional gentlemen and persons of independent means. Its market charter was obtained from Richard II., in 1388, but it does not appear at any time to have been of much importance. Its near and more prosperous rival, Leyburn, absorbed the chief part of the trade of the district, and in the second quarter of the present century it was so thinly attended that it was permitted to fall into desuetude. But though the market is gone, the name and two market crosses remain in attestation of its former existence. One stands in the lower market, and the other in the upper or swine market. The latter, which is ascended by a double flight of steps, consists of two pediments for figures; one effigy is gone, and the other, apparently an animal, is so mutilated that it is now impossible to ascertain its identity. By some writers it is supposed to be a bear, one of the Neville badges, whilst others think it represents a boar, the well-known cognizance of Richard III. Near this is the bull-ring, a relic of those barbarous sports in which our forefathers delighted.

The town is lighted with gas from works established in 1856; and during the past year waterworks have been constructed, at a cost of £2,550, from plans prepared by Mr. James Farrar, C.E., Bury. An iron suspension bridge was erected on the site of the ford over the Ure, in 1829, connecting Middleham with Leyburn; and the following year, owing to some defect in the ironwork, it broke down under the weight of a drove of cattle. It was repaired, but, being too light a structure for the amount of traffic, it entailed a large expenditure to keep it in repair, and again broke down. Its removal was decided upon, and the present substantial girder bridge, erected in 1865, at a cost of £1,100. It was made toll free in 1880, and transferred to the county authorities.

The Church, situated on an eminence on the north side of the town, is dedicated to the Blessed Virgin, and St. Alkelda, a Christian lady, strangled by the Danes on account of her religion. She is supposed to have been the daughter of the Saxon owner of Wensleydale; it is further conjectured that the church covers the spot where she was martyred, and that her remains repose therein. She appears to have had only a local reputation, and is not included in any of the best known martyrologies. The Duke of Gloucester, afterwards Richard III., raised the rectory into a deanery, a title and privilege which attached to it until 1856; he had also the license of the king to found here a college for a dean, six chaplains, four clerks, six choristers, and other clergymen officiating in the parish church. The charter conferred certain privileges and emoluments upon the dean, to enable him to provide for himself, or a fitting deputy, and the other officers; and also constituted the dean and chaplains a body corporate, with power to acquire lands of the value of 200 marks per annum. The college, if it ever came into being, had but a short existence; the death of Richard followed shortly after, at the battle of Bosworth, and the victor seized the lands which had been conferred upon it. According to local tradition the college was to have been erected about half-a-mile from the church, on a piece of land still called "Foundation Field."

The deans long continued to claim for their church the title of collegiate, and to exercise the privileges conferred upon it as such. One of these was exemption from the jurisdiction of the ordinary, or metropolitan, and this was confirmed in 1666. They married people, whether belonging to the parish or not, without the publication of the banns; and in this particular their doings, says Longstaffe, might almost compare with the exploits of the High Priest of Gretna Green." But this privilege was abrogated by the Marriage Act of 26th George II. (1753).

The church is a substantial stone structure, in the Early English style of the 14th century, with some later additions in the Decorated period. It consists of chancel, nave, aisles, south porch, and an embattled western tower, with pinnacles, containing a clock and six bells. The fabric was thoroughly restored in 1878, at a cost of between £4,000 and £5,000, and the interior reseated with open oak benches, in lieu of the old fashioned box pews. During the progress of the restoration, a very primitive stone coffin was discovered under the floor, near the spot where, according to tradition, St. Alkelda was interred. The coffin contained some human remains, which were declared by the doctors to belong to a female. It is supposed to have been the tomb of the martyred saint, and in the pillar near the spot a brass plate has been inserted, bearing the following inscription "Near this pillar, on the spot indicated by tradition, were found, during the work of restoration, the remains of St. Alkelda, patron saint of this church, Anno Domini 1878. F. Barker, rector; T. E. Swale and S. Croft, churchwardens." There was formerly a stained glass window, bearing a figure of the saint, in the east window of the chantry chapel; the fragments of the ancient glass may still be seen in the west window of the north aisle. The nave is separated from the aisles on either side by four bays of pointed arches, resting on massive octagonal pillars, The chancel arch is pointed, and springs from the plain wall on the north side and a pillar on the south. The choir is furnished with carved oak stalls for the dean and canons, made out of the old oaken roof, and over each is inscribed the name of the saint to whom it is dedicated. The east window is a stained glass memorial of four lights, to Christopher Topham, and on the south side are two windows in memory of two former rectors. The windows of the aisles are also filled with stained glass, chiefly memorial, and there are also tablets to several local families. The font, of Caen stone, neatly carved, was given by the widow and family of the late Rev. M. G. Booty, M.A., and the pulpit and a window in the south aisle were erected in memory of Mrs. Swale.

The east end of the south aisle was a chantry, founded by John Cartmele, and dedicated in honour of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The east window of this chapel is a memorial of the Rev. James Alexander Birch, a late rector of the parish, and previously contained the fragments of ancient stained glass before referred to. The west gallery was removed at the late restoration, but a gallery, or faculty pew, remains over part of the north aisle, and detracts much from the beauty of the interior. There are but few ancient memorials; the most interesting is the tombstone of Robert Thornton, 22nd abbot of Jervaulx and dean of Middleham. It was brought from Jervaulx Abbey, probably after the Dissolution, to serve for pavement. It was taken up at the late restoration and placed against the wall of the north front of the tower. The centre is finely diapered with thorn leaves, and at the foot is a tun, forming the rebus of Thornton, surmounted by the mitre and crozier. Round the margin is this inscription:- "Orate pro anima dompni Roberti Thorneton, Abbatis hujus domi Jurevallis vicesimi secundi" (Pray for the soul of lord Robert Thornton, twenty-second Abbot of this house of Jervaulx). Some fragments of ancient tombstones are preserved in the church, one bearing the name of Robert Messam (Masham), and others crosses, &c. Above the inner door of the porch is a mutilated sculpture, apparently a stone rood, with the Saviour extended on the cross, between St. Mary and St. John, or, perhaps, the two Marys. This stone had been sacrilegiously degraded to ornament the back of a cottage opposite the principal front of the castle, where also was the bas relief of the peacock, now in the inner wall of the large gateway.

The living is a rectory, net value £310, including 67 acres of glebe, in the gift of the bishop of Ripon, and held by the Rev. J. G. B. Knight, M.A., Cambridge. The tithe rent-charge is £232. By an Order in Council, issued Sept. 8th, 1857, all the lands, tithes, &c., formerly belonging to the deanery of this church were vested in the Ecclesiastical Commissioners for the use of the benefice.

Leland says in his Itinerary, "There is at the east end of Middleham a little hospital with a chapel of Jesus." Of this not a vestige now remains; some fields, however, not far from the eastern extremity of the town retain to the present day the name of Chapel Fields, the only existing memorial of its desecration.

Another ancient chapel, dedicated to St. Simon, stood on the bank of the river Cover. A few fragments remain, and near them is St. Simon's holy well.

The Wesleyans have a chapel in the town, a good stone building erected in 1824; and the Primitive Methodists have also one built in 1836.

The Birch Memorial School is a substantial stone building in the domestic Gothic style, with a square embattled tower in the centre, having an open bell turret rising from its south-west angle. The ground floor contains the master's residence, and the upper one is appropriated to school purposes. The building was erected by the parishioners and others in memory of the Rev. James A. Birch, the late rector of Middleham, as an enduring monument of their esteem and affection, A.D. 1869. The total cost, exclusive of the site, which was given by the lord of the manor, was £600.

The Town Hall was erected by subscription in 1862, upon a site given by the lord of the manor. It is a good stone building, containing reading room and caretaker's apartments on the ground floor, and above, a spacious, well-lighted room used as a recreation room, and also for concerts and public assemblies. The total cost was about £400. A handsome fountain is about to be erected in the Market place, at a cost of £150, raised by subscription, in commemoration of Her Majesty's Jubilee.

Middleham possesses little importance as a place of trade, but the adjacent moors have long been famous as a training ground for racehorses. In addition to the training establishments noticed under Coverham, we may name that of Mr. Drislane, who trains for a number of gentlemen; and amongst other noted winners sent out Lady Roseberry, which carried off the Liverpool Cup. Fairs are held here on the 30th of March, and on the 5th, 6th, and 7th of November. The November fair is one of the largest in the north of England.

There are several gentlemen's residences in the town and neighbourhood, which are mentioned in the directory.

The benefactions left at various times to the poor have been invested in land which, with a cattle gait on Middleham Moor, produces £29 10s. a year. This moor contains about 380 acres, the winter eatage of which belongs to the commoners.

On the banks of the river Cover, near Middleham, is a cavern in the limestone rock, known as the Otter's Cave. The passage or entrance is narrow, extending about 90 feet from north to south, and then opens out into a lofty and spacious cavern penetrating about 160 feet further into the heart of the rock. The roofs and sides are encrusted with stalactites, and one of large dimensions at the south end of the passage almost blocks the entrance to the roomy cavern.

[Description(s) from Bulmer's History and Directory of North Yorkshire (1890)]


  • Transcript of the entry for the Post Office, professions and trades in Bulmer's Directory of 1890.

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