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Help and advice for YORKSHIRE: The history of Yorkshire:

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YORKSHIRE: The history of Yorkshire:


As soon as William found himself firmly established in the possession of the country, he set about the completion of that arrangement of land tenure, which has since been called the Feudal System. We may see the germs of feudalism even in Saxon times, but it was not until the reign of the Conqueror, that it attained in this country, that rigorous severity which subsequently characterised it. The whole country, with the exception of the portion retained by the king, in his own possession, was divided amongst the Norman nobles who had accompanied William, and assisted in the conquest of the land. The Roll of Battle Abbey, as given by Holinshed, records the names of 629 such claimants upon the bounty of the Conqueror, and to reward these, the native proprietors who had inherited through many generations of ancestors, were dispossessed of their lands, or in some few cases, allowed to retain a small portion of their ancestral estate, on conditions which will hereafter be stated. These grants, which varied considerably in extent, were termed baronies, and their fortunate recipients held them as tenants in chief of the king, to whom they owed suit and service. Each baron was required to aid the king in his wars with his quota of horsemen, which varied in number according to the extent of his barony, properly equipped, and to maintain the same, at his own cost, during the space of forty days. The lands thus granted, were not given in absolute ownership, but were held on hereditary tenancy, which, however, continued an absolute right so long as the conditions of the grant were complied with. These tenants in chief of the crown, or, as they were called, barons, were expected to attend the king's court at the three great festivals, and at other times when summoned. Many of the smaller baronies, in time became so divided and sub-divided by marriages and descents, that their proprietors were no longer able to bear the expense of these journeys to court, and hence, about the reign of King John, arose the distinction of greater and lesser barons, the former only being entitled to the privilege of attending the great council.

The barons, in like manner, parcelled out the greater portion of the lands they had received, among their favoured followers. These divisions, which were not formed on any fixed scale, were termed manors, and were held of the baron on the same conditions as the baron held of the king. These again were subdivided into smaller portions, called knights' fees, and were distributed among military tenants, on condition of their being ready, at any time, with horse and proper equipment, to accompany their superior lord to battle. In this way the whole country was divided into 60,215 knights' fees, and thus at any moment the king could summon a force sufficient to crush rebellion at home, or to repel foreign invasion.

Each grantee, whether vassal or sub-vassal, reserved a portion of his land for his own use, under the name of his demesne; and of this he cultivated part by his villeins, and the rest he let out to farm, or gave parts to different tenants, to be holden by other than military service, and hence arose "the customs of the manors," which are still observed, except where the lands have been enfranchised. The estates thus granted were called feuds or fiefs, and the grantor and grantee owed to each other reciprocal obligations; for, while the lord exacted military service from the vassal, he was also under the obligation of affording him protection, failing which he forfeited his seigniory. The fief, in like manner, was escheated to the lord, when the vassal failed in his obligations, or when the conditions on which it was originally granted, could no longer be fulfilled. Thus, if the vassal died without heirs the feud reverted to the lord, as the military service could no longer be performed; and, if the heir was a minor, the lord took possession of the estate till he was of age to comply with the conditions. When the fief descended to a daughter, the lord claimed the right to dispose of her in marriage, and also the homage and service of her husband.

The Norman preserved most of the Anglo-Saxon laws and customs, but preferred their own trial by battle, as more worthy of warriors and freemen, to the fiery ordeals of the English. They separated the spiritual from the secular courts; and the old distinction of classes, viz., ealdormen, thanes, ceorls, and theowas were preserved under the names of count or earl, baron, knight, esquire, free-tenant, villein or villain, and neif.

The Conqueror, having profusely distributed the land and property of the country among his followers, erected numerous fortresses to overawe the insulted and oppressed inhabitants. Conscious of the detestation in which he was deservedly held, he entertained a perpetual jealousy of the English, and in the restless apprehensions of his guilty mind, he compelled them to rake out their fires, and extinguish their lights, at the hour of eight o'clock every night, and they were reminded of their obligation by the tolling of the curfew bell.

Having by these tyrannical measures silenced the disaffected, and constrained the country into a state of sullen quietude, he caused a survey to be taken of all the lands in England (except Northumberland, Cumberland, Westmoreland, and Durham), on the model of the Book of Winchester, compiled by order of Alfred the Great. This survey, after a labour of six years, was finished in 1086, and was registered in a national record, called Domesday Book, in which were entered the various manors and estates, their extent in meadow, pasture, wood, and ploughland; the tenures by which they were held, the names of the proprietors and the number of their villeins, and their rateable value, then, and in the time of Edward the Confessor. Through all time it will be held in high estimation, not only for its antiquity, but for its intrinsic value. Probably, Northumberland and Durham were omitted on account of the desolation in which they had been involved, by their opposition to the Conqueror, and by the frequent and devastating incursions of the Scots, who for centuries after the Norman Conquest continued to lay waste the northern counties. Part of Westmoreland was surveyed under Yorkshire; the remainder, with Cumberland, formed an independent little kingdom, which had long been held under the Scottish Crown. The boundaries of Yorkshire were then much more extensive than at present, and included, besides the portion of Westmoreland alluded to, the northern half of Lancashire.

From this Survey, we learn that the whole of Yorkshire, exclusive of the land retained by the king in his own possession, which comprised 350 manors, was held by a little over one hundred tenants-in-chief. The largest of these proprietors next to the king was Alan, Earl of Brittany and Richmond, son-in-law of the Conqueror, whose vast possessions included the greater part of the North Riding. A few of these ancient proprietors are still represented among our aristocracy and gentry; the families of some have become extinct, and the descendants of others have long been numbered with the "hewers of wood and the drawers of water." Amongst these ancient landowners of Yorkshire were the Bruces, whose descendants became kings of Scotland; the Buruns, progenitors of the Byrons; the Buslis, of Tickhill Castle; the Gands or Gaunts; the De Lacys, of Pontefract Castle; the Malets; the Earls of Morton; the Mortimers, Pagnels, Percys, Tysons, and the Warrens.

According to the computation of Sir Henry Ellis, given in his essay on the Domesday Survey, the adult male population of Yorkshire at that time was not more than 8,055; and as adult males constitute one-fifth of the whole population, five times the above number will give 40,275 persons for the whole county. The great bulk of the inhabitants was composed of three classes, the bordarii or cottagers, who held their small portions of land by the service of supplying the lord's board or table with poultry, eggs, &c. ; the villani (villeins) were labourers who were attached to the land, and were transferred with it from one owner to another; and the servii, or serfs, who were bond men and women employed wholly in and about their lord's house. The want of freedom to transfer their services to another master was the only hardship which these people suffered; in other respects their condition was at least equal, if not superior, to that of the great mass of the working population of this country at the present day. There was another class called drenghes, who were a sort of allodial tenants between the freemen and the villeins, rendering service to their lord, but personally exempt from the performance of it, which was done by the villeins under them. They are supposed to have been the English proprietors that were permitted to retain their lands upon conditions almost servile.

The Battle of the Standard. - After the death of William, no attempt was made to overturn the Norman dynasty. His youngest son, Henry, was born at Selby, in this county, and when he subsequently succeeded to the throne, on the death of his brother Rufus, he was regarded as an Englishman. He further strengthened his claim by marrying the niece of Edgar Etheling. In the War of Succession which followed after his death, between the Empress Maude, his daughter, and Stephen, his nephew, who had seized the throne, Yorkshire bore its part. David, King of Scotland, uncle to Maude, espoused the cause of his niece, and, at the head of a large army, crossed the border, laid waste the counties of Northumberland and Durham, and then marched southward towards York. If we may believe the ancient chronicles, the conduct of David's army was most revolting and inhuman. They profaned the churches, burnt the monasteries and villages, slaughtered promiscuously the young, aged, and defenceless; pregnant women were ripped up and the infants cut to pieces; and the females that fell into their hands were stripped of their clothes, tied together, and driven to Scotland, where they were subjected to the greatest indignities, and then sold as slaves among the neighbouring chieftains.

Thurstan, the venerable Archbishop of York, and Lieutenant-Governor of the North, summoned the nobility and gentry of this and the neighbouring counties to assemble with their tenants and retainers to repel the invaders. The chief command was entrusted to Walter d' Espec, who was supported by William de Albemarle, Walter de Gant, Robt. de Brus, Roger de Mowbray, Gilbert de Lacy, William de Lacy, William de Percy, Richard de Courcy, William Fossard, and Robt. de Stuteville. They assembled at York, and spent three days in fasting and prayer. A standard was improvised consisting of a tall pole with a crucifix at the top, mounted on a carriage; beneath the crucifix was a silver pyx containing a consecrated host, and below this floated the holy banners of St. Peter of York, St. John of Beverley, and St. Wilfrid of Ripon. They then marched to Thirsk, where the Mowbrays had a castle, and here the Archbishop resigned his authority into the hands of the eloquent and fiery Randolph, Bishop of Orkney, who roused the courage and enthusiasm of the English by his passionate address, William de Albemarle, and Walter L'Espec.

The two armies met on Cuton or Cowton Moor, on the 22nd of August, 1138. The English were drawn up in a compact body, the archers and spearmen in front, the heavy armed cavalry in the rear, and the standard in the midst, guarded by a band of chosen knights who had sworn to die rather than yield it to the enemy. The men of Galloway began the attack by a furious rush on their opponents, but the shower of arrows from the English archers, shot with unerring aim, told with tremendous effect upon the half-naked Galwegians. Most of their leaders were slain, their ranks decimated, and the main body turned to flee before these terrible discharges of barbed death. Prince Henry, at that moment with the Scottish men-at-arms, rushed in to the rescue with such fearful impetuosity that the English ranks were torn asunder, and victory for the moment seemed to smile on the kilted Scot. His success was but temporary; the English spearmen quickly re-formed, the archers showered down their merciless shafts, and the Scots wavered and fled, leaving 10,000 dead on the field, out of the 27,000 that had crossed the border. David with his son, Prince Henry, and the remnant of his army, escaped to Carlisle, where, at the solicitations of the papal legate, he consented to deliver up all the females that had been carried off into Scotland. The English loss was small, and only one man of rank, Gilbert de Lacy, was killed. The Scottish historians attribute the defeat to a ruse on the part of the English, who, they say, cut off the head of a man killed in the battle, stuck it on a spear, and held it aloft as the head of the King of Scotland.

So crushing was this defeat that for the next hundred years the Scots confined their incursions to the border counties, and Yorkshire was during that period free from their ravages.

In the year 1160, according to Drake, Henry II. held the first parliament ever mentioned in history by that name, in the city of York, before which Malcolm, King of Scotland, was summoned to appear, and answer certain charges alleged against him by Henry; and a few years later (1177), when Henry II. divided the country into circuits for the administration of justice, the present limits of Yorkshire were assigned to it. The same year another parliament was held at York, before which William the Lion of Scotland did homage for his kingdom.

There is not much to record of Yorkshire during the reign of Richard of the Lion-heart. Whilst the king was absent in the Crusades, his perfidious brother, John, was intriguing for the Crown, but the people rose against him, and under the command of Hugh Pudsey, Bishop of Durham, took possession of his castle of Tickhill. The commencement of Richard's reign had been marked by a disgraceful and inhuman slaughter of the Jews in London, and a similar scene characterised the close of it in the city of York.

In the Barons' wars with King John and his successor, Henry III., the opposing forces never met on Yorkshire soil, but many Yorkshire nobles figure prominently in the contests, on the one side or the other. When the former tyrant visited York, he was received with cold indifference by the inhabitants, for which he amerced the city in the sum of £100. In the following reign York was the scene of two royal weddings, the first in 1221, between Alexander II. of Scotland and Joan, the king's sister; and the second in 1251, between Margaret, Henry's daughter, and Alexander III. York at this period was only surpassed in importance by London, and was frequently honoured with the presence of royalty.

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Data transcribed from:
Bulmer's East Riding
Scan, OCR and html software by Colin Hinson.
Checking and correction by Peter Nelson.