History of West Yorkshire - Middle Ages

Middle Ages

This is the period from 1066 to the start of the Tudor dynasty in 1485. In 1066, after the death of King Edward the Confessor, Yorkshire became the stage for two major battles that would help decide who would succeed to the throne. Harold Godwinson was declared King by the English but this was disputed by Harold Hardrada King of Norway and William Duke of Normandy. In the late summer of 1066 Harold Hardrada, accompanied by Tostig Godwinson, took a large Norwegian fleet and army up the Humber towards York. They were met by the army of the northern earls Edwin of Mercia and Morcar of Northumbria who they defeated at the Battle of Fulford. Harold Hardrada occupied York and the Norwegian Army encamped at Stamford Bridge. Harold Godwinson had to travel from London gathering his army as he went to face the invasion. Within five days, on 25 September 1066, Harold Godwinson had reached Stamford Bridge and defeated the Norwegian Army in a battle in which both Harold Hardrada and Tostig Godwinson were killed. The battle at Stamford Bridge can be seen as one of the pivotal battles in English history, it was the last time a Scandinavian army was able to seriously threaten England. On 28 September William Duke of Normandy landed on the south coast of England forcing Harold Godwinson to rush south from Yorkshire with his army. They met at the Battle of Hastings where the English army was defeated and Harold Godwinson killed, allowing William to become King of England.

King William I and the Normans did not immediately gain control over the whole of the country and rebellions in the north of England, including Yorkshire led to the Harrying of the North. During the winter of 1069-70 the Normans conducted a scorched earth campaign. Those who escaped initially hid in Yorkshire's woodland but many then died of famine or exposure. By 1071 the last native led rebellion against Norman authority in Yorkshire had been suppressed. The severity of the Norman campaign is shown by the fall of land values in Yorkshire by two-thirds between 1069 and 1086. Domesday book records that 25 continental magnates introduced into Yorkshire by the Conqueror held over 90% of the county's manors. The families who had previously held land were either deprived of their holdings or reduced to subtenants.

In the early years of Norman rule the new rulers built ringwork castles. These were circular defensive enclosures formed by the construction of a bank and a ditch. Examples of which are Kippax, near Leeds and Castleton on the North York Moors. Yorkshire at this time was frontier country. It was vulnerable to attack from the north by the Scots and from across the North Sea by the Danes. Soon more complex motte and bailey castles were being built as the ruthless and ambitious barons appointed by King William to rule Yorkshire gained a hold on their territories. The parcels of land bestowed by William to his followers in Yorkshire were fewer and much larger than in more southern counties. Each was able to support a sizeable garrison in a strong castle. Large castles were established at Conisbrough, Tickhill, Pontefract, Richmond, Middleham and Skipsea and two in York. At this time also was established the chain of castles across the southern edge of the North York Moors which included Scarborough, Pickering and Helmsley.

When the Normans arrived in Yorkshire there were no monastic foundations.The old Northumbrian clifftop abbey of Whitby lay in ruins. In the centuries following the Conquest splendid abbeys and priories were built in Yorkshire. The first of these was Selby Abbey, founded in 1069 and the birthplace of Henry I of England. There followed the abbeys of St Mary’s, York, Rievaulx, Fountains, Whitby, Byland, Jervaulx, Kirkstall, Roche, Meaux and many other smaller establishments. During the succeeding 70 years religious orders flourished, particularly after the promotion of Thurstan of Bayeux to the archbishopric of York in 1114. Between 1114 and 1135 at least 14 were established.

The Norman landowners were keen to increase their revenues by establishing new towns and planned villages. Among others, the boroughs of Richmond, Pontefract, Sheffield, Doncaster, Helmsley and Scarborough were established in this way as were the villages of Levisham and Appleton-le-Moors on the North York Moors and Wheldrake in the Vale of York. York was the pre-eminent centre of population before the conquest and was one of only four pre existing towns. The others included Bridlington and Pocklington.

The Danish invasions ceased at this time but the Scots continued their invasions throughout the medieval period. The Battle of the Standard was fought against the Scots near Northallerton in 1138.

During this period the majority of the Yorkshire population was engaged in small scale farming. A growing number of families were living on the margin of subsistence and some of these families turned to crafts and trade or industrial occupations. By 1300 Yorkshire farmers had reached the present day limits of cultivation on the Pennines. Both lay and monastic landowners exploited the minerals on their estates. There were forges producing iron, and lead was being mined and smelted in the northern dales. In the West Riding there were numerous small coal workings. Until the late 12th century the cloth industry was mostly urban, focussed on York and Beverley. By 1300 the towns of Hedon, Masham, Northallerton, Ripon, Selby, Whitby and Yarm were also involved in cloth manufacture. Around this time the balance of cloth manufacturing was changing in favour of the West Riding rural communities where it was a cottage industry and free of the restrictions of town guilds.

Sheffield, situated amongst a number of fast-flowing rivers and streams surrounded by hills containing raw materials such as coal, iron ore, ganister, and millstone grit for grindstones, made it an ideal place for water-powered industries to develop. Water wheels were often initially built for the milling of corn, but many were converted to the manufacture of blades. As early as the 14th century Sheffield was noted for the production of knives, as noted in Geoffrey Chaucer's The Reeve’s Tale from The Canterbury Tales

In the early decades of the 14th century Yorkshire suffered from a series of poor harvests, cattle disease and plundering Scottish armies. The Black Death reached Yorkshire in the spring of 1349. The population was reduced drastically by these misfortunes and consequently more land became available for the survivors. The following decades saw the rise of relatively wealthy farming families who founded dynasties of yeomen and minor gentlemen. The large Honours that were created in Yorkshire and the North of England by William I after the Conquest made them attractive for succeeding monarchs to give to their sons to support a royal lifestyle. These honours were, in some cases, combined to form Duchies, the most notable of which were the duchies of York and Lancaster.

Wars of the Roses

When conflict arose between the two Dukes during the Wars of the Roses much of the fighting took place in Yorkshire, where their estates were interlocked and woven together.

The leading families in the East and West Ridings supported the House of Lancaster overwhelmingly, but in the North Riding loyalty was divided. The Nevilles of Sheriff Hutton and Middleham, the Scropes of Bolton, the Latimers of Danby and Snape, and the Mowbrays of Thirsk and Burton in Lonsdale supported the House of York. The Nevilles’ great rivals, the Percies, together with the Cliffords of Skipton, Ros of Helmsley, Greystock of Hinderskelfe, Stafford of Holderness and Talbot of Sheffield fought for the Lancastrians.

John of Gaunt, 1st Duke of Lancaster had senior influence over many people in the North of England and consequently, Yorkshiremen fought under his command in the Hundred Years' War. King Richard III of England in the House of York held early office in the Council of the North, at Middleham Castle where Edward of Middleham, Prince of Wales was born. The last vestiges of feudal order remain to-date in the Duchy of Lancaster, founded by the House of Lancaster.

Both Yorkshire and Richmondshire had significant connections with Scotland and France through the personal connections of their feudal and titular Peers which may have been connected to the Auld Alliance. One must consider the historically Norse origins of Yorkshire's population, the local ties of Balliol, Bruce and Stewart monarchs of Scotland, including Scottish royal fiefdom of Northumbria at several times.(See Earl of Huntingdon)

Read more about this topic:  History Of West Yorkshire

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