Mexborough and Swinton Times January 6, 1940
Fifteenth Century Wombwell
Fascinating Glimpse of the Middle Ages
(By J. Lawson, M.A.).
Under the title of “Fifteenth Century” Wombwell, we publish here the first of a series of three articles by Mr. J. Lawson. M.A. of Wombwell, Sixth Form Master at the City of Norwich School, and W.E.A. tutor in Norfolk.
The articles, which we are confident will be read with interest not only in the Dearne Valley but farther afield, present in narrative form a compilation of historical data from which it is possible to form an impression of what Wombwell as a village and community was like in the century between 1350 and 1450.
Mr. Lawson points out that while some of the facts appear in works of Hunter and Wilkinson, and less accessible printed sources such as the volumes of the Surtees Society and the Yorkshire Archaeological Society, most of the material is original and was found incidentally while he was working on another subject in the British Museum, the Public Record Office, and the District Probate Registry at York as a Research Fellow of the University of Manchester.
Little of it, therefore, can be found in easily available books, and indeed much of the matter has not previously been published. The complete series of articles should make a reliable work of reference in handy form for students of local history. An interesting incidental feature of the first article is the revelation that flooding in the Dearne Valley presented a problem in medieval times not less troublesome than in our own.
Article 1. Stepback Into History.
If it were possible for one of us to be transported by some such means as I Mr. H. G. Well’s time machine, from the Wombwell of 1940 into the Wombwell of 1440, how should we find the place? Almost certainly we should find it unrecognisable. Five hundred years have changed everything or nearly everything. In most places the only tangible link with the Middle Ages is the parish church, and the parish church in Wombwell is a new one. But some things remain which were places and landmarks as common to our fourteenth and fifteenth century ancestors as they are to us. Then, as now, the little River Dove flowed in the valley between Wombwell and Darfield; beyond the valley the tower of the church of All Saints at Darfield (parts of it then only just finished) could be seen rising out of the trees; Tunstallcrosse. Aldeham and Erdisley, Smithelay and Hilmyngfeld were familiar places, and the road to Wath went through Holyngworth or Brampton Bylay.
The centre of the village, as of the town to-day , was the meeting place of the four roads where the church stands, and if the present church is new it occupies the site on which its predecessor in1440 had already stood for perhaps three hundred years.
But most of the local influences and institutions which must have been common places to the inhabitants of Wombwell in 1440 have long since disappeared. There was, for instance, the Benedictine Priory of St. Mary Magdalen at Monk Bretton which had a mill on the River Dearne near Darfield, and owned extensive property in this district, including the advowsons of the churches at Hickleton and Bolton: farther away there was the rich Cisterian monastery at Roche, the house of Cisterian nuns at Hampole, the lately dissolved alien priory at Ecclesfleld, and the great royal castle at Conisborough, which a few years earlier had belonged to Richard, Earl of Cambridge, executed in 1415 for his share in a conspiracy against the King, Henry V.
At Doncaster there were the two Hospitals of St. James and St. Nicholas, and the houses of the Franciscan and Carmelite friars, the latter famous now through its late prior, the celebrated scholar and theologian. John Marre.
At Pontefract there was the Auniac Priory of St. John and the house of the Friars’ Preachers. and the great crown castle—”the key of Yorkshire”—in which Richard II. had been mysteriously done to death forty years earlier, which men perhaps still talked about.
Like most of the other villages in the immediate neighbourhood. Wombwell lay in the hundred or wapentake of Strafforth and Tickhill, the local subdivision of the County of York, though by the fifteenth century the hundred had largely outlived its original purpose, except mainly for financial matters, for it still formed the local unit for the assessment and collection of taxes.
Wombwell “In” Darfield
Ecclesiastically, Wombwell formed part of the parish of Darfield (as it did, of course, till 1863), and Darfield was one of the biggest parishes in the rural deanery of Doncaster, the local sub-division of the great diocese of York. The parish, which in 1546 was estimated to have a population of a thousand “houselynge people.” included, besides Darfield and Wombwell, the villages of Great and Little Houghton, Billingley, Ardsley, and Worsborough, the last village being in the next wapentake of Staincross.
Other neighbouring parishes, however, were scarcely less extensive—Wath, for instance, included Brampton, Hoyland Nether, Wentworth, and Swinton.
At Wombwell the immediate spiritual needs of the community were served by the chapel of St. Mary, already in 1440 an ancient structure consisting of a small nave, chancel, and tower, which survived (though enlarged with an aisle in 1835), till it was demolished in the late 1890’s to make room for the present parish church. The chapel which served the same purpose at Great Houghton still exists. The priest at Wombwell was therefore only a minor figure, probably the chaplain who ministered to the Wombwell family at the Hall. His name in 1452 was William Carter.
The two miles from Wombwell to the parish church at Darfield were, in effect, a much greater distance than they are now. Trouble and inconvenience often arose from the frequent impassability of the River Dove, especially when it flooded and covered the “stoney ford.” for there was no bridge.
In 1546 the chaplain at Wombwell. Robert Curteys, told the King’s Commissioners who came round to enquire about the chantries that his chapel was “dystaunt from the sayd parysshe church a myle. The necessitie is that there is a water betwyn the sayd church and the chapel, that th’ inhabitantes there can by no means come to the sayd church at dyvers tymes.
” The “Stoney” Ford.
As early as 1346 there is a mention of the flooding of the Dove at the ford, which prevented parishioners going from Wombwell to Darfield. It seems that in order to meet this difficulty the road between the two places was made of stone which must have been rather an unusual feature, for most roads at this time and for much later, of course were mere earthen tracks.
In 1452 Thomas Wombwell, the lord of the manor, left 20 shillings in his will “for maintaining and repairing the stone way leading from Wombwell to Darfield.” When the people of Wombwell went to their parish church it is probable that they occupied a part set aside for them, for we find in 1454 a bequest towards the upkeep of the Wombwell quarter of the church.
Perhaps this was in the south aisle, for this is the part of the church where most of the Wombwell relics are found. The wooden roof of the aisle, for instance, was probably put in by one of the Wombwell family in the fifteenth century, the unicorn’s head, the arms borne by the family, still appears on it. Darfield Church at this time (as indeed till 1906 when the second mediety was dissolved), had two incumbents, and they often appear in connection with Wombwell affairs at this time. The advowson of the rectory was part of the property of the Woodhall Manor to which it had been given by Thomas Fitzwilliam in 1275, and the rectory was occupied for many years of the fifteenth century by members of family which lived at ley.
The incumbent of the second mediety was a vicar, the representative or deputy of the rectors who from 1362 to 1546 were the Knights of the Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem.
Only a few years earlier, in 1429. Thomas Wykersley, the rector of Darfield had gone to the French wars as a chaplain in the retinue of John Lord Lescrope. At this time the English had begun to suffer reverses, they had been driven from Orleans and defeated by the French inspired and led by their new commander. Joan of Arc. Perhaps Thomas Wykersley had been there.
Lath and Plaster Dwellings.
But what of Wombwell itself? Its inhabitants in 1440 probably numbered about 200 and the number of houses perhaps 50. These would almost certainly be gathered round the church on either side of the four roads which met there, and these would be no better than narrow tracks. The houses perhaps extended to the south as far as where the Baths are now, to the north as far as the present Working Men’s Club; as far as the Wesleyan Church to the east and the old Congregational Church to the west. They would be very small structures of lath and plaster with perhaps a small plot of land attached, and doubtless they smelt horribly. If any of the cottages were bigger than the rest they were probably those of the priest and the bailiff of the manor, though there might not have been a bailiff (there is no mention of one) and the priest might have lived in the Hall, where there was a private chapel.
Occasionally it is possible to get to know the names of some of the houses, for instance, at Darfield at this time there was a house called Oyel’s or Oyle’s Place, and later one called Seynt Mary Howse where the chantry priest lived, and at Bolton-on-Dearne in 1400 there was one called Hermytman Place. This is not so at Wombwell. But we do know that there were almshouses for five poor old widows somewhere near the Chapel of St. Mary.
The largest house in the village was the Hall or manor house, the seat of the Wombwell family. This stood on the site now occupied by the present Wombwell Hall, though the latter, of course, is a relatively new building. It stood that is to say, on the edge of the edge of the village on the north side of the road going to Wath. The Hall at this time consisted of a hall proper to which were attached rooms then known as the lady chamber, the new chamber, the parlour chamber, and a chamber called the “Heghtour.” clearly in a kind of tower. Added to these there was a solar, the private room of the master of the house and a chapel, probably attached to it. Besides these there was also a kitchen and a brewhouse, and perhaps barns, stables, dovecotes, and so on. These buildings disappeared during the course of last century.
When the Wombwell family ceased to live in Wombwell in the late eighteenth century, the Hall was sold and fell into a state of disrepair, and in 1830, when the local antiquary Hunter described it. the buildings were “divided into a number of sordid dwellings, but the whole edifice,” he adds. “still exhibits some traces of its former consequence.”
The Drax Family.
Another large house just outside the village was the Woodhall which lay somewhere between Wombwell and Darfield on the Wombwell side of the River Dove, but its exact position is obscure. In the fifteenth century it belonged to the Drax family which acquired it by marriage. Robert Drax,”lord of the manor or place of Wodehall.” and Eleanor, his wife, obtained an indult from the Pope in 1441 to possess a portable altar. Originally, in the thirteenth century, it had belonged to the Fitzwilliams. who held it of the honor of Tickhill.
About the people who lived in Wombwell at this time—or, in point of fact, some fifty years earlier—there is a most important source of evidence. In 1379 the government of Richard II, in order to raise money for the French decided to levy a poll tax on every person over the age of 14, each person to be assessed according to his wealth and social station, the minimum sum being a groat (4d.). The tax was assessed and collected in the different hundreds, or wapentakes as they were called in Yorkshire, and in the wapentake of Strafforth and Tickhill the collectors appointed were Sir Peter Manleverer a local landowner, and Richard Lower, a Doncaster lawyer.
The returns which they made to the Exchequer still exist and can be examined in the Public Record Office. Not only are the total sums collected in each town and village of the wapentake given but the name of every man and woman who paid and the exact sum which they paid. So that we can discover the names of every adult person who lived in Wombwell in 1379—at the time, roughly. when William Langland was writing the Vision of Piers, the Ploughman, and Chaucer telling the tales of the Canterbury pilgrims, and John Wyclif translating the Bible into English and denouncing the claims of the Popes. And not only can we know their names but also their relative prosperity and sometimes their occupations.
Among those, for instance, who paid over fourpence were Richard de Smythelay, the tailor, and his wife Alice: William Tyncker, the locksmith, and his wife Joan; John de Deyn, the shoemaker, and his wife Elena: William del Clay. the butcher, and his wife Margery, who all paid sixpence, and Alice Shepshank, the chapman, who paid as much as a shilling. But the majority paid only fourpence, and among these were Roger de Cauthorne and John de Holyngworth. John de Melton and Thomas Mekesburgh. and a pair with a most picturesque name. John Bythebroke and his wife Cecilia.
In all, at Wombwell 193 persons paid the tax, and we can well imagine their cursings and grumblings as they did so. For it was this poll tax and that which followed it in 1380 which provoked the rising of the peasantry in Kent, Essex and East Anglia in 1381.
(Article II. next week).