Derwent and the Howardian Hills

“Malton is the only town on the Derwent, and it is made up of three separate places—Old Malton, a picturesque village; New Malton, a pleasant and oldfashioned town; and Norton, a curiously extensive suburb. The last has a Norman font in its modern church, and there its attractions begin and end. New Malton has a fortunate position on a slope well above the lush grass by the river, and in this way arranges the backs of its houses with unconscious charm. The two churches, although both containing Norman pillars and arches, have been so extensively rebuilt that their antiquarian interest is slight.

On account of its undoubted signs of Roman occupation in the form of two rectangular camps, and its situation at the meeting-place of some three or four Roman roads, New Malton has been with great probability identified with the Delgovitia of the Antonine Itinerary.

Old Malton is a cheerful and well-kept village, with antique cottages here and there, roofed with mossy thatch. It makes a pretty picture as you come along the level road from Pickering, with a group of trees on the left and the tower of the Priory Church appearing sedately above the humble roofs. A Gilbertine monastery was founded here about the middle of the twelfth century, during the lifetime of St. Gilbert of Sempringham in Lincolnshire, who during the last year of his long life sent a letter to the Canons of Malton, addressing them as 'My dear sons.' Little remains of Malton Priory with the exception of the church, built at the very beginning of the Early English period. Of the two western towers, the southern one only survives, and both aisles, two bays of the nave, and everything else to the east has gone. The abbreviated nave now serves as a parish church.

Between Malton and the Vale of York there lies that stretch of hilly country we saw from the edge of the Wolds, for some time past known as the Howardian Hills, from Castle Howard which stands in their midst. The many interests that this singularly remote neighbourhood contains can be realized by making such a peregrination as we made through the Wolds.

There is no need to avoid the main road south of Malton. It has a park-like appearance, with its large trees and well-kept grass on each side, and the glimpses of the wooded valley of the Derwent on the left are most beautiful. On the right we look across the nearer grasslands into the great park of Castle Howard, and catch glimpses between the distant masses of trees of Lord Carlisle's stately home. The old castle of the Howards having been burnt down, Vanbrugh, the greatest architect of early Georgian times, designed the enormous building now standing. In 1772 Horace Walpole compressed the glories of the place into a few sentences. '... I can say with exact truth,' he writes to George Selwyn,' that I never was so agreeably astonished in my days as with the first vision of the whole place. I had heard of Vanburgh, and how Sir Thomas Robinson and he stood spitting and swearing at one another; nay, I had heard of glorious woods, and Lord Strafford alone had told me that I should see one of the finest places in Yorkshire; but nobody ... had informed me that should at one view see a palace, a town, a fortified city; temples on high places, woods worthy of being each metropolis of the Druids, vales connected to hills by other woods, the noblest lawn in the world fenced by half the horizon, and a mausoleum that would tempt one to be buried alive; in short, I have seen gigantic places before, but never a sublime one.'

The style is that of the Corinthian renaissance, and Walpole's description applies as much to-day as when he wrote. The pictures include some of the masterpieces of Reynolds, Lely, Vandyck, Rubens, Tintoretto, Canaletto, Giovanni Bellini Domenichino and Annibale Caracci.

Two or three miles to the south, the road finds itself close to the deep valley of the Derwent. A short turning embowered with tall trees whose dense foliage only allows a soft green light to filter through, goes steeply down to the river. We cross the deep and placid river by a stone bridge, and come to the Priory gateway. It is a stately ruin partially mantled with ivy, and it preserves in a most remarkable fashion the detail of its outward face.

The mossy steps of the cross just outside the gateway are, according to a tradition in one of the Cottonian manuscripts, associated with the event which led to the founding of the Abbey by Walter Espec, lord of Helmsley. He had, we are told, an only son, also named Walter, who was fond of riding with exceeding swiftness.

One day when galloping at a great pace his horse stumbled near a small stone, and young Espec was brought violently to the ground, breaking his neck and leaving his father childless. The grief-stricken parent is said to have found consolation in the founding of three abbeys, one of them being at Kirkham, where the fatal accident took place.

Of the church and conventual buildings only a few fragments remain to tell us that this secluded spot by the Derwent must have possessed one of the most stately monasteries in Yorkshire. One tall lancet is all that has been left of the church; and of the other buildings a few walls, a beautiful Decorated lavatory, and a Norman doorway alone survive.

Stamford Bridge, which is reached by no direct road from Kirkham Abbey, is so historically fascinating that we must leave the hills for a time to see the site of that momentous battle between Harold, the English King, and the Norwegian army, under Harold Hardrada and Harold's brother Tostig. The English host made their sudden attack from the right bank of the river, and the Northmen on that side, being partially armed, were driven back across a narrow wooden bridge. One Northman, it appears, played the part of Horatius in keeping the English at bay for a time. When he fell, the Norwegians had formed up their shield-wall on the left bank of the river, no doubt on the rising ground just above the village. That the final and decisive phase of the battle took place there Freeman has no doubt.

Stamford Bridge being, as already mentioned, the most probable site of the Roman Derventio, it was natural that some village should have grown up at such an important crossing of the river.

An unfrequented road through a belt of picturesque woodland goes from Stamford Bridge past Sand Hutton to the highway from York to Malton. If we take the branch-road to Flaxton, we soon see, over the distant trees, the lofty towers of Sheriff Hutton Castle, and before long reach a silent village standing near the imposing ruin. The great rectangular space, enclosed by huge corner-towers and half-destroyed curtain walls, is now utilized as the stackyard of a farm, and the effect as we approach by a footpath is most remarkable. It seems scarcely possible that this is the castle Leland described with so much enthusiasm. 'I saw no House in the North so like a Princely Logginges,' he says, and also describes 'the stately Staire up to the Haul' as being very magnificent.

We come to the north-west tower, and look beyond its ragged outline to the distant country lying to the west, grass and arable land with trees appearing to grow so closely together at a short distance, that we have no difficulty in realizing that this was the ancient Forest of Galtres, which reached from Sheriff Hutton and Easingwold to the very gates of York.

In the complete loneliness of the ruins, with the silence only intensified by the sounds of fluttering wings in the tops of the towers, we in imagination sweep away the haystacks and reinstate the former grandeur of the fortress in the days of Ralph Neville, first Earl of Westmorland. It was he who rebuilt the Norman castle of Bertram de Bulmer, Sheriff of Yorkshire, on a grander scale. Upon the death of Warwick, the Kingmaker, in 1471, Edward IV gave the castle and manor of Sheriff Hutton to his brother Richard, afterwards Richard III, and it was he who kept Edward IV's eldest child Elizabeth a prisoner within these massive walls. The unfortunate Edward, Earl of Warwick, the eldest son of George, Duke of Clarence, when only eight years old, was also incarcerated here for about three years. Richard III, the usurper, when he lost his only son, had thought of making this boy his heir, but the unfortunate child was passed over in favour of John de la Pole, Earl of Lincoln, and remained in close confinement at Sheriff Hutton until August, 1485, when the Battle of Bosworth placed Henry VII on the throne. Sir Robert Willoughby soon afterwards arrived at the castle, and took the little Earl to London. Princess Elizabeth was also sent for at the same time, but whether both the Royal prisoners travelled together does not appear to be recorded. The terrible pathos of this simultaneous removal from the castle lay in the fact that Edward was to play the part of Pharaoh's chief baker, and Elizabeth that of the chief butler; for, after fourteen years in the Tower of London, the Earl of Warwick was beheaded, while the King, after five months, raised up Elizabeth to be his Queen. Even in those callous times the fate of the Prince was considered cruel, for it was pointed out after his execution, that, as he had been kept in imprisonment since he was eight years old, and had no knowledge or experience of the world, he could hardly have been accused of any malicious purpose. So cut off from all the common sights of everyday life was the miserable boy that it was said 'that he could not discern a goose from a capon.'

Portions of the Augustinian Priory are built into the house called Newburgh Priory, and these include the walls of the kitchen and some curious carvings showing on the exterior. William of Newburgh, the historian, whose writings end abruptly in 1198—probably the year of his death—was a canon of the Priory, and spent practically his whole life there. In his preface he denounced the inaccuracies and fictions of the writings of Geoffrey of Monmouth. At the Dissolution Newburgh was given by Henry VIII to Anthony Belasyse, the punning motto of whose family was Bonne et belle assez. One of his descendants was created Lord Fauconberg by Charles I, and the peerage became extinct in 1815, on the death of the seventh to bear the title. The last owner—Sir George Wombwell, Bart.—inherited the property from his grandmother, who was a daughter of the last Lord Fauconberg. Sir George was one of the three surviving officers who took part in the charge of the Light Brigade at Balaclava on October 25, 1854.

The late Duke of Cambridge paid several visits to Newburgh, occupying what is generally called 'the Duke's Room.' Rear-Admiral Lord Adolphus Fitz-Clarence, whose father was George IV, died in 1856 in the bed still kept in this room. In a glass case, at the end of a long gallery crowded with interest, are kept the uniform and accoutrements Sir George wore at Balaclava.

The second Lord Fauconberg, who was raised from Viscount to the rank of Earl in 1689, was warmly attached to the Parliamentary side in the Civil War, and took as his second wife Cromwell's third daughter, Mary. This close connexion with the Protector explains the inscription upon a vault immediately over one of the entrances to the Priory. On a small metal plate is written:

'In this vault are Cromwell's bones, brought here, it is believed, by his daughter Mary, Countess of Fauconberg, at the Restoration, when his remains were disinterred from Westminster Abbey.'

The letters 'R.I.P.' below are only just visible, an attempt having been made to erase them. No one seems to have succeeded in finally clearing up the mystery of the last resting-place of Cromwell's remains. The body was exhumed from its tomb in Henry VII.'s Chapel at Westminster, and hung on the gallows at Tyburn on January 30, 1661—the twelfth anniversary of the execution of Charles I—and the head was placed upon a pole raised above St. Stephen's Hall, and had a separate history, which is known. Lord Fauconberg is said to have become a Royalist at the Restoration, and if this were true, he would perhaps have been able to secure the decapitated remains of his father-in-law, after their burial at the foot of the gallows at Tyburn. It has often been stated that a sword, bridle, and other articles belonging to Cromwell are preserved at Newburgh Priory, but this has been conclusively shown to be a mistake, the objects having been traced to one of the Belasyses. 30

Coxwold has that air of neatness and well-preserved antiquity which is so often to be found in England where the ancient owners of the land still spend a large proportion of their time in the great house of the village. There is a very wide street, with picturesque old houses on each side, which rises gently towards the church. A great tree with twisted branches—whether oak or elm, I cannot remember—stands at the top of the street opposite the churchyard, and adds much charm to the village. The inn has recently lost its thatch, but is still a quaint little house with the typical Yorkshire gable, finished with a stone ball. On the great sign fixed to the wall are the arms and motto of the Fauconbergs, and the interior is full of old-fashioned comfort and cleanliness. Nearly opposite stand the almshouses, dated 1662.

The church is chiefly Perpendicular, with a rather unusual octagonal tower. In the eighteenth century the chancel was rebuilt, but the Fauconberg monuments in it were replaced. Sir William Belasyse, who received the Newburgh property from his uncle, the first owner, died in 1603, and his fine Jacobean tomb, painted in red, black and gold, shows him with a beard and ruff. His portrait hangs in one of the drawing-rooms of the Priory. The later monuments, adorned with great carved figures, are all interesting. They encroach so much on the space in the narrow chancel that a most curious method for lengthening the communion-rail has been resorted to—that of bringing forward from the centre a long narrow space enclosed with the rails. From the pulpit Laurence Sterne preached when he was incumbent here for the last eight years of his life. He came to Coxwold in 1760, and took up his abode in the charming old house he quaintly called 'Shandy Hall.' It is on the opposite side of the road to the church, and has a stone roof and one of those enormous chimneys so often to be found in the older farmsteads of the north of England. Sterne's study was the very small room on the right-hand side of the entrance doorway; it now contains nothing associated with him, and there is more pleasure in viewing the outside of the house than is gained by obtaining permission to enter.

During his last year at Coxwold, when his rollicking, boisterous spirits were much subdued, Sterne completed his 'Sentimental Journey.' He also relished more than before the country delights of the village, describing it in one of his letters as 'a land of plenty.' Every day he drove out in his chaise, drawn by two long-tailed horses, until one day his postilion met with an accident from one his master's pistols, which went off in his hand. 'He instantly fell on his knees,' wrote Sterne, 'and said "Our Father, which art in Heaven, hallowed be Thy name"—at which, like a good Christian, he stopped, not remembering any more of it.'

The beautiful Hambleton Hills begin to rise up steeply about two miles north of Coxwold, and there we come upon the ruins of Byland Abbey. Their chief feature is the west end of the church, with its one turret pointing a finger to the heavens, and the lower portion of a huge circular window, without any sign of tracery. This fine example of Early English work is illustrated here. The whole building appears to be the original structure built soon after 1177, for it shows everywhere the transition from Norman to Early English which was taking place at the close of the twelfth century. The founders were twelve monks and an abbot, named Gerald, who left Furness Abbey in 1134, and after some vicissitudes came to the notice of Gundred, the mother of Roger de Mowbray, either by recommendation or by accident. One account pictures the holy men on their way to Archbishop Thurstan at York, with all their belongings in one wagon drawn by eight oxen, and describes how they chanced to meet Gundreda's steward as they journeyed near Thirsk. Through Gundreda the monks went to Hode, and after four years received land at Old Byland, where they wished to build an abbey.31 This position was found to be too close to Rievaulx, whose bells could be too plainly heard, so that five years later the restless community obtained a fresh grant of land from De Mowbray, at a place called Stocking, where they remained until they came to Byland.

Recent excavation and preservation operations carried out by H.M. Office of Works have added many lost features to the ruins including the exposure of the whole of the floor level of the church hitherto buried under grassy mounds. Almost any of the roads to the east go through surprisingly attractive scenery. There are heathery commons, roads embowered with great spreading trees, or running along open hill-sides, and frequently lovely views of the Hambletons and more distant moors in the north.

In scenery of this character stands Gilling Castle, the seat of the Fairfaxes for some three centuries. It possesses one of the most beautiful Elizabethan dining-rooms to be found in this country. The walls are panelled to a considerable height, the remaining space being filled with paintings of decorative trees, one for each wapentake of Yorkshire. Each tree is covered with the coats of arms of the great families of that time in the wapentake. The brilliant colours against the dark green of the trees form a most suitable relief to the uniform brown of the panelling. In addition to the charm of the room itself, the view from the windows into a deep hollow clothed with dense foliage, with a distant glimpse of country beyond, is unlike anything I have seen elsewhere.

More to follow ....



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