Just before Covid19 locked us all down, I went to meet a friend for our regular coffee date in one of my favourite North Yorkshire towns, Knaresborough, which is only a short drive from where I live. Finding myself with an hour to spare, (I’d managed to get the time wrong) and as it was a bright, sunny Spring morning, I decided to use the time to explore a little further afield from the town centre with which I was so familiar – along the narrow winding lanes that spread, like the tentacles of an octupus, out from the ancient market square. It wasn’t long before I came across a couple of humble, but nonetheless fascinating Medieval structures that are rather overshadowed by Knaresborough’s more famous landmarks – the Castle, the House in the Rock and of course the Nidd Gorge.
Knaresborough is a very ancient market town with Saxon origins. It’s mentioned in the Domsday Book as Chenaresburg (meaning Cenheard’s fortress) and has some fascinating historical connections. Lord Hugh de Morville, the first Lord of Knaresborough is infamous for being the leader of the group of four knights who murdered Archbishop Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral on the 29th December 1170 – they fled to Knaresborough and hid in the Castle.
In 1328 the castle, town and surrounding forests were granted to Philippa of Hainault as part of her marriage settlement when she married Edward III. It became a favourite home and Knaresborough prospered enormously from being a royal town. After her death it passed to their younger son, John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster – he of the famous speech about our country – given him by Shakespeare in Richard II:
‘This royal throne of kings, this sceptered isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This fortress built by nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as moat defensive to a house
Against the envy of less happier lands;
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England…’
(To my mind, this is the greatest expression of love and loyalty to one’s country and its people, that has ever been written and which so many, working in the NHS and in the key occupations and professions, are now demonstrating every single day in these strange and dangerous times).
Since then the castle has been part of the Duchy of Lancaster. Oliver Cromwell ordered it demolished after the battle of Marston Moor (which took place only 11 miles away on 2nd July 1644) in the Civil War between Charles I and the Parliamentarians. The Knaresborough townsfolk completed its ruination by looting the stone – many of the town centre buildings are built from castle stone – which brings me nicely back to the my less grand histroical discoveries.
I turned into Church Lane, which leads to Knaresborough’s medieval parish church (c.1114 – originally dedicated to St Mary and known as the Queen’s Church because of Queen Philippa’s devotion to it and the town but re-dedicated to John the Baptist by Protestant Reformers) where I found this wonderfully preserved example of a 15th century house. It was built in 1487 – the year of the battle of Stoke Field, the last battle of the Wars of the Roses and is still a private home.
A little further afield, along a narrow path, leading off Abbey Road (the old pilgrim’s route to the now disappeared Knaresborough Abbey) and not far from the House in the Rock, I came across a tiny chapel cut out of the sandstone in cliff face of the Nidd gorge. The shrine of Our Lady of the Crag dates back to 1408 and has an intruiguing legend, of a miracle taking place there, attached to it. John, a Master Mason working on the Castle, was accompanied to the nearby quarry one day by his small son. The boy was caught in the path of a sudden rock fall and his father, being too far away to save him cried out a prayer to the virgin Mary entreating her to save him and the rockfall changed its direction. In gratitude he built a chapel to her. Interestingly, there is a record of the Bishop of York visiting the shrine in 1428 – the priest was a John Mason – did the Master Mason’s son become a priest in the chapel his father built?
As I retraced my steps to keep my coffee date (for which I was now late!) I couldn’t help thinking that it was the insignificance of these two little-known historical gems that ensured their survival; when those of greater importance succumbed to the upheavals that took place through the centuries. To finish on a cliche – if only the house could talk and tell us about the lives of the ordinary families who lived beneath its roof and the shrine was able to tell about pilgrims who visited it.