A traffic snarl-up in the centre of York last summer led to a spur-of-the-moment decision to abandon a trip to the East Coast and instead to head for one of my favourite places, historic Beverley. Each time I’ve visited, I’ve learned something new about the lives of the people who lived there during the middle ages. This latest visit was no exception and so I thought I’d share with you, some fascinating facts about this charming medieval town, which for me, has always held a greater fascination than York.
Beverley’s two beautiful medieval churches, St Mary’s Church and Beverley Minster are much written about already, so I won’t go into lengthy, detailed descriptions except to say that both are considered to be masterpieces of English Perpendicular and Decorated church architecture – the former’s late 14th century western front is said to have influenced the chapel of Kings College Cambridge and the Minster’s two tall, graceful towers built c. 1400 are the inspiration for the western towers of Westminster Abbey, built in the 18th century by Nicholas Hawksmoor.
Inside these two buildings there are a couple of links with Beverley’s medieval past that captivated my interest – one was evidence of the town’s heritage of secular music – going back nearly six centuries and the other a link to the Wars of the Roses, to King Richard III and Henry VII – but first, let me tell you a little about Beverley itself.
Only a short distance from York (around 40 minutes by car) Beverley could be called a mini version of that illustrious city. Tucked away in the Yorkshire Wolds and slightly off the beaten track, it remains largely overlooked, probably because of the proximity of its grander, high-profile neighbour, but to my mind this is all to the good, as its ancient streets remain unclogged by hordes of visitors, allowing those who do find their way there, the time and space to explore and appreciate its intriguing historical past.
Beverley dates back to Saxon times when in the early 8th century a monastery was founded by Bishop John of York (he was canonised in 1037 as St John of Beverley because of the many miracles that occurred around his tomb) in a place known as Inderawuda – archaeological research shows that Inderawuda is where Beverley Minster stands today.
In the Domesday Book, written in 1086, Beverley is recorded as being ‘always free from the king’s geld‘ (tax) because of its connections to the Church. It was also recorded as a sizeable, prosperous place, with large wooded pastures. Medieval Beverley didn’t have stone walls, but it did have a deep ditch and earth ramparts (still evident to the West of the town) with wooden pallisades on top.
There were four stone entry gates (known as Bars) which were also Toll-gates; those who wished to trade in the town had to pay a tax. Only one now survives, North Bar, rebuilt in brick in 1409. As the town grew, a suberb appeared outside the gate and became known as North Bar Without, the buildings inside were called North Bar Within.
At first the town was owned and controlled by the Archbishops of York, but in time the Archbishops’ grip weakened and the town’s merchants increasingly took control, until in the 14th century, Beverley was run by a Council of twelve Keepers, elected by the merchants of the town. In the late 14th century the population was over 5,000. By the standards of the time it was a very substantial and flourishing town – much larger than Hull. On the day of our visit, we parked the car beneath the shady oak trees of the Westwood (dealt with later in this blog)) and took a leisurely 15-minute stroll along the pasture through a herd of incurious cattle and entered the town through the North Bar.
The Church granted the people of Beverley land on three sides of the town. Figham, Swinemoor and Westwood, were for the benefit of the townspeople; for their livelihoods and leisure. The pastures were put to all sorts of use through the ages – the townspeople used them to graze their stock – something still done today. The oak trees on Westwood were felled for shipbuilding and for Beverley’s tanning industry. The clay and chalk from Swinemoor was used in Brickmaking – North Bar is built from Beverley bricks. Some of the pastures were also cultivated for crops; windmills were built to produce Beverley flour. Cockfighting, bull-baiting and early horse racing took place on the pastures. On Westwood, just beyond North Bar there stood a gallows and nearby was a ducking pond for the humiliation of unruly, women, ‘too free dames, saucy queans’ and suspect witches. The last grant, Westwood, was given in 1380. It, along with the other common lands, became known as Beverley Pastures and to this day form a ‘green belt’ around Beverley.
The craftsmen and merchants of Beverley, as in all major medieval towns and cities all over Europe, formed themselves into Guilds. These organizations filled many niches in medieval communities both secular and religious. They set standards for quality of workmanship and services; oversaw the training of apprentices, protected the interests and welfare their members; providing debt relief, sickness protection and cared for widows and orphans. The Guilds also had a civic responsibility, they policed their members’ behaviour, setting high moral standards. Provided militia to keep streets safe and contributed funds for the construction of public buildings – such as churches, guildhalls and town walls. Most residents of any consequence in Beverley would have belonged to a Guild.
The Medieval Mystery plays are a prime example of the Guilds’ deep-rooted entrenchment in the life of a medieval town. When in the late 13th century, Pope Innocent III issued an edict forbidding the clergy from acting out biblical stories, (Miracle plays that taught the common folk, as church services were all in Latin) these simple dramas were taken over by the Guilds. They became the ‘Mystery Plays’. (The word ‘mystery’ in the context of the time meant specialised skill – the Latin ‘ministerium’ meaning craft) Each Guild took responsibility for the performance of a particular piece of biblical history.
They were performed around the towns over a period of two days – not on a stage by troupes of professional actors, unknown to the audience, but on pageant wagons in the streets by ordinary local people. In time their religious message evolved, non-biblical passages were added along with comic scenes; dialogue and characterization became more elaborate. I think it’s safe to say that modern drama has its roots in the Mystery Plays.
In Beverley a collection of 36 plays were staged around the town by its 38 Guilds. They became so popular that their performance was extended to the three days of Whitsuntide. Beverley’s Great Guild Book, a register of the towns local craft and trade guilds, records their pageant assignments and for the year 1392 there is an interesting notation agains the guild of smiths – it was fined for failing to perform their pageant in accordance with the ordinances (rules).
Henry VIII’s schism with Rome and the subsequent Reformation put an end to these plays, they were banned in 1543 – condemned by the Protestant Church as ‘the popish progeny of ancient heathen theatre and full of ungodly errors and superstition – a Bastard of Babylon.’ They disappeared to be replaced by the Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre. However, some manuscripts survived. The plays were revived in the early 20th century and are now regularly performed – those of York, Wakefield, Chester, Lichfield and a few others. Sadly, none of the Beverley Mystery play texts can be found but in the Great Guild Book there is a record of the order of procession and the stations (locations in the streets) for the year 1498.
My interest was sparked by ‘The Minstrels Pillar’ in the nave of St Mary’s church, located just inside the North Bar; (this church dates back to the 12th century, making it older than the minster.) At the top are carvings of five of musicians – above them is an inscription stating that ‘Thys pillar Made the Meynstryls’ (this pillar is made by the Minstrels). On the other side of the column is a latin inscription requesting prayers to be said for the souls of minstrels. On doing some research, I found that Beverley was the Guild headquarters for all musicians in the North East of England. Their ordinances state that ‘no minstrel should perform in public without becoming a Guild member and that all minstrels from the Trent to the Tweed, will gather, to elect their leader, at a great annual meeting held in Beverley at the Cross Fair, each year in May.’ The Guild of Royal Minstrels was founded and given a charter in 1469 by Edward IV when the reputation of wandering minstrels had declined badly, to that of ‘rude rustics and artificers.’ He ordered all to join or stop being minstrels. The Beverley minstrels guild sponsored the repair of the pillar when the church’s central tower collapsed on the 29th April 1520.
There’s also a reference in the Great Guild Book of Guildmasters being entertained in their ‘castles’ (VIP stands) by the minstrels – was this group with their idyosincratic hairstyles and colourful clothing England’s first pop group?
The minstrels pillar and the numerous carvings of medieval musicians and their instruments (0ver 30 in St Mary’s and 70 in the Minster) point to Beverley’s centuries-long tradition of non-religious music and to the existence of a little-known but all important Musicians Guild.
Anyone with an interest in the history of music and musical instruments would surely find a visit to Beverley totally absorbing.
Beverley’s link to the Wars of the Roses is found in the Minster – in the Northumberland Chapel. Behind a wrought iron gate is the tomb of Henry Percy 4th Earl of Northumberland.
In case you are wondering why he’s buried here instead of Alnwick Castle – the Percys were an ancient Yorkshire family long before they became associated with Alnwick Castle and Northumberland. William I granted the Yorkshire estates of Wressle, Topcliffe, Leconfield, Malton and Skipton to a French William de Percy after the conquest. It was not until 1309 when the 1st Baron de Percy bought the Barony of Alnwick from the Bishop of Durham for cash, that Alnwick castle becomes associated with the Percy family. From the early 14th century to the later 16th Century, their principal seat was Leconfield Castle, just north of Beverley; the 4th earl was born there.
He commanded King Richard III’s rearguard at the battle of Bosworth Field and when Sir William Stanley betrayed the king and attacked him, Henry Percy stood by and watched, failing to engage his troops – thus playing an important part in the defeat and death of Richard III. He was imprisoned by Henry Tudor but later pardoned and allowed to retain his titles and lands. In April 1489 Henry sent him to Yorkshire to raise taxes for his military campaign to defend the Duchy of Brittany against France. (Brittany was Henry’s primary base during his exile). Was this a test of Percy’s loyalty? The people of Yorkshire however, had little love for this conquering king with his foreign army; there had been a bad harvest in 1488 and they were unwilling to give money to fight his wars. The attitude of the people so alarmed the earl that he ordered Sir Robert Plumpton of Seamer, Scarborough to bring as many armed men as possible to Thirsk as quickly as possible.
On the 28th April the people rioted. With a force of 800 men at his back the earl confronted them at Cocks Lodge near Topcliffe. The mob dragged him from his horse and murdered him – his own retainers watched and didn’t come to his aid. The riot was ostensibly against the high taxation but ‘Good King Richard’ was extremely popular in the North – and these northern folk obviously knew how to hold a grudge! York’s loyalty to him was renowned; in its Council Book he is described as ‘the moost famous prince of blissed memory,’ and the city’s outrage at the news of his death at Bosworth is self-evident, in an entry in the book the day after the battle, ‘King Richard late mercifully reigning upon us through grete treason was pitiously slane and murdred to the grete hevynesse of this citie.’ Two days after the battle, Henry Tudor’s emissary was too afraid to enter the city. The Earl of Surrey had to be sent North to supress the rebellion. Ironically, one of its leaders was Sir John Egremont – a Percy cousin. I can’t help thinking of the implications if the 4th Earl had done the job he was supposed to do – engaged his troops – and Richard III had won. There would have been no Tudors, no Henry VIII, no Reformation and Church of England, no James I and no Gunpowder Plot, no Civil War and Cromwell – the whole history of our country would have been set on a different path.
Finally, return with me to St Mary’s church, this time to the late 17th century. On the external southern wall of the chancel there is an intriguing and rather sad plaque commemorating the burial of two young Danish soldiers.
Here two young Danish souldiers lye.
The one in quarrell chanc’d to die,
The others Head by their own Law
With sword was sever’d at one Blow.
December the 23rd 1689
Who knows what their quarrell was about – an insult, money or a woman, the reason is lost in history but contained in this little monument is a big story. It is significant in that it points to Beverley’s involvement in a turbulent and crucial period in the history of this country namely, ‘The Glorious Revolution,’ of 1688-89. This was when the catholic Stuart King James II was forced from the throne in a bloodless coup and replaced by his Protestant daughter Mary and her Dutch husband William of Orange. They were crowned William III and Mary II.
What led to this crisis was James’ behaviour – his suspension of Parliament in 1685 and rule by decree; his close ties to Louis XIV and catholic France; his appointment of catholic officers to the army; his Declaration of Indulgence suspending penal laws against catholics and his announcement that his new male heir (born in 1688 and displacing Mary) would be raised as a catholic, outraged Parliament. Faced with the prospect of a Roman Catholic dynasty, a coalition of prominent politicians, both Whig and Tory wrote to William, inviting him to rescue England from catholic rule and he, wishing to bring England into his war with France, agreed. He landed at Brixham in Devon on the 5th November 1688. News of his invasion sparked anti-catholic rioting in towns and cities all over England. The civil unrest and the defection of many of his supporters convinced James to desert his kingdom and flee to France.
The revolution was relatively bloodless in England, but in Scotland and Ireland this was not the case. In both these countries, over three years of bloody fighting took place. When in March 1689 James landed in Ireland with French support, seeking to reclaim his throne, William signed a Treaty of Assistance with the Danish king, Christian V, who provided him with 7,000 troops. These troops disembarked in Hull from Danish ships and were billeted around Beverley on their way to Ireland. Abraham de la Pryme, a Curate in Hull records in his diary in 1689 that they were ‘the best equip’d and disciplin’d of any that was ever seen.’ He writes that they were ‘all stout fine men…godly and religious. You would never hear an oath or ugly word come out of their mouths. They adher’d to a strict discipline in social conduct and church observances.’ And goes on to say ‘although they enjoyed strong ale I only witnessed when I was amongst them – and that was all Winter – 5 or 6 who were drunk. They were however, allowed to play cards on Sundays after Church service was over.’
Lieutenant Daniel Straker and Coronet Johannes Frederick Bellow were part of this contingent of Danish troops and this is the tragic story behind that poignant memorial. The two young cavalry officers quarrelled violently and this ended with a vicious, bloody sword fight in the streets of Beverley. Straker was gravely wounded, when he fell to the ground there is a story that he was clutching the blood-soaked handkerchief given to him by his wife Ana, who had died some years earlier. Under Danish Articles of War, duelling was illegal, if it caused death, it carried the death sentence. Bellow was Court Martialled under the jurisdiction of the Danish Commander in Chief, Duke Ferdinand Wilhelm, The Grim. He was sentenced to be beheaded (with his own sword according to the story) in Beverley Market place on 23rd December – his death was the last execution to take place by a sword in England.
In the Beverley archives there is an account of the young officer’s beheading, as told to the grandaughter of an eyewitness to the event. A scafford was erected in the market place, two cartloads of gravel were scattered at the base to soak up the blood. Soldiers lined the streets and mounted soldiers surrounded the scaffold, as crowds had gathered from near and far. The bells of St Mary’s church tolled and as the sword fell upon Mr Bulow’s neck there were loud anguished shrieks from the women in the crowd. The two men were buried side by side and an entry in the Danish Archives records that the memorial plaque was made and engraved on the instruction of their military commander – The Danish Chief Cuirassier, who himself composed the English verse inscription.
It’s rare for a church to commemorate such a violent secular incident, but according to Abraham the people of the town had taken to the Danish troops as they were, ‘mighty good natured and civil and the English were, all over hereabouts extreem kind to them and gave them free quarter.’ This human tragedy, so near to Christmas had obviously touched their hearts.
Having brought you back to St Mary’s church, close to the North Bar Gate, I will exit through it and leave this quiet, historically captivating Yorkshire market town – there is yet even more to talk about – such as the rising in 1536, of 500 local men, who gathered on Westwood against Henry VIII’s religious laws, which became part of the much larger Northern Pilgrimage of Grace and of Charles I’s three week stay in Royalist Beverley at the outset of the Civil War, after the city of Hull refused to open its gates to him – but those are stories for another day. I hope you haven’t been too bored by my longer than usual blog – I’m making up for not writing for a while.