Digging into a gold mine of history from the Middle Ages


THE conquest of Northumberland only really began in 1080 when Robert Curthose built the first castle at Newcastle.

Settlement went little further in the next 20 years and the de Merley barony of Morpeth is one of the few for which there is any evidence at all during the reign of William Rufus (1087-1100.) It was left to Henry I (1100-35) to thoroughly colonise these northern parts.

The Patrimony of St Cuthbert was different. Beginning in 1021, the clerks of the community gradually lost the right to elect their bishop. Royal appointment became the norm and the bishops took over the community’s estates.

In theory the income was shared between them, but the bishop held the purse-strings.

So whereas Norman baron typically replaced Anglo-Saxon thegn on secular estates, the transfer of power on the estates of the bishopric was less obvious.

As far as the ordinary tenants were concerned, the lordship continued unchanged.

Ranulf Flambard was appointed Bishop of Durham in 1099 and held office until his death in 1128. He was a Norman, but of low birth, and rose to power by ruthless efficiency.

Much of William Rufus’s reputation for oppression and extortion was due to Ranulf’s activities as chief minister before he was elevated to Durham.

After Rufus’s death, Henry I imprisoned him in the Tower. Flambard had a rope brought to him, hidden in a flagon of wine, got his guards drunk and escaped by sliding down the rope, holding his crozier as he did so. Horses were waiting below. He took ship to Normandy, taking with him his mother and a large treasure.

Like some other Norman bishops he had a regular female partner.

He married her off to a citizen of Huntingdon and used to stay with them when commuting between Durham and the South.

Yet he was a good bishop. He continued the rebuilding of Durham Cathedral and translated St Cuthbert’s body to its new shrine at the east end. During his sermon on the great occasion, he held aloft a small book found in the coffin — almost certainly the Stonyhurst Gospel.

He built Framwellgate Bridge, gave endowments to the monastic chapter, and built a castle at Norham to protect his tenants from the Scots.

Bedlington did not have Norham’s strategic importance, but as a shire separate from the county of Northumberland it enjoyed special privileges.

Eneas Mackenzie says: “It anciently had courts and officers of justice within its own limits, appointed under commission from the Bishop of Durham, as well justices, sheriffs, escheators, as coroners and all other officers of justice.”

These privileges survived until the reign of Henry VIII, but the dignity they conferred was hollow: ‘The chief part of the inhabitants held by servile tenures.’ That is, they held their land in return for work or customary renders, and not for military service.

James Raine, in his monumental work on North Durham, says that when Bishop Ranulph set up the Kepier Hospital, he endowed it with a portion of the tithes of ‘such episcopal manors as should afterwards from time to time come under the plough. Soon after the death of Flambard, Bedlingtonshire became liable to the payment.’

If this record can be taken at face value, it conveys a grim truth – that Bedlingtonshire was in effect a wasteland until the late 1120’s. When houses, barns and crops were burnt, people and animals killed, whoever was left struggled to feed themselves.

Until there were men, ploughs and oxen to work the land again there was no agricultural surplus to draw upon.

Under the terms of the endowment, the men of Bedlingtonshire were required to donate one thrave of corn to the Kepier Hospital for every carucate of land, but they commuted their liability for a cash payment of nine shillings per thrave instead. Their agreement with the hospital gives us our earliest list of the leading men of Bedlingtonshire: William Halchor, Robert Cucwald, William Birilot and Thomas fitz Roger of Bedlington, Walter and Robert fitz Robert of Nedderton, Adam and Elias his brother, of Choppington, Thomas and John of Sleekburn, Adam and Walter the Carter of Cambois, Emund fitz Roger, Lawrence fitz Odard, Adam the Servant, Ranulph brother of Peter, Robert fitz Henry and Robert Palmer of Little Sleekburn.

Other than this, Raine has surprisingly little information about Bedlingtonshire in the Middle Ages: Roger de Conyers held it from Bishop Ranulph for two knights’ fees, though the tenure did not descend, and the bailiff in 1379 was John Middleton.

But although he has so little to say about Bedlington or Bedlingtonshire until the 16th century, he remarks in passing that the records at Durham contain ‘the usual particulars of inquisitions post mortem, leases, surveys, rentals, &c., and the copyhold books afford much curious information.’

There’s a gold mine here for some future local historian of Bedlington and its surrounding villages.

Our best idea of medieval Bedlington comes from the Boldon Book, drawn up in 1183 for Bishop Hugh du Puiset. The translation is by David Austin.

‘In Bedlington there are 80 bovates and each is of 16 acres, and yields 4s of rent and I cart-load of wood and they mow the whole meadow, and lift and cart the hay and make ricks, and, with the help of the other townships of Bedlingtonshire, they cart timber and mill-stones, and they similarly make the mill-pond, and they similarly enclose the court, and they similarly cover the hall, and they similarly prepare the fishery, and they similarly carry loads as far as Newcastle and as far as Fenwick and no further.

‘Robert Hugat holds in the same township 21 acres which were taken from the waste and pays 40d, and in another part 6 acres and from that he pays 44d. Guy holds 1 toft and 1 croft and pays 12d. Seven cottagers pay 8s. Peter of East Sleckburn holds there 6 acres. Each bovate yields 1 hen.’

Boldon Book is a custumal, a list of the obligations owed to the bishop as lord of the manor.

It is far from a complete description of Bedlington.

We know nothing else, for instance, about Robert, Guy or Peter, nor about the sheriffs and other officials mentioned by Mackenzie.

Bedlington would certainly have had a priest, and, given its courts and law officers, several other clerks beside. And although we cannot identify a steward or a reeve, we can be sure that it had both.

Boldon Book sometimes reveals people’s trades by their names, but the only example in Bedlingtonshire is Robert of Pann, whose name must surely refer to salt pans.

Two things, however, are sufficiently clear. One is that, even where obligations had been commuted for substantial sums of money, most people were serfs. The other, that Bedlington in 1183 was little more than a farming village, as it so remained for the next 600 years.

Indeed, what is strikingly evident is the essentially agricultural character of all the vills in Boldon Book.

Next week we look at what was happening in Morpeth in Flambard’s time and after.