Diplomacy made a welcome change from war for county


HENRY I (1100-1135) was Norman through and through, but he was born and brought up in England, and at his coronation promised to restore ‘the law of King Edward together with such emendations to it as my father made with the counsel of his barons.’

His object in this was to distance himself from the exactions forced upon the barons by his brother, William Rufus, which were widely seen as unconstitutional. But it also gave the seal of approval to an ongoing trend by which the Norman ruling class absorbed and adopted much of Anglo-Saxon law.

Terms such as sac and soc, infangtheof and outfangtheof continued to appear in land charters. And even if their meaning was obscure, which it seems to have been even then, they at least preserved in law the Anglo-Saxons’ delight in headrhymes and alliteration. We English still delight in them today. Think of ‘first and foremost’, ‘time and tide’, and ‘No man knoweth the day nor the hour’.

Henry’s marriage to Matilda, daughter of Malcolm Canmore and Queen Margaret, allied him not only to the Scottish, but also the Anglo-Saxon Royal family. He is consequently seen as a consciously pro-English king, and this is borne out by aspects of his private life. His confessor, for instance, was an Englishman.

But Henry was also an astute politician. Projecting an image of Englishness and including a number of Anglo-Saxons among his new men were means to the end of maintaining his position on the throne.

Other aspects of Henry’s policy were his determination to maintain peace throughout the kingdom and his preference for diplomacy, rather than war. This was a welcome change for people in Northumberland.

The Scottish King, Malcolm Canmore, invaded Northumbria five times between 1061 and 1093. William the Conqueror’s harrying of the North in 1069-70 reached as far as the Tyne Valley, and following the murder of Bishop Walcher at Gateshead, Odo of Bayeux ravaged the whole of Northumbria in 1080.

Evidence for the severity of these atrocities comes from a surprising source: The establishment of the Kepier Hospital in Durham by Bishop Ranulph Flambard. He endowed the hospital with a portion of the tithes of ‘such episcopal manors as should afterwards from time to time come under the plough.’

Bedlingtonshire only became liable to this tribute after Flambard’s death in 1128. It was a thrave of corn for every carucate ploughed. Taking this at face value, it means that Bedlingtonshire was so devastated by the Scottish and Norman armies that agricultural production there did not recover until late in the 1120s. If so, there is no reason to suppose that Morpeth fared any better. Indeed, it may have suffered worse if Morpeth was the small castle that William Rufus took during the rebellion of Robert de Mowbray in 1095.

That things were improving by the second quarter of the 12th Century is suggested by the gifts that the barons of Morpeth made to monasteries and other charitable institutions.

The first baron, William de Merley, gave Morwick to God, St Cuthbert and the monks of Durham. He died in 1129, after which the gift was confirmed by his son, Ranulph de Merley.

In 1138, just nine years later, Ranulph founded and endowed Newminster Abbey. He was succeeded by his son William, who gave a carucate of land to the hospital at Morpeth, though whether this was the one at Catchburn or another elsewhere in Morpeth is not clear.

William was followed in turn by his brother, Roger I. It was probably this Roger (John Hodgson couldn’t be sure it was the same man) who gave a toft and two bovates of land in Stannington to the monks of Hexham. Roger I died in 1188 so these gifts all took place within the space of 50 years. And although Newminster Abbey was destroyed almost immediately by David I when he invaded Northumberland on behalf of the Empress Matilda, the impression one gets is of a gradually improving security situation.

When William I gave Morwick to Durham, there was presumably no suitable institution any closer that he could make a donation to for the good of his soul. His successors, by contrast, had a choice of charitable institutions, none as far away as Durham, and two of them in Morpeth itself.

Endowing local charities became a family tradition. Some time later, probably after 1200, Roger’s son, Roger II, gave rights of pasturage on the south side of the Coquet to the canons of Brinkburn Priory for the souls of his mother, wife and son.

Morpeth profited by the fact that, unlike Bedlington, it was the de Merleys’ head place. Both it and they benefitted from the fact that the de Merleys made some very respectable marriage alliances.

The first baron was a knight in the service of Geoffrey de Montbrai, one of the Conqueror’s chief supporters. His wife, Menialda, may have been a Mowbray. There is no proof, but the hint is in the name of their third son, Morel.

Ranulph de Merley’s wife was Juliana, daughter of Cospatric, Earl of Dunbar, and granddaughter of Cospatric who was one of the last Anglo-Saxon earls of Northumbria. As well as being a Scottish earl, her father was also one of Henry I’s new men, and held the sergeanty of Beanley from him in Northumberland.

Sergeanties (from the Latin servire, to serve) were granted for specific services to the King. The Oxford English Dictionary gives the example of the petty sergeanty of one John Wiltshire, whose duty it was ‘to hold a Towell for the King to wipe with when he went to meat.’

Beanley was a grand sergeanty, one that touched the safety of the kingdom. With it, Cospatric had the lordship of 14 manors in which he exercised ‘inborh and utborh.’ Nobody knows exactly what this means.

It might have been like the later wardens of the marches, responsible for keeping the peace along the border and settling cross-border disputes, or it may have been more like a border guard, responsible for scrutinising the people passing through his territory and keeping out the undesirable ones.

Although the details are not entirely clear, it seems that Beanley later became a barony and was held by the more usual and straightforward service of six knights.

Upon the marriage of Ranulph and Juliana, Cospatric gave them the manors of Witton, Ritton, Stanton, Longhorsley, Wingates and Learchild. Hodgson says that these were not merged into the barony of Morpeth but continued to be administered under the barony of Beanley.

Juliana gave part of her dowry, Ritton Coltpark and Ritton Whitehouse, to Newminster Abbey jointly with Ranulph.

She was descended from the royal houses of both Bamburgh and Wessex, and so not only raised the de Merleys’ social standing, but introduced an English element into their bloodline.

The coming of a descendant of the ancient ruling family of Bernicia was no doubt welcome to Ranulph’s English serfs and tenants. But it also reflected, and was perhaps even a direct result, of Henry I’s policies in Scotland and the North.