A History of the County of York East Riding: Volume 6, the Borough and Liberties of Beverley. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1989.
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Beverley and St. John
Beverley lies on the spring line at the foot of the dip slope of the chalk wolds, above the once marshy flood plain of the river Hull. The higher ground of the wolds edge proved attractive to men from an early date, and Westwood, the common pasture to the west of the town, is the site of several Iron-Age barrows and of other earthworks which may belong to the same period. Further earthworks have been identified as Romano-British. (fn. 1) Finds of that period have also been made within the limits of the later town, particularly at its northern end which excavation has shown to lie on a shelf of gravel. (fn. 2) The full extent of the gravel is unknown, although Walker beck appears to have marked its eastern edge. It is clear, however, that the northern end of the later town had a natural land surface which was better drained and significantly higher than the land further south. In 1985 an excavation in Wylies Road, along the line of the northern ditch of the medieval town, revealed a Romano-British ditch and pottery of the 3rd and 4th centuries. Taken in conjunction with casual finds elsewhere, this suggests pre-medieval use of the higher and drier ground, although the nature of any associated settlement remains unknown. The earliest firm evidence of settlement comes not from the well drained north but from the lower-lying southern end of the town. Excavation south of the minster between 1979 and 1982 revealed timber structures and cobbled pathways datable to the period from the early 8th to the mid 9th century. Pollen analysis suggests that the same period saw the clearance of local woodland for cultivation. The site of the early settlement was a ridge of boulder clay bounded to north and south by undrained marshland, perhaps the home of the beavers which gave Beverley its name. (fn. 3) The marshy land to the north of the ridge, in the area of the modern Highgate and Eastgate, seems still to have been flooded in the 9th century, which suggests that any growth in the initial settlement is likely to have been confined to the ridge and that expansion northwards was not possible until later.
The archaeological evidence of 8th-century settlement near the site of the later minster provides some support for the traditional equation of Beverley's origins with the foundation of the monastery of Inderauuda, 'in the wood of the men of Deira', to which Bishop John of York retired c. 714 and where he was buried in 721. (fn. 4) The topography of the site, as revealed by excavation, also fits Bede's account of Bishop John's liking for isolated religious retreats. The 8th-century settlers occupied a virtual island in badly drained wetlands, and did so presumably from choice since there was higher ground nearby. There remain, however, gaps in the subsequent history of the site which make a firm identification difficult. The monastery is said to have been destroyed in the 9th century, with later writers favouring the Danish incursion of 866 as a likely date for its destruction. (fn. 5) Some seventy years later the tomb of Bishop John had reputedly become an object of veneration at Beverley, with a name for miracle-working sufficient to attract the attention of King Athelstan. Some form of religious life had evidently survived with John's relics as a focus, and the probability is that it had done so on or near the site of the 8th-century monastery, as later tradition assumed. Communities and their relics were, however, mobile, as the wanderings of St. Cuthbert reveal, and the presence of the relics in loth-century Beverley does not entirely guarantee the town's identification with Inderauuda. The most that can be said is that by the early 10th century Beverley was developing into a religious centre of some importance, and that the roots of that development may go back to the 8th century.
According to later tradition a turning point in the development of Beverley came in the 930s. King Athelstan is said to have visited Bishop John's tomb in 934, when he was leading his army north against the king of Scotland. That demonstration of military strength prompted a major invasion by the Scots and their allies, who were decisively defeated by Athelstan at the battle of 'Brunanburh' in 937. The king reputedly gave the credit for his victory to Bishop John, and before his death in 939 he had shown his gratitude by establishing a college of secular canons at Beverley and endowing it generously with land and privileges. The latter included the creation of a sanctuary extending for a mile around John's tomb, and the right of the minster to receive thraves, a levy of corn, throughout the East Riding. This circumstantial account of Athelstan's role, however, dates only from the 12th century, and it is likely that the establishment of the minster and its rights was a more gradual process, retrospectively credited to a single royal benefactor for the sake of the security and prestige conferred by such a founder. (fn. 6) The final formalization of the minster's position may not have been achieved until the 11th century, under the last three Anglo-Saxon archbishops of York: Aelfric (1023-51), Cynesige (1051-60), and Ealdred (1061-9). That period saw a major rebuilding of the minster and its associated buildings, together with a regularization of the communal life. (fn. 7) It also brought the first recorded royal charter to Beverley, that of Edward the Confessor, which declared that the archbishop of York was the town's sole lord under the king and that the minster was to be as free as any other minster. (fn. 8) No reference was made to the specific rights later associated with Athelstan, whose role as benefactor is not explicitly mentioned in a royal charter until that of Stephen in 1136. (fn. 9)
Alongside the consolidation of the minster's role, and closely associated with it, went strong archiepiscopal encouragement for the cult of Bishop John. In 1037 Aelfric secured his canonization as St. John of Beverley and oversaw his translation to a magnificent new shrine. Ealdred supplied the literary underpinning of the cult by commissioning Folcard, a monk of St. Bertin's at St. Omer (Pas de Calais), to write a life of the saint and responsaries in his honour. (fn. 10) Official encouragement of this kind presumably increased the minster's attraction for pilgrims. A mid 12th-century compilation of the miracles of St. John shows that his tomb was drawing visitors not only from Yorkshire and Lincolnshire but also from East Anglia and Scotland. (fn. 11) The enhanced importance of the minster and its saint in turn encouraged a growth in local trade to serve the needs of the minster clergy and its pilgrims, and by the mid nth century there was probably a small but flourishing community around the minster. Whether it was the only focus of settlement at that date will be resolved only by further archaeological investigation. The northern end of the medieval town was geologically more attractive than the area around the minster, and the centre of gravity of Beverley was to shift in that direction in the course of the 12th century. It is unknown, however, at what date settlement on the gravel got under way and, in consequence, whether that settlement should be seen as an offshoot of the community around the minster or as an independent settlement which was later absorbed into the growing town.
Whatever the exact antecedents of the medieval town it was the identification of Beverley with the cult of Bishop John as it developed in the 10th and early 11th century which allowed it to become a major centre rather than remaining a small wold-edge settlement. The cult remained a significant element in the town's prosperity until the Reformation. As well as boosting the town's economy by attracting pilgrims, St. John proved a powerful political patron for Beverley. The presence of his shrine helps to explain the immunity of Beverley from the worst consequences of the 'harrying of the north' by King William in 1069-70: an immunity demonstrated by the relatively small drop in the value of Beverley between the death of King Edward and the compilation of Domesday Book. (fn. 12) The Beverley chronicler Alfred noted the town's escape, which he attributed to direct intervention by St. John; the saint was said to have struck down a royal soldier who was pursuing a fugitive into the churchyard, and as a result the king paid compensation and confirmed the church's liberties. (fn. 13) In fact William had acknowledged the privileged status of Beverley before that. In a charter issued before September 1069 he had confirmed Archbishop Ealdred's title to the estates of St. John, which were to be free from the demands of the king or his ministers. (fn. 14) The Domesday commissioners accepted that the lands of St. John had always been free of geld, and Henry I allowed the precedent. (fn. 15) In 1136 the grants of Edward the Confessor and William I were confirmed in general terms by Stephen, who later specified that the lands of St. John were to be quit of all army service, attendance at shire courts, castle works, and all other duties, citing a writ of Henry I as precedent. (fn. 16)
Not all of those rights remained relevant. The replacement of geld by other forms of taxation meant the loss of the town's financial immunity, for instance, and Beverley was regularly taxed in the later Middle Ages. (fn. 17) In other respects the beneficiary was in any case the church or archbishop as landowner rather than the townsmen themselves, for whom the town's status as a liberty entailed little more than the replacement of one jurisdiction, that of the king, by another. The privileged status of Beverley did, however, bring some advantages to the townsmen. The established freedom from suit of county court helps to explain the later royal concession that Beverley men could not be compelled to serve on county-wide commissions against their will. (fn. 18) The identification of Beverley with St. John also prompted royal generosity to the town as well as to the church and its lord the archbishop. In 1301 Edward I was moved by devotion to St. John to remit half of a fine of 100 marks levied on the community, and he ordered the remaining 50 marks to be put towards rebuilding the saint's shrine. (fn. 19) In 1377 the burgesses' petition to be discharged from the obligation to build a barge for Edward III was allowed 'chiefly in honour of the glorious confessor St. John of Beverley', although the duty was subsequently reimposed. (fn. 20)
Royal respect for St. John was strengthened by the attribution of military powers to him and his banner. The first known reference to the banner's use in battle was at the Battle of the Standard in 1138, when a Scottish force was defeated by Archbishop Thurstan of York. (fn. 21) It may not be coincidence that the period also saw the dissemination of the story of St. John's contribution to Athelstan's victory of 'Brunanburh'. (fn. 22) By 1266 it was accepted that when the shire of York was summoned to the royal army, the church of Beverley would send one man with the saint's banner, a practice which was said to date from the reign of Henry I. (fn. 23) Edward I had the banner with him on his Scottish campaigns of 1296 and 1300. (fn. 24) In 1296 the king showed his gratitude to the saint by establishing a chantry in the minster in honour of St. John. (fn. 25) Edward II asked to borrow the banner in 1310, when it was escorted north by one of the vicars choral, (fn. 26) and it was also lent to Edward III and Henry IV. (fn. 27) In 1415 St. John's reputation received a further boost when the victory of Agincourt was won on the feast of his translation (25 Oct.). The feast, previously of only local significance, was ordered to be observed nationally and St. John was elevated to the status of one of the patrons of the royal house. (fn. 28) Henry V visited the shrine during his progress of 1420, (fn. 29) and Henry VI spent a week in Beverley in 1448 on what was to be his only progress to the north. (fn. 30) The saint's military successes no doubt also helped to spread his reputation more widely. In 1351 a Bedfordshire man went barefoot on pilgrimage to the shrine. (fn. 31)
Not only pilgrims were attracted to St. John's shrine. Beverley was one of the major sanctuaries of the Middle Ages and was unusual in that the whole town and its environs constituted the sanctuary and not only the minster precinct. When the 'peace of St. John' was first defined in the 12th century it was deemed to extend for a league, usually interpreted as a mile, from the church door. (fn. 32) In reality the limit seems to have been closer to a mile from the edge of the town, and it evidently did not coincide with the boundaries of the liberty of Beverley as they were later understood. The outer limit of sanctuary was marked by crosses, of which the only one mentioned in the 12th century, and perhaps the only one then in existence, was the cross beyond Molescroft, mistakenly described as lying on the York road. (fn. 33) Leland in the 16th century listed four crosses: one, which he called the Molescroft cross, standing on the edge of Leconfield park; one towards North (now Cherry) Burton; another towards Killingwoldgraves; and the fourth to the south towards the Humber. (fn. 34) Traces of only the last two survive. The southern cross, on the Hessle read just north of Bentley, was mentioned in the 15th century, when it was known as the stone cross of Bentley, or simply as Mile cross. (fn. 35) The Killingwoldgraves cross, beside the York road, still had a legible Latin inscription in the 18th century: Pray for the soul of Master William de Walthon. (fn. 36) That points to a late medieval origin, or at least refashioning, if the man referred to was the William of Waltham, canon of Beverley and York, who died in 1416. (fn. 37) Part of a fifth cross, not mentioned by Leland, still stands on the Walkington road and may have been another sanctuary cross. All three crosses of which there are remnants stood beyond the boundary of the liberty.
Together those five crosses accounted for all the main roads out of Beverley on the north, west, and south. The Hull road, which entered Beverley near the archbishop's park, was perhaps not laid out until the early 14th century and may never have had a cross. (fn. 38) There remains the Holderness road to the east, which left Beverley at Norwood. A possible limit of sanctuary in that direction was Hull bridge, but it may alternatively have been a stone cross standing on the main road at the end of Swinemoor Lane. It was mentioned in the 14th century, called Spay cross in the 15th century, and known later as Stump cross. (fn. 39)
The edge of the town itself formed the boundary of a second degree of sanctuary and that was also marked, at least in part, by stone crosses. In the 12th century it was thought that Athelstan had placed three stone crosses, marvellously carved, at the entrance to Beverley, and the story may imply that such crosses were then extant. (fn. 40) Their location is unknown, although it is possible that the site of one was commemorated in the medieval Cross bridge, near the junction of Walkergate and Toll Gavel, and the nearby Cross garths. A later, probably 14th-century, account of Athelstan's role credits him with erecting cruces juramentorum lapideas on both sides of the way into Beverley, and this is probably a reference to the stone crosses juratorum mentioned in 1329. (fn. 41) They probably stood near the northern entry to the town. (fn. 42) Their name may derive from the practice of holding inquisitions there, to which reference was made in the late 13th century. An inquisition of 1296 apparently distinguished between the two circles of crosses, with one inquiry held 'at Beverley within the liberty at the cross without the town', that is at the inner cross, and another held later the same day 'at the cross by Beverley to the north called Grith cross', (fn. 43) which was perhaps the outer cross beyond Molescroft mentioned in the 12th century. There was also a cross at 'Groval green' in 1414, (fn. 44) which may have been one of the inner crosses, although its exact position is unknown. The double boundary was identified with different intensities of St. John's peace. According to the scale recorded in the 12th century, breach of that peace between the outer and inner rings of crosses carried a penalty of £8, and between the inner boundary and the edge of the churchyard £24. Further degrees of sanctuary were represented by the churchyard, the body of the church, and the chancel, with breach of sanctuary in the last regarded as beyond compensation. (fn. 45)
The sanctuary drew men, and occasionally women, from all over England. Details survive for 1478-99, when 132 fugitives were recorded as entering sanctuary. (fn. 46) They included 52 from Yorkshire, 14 from Lincolnshire, 13 from Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire, and 11 from East Anglia. North-east England produced only four men, presumably because of the attraction of the sanctuary at Durham. Most other counties were represented by one to three applicants each. Of the reasons which led people to seek sanctuary homicide was the most common with c. 100 registrations, compared with c. 20 for debt. There is no reason to think this picture untypical of earlier periods. The use of the sanctuary as a recruiting ground for the Scottish wars suggests a sizeable community. In 1303 Edward I offered a pardon to Beverley sanctuary men who joined his army and ten accepted the offer; (fn. 47) all were homicides and most were from the East Riding, although one came from Whitby. In spite of complaints (fn. 48) the practice continued and in 1342, for instance, Edward Balliol was allowed to recruit sanctuary or 'grith' men from Beverley. (fn. 49) The sanctuary regulations assumed that men would enter sanctuary for a maximum of 30 days, to allow time for a canon to negotiate with their pursuers, although provision was made for subsequent returns. A man who sought sanctuary three times was expected to devote the rest of his life to serving the saint. (fn. 50) Some sanctuary men did settle permanently. In 1375 Richard of Thorn claimed descent from the son of a Buckinghamshire knight who had taken sanctuary four generations earlier. (fn. 51)
Initially this source of new blood seems to have been accepted, but by the 15th century there is evidence that attitudes were hardening. Whereas in the 14th century the only restriction on a new burgess was that he must be free, in 1429 the town refused to allow the sanctuary man William Gelle to become a burgess, in spite of the fact that he was backed by Sir Henry Broomfleet and one of the town's legal advisers, John Ellerker. (fn. 52) In 1460 the prohibition was made general, and by 1536 it had been built into the oath administered to new burgesses. (fn. 53) Some attempt may also have been made to limit the sanctuary men's involvement in local trade. The statement made in 1460 that no sanctuary man could become a burgess followed immediately upon a statement that all brothers of crafts must be burgesses. The new orders of 1467, however, made provision for the entry of nonburgesses into crafts, and in practice the moves against sanctuary men probably meant no more than that they had to pay a premium for the privilege of trading, as an undated guild ordinance suggests. (fn. 54) Anxiety about the sanctuary men was not only economic. They formed a potentially volatile element in urban society and one of the leaders of the 1381 unrest, Henry Newark, was a sanctuary man. (fn. 55) The oath imposed upon them in the late Middle Ages specifically forbade them to carry weapons contrary to the king's peace. (fn. 56) In 1429 it was ordered that existing burgesses who took sanctuary could carry only blunted weapons, on pain of losing their burgess status. (fn. 57)
Although not all the consequences of St. John's peace were welcomed by the town, the saint remained an important figure in local affairs. Oaths were taken on his tomb. (fn. 58) The Cross or Rogation days, when his shrine was carried in procession, were the high points of the town's religious year. The practice was traditionally instituted by Aelfric but was first described in the 12th century. (fn. 59) On Rogation Monday, that is the Monday before Ascension Day, the saint's shrine was taken from the minster. In the 15th century it was carried to Cross bridge and down Walkergate to the minster's daughter church of St. Mary, watched by the craft guilds from their 'castles' lining the route. (fn. 60) In the afternoon the shrine set off on a longer progress, with the guilds riding behind it, (fn. 61) and in the course of the next two days was carried round the bounds of the liberty, probably visiting other subordinate chapels like those at Hull bridge and Molescroft. In 1423-4 repairs were made to the road to the chapel of St. Thomas, outside Keldgate bar, in readiness for the procession. (fn. 62) The shrine did not return to the minster until Ascension Day, when it was carried in procession around the church before being replaced and mass celebrated. It was probably this occasion that William Plomer had in mind when in 1400 he willed burial on the western boundary of the minster infra processionem. (fn. 63)
In the 12th century the portage of the shrine was the hereditary obligation of eight men, who were also responsible for guarding it in time of danger. Before carrying the shrine they underwent a period of penance and were subject to certain restraints, including a prohibition on drinking ale, during the Cross days. (fn. 64) Only when the shrine was back in place did they celebrate with a feast in the canons' refectory, a custom still in force in the 15th century. (fn. 65) In return for this obligation the eight porters held their houses quit of all exactions except a fixed rent. The office thus became associated with particular properties. When in the mid 13th century Maud, daughter of Agnes of Seaton, granted the office of porter to William of Anlaby a messuage in Flemingate went with it, although in 1298 William's son parted with the land while keeping the office for himself and his heirs. (fn. 66) The last reference to the office of porter occurred in 1362, when Gregory Fairfax granted all his land in Beverley, together with the portage of the shrine, to Thomas Gervays. (fn. 67) By that date the portage had apparently ceased to be an hereditary obligation, and was instead a matter of personal choice. A later stage may have seen responsibility pass to a guild. In 1431 one of the Beverley guilds was dedicated to St. John in May and, although no other reference to it survives, its name suggests that it could have provided the bearers for the Rogationtide processions, which almost always fell in May. (fn. 68)