Ossett - the history of a Yorkshire town



14th and 15th CenturiesBlack Death

In the country as a whole, these were centuries of turmoil. The busy, prosperous and successful rural society of the start of the 14th century did not last. Within 15 years, nature had dealt a crushing blow. The dearth began in May 1315, then came heavy summer rains and the corn didn't ripen - the start of a series of agricultural disasters. Villages built on dried out marshlands sank back into the mud and there was not enough food for the greatly swollen population. Then, when the famines had run their course, the Black Death came.

There were wars against the Welsh, the Scots and the Irish, as well as continental troubles. After the Battle of Bannockburn, Scottish armies marched through northern England, plundering and demanding cash for local truces, but no records are available of any special effect in the Ossett District, except in the years of 1322-23. In 1322, a section of Robert the Bruce's Scottish army spent the winter in Morley after attacking the town twice, when they destroyed St. Mary's Chapel. It was said1 that "the residence of those barbarians for a whole winter at Morley, in the years 1322-23 was the greatest curse that the district ever knew" and at this time, the village witnessed its period of greatest depression. For centuries the Scots at intervals raided the North of England, killing and burning and carrying off such booty as they could transport, chiefly women and cattle. During the winter in Morley, the Scots would of necessity "live off the land" and would search the entire district for food and valuables. This was especially true in 1322 because the area had suffered from a crop failure. Ossett would share fully in the general terror and suffering.

Cross border raids and conflict continued, though the English withdrew from hostilities after Edward II was nearly captured at Rievaulx Abbey in 1322 by a Scottish raiding party in at the Battle of Old Byland near Helmsley in north Yorkshire. This sort of thing, though it occurred frequently further north, did not usually reach Ossett and the country slowly developed.

In 1348, the Black Death arrived in England, sweeping over Europe from the east, and arriving at Weymouth in August 1348. In the second half of that year, there were incessant rains until Christmas and the plague spread rapidly throughout the country reaching Yorkshire in April 1349, lasting until August. The plague reached maximum intensity in the area of Ossett in June and July 1349. In less than a year, the whole country was stricken. No-one could have understood what was happening. Once a person was infected, large foul-smelling swellings developed in their groin, neck and armpits. Death followed within two or three days. The Black Death was so-called because of the rapid putrefaction of the dead victims, which turned their bodies black. In this country, it is estimated to have reduced the population from 4 Million to 2.5 Million. Villages shrank in size or were simply abandoned. The land was covered in images of death.

The effect of the Black Death was immediately catastrophic for everyone. However, those peasants that survived it found their lives immeasurably improved. Labour became scarce and more valuable than abundant land. Landless people were able to take over abandoned holdings, and those who could handle more land simply took it. Wage demands roughly doubled, while the fall in population led to something like a halving of the price of wheat. There was a very good harvest in 1349 and since so many local people had died from the Black Death, there was difficulty getting men to reap the harvest. Because many of the villeins had paid the Lord of the Manor a rent to free them from personal service, he had to hire farm labourers to do the work instead. Predictably wages were held low for the agricultural labourers even though there was a shortage of manpower. Despite strong demands for higher wages, the Statute of Labourers was passed in 1350, which compelled all unemployed persons to accept any work offered to them at the wages current in 1346. Refusal to obey was punished by imprisonment. The labourer was forbidden to leave the parish in which he lived and if he disobeyed, he became a fugitive, and none were exempt from this harsh restriction.

In 1353 there was the first reference to a local yeoman, i.e. an independent farmer. He was John Scargill and he farmed 133 acres in Ossett. The Black Death had greatly hastened the break-up of the feudal system and John Scargill was evidently one of the many who achieved independence.

As the country developed, travel became more necessary, and stone bridges began to be built in this country for the first time since Roman days. A bridge was built over the Calder at Wakefield (pictured below) and in 1357, Edward III granted a charter to Wm. Kay, Wm. Bull and their successors for ever, for the sum of ten pounds, to perform divine service of the Chapel of St. Mary's on the Bridge. The money was paid out of the produce of the towns of Wakefield, Stanley, Ossett, Pontefract, Purston Jackling and Water Fryston. The present day Chantry is not in its original condition but some of the carving is beautiful.

Wakefield Bridge

Thirteen years after the Chantry Chapel was given a Charter, there was another event which still affects Ossett today. In 1370, the great Thornhill estate passed into the hands of the Savile family, who today, more than six hundred years later, still hold it. The estate extends far beyond Thornhill and its affairs have always indirectly affected Ossett.

More information about Ossett comes from the records of the Capitation or Poll Tax levied in 1379 by Richard II. All men over the age of sixteen years had to pay a tax, which varied according to their status, and reached £6 13s. 4d. for those of the highest rank, i.e. the Duke of Warrene. In Ossett sixty ordinary men and women paid 4d. each, ten tradesmen had to pay 6d. each and three men, who had businesses, paid 12d. each. The names of all these Ossett people are listed on a separate page from a transcript of the original 1379 Poll Tax return for the Agbrigg Wapentake, Dewsbury Parish and village of Ossett. You might find the names of your ancestors in the Capitation Tax List In 1379 at the time of the Capitation Tax, Ossett was keeping pace in size with many of the surrounding villages. In that year, Ossett paid 27 shillings capitation tax, as compared with Bradford - 23 shillings; Dewsbury - 14 shillings; Leeds - 60 shillings and Wakefield - 95 shillings.

Old OssettIn those days, an ordinary man's house was still built of wood, often with mud plaster and a thatched roof. It had no chimney and any fire was either in the middle of the floor or outside. The building demolished a few years ago, (left) which stood on the site of Messrs. J. and J. Dean, Jeweller's shop had a wooden framework, including a tree, which was still living when the building was erected. It had mud plaster walls, timbers shaped with an adze and there was some indication that originally it had an earth floor. Houses in general had no windows and they were usually built close together for security. Everyone worked all hours possible and they were old at thirty or forty. Only a small part of the land was cultivated and the Deer Park beyond Lodge Hill continued to be carefully preserved.

Men's physical condition is obviously always of great importance , buts so also is their state of mind, and in this period there was a general belief in numerous evil spirits and witchcraft. Nagging wives were ducked (or worse) and poor old women, thought to be witches, were burned. Churches were places where priests conducted services to which other people could listen to or might watch, but they could never understand and in which, they could never join. Life was not physically comfortable or secure and can seldom have been very happy. Several centuries had still to elapse before ideas could develop about cleanliness and freedom from vermin.

The 14th and 15th centuries were notable for the turmoil and conflicts that racked the land. The 100 years war with France and the Wars of the Roses will have done nothing to help the progress of the inhabitants of Ossett. It is not known if the Lord of the Manor at Wakefield raised a feudal army with some men taken from Ossett during the Wars of the Roses. There were significant battles in Yorkshire, notably the Battle of Wakefield in 1460 and the Battle of Towton Moor in 1461 when Edward of York (King Edward IV) marched north from London, gathering a large army as he travelled up country. Edward's father and brother had been killed at the Battle of Wakefield.

White RoseThe Wars of the Roses were a series of civil wars fought from 1455 to 1487 between the House of Lancaster and the House of York. The name Wars of the Roses is based on the badges used by the two sides, the red rose for the Lancastrians and the white rose for the Yorkists. Henry VII (1457 - 1509) was the first Tudor monarch. He became king after defeating Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth Field on the 22nd August 1485. Henry's success on the battlefield ended the Wars of the Roses that had begun in 1455.

Red RoseBattle of Wakefield - 31st December 1460: Following the capture of Henry VI, Queen Margaret raised an army in Yorkshire numbering some 15,000 men. The Duke of York and the Earl of Salisbury, with an army of about 6,000 men, marched out of London in early December and headed north. At Worksop they brushed aside a Lancastrian advance guard commanded by the captain Andrew Trollope and arrived at Sandal castle in Yorkshire. Unbeknown to York, the Lancastrians had concentrated their forces at nearby Pontefract castle.

Battle of Wakefield

On 29th December, a Yorkist foraging party sent from Sandal Castle to find food, blundered into the main body of the Lancastrian army and was pursued back to Portobello in Wakefield where they were attacked. The following morning a Lancastrian force of about 6,000 men commanded by the Duke of Somerset and Lord Clifford deployed for battle in full view of the Yorkist army in and around Sandal Castle. On seeing this, the Duke of York and the Earl of Salisbury marched their army down from the castle onto level ground near the River Calder. They did not realise that the Lancastrians had laid a trap. In a blinding snowstorm, the Yorkist army charged the Lancastrians and drove them back towards the River Calder, then two large forces of the Lancastrian army, commanded by the Earl of Wiltshire and Lord Roos, emerged from nearby woods surrounding the Yorkist army. No quarter was given and there was total carnage. Around 2,500 Yorkists were killed and the Duke of York, fighting at the head of his men fell from his horse, mortally wounded. Lord Clifford or "Bloody Clifford" as his men called him, came up to the fallen Duke of York and decapitated him with one blow from his sword. The Duke of York's son the Earl of Rutland was killed escaping from the battlefield and the Earl of Salisbury was captured that evening and executed the next day. The Duke of York's head was taken to York and placed on Micklegate Bar with a paper crown, his face turned towards the city, with a sign saying "So York may overlook the town of York". The corpses of the defeated Yorkist soldiers were buried in huge trenches on the hillside adjacent to Sandal Castle. A letter written by a son who had visited the battlefield in search of the body of his father said that "At midnight, the kindly snow fell like a mantle on the dead and covered the rueful faces staring so fiercely to Heaven"

During the reign of the Yorkist king, Edward IV, who took over the monarchy after the Battle of Towton Moor, an Act was passed decreeing that every Englishman should have a longbow of his own size, and butts should be made in every township, at which the inhabitants should shoot every feast-day, or face a halfpenny fine. A butt is a mound of earth built especially for archery target practice. These butts had to be kept in very good repair since the practice of archery was looked upon as a necessary part of every man's training. There is an area in Ossett, off West Wells, called "Blue Butts", and this may well be where Ossett's longbowmen practiced their craft in medieval times.

By the 15th Century, the old feudal system had broken down and the Lords realised that if peasants were now free from any obligation to them, then they were equally free of any obligations to care for the peasants. Thus, it was that peasants came face to face with their next enemy - sheep! Labour had become expensive and the average Lord of the Manor could now make more money out of sheep than he could out of his peasants. There was wool on sheep for a start and you could eat sheep. The result was that the Lord of the Manor started to throw the expensive and troublesome peasants off their land and replace them with sheep.

This may well have been the start of the woollen industry in Ossett and surrounding areas. Peasants displaced from the land could make a living instead by weaving cloth from the wool provided by the sheep. As the economy recovered from the Black Death in the second half of the fourteenth century, a male backlash started. In 1400 an ordinance from York declared that "henceforth no woman of whatever status or condition shall be put among us to weave, unless they have been taught the craft". Since women were not allowed to join Guilds, that meant never. Other, similar rules also began to appear.

Richard IIIThe much maligned Plantagenet King Richard III (1452-1485) was the son of Richard, Duke of York (1411-1460). He reigned as King of England from 26th June 1483 to the 22nd August 1485 and his coronation was on the 6th July 1483 at Westminster Abbey. All the evidence from Richard III's lifetime show that he wasn't the tyrant depicted in Shakespeare's play Richard III and his character was cruelly besmirched by the Tudors. Nicknamed Richard Crookback, he was the main suspect in the murders of the Princes in the Tower. King Richard III is the only King of England not to have a tomb. It is said that King Henry VIII ordered that his bones were dug up and thrown away and his coffin was used as a horse trough. New evidence suggests that the little prince in the Tower, King Edward V, was in fact a bastard. The son of a Rouen archer. If this is true, King Richard III was in fact the real heir to throne of England - not the son of King Edward IV.

King Richard III was a strong supporter of the city and county of York where he was a very popular figure. Richard spent much of his childhood at Middleham Castle in Wensleydale, under the tutelage of his uncle Richard Neville, 16th Earl of Warwick. In 1484. he established the Council of the North, which was an administrative body to improve government control and economic prosperity in Northern England. It was originally based at Sheriff Hutton and Sandal Castle. The reason for doing so was the deteriorated state of Northern society since the harrying of the North under the Normans. Also, Richard was successful in finally stopping the marauding Scots from raiding large areas of the north of England. Hardly a tyrant, almost the first thing he did on becoming King was to pay off the 200 he owed to York's wine merchants. Then, he brought his whole court north to the city, to stage a second coronation. Richard's secretary advised the corporation of York to put on a great show. It was also a great opportunity to show off locally produced Yorkshire wool:

"Hang the street through which the King's grace shall come with clothes of arras, tapestry work and other, for there commen many southern Lords and men worship with them."

The city did put on an incredible spectacle and many citizens contributed handsomely to it. The mayor, the aldermen, all dressed in scarlet, rode with the King and Queen through a city made of cloth, stopping for elaborate shows and displays as they went along. They turned the place into a woollen Disneyland. Did some of this woollen cloth originate from the weavers Ossett? We can only speculate, but the distance between Ossett and York is only about 35 miles.

Finally, there is an excellent Richard III Museum at Monkgate Bar in York and the uppermost room at the Museum is used as a theatre in the summer, seating 50 people. It is this room that King Richard added to Monk Bar in 1484. Each year York-based actor Michael S Bennett performs his widely acclaimed show "An Audience with King Richard III" in the theatre. In the play King Richard, with passion, flamboyance and not a little humour, presents his case. Afterwards, the audience are invited to ask King Richard questions. The show has been hugely successful and has been performed in theatres throughout the UK.

Note 1 - From Rambles about Morley with Descriptive and Historic Sketches by William Smith, published by J.R. Smith, 1866


In the year of our Lord 1315, apart from the other hardships with which England was afflicted, hunger grew in the land. Meat and eggs began to run out, capons and fowl could hardly be found, animals died of pest, swine could not be fed because of the excessive price of fodder. A quarter of wheat or beans or peas sold for twenty shillings (in 1313 a quarter of wheat sold for 5 shillings), barley for a mark.oats for ten shillings. A quarter of salt was commonly sold for thirty-five shillings, which in former times was unheard of. The land was so oppressed with want that when the king came to St. Albans on the feast of St. Laurence (10th August) it was hardly possible to find bread on sale to supply the immediate household.

The famine began in the month of May and continued until the feast of the nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary (September 8th). The summer rains were so heavy that grain could not ripen. It could scarcely be gathered and baked into bread for the said feast day unless it was first put in containers to dry. Toward the end of autumn, the famine was mitigated in part, but around the feast of the nativity of the Lord, it returned completely. There can be no doubt that the poor were wasting away from hunger since even the rich were constantly hungry. Four pennies worth of coarse bread was not enough to feed a common man for one day. The usual kinds of meats were exceedingly scarce; horse meat was precious; fat dogs were stolen. And, many claimed that in many places men and women secretly ate their own and even other peoples' children.
Johannes de Trokelowe, Annales

Edward II who reigned as King of England from 1307-1327 was widely held as a weak and ineffective king, losing disastrously to the Scots at Bannockburn in 1314. His tendency to ignore his nobility, in favour of low-born favourites, led to constant political unrest and eventually to his deposition. His father, a notable military leader, made a point of training young Edward in warfare and statecraft starting in his childhood. Edward preferred less noble pursuits and although impressive physically, he was a bit of a wimp. Edward I attributed his son’s problems to Piers Gaveston, a Gascon Knight who some believe to have been the prince's lover.

Edward II is today perhaps best remembered for a story about his alleged murder with a red-hot poker plunged anally into his entrails, which has been seen by some as evidence of his homosexuality. Although pictured in the film Braveheart as highly effeminate, this portrayal is inaccurate as Edward II's robust physical appearance was similar to his father's, right down to the drooping eyelid.

Edward II

Edward II (1284-1327)

The King was captured and condemned by Parliament in 1327 as 'incorrigible and without hope of amendment'. He was forced to abdicate in favour of his teenage son Edward III, and he died in Berkeley Castle later that year.

Braveheart's ridiculous depiction of William Wallace being Edward III's father is impossible. Wallace was executed in 1305, seven years before Edward III was born.

During Richard II's reign, the Peasants Revolt of 1381 was sparked off by the Poll Tax of one shilling a head on the whole population, regardless of the individual's means to pay it. A large part of society consisted of villeins, men and women tied to the land on which they were born and worked. The sum, small enough to the better-off, represented an unacceptable impost upon their slender resources, and when they refused to pay, or were unable to do so, they were pursued with the full rigour of the law. They retaliated by murdering the Royal Officials who attempted to collect the tax, and this invited further retribution from the Government.

Battle of Towton Moor
29th March 1461

Before the battle, a slight Yorkist reverse was suffered at Ferrybridge, where Lord Fitzwalter's troops were surprised and their commander killed in an attack led by Lord Clifford; but Clifford's forces was soon caught and Clifford himself killed. The Yorkists then proceeded to the higher ground, where the Lancastrians were drawn up between the villages of Towton and Saxton near Tadcaster.

The battle that was fought on this windswept plateau lasted for nearly the whole day. Rather more than 80,000 men took part and this time the snowstorm that set in favored the Yorkists. The advantage seemed to go first to one side then to the other in this fiercely contested battle. About midday the Duke of Norfolk's troops arrived on the field and took position on the Yorkist right flank. With his numbers thus increased, Edward was at last able to turn the Lancastrian left and gradually, they began to fall back, closely pressed by the Yorkists.

Eventually, discipline snapped and in the mad rush to cross the Cock Beck and gain the London road thousands of Lancastrians perished. The exact numbers of those who died on the field of battle, or in the marshy fields of the beck, are not known; but there has been no greater slaughter in any battle fought on British soil.