Chapter 9.1: The Fairfax Family

Gilling Castle

In 1489 Thomas Fairfax of Walton (who presumably supported the Yorkists in the Wars of the Roses, and whose home had been in close proximity to the site of the Battle of Towton which had settled the outcome of that war) claimed before the inquisition held at Malton on June 12th 1489 (4 Henry VII), where the order of succession to the Fairfax Estate was investigated and laid down. A second inquisition before the King’s Commissioners found the facts true and Thomas Fairfax became the owner of the Gilling Estate. He then became the Fairfax of Walton and Gilling. This was all in consequence of the marriage between Elizabeth de Etton and Thomas Fairfax of Walton in 1349 and it could be argued that the rightful heirs had at last come home. In 1495 Thomas was created a Knight of the Bath, and so became Sir Thomas Fairfax.

The Estate

Before we proceed further with the history of the Fairfaxes in Gilling we should pause and try to envisage what Sir Thomas had fought for and won. Gilling Castle was built by the de Ettons, and started in 1349. It was not the traditional Motte and Bailey Castle with Keep, walls and courtyard, moat and drawbridge like Helmsley. The castle stood on a hill or spur of a ridge 130ft above the alluvial plain. The hill was called Moat Hill. There is a vestige of a dry moat on the north side of the hill, and on the south side the track up the golf course may represent the relics of a ditch; but on the west of the site, the weakest side, there appears to be no ditch or defensive embankment. All possible evidence has now been destroyed due to the levelling of the ground for the playing fields of the present school. I am assured that nothing has ever been found.

As Bilson says, Gilling Castle is not a castle intended to withstand a prolonged siege. The building has more affinity with the Northumbrian Pele Castles. It is essentially a tower, raised as a defence against hit-and-run Scottish inroads. The size of this particular tower is by all standards of the time very large: by its outside measurements 79ft 6in from north to south, and 72ft 6in from east to west. This is larger than the keep of Rochester Castle and is quite the largest tower house in England. The external walls on the north, east and south sides are 8ft thick. That on the west side facing the courtyard has disappeared.

The site is well chosen being 130ft above the level of the plain and commanding the pass south to York and also the eastern end of the Coxwold-Gilling Gap. Possibly there were no woods covering the sides of the hill. There were entrance gates east and west. The eastern one still survives with slots for the portcullis; the western one also survives, but now inside the building. Bilson considers that it was built in the second half of the reign of Edward III, prompted by the Scottish raids which took place during the reign of Edward II when there was a disastrous encounter at Scots Corner above Byland Abbey. Most of the windows are now blocked up, but the shape of them can be traced in the stonework of the eastern side. The store houses would also be here; above would be the dining hall with the kitchen, bakehouse and buttery. The living rooms would also be in this area; above them were the sleeping quarters.

It is interesting to investigate the bounds of the estate. It was, of course, much more than the few carucates mentioned in Domesday Book as being owned by the Saxon thegns. It is estimated that the extent in the days of the first de Ettons would be about 600 acres plus wood pasture for pigs etc. In 1374 1000 acres of woodland were imparked for deer raising. The de Ettons had increased their holding with land at Grimston, Southholme and in Hovingham between Hovingham village and Cauklass Bank. In 1378 land was acquired in Yearsley. In 1505 the estate consisted of 30 dwellings with land attached 300 acres, 1000 acres of moor, 300 acres of wood, and a water mill. The site of all this land on the modern map has been investigated by E.H.W. in the Ampleforth Journal:

“The messuages were probably situated in the villages, the cottages plus the land appertaining to them. The 300 acres approximately equating to that bought by the Abbey in 1929. The avenue and Park about 150 acres, further acres in what is now Gilling Farm (where the mill was) and Low Warren Farms. The 300 acres of wood were probably Park Wood clothing Gilling Scar and the North Wood stretching from the Temple to Gilling Lodge. The 1000 acres of moor and pasture land by Yearsley would be where the O.S. places Gilling and Yearsley Moors, the Wilderness containing the Upper and Lower ponds and the rough grazings of Yearsley Moor Farm.”

They also possessed property at Ryppon, Thorpe Arches, Folyfaite (now Follyfoot near Rudding Park), at Acaster Malbys and Copmanthorpe, at Caythorpe in the parish of Rudston (near Bridlington) and at Benton, Buckton and Harethorpe in the same neighbourhood. Another manor was held by them situate at Sheyrburn in Hertforthlyth (Sherburn on the slope of the Wolds), and finally the manor of Scalton by Ryvax (Scawton near Rievaulx), this comprising 8 messuages, 12 cottages with crofts, 300 acres of wood and 300 acres of pasture and the right of advowson to the church at Scawton.

This last-named manor was that left by Walter de Malbys to his kinsman Richard Fairfax alias Malbys, if he should not return from the Holy Land. As Richard died without issue the manor would probably pass to his elder brother William who paid the expenses of the pilgrimage.

Sir Thomas Fairfax

The first Sir Thomas Fairfax married Elizabeth Sherburne of Stoneyhurst, and had children as follows: his eldest son Thomas, four sons and five daughters. The sons were named Richard, Robert and John. A Richard and a William died before Sir Thomas. There appears little to report from Thomas’s life. He died on March 31 1505 and was succeeded by his eldest son Thomas at the age of 29. The second Sir Thomas in 1513 served under Henry VIII on his expedition to Flanders, and when Tournai surrendered to the King, Sir Thomas was one of those who received the honour of knighthood. He married Agnes (or Anne), the daughter of Sir William Gascoyne of Gawthorpe, York and Lady Margaret Percy, daughter of the Earl of Northumberland. He left a large family of 6 sons and 6 daughters. Nicholas was his heir. William, the twin of Nicholas, settled at Bury St. Edmunds and was buried at Walsingham. His descendants became Church of England, as did Thomas the third son who became a priest in that church. The other brothers were Miles of Gilling born in 1506, Guy and Robert. Sir Thomas died in 1520 and was succeeded by his eldest son Nicholas at the age of 22.

Sir Nicholas Fairfax

Sir Nicholas had married four years previously, when only 18, to Jane the daughter of Guy Palmes Esq. of Lindley, Yorkshire. Sir Nicholas was Sheriff of Yorkshire for the first time in 1531 and again in 1535. Mr Bilson says:

“Sir Nicholas is decidedly the most interesting of the 16th century Fairfaxes of the elder line. Though he seems to have done little or no building at Gilling his career exhibits much that is of interest and is typical of the attitude of Roman Catholic gentlemen towards religious chnges of the time. The name of Fairfax is associated in the popular mind so exclusively with the Puritan revolution of the 17th century (Civil War) that it is of interest to see how the head of the family a century earlier took an active part in opposing Henry VIII’s reforms, and even showed some sympathy with movements in favour of the “Old Faith” in Elizabeth’s reign.”

The two-sided attitude is shown by an incident in which Sir William Gascoyne wrote to Thomas Cromwell begging his favour “touching the matter between Sir Nicholas Fairfax, my nephew, and me. He claims of me 5 marks rent of my mills called Thorpe Arche at which I paid his grandfather 40 years ago”. Yet in a few months uncle and nephew were involved in the Pilgrimage of Grace along with other Catholic nobility.

To quote from Bilson:

“The suppression of the monasteries limited at first to those under £200 a year in value produced a most serious disturbance in the social life of the country.”

The effect was more so in the North of England. The canons of Hexham Abbey took up arms against the suppression of their monastery in 1536 and this started the ball rolling. In October of the same year a rising took place in Lincolnshire and 6 days later the rising in Yorkshire began with a great assembly in the East Riding. Sir Nicholas Fairfax was one of the Yorkshire gentlemen who received a letter from King Henry VIII commanding him to aid in repressing “certain traitors” and “suffer by dint and sword or else so yield that the ringleaders be committed to prison” to await trial. But Sir Nicholas was more inclined to join the “traitors” than to obey the King’s command. Sir Thomas Percy sent for Sir Nicholas Fairfax to attend a muster of 10,000 men at Malton.

William Stapleton, in his account of the rebellion, says that on Saturday 21st October he came to York and heard how Sir Thomas Percy and Sir Nicholas Fayerfax, with the Abbot of St. Mary’s York, had gone to Pontefract (Pomfret) with a goodly band the same day. Meanwhile the Duke of Norfolk was marching north against the rebels. It was obvious that the Duke was inclined to be lenient and begged that King not to reprimand him for any concessions he might make. However, on reaching Doncaster he met a deputation from Pomfret. It would appear that Norfolk was persuaded that he had the inferior force and on 27th October an agreement was made, the King’s pardon published and the rebels were dismissed to their homes. The King however demanded 10 ringleaders to be delivered to him.

Sir Nicholas Fairfax, notwithstanding their promise to the King, moved that the parishes of Dent and Sedbar might rise and raise both Lancashire and Cheshire. It was decided to rally the Abbots of the Yorkshire Abbeys, remembering that Gilling Church had been given to St. Mary’s Abbey, York many years before. On December 2nd the rebels held a gathering of lords, laymen, and clergy; the Archbishop of York preached. Among them were Sir Nicholas Fairfax, Sir William Fairfax of Steeton, Sir George D’arcy (Nicholas’s brother-in-law), Sir Henry Gascoyne (Sir Nicholas’s cousin), and Mr Palmes (perhaps a cousin of Sir Nicholas’s wife). At this meeting they accepted the granting of a full pardon but no conditions as to the arrest of ringleaders. Sir Nicholas succeeded in making his peace with the King and was pardoned on 18th January 1537. He took no further part in a subsequent abortive rebellion: he had had enough.

The next 30 years of his life were comparatively uneventful. He received a pension of £20 per annum from the King; although for the first five years after his disaffection he was closely watched by the King’s spies, in 1539, 1561 and 1564 he sat on the Council for the North, which had been established after the rising to keep the people in order and to execute justice in the King’s name. He sat in Parliament for Scarborough in 33 Henry VIII and again for the county in 5 Elizabeth. He was Sheriff of Yorkshire in 1544 and 1561. In 1565 he had the custody of the lands of St. Mary’s Abbey, York.

In 1568 Mary Queen of Scots fled into England. This led to a plot to depose Elizabeth and acknowledge Mary as Queen. It was led by the Earl of Northumberland, who was a kinsman of Sir Nicholas. Sir Francis Knollys, who had been sent to Carlisle to meet the Queen, rebuked the Earl for attempting to take the Queen into his own custody and reprimanded Sir Nicholas for attending upon Mary. On 26th March 1569, Thomas Earl of Sussex wrote to Cecil from York as follows: “Lord and Lady Herbert are here now.....I have sent for my Lords of Northumberland and Westmorland to meet us at Sir Nicholas Fairfax’s house, and so with horse races, hunting and hawking to make his lordship the best cheer we can, for the short time he tarries in the country.”

In the autumn of 1569 the two earls had started their abortive and ill-fated rebellion, The Rising of the North. Although the North tended to favour the “old religion” many remained neutral. Sir Nicholas, although he sympathised with the movement, remained inactive, and so did his son William. But his second son, Nicholas, actively joined the rebels. On 4th November 1569 the Earl of Sussex summoned the two earls to York. One refused to come and the other deferred his coming. Thereupon Sussex called the Council of the North together - including Sir Nicholas Fairfax. This must have been a very difficult situation for Sir Nicholas as he had to judge rebels whom he had largely supported. The rebellion started openly on 15th November at Brancepeth. On the 17th young Nicholas among others entered the house of Anthony Catterick on Stanwick. However the rebellion was crushed before Christmas, and young Nicholas Fairfax was a prisoner in Carlisle. His father was on the Council of the North to receive the submission of all the offenders of the West Riding.

In 1538/9, in spite of his opposition to the closing of the monasteries, Sir Nicholas was not backward in coming forward and wrote to Cromwell asking for Newborough Priory or Whitby Abbey to be given to him. This was refused, Newborough being given to a Protestant family, the Bellasys, and Whitby to the Cholmonleys.

In 1554 it is recorded that Sir Nicholas had 30 to 40 servants, indoor and outdoor, and that he was worth more than £1000 per annum.

After quite an eventful life Sir Nicholas Fairfax died on 30th March 1571. Before he died, in 1571, he made arrangements in his will for the building of a free school in the Parish of Gilling, and bequeathed an annuity of £10 for the support of the schoolmaster. Where this school was we do not know, but it may have been on the site of the present Roman Catholic church, as the school was sited there before it was the village reading room in 1836. Sir Nicholas left a family of eight sons and five daughters, all by his first wife Jane Palmes; he had none by his second wife Alice Parrington. He was buried in the church in Gilling. He made provision for a monument to be erected in Gilling Church at a cost of £40. It is there now in the south aisle of the nave. His children were intended to be displayed round the sides of a plinth, but this has either disappeared or was never there. His first wife Jane Palmes is depicted at his side, with a hand at her feet being a pun on her maiden name. When his second wife died is not recorded, but she now lies on his left side with a lion at her feet. Sir Nicholas is shown in armour, his head resting on a helmet and at his feet a lion couchant. The altar tomb on which the effigies are now placed was provided by Mrs. Lavinia Barnes, who was virtually the last of this branch of the Fairfaxes.

Sir Nicholas’s will is published in Bilson’s paper on Gilling Castle in the Yorkshire Archaeological Journal for 1907. It is interesting to see that by his will his grandson should be educated by his son Cuthbert of Acaster Malbys, who was a Roman Catholic. Cuthbert and his daughter Mary were reported as recusants.

Sir William Fairfax

Sir Nicholas was succeeded by his eldest son William, to whom we owe the magnificent “Great Chamber” in the Castle. Sir William was a knight in his own right, being knighted at Berwick by the Duke of Norfolk in 1560. His first wife was Agnes, daughter of George Lord Darcy who was executed in 1537 for his prominent part in the Pilgrimage of Grace. Agnes must have died before William succeeded, and he must have married again within the next two years (1573). His second wife was Jane Stapleton, daughter and heiress of Brian Stapleton of Burton Joyce near Nottingham. Strangely there was a connection once more with Nottinghamshire, as Jane Stapleton’s mother came from Laxton which had once been claimed by the de Ettons. Jane must have been only about 16 years of age when she married Sir William, who was some 37 or 38 years older.

Like his father, William seems to have played a prominent part in the affairs of Yorkshire. In two letters of the state papers we learn how Queen Elizabeth’s ministers regarded him. A letter written by Sir Thomas Gargrave, Vice-President of the Council of the North, dated September 1572, mentions him. This letter is a list of persons recommended for appointment to the Council of the North, sent to Lord Burleigh. The people mentioned are divided into various categories: (1) Protestant; (2) the worst sort; (3) mean or less evil; (4) doubtful or neutral. Sir William is listed as mean and less evil. His neighbour at Newborough Priory was Protestant. Of William’s other links William Hungate, Gabriel Fairfax and Vavasour are all doubtful or neutral; John Sayce and Sir Richard Stapleton are mean or less evil; while Martin Anne, presumably of Burghwallis, and Richard Gascoyne are of the worst sort.

The second letter was addressed to Walsingham by Henry Earl of Huntingdon in 1577, when he was the President of the Council of the North. The subject is the same as that of the first letter, and we find that Sir William was considered sufficiently sound to be on the Council.

Although Sir William considered his house at Gilling to be a poor one, his hospitality was on a generous scale. There is a fine series of house accounts kept by John Woodward, the house steward from 1571 to 1582. The weekly account was £7 to £8 plus the produce of the estate. At New Year this rose to £22 per week, and during Lent fell to £5. As a general rule there were 30 to 40 persons dining in the Hall, particularly on guest days. On May 14th 1579 there is a record of a supper held in honour of the Earl of Rutland. The guests named were The Earl of Rutland himself, Sir Robert Constable, Mr. Manners (perhaps a relation of the Earl’s), Sir William Bellasis, Mr Henry Bellasis and his wife, and many others. The food included mutton, beef, veal, calves’ feet, chicken, capons, moorcock, pigeon pie, and stewed rabbits - surely a feast fit for a king.

In 1572 (39 Elizabeth) Sir William sat as MP for Yorkshire County. He was Sheriff of Yorkshire in 1577. In 1588 his name appears as a gentleman who would be able to loan the Queen £50 and £25. In 1588 he was seriously ill and not expected to recover. A Frances Alford wrote to Burleigh regarding an offer of 400 marks for the wardship of William’s son and the permission, should William die, to collect the income from the late monastery of St. Mary York. But William recovered and lived another 9 years.

In the period from 1588 Sir William made considerable alterations to the now 200-year old Tower House built by the de Ettons in 1349. There is no doubt that such a house would not be the height of comfort and would not be in keeping with the status of such a knight as Sir William. He therefore set about a drastic modernisation and extension to the original tower. The most remarkable feature of this venture was the Great Chamber with its panelled walls, the upper portion being decorated with trees bearing the coats-of-arms of the gentry of Yorkshire. These were subscribed by his three daughters. The windows are ablaze with heraldry showing the family connections of the Fairfaxes. There was also a dining room which probably adjoined the Great Chamber.

Further additions included: a new lodging; an outer new lodging; school house new turret; pleasaunce, the old study and paradise all perhaps on the ground floor. Above a gallery, a lodging, the Green Chamber, Sir William’s chamber, and the Bishop’s chamber. In the basement were the low vault and kitchens. Over the middle gates, the porter’s lodge, and over the far gate the stable. Domestic buildings included the kiln, dairy, pastry house, ox house, wine cellar, pantry, two butteries, dry larder, wet larder, boot room and brew-house. Later (in 1624) the following are also mentioned: the walk, the inner and outer nursery, Barnard’s parlour, maids’ parlour, beef house (store), still house, laundry, and wash house. Bilson wisely considers that the original tower was flanked by other buildings containing many of the above amenities. Gill states that he learned that they were on the site of the present wings. Bilson in his “Gilling Castle” gives an exhaustive description of all this work.

Among Sir William’s papers is a list of his books “remaining at Gilling”. 39 books are mentioned, half in English and the rest in French or Latin. There are works by St. Augustine, Tacitus, Plutarch, Machiavelli, Chaucer, Froissart and Holinshed, plus a book listing all the coats-of-arms displayed on the walls and windows of the Great Chamber.

Sir William died on 1st November 1597; his personal estate was valued at £1072 plus the plate and household goods at Gilling Castle; the plate was valued at £393–7s–7d.

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