The tragic tales of ancients past

AS WE WERE: The Bartle Fair on Reeth Green in Swaledale in 1951

AS WE WERE: The Bartle Fair on Reeth Green in Swaledale in 1951

First published in Weekend by

SPAUNTON is a small village near the southern edge of the North York Moors, resting quietly on a hilltop between Hutton-le-Hole and Lastingham to the south-west of Blakey Ridge. Many of my reference books that deal with that part of the North York Moors omit references to Spaunton and yet it boasts some interesting tales.

It gives its name to the historic Spaunton Court Leet and Court Baron, one of 31 surviving courts leet in England and Wales. Many others were either abolished or had their jurisdiction curtailed as a result of The Royal Commission on Assizes and Quarter Sessions 1966-69.

Spaunton Court Leet continues to control and administer common rights over Spaunton Moor and in 1966 it barricaded a farmer’s road with barbed wire when he refused to pay a fine of 17 shillings (85p) imposed by the court leet. Across the moors at Lealholm is a notice on the village green dealing with rights of way, parking etcetera, and is headed The Jury of the Court Leet of Danby Parish. That court leet continues to meet in the remains of Danby Castle where many of my relations were former members.

In medieval times, the area around Spaunton was called Spaunton Forest and belonged to St Mary’s Abbey of York, although the deer and game it contained belonged to the King. This led to friction between the ecclesiastical authorities and the sovereign over the rights to take deer and game (ie. hares, rabbits and game birds such as pheasants or grouse).

Another on-going problem was that Spaunton Forest adjoined Blansby Park, which was owned by the sovereign and so produced regular conflicts about the crossing of boundaries. Some were accidental but it is believed many were deliberate.

One of the legends of these moors is the Hang Man’s Stone which appears on older maps. Flowing into the River Dove near Lowna Bridge is the small Swatcha Beck and by following it to the north-east, one can reach the site of Hang Man’s Stone. It is not far from the Hutton-le-Hole to Castleton road.

The story is that a thief stole a moorland sheep, killed it and tied its hind legs together. So that he could carry the carcase home, he put his head through the gap between the hind legs and allowed it to dangle down his back. In this way, his neck, aided by his hands, took the weight of the sheep as he struggled to get it home.

The task was exhausting and so he sat down for a rest and leaned against a convenient large rock. Instead of removing the carcase, placed it on top of the rock.

As he moved to make himself more comfortable, the carcase slipped. It fell off the rock at one side but he was trapped by its weight behind him, unable to reach it. He died there and the stone has since been called Hang Man’s Stone.

A series of moorland stones led from Hang Man’s Stone to Young Ralph, the cross at the top of the long sloping road down to Castleton. The Margery Stone is nearby but the others in sequence from Hang Man’s Stone were Thorn Stone, Prick in the Thorn, Prick in the Stone (sometimes called Stoup), Saddle Rock or Cattle Stone, Cattle Rook, Seven Stones and Margery Bradley. Not far away are other stones bearing the names of Westerdale and Spaunton, these probably being parish boundary markers. I am not sure how many of these can still be found.

Another harrowing tale of Spaunton surrounds its former castle.

It was owned by the good Robert, Baron of Spaunton, who had fallen in love with beautiful Lady Elfleda Kirkby who lived nearby. They were betrothed, with the marriage due the following year.

However, Robert heeded a plea by Pope Urban II who called on all Christians to reclaim the Holy Land.

Robert postponed his wedding so that he could join the Crusades. Barely was he out of sight in his white tunic bearing the X of St Andrew, when the evil Baron Eustace set about not only destroying Robert’s castle but also claiming Elfleda as his bride.

With Robert away, Eustace spotted his opportunity, knowing Elfleda was living at the Castle. With an army of dirty and evil men he attacked at dawn and slaughtered the unprepared defenders of Robert’s castle. Elfleda had hidden in her room and when she noticed that Eustace’s attention was diverted, she made a dash for freedom. But Eustace noticed her heading for the drawbridge.

He ordered his men to raise the bridge and so they did, with Elfleda slipping on its greasy surface and clinging to it as it rose higher and higher. And then she fell. Her wet dress dragged her deep into the stinking water of the moat, but none of the men, clad in armour, could save her. Tragically, she drowned.

In a fit of sorrow and rage, Eustace knew he could not have Elfleda and so he set about demolishing the castle.

Elfleda was buried nearby, but Robert never returned from the Holy Land.

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