YESTERDAY, January 21, was the feast day of St Agnes and in sheep rearing areas it is known as Sheep Blessing Day. The emblem of St Agnes is a lamb, signifying her innocence as a girl who was martyred for her faith by Roman pagans when only 11 or 12 years old.

She was buried in the Catholic cemetery on the Via Nomentana in Rome where a church was erected to her memory in 350, and her feast day now features in the Calendar of Martyrs drawn up in 354. Her relics are preserved in Rome but stories of her life are somewhat confused even though the basic facts are considered accurate. One account of her life was her epitaph which is attributed to Pope Damascus I (303-384).

Here in England, many churches in sheep farming districts hold celebratory services to mark the Feast of St Agnes and in some cases flocks of sheep are blessed by the priest. At some churches, a lamb is led ceremoniously into the church as part of a procession with some sheep blessing services being held on the Sunday nearest St Agnes’ Day.

Rather curiously, one of the largest sheep breeding establishments in the North of England was a religious foundation. This was Rievaulx Abbey, which stands magnificently on the River Rye near Helmsley.

The abbey takes its name from that river although many local people refer to it as Rivis Abbey. It owes its foundation to St Bernard of Clairvaux who in 1129 sent some monks to discuss the matter with a local landowner called Walter L’Espec.

L’Espec was clearly impressed by their plans and allocated to the monks an area known as “a solitary place in Blackamoor near Helmsley surrounded by steep hills and covered with bogs and woods”.

William of Newburgh described it as a place of vast solitude and horror although the man who was to become its most famous abbot, St Aelred, said it provided marvellous freedom from the tumult of the world. Later, a monk of Rievaulx called Walter Daniel said it provided the monks with a second paradise of wooded delight and much later it was known as one of the great treasures of the English countryside.

The date of foundation of Rievaulx Abbey is variously given as 1131, 1132 or 1133 with the first date being generally accepted, and the first abbot was called William, with Aelred being appointed abbot in 1134. Construction of the magnificent abbey and its church took more than a century to complete with much early help and support coming from Walter L’Espec. He was described as a “Yorkshire nobleman, keen, wise and loved, a staunch and generous friend to the monks, and a man of gigantic stature with a voice like a trumpet, jet black hair and a long beard, a broad open brow and larger piercing dark eyes.”

Another account said he was “as large as a mountain oak”.

The geography of the site meant that the abbey church had to be built north-south instead of the usual east-west, and its nave was probably finished around 1140. Other parts of the abbey church were not completed until a century later and during the construction, the monks had to live in rough shelters.

The stones were from two local quarries about a mile from the site and had to be carried on the River Rye to the building site. This was done on barges, and the river was dammed to create a flood that carried the stones as close as possible to the work area.

Even as the construction work was underway, commercial trade increased in the area. The huge Catholic church boosted commerce in Helmsley and other areas such as Bilsdale while the abbey itself developed a range of rural commercial interests including fishing, farming, sheep breeding and the woollen industry. It also constructed roads and bridges whilst creating employment for local people. Within 50 years of its foundation, it owned more than 6,000 acres of land in widely separated areas of the moors, and cared for more than 14,000 sheep.

Rievaulx became the mother church of the Cistercian abbeys in England with its abbot being head of the English Order. Rievaulx monks built Melrose Abbey in Scotland and founded Revesby Abbey in Lincolnshire. As early as 1134, the Rievaulx monks turned down an offer of land on the Isle of Man – they were far too busy to deal with it. Some 640 men were dependent upon Rievaulx Abbey for employment – the abbey had 140 monks, 240 lay brothers and 260 hired workmen. This was sheep farming on a grand scale supported by other varied enterprises.

The end came with the Protestant Reformation when the abbey walls were razed to the ground to reach the lead on the roof which was buried to await collection. It was found nearly four centuries later and used to restore the Five Sisters Window at York Minster.

Ancient courts

Among Britain’s curious survivors from past ages are several courts leet which survived the 1977 changes to our courts and their jurisdiction. Out of 31 surviving manorial courts in England and Wales, five are in North Yorkshire, and four of them operate within a small area of the North York Moors.

The outsider is at Clifton on the outskirts of York and two are in the Whitby area. One is the Manor of Whitby Laithes Court Leet and there is also the Manor of Fyling Court Leet, both of which manage local commons. Both my maternal grandfather and later an uncle were jurors on Danby’s ancient Court Leet and Baron which meets in Danby Castle in Eskdale. It administers matters like rights of way and parking on common land within its jurisdiction.

Perhaps the best known is the Manor of Spaunton Court Leet and Baron with View of Frankpledge whose duties include the taking of presentments with respect to matters of local concern, and the control and management of various common rights over Spaunton Moor. I recall an occasion when this court barricaded a farmer’s road with barbed wire when he refused to pay a fine of 85 pence which the court had imposed, and on another occasion it threatened to fine the county council if it erected No Parking signs in Hutton le Hole.

Spaunton Court Leet made news recently when it appointed a female juror which, it seems, may be a breach of tradition even if it conforms to current legal thinking.

I was born at Glaisdale within the jurisdiction of Glaisdale and Lealholm Association for the Prosecution of Felons which assisted the parish constable to control local crime and keep the peace. The association built up its finances through rewards for the recovery of stolen livestock. I believe its main function now is to organise an annual dinner although it does pay the costs of jury service by its members, and also finances its own funeral club.

However, felonies became obsolete in 1978, being replaced by arrestable offences, so now there are no felons even if lots of criminals are still with us!