Authors: Phyllis Bentley
LOVE AND MONEY
SEVEN TALES OF THE WEST RIDING
There Are Some episodes in history which, though so clearly established by contemporary records that we can't disbelieve them, yet seem incredible to the modern mind.
It's not that we are put off by violence. Murder, robbery and rapine, we can understand; they are simply the ordinary vices of temper, greed and lust multiplied by the lawlessness of past ages. Nor do I mean those actions which strike us as odd because they are motivated by a custom of the day which has long since perishedâa little study can soon put us right on those. No; the actions I mean are those which stupefy the reader by their unexpectedness. Nothing in the story so far has prepared us for them. As we read them, either we shrug our shoulders in amazement and decide that men and women were very different in those days from what they are todayâwhich is not really likelyâor we begin to feel that there must have been a motive which has not appeared. There must be something untold, perhaps unknown, which has wrung the heart and wrought the nerves to such strange action.
Such a deed is that sudden terrible betrayal of a lover by his mistress, which ends the old chronicle of the Elland feud.
None of the various chroniclers of the feud through the six centuries which have elapsed since that fearful act have explained it or even apparently noticed its strangeness. They record it, and they record Lockwood's wild anguished outburst against the treachery of “his woman”âas they contemptuously call her, not even condescending to give her nameâbut why she acted in this extraordinary fashion they never even attempt to tell. But then, all these chroniclers who have passed the story down to us are men, convinced in advance perhaps of the frailty and treachery of women. To
me, poor Aline, as I shall call her, seems to cry out across six hundred years for justice to be done, for her character to be cleared from her lover's mistaken accusations.
“It was thus and thus,” she cries: “I had good cause. If I had not good cause, I am the most miserable of women, for I loved him.”
It happened in Yorkshire, round about the middle of the fourteenth century, that is, in 1350 and 1351. Bows and arrows, daggers and swords, were the weapons of the day. In battle, knights still wore chain mail, but were beginning to protect their more vulnerable parts by plate armour. The yeomen of England were archers; those terrible archers who won the battles of CreÃ§y and Poictiers. A yeoman who was kinsman to a knight carried a bow on his back and a dagger at his hip as he moved about his own countryside, it seemsâ Lockwood shot a very pretty arrow, as we shall see.
The first round of this horrible feud occurred when Sir John de Elland of Elland, at that time Sheriff of Yorkshire, suddenly set out one night with a company of sturdy retainers and murdered three men.
This part of the story is not as well authenticated by documentary evidence as the rest, but still it is told in convincing detail.
Elland was (and still is) a small township standing on the river Calder a few miles from Huddersfield, from which it is separated by the long slopes of a considerable hill. The man against whom Sir John's fury was mainly directed was Sir Robert de Beaumont, of Crosland Hall near Huddersfield, but fearing that a couple of active friends of Sir Robert's, whose halls lay between his own and Beaumont's, might interfere with his nefarious scheme, Sir John murdered Quarmby of Quarmby and Lockwood of Lockwood on the way. He then proceeded to Crosland Hall, but it was surrounded by a moat and he could not get in. Sir John and his men therefore concealed themselves nearby till morning, when a maid coming out of the hall let down a plank across
the moat. The Elland men rushed in, dragged poor Sir Robert down the stairs from his bedchamber, and in spite of his wife's agonised screams cut off his head. They then called for foodâno doubt three murders in one night had made them tired and hungry. The frightened retainers brought out food and drink and set it on the table before them. Sir John, his good humour quite restored, called to Beaumont's family to sit down with him and eat. The younger son, terrified, tremblingly obeyed, but an older son named Adam scornfully refused. Sir John bent black brows on him and threatened to teach him manners in a way he would not like, but went away without murdering anybody else for the time being.
Whether Sir John Elland really murdered three men in one night, and if so why, I fear we shall never be able accurately to discover. Some chroniclers suggest that a relative of Sir Robert Beaumont's had murdered a nephew of Sir John's and taken refuge with Sir Robert, but if so, he seems to have vanished inexplicably from the story. Other chroniclers hint that Beaumont had defied Sir John's authority as Sheriff, or that there had been some flouting insult to Sir John by Beaumont. Others again say the whole affair was due to quarrels between the respective overlords of Elland and Beaumont, great Norman barons to whose families William the Conqueror, with characteristic cunning, had assigned neighbouring territories in Yorkshire so that they might watch each other jealously and keep each other's power down. One of these earls had once abducted the wife of the otherâapparently a willing victim; this act would well explain the feud if it had been recent, but the abduction (or elopement) had taken place nearly thirty years before.
In the spring of 1350 a Quarmby and a Lockwood were in prison in York Castle, and Sir John Elland was one of the commissioners appointed to have them brought to trial. Were these the sons of the murdered men? Or were they perhaps the men themselves, who died of their sojourn in gaol and were thus alleged to have been murdered by Sir John? The paucity of Christian names in those days makes
identification difficult; the story is plastered with Williams and Hughs and Johns.
Two things, however, are certain.
One is the character of Sir John Elland. Fierce, hard, ruthless, domineering, accustomed to rule; an excellent swordsman and the husband of three wives, by whom however he had only one son.
The other certainty is that, whatever its cause, the three young men, Adam de Beaumont, William de Lockwood and Hugh de Quarmby, who were all cousins, believed themselves to have a grudge against Sir John, and determined to take revenge on him.
The three young men hid for a timeâsome say for a few months, some for as long as fifteen yearsâin Lancashire and practised themselves in the use of weapons; then Lockwood, the eldest of the three, urged them to return and exact what they considered their lawful vengeance. Spies in their employ gave them information of the autumn day when Sir John would be returning to Elland from his tour of duty as Sheriff; as natives of the district they knew the route he would necessarily take. They returned to Yorkshire by devious ways and gathering some other young kinsmen and friends, concealed themselves in a hillside wood near Elland through which their enemy must pass.
Sir John, riding back well-pleased from an occasion where he had exercised authority with none to cross him, observed the group of handsome and well-furnished young menâfor they were all wearing swords that dayâwith interest and surprise, and as they approached, courteously made to doff his cap. At this Adam de Beaumont, affronted, shouted rudely:
“Knight, thy courtesy availeth thee naught, because thou hast slain my father!”
Quarmby echoed this cry, and Lockwood added fiercely: “We will be revenged on thee and thine!”
They pulled Sir John from his horse and set about him fiercely.
What happened to Sir John's retainers is not clear. One or two ran on to Elland Hall to get help, we may surmise, and one or two got hurt and ran away. Nothing daunted, Elland drew his sword, backed against a tree and defended himself with skill and courage.
It is clear that he was no mean swordsman, for great prowess and valiantness were shown on both sides during a long battle, says the earliest chronicler. But the struggle of one middle-aged Sheriff, however tough, against three angry young men could have but one ending. From regarding his opponents with contemptuous rage as impertinent young jackanapes, Sir John passed to thinking that they were good fighters and he must meet their swordplay warily, and from that to a flash of exasperation that there were three of them; a man could hardly be expected to defend himself on so many sides at once. His arm tired a little and he wished he were well out of the fight and recounting it to his new young wife at home; and then a sword passed under his guardâwas it Beaumont's or Lockwood's?âand fear suddenly seized him: why, he might never get home! He fell on one knee; it seemed he was wounded, for there was blood; his sword, which he still gripped tightly, lay along the ground and he could not raise it. Blows from all directions now cut and pierced his shrinking flesh. All at once he was so tired that he only wanted the fight to be over; he bent his head and a dagger took him in the neck and so he died, and his son, to whom he gave a last anguished thought, became Sir John Elland in his stead.
The three murderers escaped into Lancashire and stayed there until the following spring. The young Sir John sued before the King to punish them for his father's death; they were indicted as felons but not captured or brought to trial. Then on the night before Palm Sunday in the following year, that is on April 9th, 1351, they came secretly back into Yorkshire and hid themselves in Elland Mill.
This mill, a water mill for grinding corn, was perhaps
used as well for fulling the cloth woven in the neighbourhood âat that time the West Riding of Yorkshire already wove about a thousand pieces of cloth for sale each year. It stood on the south bank of the river Calder. Also on the south bank stood the town and church of Elland, at the foot of the hill then and now called the Ainleys, on the other side of which lay the town of Huddersfield. Unfortunately for Sir John, Elland Hall stood on the north side of the river, almost exactly opposite the mill.
The episode of the mill provides a kind of comic relief in this dark and bloody story of revenge. Whether the thing really happened so, or whether the chroniclers have let their imagination run away with them here as I sometimes let mine, of course we cannot tell. But the story goes that on the night before Palm Sunday the miller, who lived in the mill-house, commanded his wife to go into the mill to fetch out “certain corn.” She fulfilling her husband's commandment went thither, and the young gentlemen perceiving her suffered her to come in and so took her and tied her fast and laid her aside.
They did this, of course, so that she should not tell her husband she had seen them there and thus warn Sir John of their presence. But all the same I imagine Adam de Beaumont and Hugh de Quarmby laughing as they tied up the doubtless plump and comely dame. (Millers and their wives seem to have been a kind of universal mediaeval joke, like mothers-in-law in modern times.) It was a young man's prank which somehow seems to bring the three very clearly and vividly before us.
Adam de Beaumont I see as a short, stocky, sturdy lad, with a high colour and a square face; one of those shrewd, sensible but obstinate Yorkshiremen of whom one can see many in and around Elland today. It might take Adam some time to get hold of an idea, but when he once got his teeth into it he would never let it go. In ordinary life he was a nice lad enough, a little serious and heavy on the hand and not given much to girls, but good at all sports and a very staunch friend, honest and straightforward, neither put-
upon nor putting. He tied up the miller's wife carefully and well and laid her aside behind the door in a neat efficient wayâ“Take her feet, Hugh”âshowing the dame no cruelty but no especial kindness either.