History of the Elmhirsts

Seven centuries ago the dale of Worsbrough was mostly woodland: on the slopes elm, ash and oak competed for light with a thick undergrowth of bramble and ivy: along the valley’s lowest level willows and marshland lay with the twisting River Dove. The greater part of the dale with its river mill and its agricultural clearings belonged at this time, in the year 1340, to one of two Manors. The smaller portion to the west was still the property of a master who owned, in feudal style, the local manors of Rockley and Stainbrough. The larger eastern portion had been given a hundred years before by Clementia of Longvilliers, fearing for her soul, into the hands of the Catholic Church and the nuns of the great Cistercian Priory of Nun Appleton lying far away near York.

The Prioress and her nuns had little personal contact with their property in Worsbroughdale and their steward probably came to the Dale only occasionally to hold Manor Courts and to collect rents and farm produce, it would be his duty to act as general supervisor, see that the necessary work was done and report to the Lady Prioress important matters which required her decision.


On a Monday morning, early in the winter of 1340, the local manor of Rockley was holding its court.

All the peasants had to be there early. Old Robert of Elmhirst probably walked there from his clearing on the northern slope.(See footnote 1).
First he would have passed beside the assarted, or newly-cleared lands lately reclaimed from the forest’s edge: closer to the manor lands lay the common fields and meadows which would have been well known to him, a few strips here and there would probably have been his own responsibility. The common fields were separated into these strips by ridges or baulks of raised turf.


When all the weather beaten smelly peasants had collected, the steward called for silence; the clerk straightened out his long strip of vellum and began to record the proceeding. He headed it in his crabbed writing:

"Court held at Rockley on the Monday next after the Feast of St Martin-in-the-Winter in the year of our Lord 1340 ".

Firstly matters carried forward from previous Courts would be dealt with. Then followed a long list of cases, always commonest at Manor Courts, of peasants who had let their livestock roam into the lord’s domain. Without hedges and fences, control must have been extraordinarily difficult and the peasant could only hope that the creature ate is moneysworth before being recognised or impounded. Robert of Elmhirst was the second to stand forward: The Steward reported that two of his farm horses had been caught roaming in the lord’s meadow before Michaelmas, 1339: Robert knew he was guilty and the fine being fourpence, what he had anticipated for two horses, he put the silver on the clerk’s desk and rejoined his friends.


Robert of Elmhirst, the possessor of two farm horses, was a person of some consequence among his fellows and at times of forced labour would probably be expected to act as foreman or overseer among his less prosperous neighbours. The Lord of the Manor of Rockley, like lords of the manor all over England, had found it easier to allow serfs to pay money rents in the place of their own forced labour; more commonly still rents being paid in the form of livestock. A serf could own nothing; all he had, his hens, his money, his house and his very wife and children all belonged, like himself, to the lord of the manor.


However, it slowly became clear to the ruling classes that a man would care more for his fields if he knew that after his retirement or death they would be allowed to pass to his son; moreover, a contented peasant would not be so tempted to run away and leave the manor fields untilled.


At the Manor court of 1341 Richard, son of Robert, was allowed to take control of lands that had been tended by his father, a messuage and a bovate of land. A bovate, or an oxgang was, as its name suggest, the amount of land which could be ploughed by a single ox in one season; it varied in area, according to the soil and the system of tillage, between ten and eighteen acres. Fifteen acres would be an average bovate in the West Riding of Yorkshire at this time.


For this quantity of land Richard did fealty to the steward and promised to pay the Lady Prioress a yearly tribute of three hens.

At the end of this manor court came a case of very real interest to everyone there. One of the worst grievances on all manors was the fact that all grain had to be ground in the mill, which always belonged to the lord. The objections to this were many; there was always a waiting list at the mill and the family was hungry. There was nothing to ensure that the flour of doubtful quality handed back by the miller was really the produce of the harvest. Millers were notoriously both crafty and mean; often the place in the queue depended on the size of cash present made to the man. Worst of all perhaps, was that everyone, including the lord, knew exactly the size of everyone else’s harvest and so knew exactly how much was liable to dues and taxation. Because of all these reasons it is not therefore surprising that for centuries peasant had been attempting to grind their own corn, making little stone hand-mills that could be worked discreetly in a back room, paying dues to nobody.


At the court two men were accused of being concerned in the mass production of hand-mills and grinding stones. Worse still, they had got the stone from under the lord’s own land. They were caught red-handed with fifteen pairs of “gryndelstones,” and three other pairs had been found in various houses within the manor boundary. These were ordered to be confiscated and the men were fined forty pence for digging up the stone and an additional four shillings and sixpence for making the finished products.

On the same land that Robert had cleared in the 14th Century Richard and Jenny Elmhirst started raising deer in 1979. The lord of the manor raised no objection.

1)(Until the 15th century was over, members of the family, in the Latin documents of the time, were always written “de Elmhirst or the equivalent. It was and is incorrect to leave the “de” alone untranslated.)