The Parish of Mexborough, including the district of Denaby on the south side of the Don, is in extent about 2366 acres, extending on the east to the confluence of the Dearne and Don, on the west to Swinton, and on the north and south from Adwick to Hooton Roberts. In earlier times the parish was of greater extent, embracing the towns of Swinton and Ravenfield, but now, as above shewn, extending only over the districts of Denaby and Mexborough. Baines, in his list of Yorkshire names derived from the Anglian dialects, gives the origin of the name of Mexborough as from Maeg-burg, - the union of a family or clan.
In accordance with our desire to consider the township as it appeared fifty years ago, we cannot do better than follow the guidance of the survey plan of that period, shewing the buildings to be few in number, simply and unevenly arranged; a true counterpart of villages to be met with in more primitive parts, and where the hand of the leveller has not improved away the simple rustic beauty so charming to the eye of lovers of art and nature.
The utilization of the resources of the town of Mexborough, however, has caused a wondrous change in the district, giving a visitor the idea as expressed in our opening sentence of a “bustling thriving town”. With the removal of many old landmarks and places of interest, but little now remains from which to gather matter for thought, so we must content ourselves with looking at that portion of the township including, and in close proximity to, the old Parish Church, and upon such places where once stood features of a departed age, or are still to be seen relics of the bygone past.
To matter-of-fact business folk of the present day a visit to Mexborough would necessitate a journey by rail, but centuries before the introduction of the railroad Mexborough was of no small importance to our semi-civilized ancestors, and from different parts important roads converged to the little settlement, making easier the travels of those who were compelled to make use of the means of transit provided by nature. Of these roads but little trace now remains; but the Roman Rigg, perhaps of the first importance, has been shewn to have crossed the Don at Strafford Sands, so-called as here was a ford over which passed the road or street, - hence Street-ford or Strafford.
The Sands have now only an historical existence as they no longer remain and the ford has disappeared.
Upon the subject of these ancient roads much might be said of interest, but as those more learned in these matters are found to differ, we shall allow this passing mention to suffice. Before proceeding to the examination of the old buildings we might deal with the more elevated portions of the district. The name burh or burg meaning a fortress or place of strength, proves that Mechesburg (Mexboro’) was a place of some consequence as a military position soon after the peopling of Yorkshire by the English race. In former times a line of British earthworks and fortresses ran from Combs Moss, in Derbyshire, to the great swamp of Hatfield Chase, the principal strongholds being at Combs Moss, Mam Tor, Hope, Sheffield, Wincobank, Greasboro’, Mexborough, Conisbro’, Kirk Sandal, and Hatfield Chase.
Though not of most importance among the above, the hills about Mexborough, similar to those of Conisbro’, Tickhill, Wincobank, and Bradfield, are to us replete with interest, and to these will we turn our attention.
In nearly every case the construction is the same, but the earthwork at Mexborough is of greater magnitude than at Wincobank.
Hunter writes “The most probable supposition concerning all these works is that they belong to the Brigantian era, a point, which no indication either in the form of the works themselves, or in the general history of the district, are sufficient to determine”. He further describes that at Mexborough as “an elliptical area surrounded by a high mound of earth and a conical tumulus rises near one of the foci. The tumulus is so placed that a considerable portion of it is within the mound. There are also appearances of an outwork beyond the trench.”
This earthwork was no doubt constructed to form a protection to the passage over the Don at this place.
Here, close by, is Strafford Sands where the *Wapentake of Strafford and Tickhill was held. This Wapentake [ from Anglo-Saxon Woepen – weapon, tak – to touch. ] was the court of the Lord of the honour of Tickhill, the tenants and vassals assembling at this place twice a year swear allegiance, each one severally touching the spear held by their Lord, as a token of fealty.
The Castle hill rises at the eastern extremity of the town by the river, in many respects resembling the castle hill of Conisborough. The mention of castle hill here raises a question of interest. Doldsworth, the eminent collector of information relating to Yorkshire, writing concerning the Don describes the river as passing “Mexbrough, where hath been a castle”. On inquiry among the inhabitants we cannot find even a tradition in support of Dodsworth’s statement, the only one concerning the hill being, that the original founders of Conisbro’ Castle intended building the fortress at Mexbro’, but some perverse elves always came by night and transplanted the materials to their present site at Conisbro’. Nevertheless, it is most probable that at some time a castle defiantly reared its towering battlements on this spot although in putting forward such a theory we shall doubtless meet with the opposition of many.
On the advent of the conqueror in 1066, castles became everywhere abundant, and it is said that there were five castles between Sheffield and Doncaster, irrespective of the strongholds in those towns. Petty wars were waged on every hand, the Barons and Nobles warring against those in less exalted positions, or against each other. “The people oppressed, attached to the soil, disposed of like cattle, and lying at the mercy of the great. The country everywhere crowded with castles, the nurseries of rebellion, the retreats of plunderers, the dens of the lazy and profligate, and the seats of riot and debauchery.”
At this time every town or pass of any importance presented a site for the feudal stronghold of some lawless Baron; and to such an extent were these homes of sedition scattered over the country, that in the reign of Stephen it is supposed there were no fewer than 1100 castles, mighty and defiant in their massive strength.
With reference to such a building at Mexborough not much can be deduced from early writings, but we will here refer to a work by John Wainwright who in 1829 wrote concerning Conisbro’, -
“Several other similar edifices formerly reared their frowning crests on the banks of the Don, but that at Conisbro’ only escaped destruction. The sites of all of them are traditionally pointed out, although not one stone of the structures can now be identified.”
Shall not the foregoing justify us in the assumption that a castle once existed in Mexborough? We may follow up the above theories and extracts with a thought of Sheffield castle and that of Doncaster, of the existence of which at some time there can be no denial. But where are the stones of which the buildings were composed? Not one remains as a memorial, or to mark the site of the romantic grandeur of the past. And why not so with Mexborough?
From the little which we may glean let us remain satisfied and assured that here we have at Castle Hill, the site of a once noble edifice, the scene of glory and power, the home of romance and chivalry.
Now will we turn our attention to the meadows lying on the north side of the Don opposite Strafford Sands, namely the Mexbro’ Ings.
Bound up in the general aspect, to strangers this locality might pass unnoticed, yet a large amount of interest centres thereon.
We may without demur place reliance upon the records of Geffery and here behold the field known in times past as Maisbeli.
This writer, referring to Cunungeburg (Conisbro’), states that in the fifth century there was a fortress (Not the present castle which is undoubtedly of 11th century construction) there which proved the scene of many memorable transactions. The narrative of most interst to us, is that Aurelius Ambrosius had been made king by the Britons, then opposed by the Saxon power. In AD 487 Hengist, the Saxon leader, knowing that Ambrosius intended to pass through the field of Maisbeli, prepared to meet him in this place. Ambrosius, nothing daunted, marched his army to the spot, a great battle ensued, resulting in the defeat of the Saxons. Hengist beat a hasty retreat to Caer-conan pursued by Ambrosius, who completed his victory by slaying many of the enemy, making slaves of others, and putting Hengist to death.
Concerning Mexborough, we can find but one other historic reference connected with the troublous times which our country has passed through. During the great Civil War of the 17th century, and after the battle of Marston Moor, Pontefract was the only royal garrison in the North. Colonel Ravensborough, who, with his army was at Doncaster, received orders to march to Pontefract; but the Royalists of that place, desiring to frustrate him, formed a plan for getting possession of the Colonel, and at the same time to exchange him for Sir Marmaduke Langdale, then a prisoner in the hands of the Parliamentarians at Nottingham. For this purpose Captain Paulden, with twenty-two select men, left Pontefract at midnight, Oct 30, 1648. Arriving at Mexborough, a halt was made, one man being despatched to Doncaster to ascertain whether their designs had become known.
The Captain, with the main body, having secreted themselves during the day in the neighbourhood of Mexbro’, were joined there later by their companion, who informed them that all was quiet at Doncaster, and should matters remain favourable, on the morrow a friend would meet them on the road carrying a bible; this being a signal for them to proceed. All came to pass as arranged. Capt Paulden divided his men into four companies, - six to secure the main guard; six the guard upon the bridge; four to capture the Colonel; while he with the remaining six would beat the street to keep the enemy from assembling. The guard were secured; and the four having obtained an entry to the Colonel’s apartments by stating that they had letters from Cromwell announcing a great victory, - were admitted to the bedchamber of the Colonel. Upon rising from the bed they informed him that he was their prisoner, and disarming his Lieutenant, both were conducted downstairs where a horse was in readiness to convey the prisoner to Pontefract. While in the act of mounting, seeing his sentinels standing by, he cried “To Arms! To Arms!”. A fight ensued, the Lieutenant being stabbed through the body, and the Colonel, after receiving many wounds, falling dead. The assaulting party speedily escaped from the town, returning by way of Mexbro’ to Pontefract Castle, which surrendered soon after this well-planned but unsuccessful coup.
We will now refer to the Domesday Book completed AD 1081. Concerning Mexborough, the following is a correct translation:-
“In Mechesburg (Mexbro’), Ulfac, Uchil, Ulchel, had five carucates of land to be taxed, where there may be four ploughs. Roger has now there one plough and eight villanes, and four bordars with three ploughs, and one mill of eight shillings.” (Carucate – as much land as a team could plough in a year.
Villane – a farm slave, born upon and transferable with the land but who could himself hold land.
Bordar or borderer – a slave of the lowest degree, and working for his keep.)
Upon so important a subject as the foregoing we cannot do better than fully quote Hunter, as from his works may be gathered a fund of information. Concerning the three landowners mentioned, and other ancient history of the Manor of Mexborough, he writes-
Ulfac was doubtless the person of that name who held half of Adwick. He had other lands as had also his co-lords of Mexborough, Ulchil and Ulchel. The lands here as at Adwick were granted out by Roger de Busli immediately after his acquisition of them, to Swein fitz Ailric, or Ailric his father.
The appearance of these people in possession is generally indicated by the foundation or gift of a church. Indeed the only evidence here or at Adwick of their possession arises out of their gifts to monastic bodies. Swein gave half the church to Nostell. The other half was given by Adam de Montbegon, who married one of his granddaughters to the house of Bratton, founded by Adam the son of Swein. But Adam de Montbegon gave the monks at the same time all that he possessed of Mexborough, so that they obtained the lay-superiority here as well as one half of the ecclesiastical.
The Manor of Mexborough thus in mortmain continued so till the dissolution of the house Bretton, in the time of Henry VIII.
In the 9th year of the reign of Edward II, (1316) the prior of Bretton is returned Lord. In 1327, Archbishop Melton gave license to the prior, that he might let his Manor of Mexburgh for the benefit of his house. In 43(rd year of the reign of) Edward III (1370) the king granted him free warren in all these lands.
But there seems to have been other tenancies of the Lord of Tickhill in this place. In Kirkby’s Inquest John le Vavasour is said to hold six bovates in Mekesburgh of the King; as of his honour of Tickhill. And in the rolls of Tickhill fees, so often referred to, ‘the tenants of Roger Bacon did fealty, and acknowledged that they held in Mekesborough four oxgangs of land, and paid every year for keeping the castle of Tickhill, in each year 2s 4d, and in the third year nothing, and they came to the two great courts’. (Bovate or oxgang of land = 15 acres.)
A William Bacon had lands here in 17(th year of the reign of) Henry VI (1439).
At the dissolution the Manor of Mexbro’ constituted a valuable part of the endowment of the house of Monk Bretton, the gross value (including something at Carhouse) being Ł22.18s. It was managed by a bailiff, who in the reign of Henry VIII was Edmund Dewis, his salary 20s. It did not remain long in the crown. In 36(th year of the reign of) Henry VIII (1545) the Manor of Mexburgh was included in a grant made to Morgan Wolfe, Thomas Calton and others. In 1577 it was held by – Blount, Esq, in right of his wife.
It appears to have reverted to the crown, for in the survey of the crown lands, 1649, it is said to have been granted with the Manor of Bolton upon Dearne, on August 31. 41(st year of the reign of) Elizabeth (1599) to Francis Trappes Birnand. He was of Harrogate and was afterwards knighted.
From Bernard’s survey, whence we learn the temporary occupancy of this Manor by Blount, we gather that there was another manor in Mexbrough, which has lately belonged to Roger Vavasour, Esq, and then to Ann Reresby, widow.”
This must have been connected with Denaby as a further reference will show.
“Sir Francis Trappes Birnand had a son and heir, Robert, father of Francis Trappes Birnand, living in 1676; but how long the Manor of Mexbrough remained in this family I am unable to say, or by what means it passed to Mrs Clay who was lady of Mexbrough at the beginning of the last century. From this lady it descended to Mrs Reeves.”
and finally to Andrew Montagu, Esq, the present owner.
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