Historic links between Burnley, Clitheroe and Pontefract

editorial image

Some weeks ago I wrote that Burnley and Pontefract in Yorkshire have quite a lot in common. That surprised some of you so this article is intended to indicate the ways in which the towns share some similarities.

Superficially, Burnley and Pontefract might appear very different. After all, though the place is recorded as Tanshelf, the latter had the status of a borough as early as 1086. This, of course, is a reference to how the place is recorded in the Domesday Book.

There is an early mention of Fracti-pontis (in 1069), Pontefracto (1100-02) and Pontfreit (1177) together with another, in 1154, which is almost the same as the modern spelling. All that can be said is that, at some point in the 12th Century something like the present spelling was adopted. Incidentally, Pontefract means “broken bridge”, originally from the Latin and then in French.

With regard to Burnley there is not even the merest reference to the place in the Domesday Book. The whole of North east Lancashire takes up only 14 lines in the book and the only places mentioned are Blackburn, Whalley, Walton le Dale, Huncoat and Pendleton. There is not even a mention of the manor (Ightenhill) of which Burnley was a part.

This last observation tells us much. Burnley, if it existed at all, was merely a township, a vill, as the Norman’s would have put it. Burnley was not big enough to be mentioned. It is supposed there was a church here in 1086 but the first recorded mention of St Peter’s is in 1120. Similarly, though it is suspected there was a place called Burnley in the year of Domesday, we know nothing of it. Everything is conjecture.

In Pontefract we know that, in 1086, there was quite a lot of farm land, that there was meadow and a wood, one league long by half a league wide, for pasture. Also a church and a priest are mentioned as are three mills and a fishery, almost all of which have been identified by recent archaeological work.

When Ilbert de Lacy arrived he probably found a thriving town where Pontefract now stands. When, in the 1980s, the church was located by archaeologists it was excavated and, under the stone foundations of the Norman building, an earlier Saxon wooden structure was located. This church had been at the centre of a large cemetery in which numerous skeletons were located. Many of these were dated to the 10th Century, over 100 years before the Normans arrived.

Ilbert, who is mentioned in the Domesday entry, built his great castle on part of the pre-Norman cemetery. Of course, the castle took years to build and when, once it was built, it was enlarged considerably to make it one of the great castles of England, one that Edward I, one of Medieval England’s greatest kings, considered to be the key to holding the north of his kingdom.

Sketchy as it is, there is nothing like this for Burnley. We know almost nothing of the place until 1124 and 1154 and then only its name, Brunlaia and Brunley respectively. However, by that time, there was the church, or more correctly a chapel, dedicated to St Peter. It will be well over 100 years before we hear of Burnley again but, at this time, Burnley and Pontefract are mentioned in the same document.

For this I refer you to “Seven Centuries of Burnley Market and Fair” by Brian Hall, which appears in Volume 12 of Retrospect, the Journal of the Burnley and District Historical Society, published in 1994. The article starts with a translation of a charter granted on June 6th, 1294, by Edward I to Henry de Lacy, Earl of Lincoln. The charter states Burnley shall have a weekly market on a Tuesday and there will be a yearly fair over three days – the eve, the day and the morrow of the apostles Peter and Paul.

Not only that, but Edward I’s charter granted similar rights to seven other places – Pontefract, Bradford, Campsell and Almondbury in Yorkshire: Charlton Canvill (now Charlton Horethorne) in Somerset: Uxbridge in Middlesex and Middleton Stoney in Oxfordshire. And what might it be that held these places together? – Henry de Lacy, Earl of Lincoln and Lord of Pontefract, included all of them in his vast estate.

The Earl was the last of the de Lacy family to hold the estates which had been granted to them by William the Conqueror. I have outlined their story in recent articles. What might not be apparent is just how important were the de Lacys in the early Middle Ages.

They, two brothers (Ilbert, whom I have mentioned, and Walter) had come from Lassy in northern France, possibly with William. They may have been present at Hastings. Many of the historians who have written about them have claimed they were, though, in all honesty, there is no proof either of them fought in the battle.

What was important was that the two brothers were well connected. Ilbert’s overlord was Bishop Odo of Bayeux, the half-brother of William the Conqueror. Walter, was connected to one of William I’s great friends, who was given responsibility, after Hastings, for the Isle of Wight and the greater part of the Welsh Marches. Both brothers benefited from the success of their masters who rewarded them with great estates.

Ilbert was given a huge estate in West Yorkshire which, within not many years, he decided to base on Pontefract. The estate became known as the Lordship of Pontefract and it was massive, controlling the great road to Scotland from the south. Ilbert may have first used the pre-Norman property at Barwick before he decided on Pontefract and it seems his first castle building programme there, a motte and bailey structure, was under construction by the 1070s or 1080s.

A little after this, possibly in the time of Ilbert’s son, Robert, the family came into possession of the neighbouring Lordship of Clitheroe. Ilbert had benefited, in terms of land and status, by the fall of Bishop Odo in the 1080s and Robert de Lacy was to benefit when Roger of Poitou fell from royal favour at a similar time.

From around 1090, maybe a few years later, both Pontefract and Clitheroe were united. This meant Pontefract and Burnley were united, a union which was to become even stronger when Roger de Lacy brought together the Lordships of Pontefract and Clitheroe, and his own inherited West Cheshire estate. Roger was the hereditary Constable of Chester.

So Pontefract and Burnley were linked by the de Lacys. The rights they had to a market were derived from the same source, Henry de Lacy. Similarly, it was Roger de Lacy, a Lord of Pontefract, in his capacity (it is true) as Lord of Clitheroe, who founded the fortunes of Burnley’s Towneley family by granting the Towneley area to his new son-in-law.

These were not the only similarities. In Pontefract the de Lacys had their great castle but in Burnley, or more precisely Ightenhill, they had their manor house. As I have indicated the manor house at Ightenhill, while it does not compare with the castle at Pontrefract, was not the least of their possessions. The de Lacys, and their successors, the House of Lancaster, did not grant it out. They kept it, like the castle, for themselves.

Lastly, there is something else which links Pontefract and Burnley. Just about everyone who has written about this part of the world, as it was in the Middle Ages, has made reference to this, the road which linked Pontefract to Clitheroe. It passes within a few hundred yards of the Manor House at Ightenhill.

I have never looked at is the exact route taken by this road.

Perhaps I should, but certainly the present Ightenhill Park Lane once experienced the grandeur of the progress of a de Lacy Earl making his way, perhaps with scores of attendants, from his great castle at Pontefract to one of his minor fortifications at Clitheroe.