Yan, Tyan, Tethera and other sheep related historical facts…and a cross stitch sampler

yantyantether.jpgTraditionally shepherds counted their sheep in scores – or lots of twenty – twice a day, morning and evening, just to check that they hadn’t lost any in the night.    When the shepherd got to twenty he or she would place a pebble in their pocket and start again and so on until they ran out of sheep or pebbles.

There are various regional versions of sheep counting but my own favourite is Cumbrian sheep counting. Some sources believe that this form of counting goes back to the Vikings – and given that there are studies that suggest that iconic Cumbrian sheep,the Herdwick, was introduced by non other than the Vikings it is easy to see how this conclusion was arrived at.

Others identify this particular form of counting as a Celtic form of counting – Brythonic Celtic if you want to be accurate.  The ancient kingdom of Rheged of which Cumbria was a part was Celtic and for those of you who like unexpected links – was once ruled by Coel Hen – or Old King Cole (the merry monarch).

There is also a theory that sheep counting, which is rhythmic, is the reason that counting sheep is supposed to send you to sleep: yan, tan, tethera, methera, pimp, sethera, lethera, hovera, dovera, dick, yan-a-dick, tyan-a-dick, tethera-dick, methera-dick, bumfit, yan-abumfit, tyan-a-bumfit, methera bumfit, giggot.  It’s also hugely repetitive with only the light relief of number fifteen as a diversion.

Wool is historically one of England and Wales most important industries.   Dre-fach Felindre in the Teifi valley was once the centre of a thriving woollen industry, earning the nickname ‘The Huddersfield of Wales’ – the two don’t have many other similarities.  It is now home to the National Wool Museum of Wales. We visited one very wet summer’s day to find out more about sheep farming and the production of textiles and in its turn it inspired me to create the cross stitch sampler at the start of this post with its varous methods of counting and various sheep or wool related images including the teasels which were once grown in industrial quantities to tease the tangles from the wool.

medieval sheepIn medieval England wool was produced for export to the Low Countries where weavers were prepared to pay best prices for English wool. Even before that time sheep had been important – the Domesday Book reveals that there wherefore sheep than any other kind of animal. From the thirteenth century onwards wool generated huge wealth for the country and it explains why from Yorkshire to the Cotswolds not to mention East Anglia there are so many magnificent churches. Let’s not forget that Norwich was once England’s second city based entirely on the wealth generated from wool. The Merchants of the Staple are one of the oldest corporations still in existence. The Cistercians built their great monasteries on the wealth of wool based on their use of the grange system – or specialist farms.  By the fourteenth century there were something like 150,000 sheep in Yorkshire alone.  The sheep in question turn up in sculpture and manuscripts.  Interestingly whilst sheep milk and sheep cheese was important to the agrarian society of the time meat was a later addition to the sheep’s versatility with mutton finding it’s way onto the menu.

Mutton, incidentally, comes from a sheep which is more than a year old.  Sheep of course can be ewes, rams, tups, hoggets or wethers.  They come in all shapes and sizes.  Cheviot sheep with their startled ears and dense wool have been around since the fourteenth century whereas the blackfaced suffolk sheep with their black legs, faces and downturned ears have only been recorded since the eighteenth century.  An article in Country Life identifies twenty-one native breeds of sheep and provides a handy identikit summary for sheep spotters.  It can be found here http://www.countrylife.co.uk/out-and-about/dogs/shaggy-sheep-stories-21-native-british-sheep-breeds-recognise-153367

french sheep illustrationInevitably  it wasn’t long before someone came up with the bright idea of taxing wool – let’s not forget that the Lord Chancellor sits on a woolsack.  Edward I was the first monrch who slapped a tax on wool.   Henry VI licensed the export of  Cotswold Sheep such was their value.  Even Henry VII got in on the act in 1488 with his own wool act in Wakefield and the west Riding encouraging skilled foreign workers to settle in the country to promote the wool industry.  He also prohibited sale abroad as detrimental to the making and finishing of cloth . In 1523 dyers found themselves coming under regulation thanks to Henry VIII and  the Capper’s Act of 1571 required every male in the kingdom aged six and above to wear a wool hat on a Sunday.  A three shilling fine could be levied for anyone not conforming to the sartorial requirements.  And that’s before we get to the Dissolution of the Monasteries or the land enclosures which troubled the Tudors (e.g. Kett’s Rebellion of 1549).  No wonder Sir Thomas More had something to say about sheep in Utopia – that the sheep ate the men.  Or put more simply the big landowners kicked their tenants and little men off the land so that their herds of sheep could increase in size.Luttrell Psalter sheep

James I was persuaded by Sir William Cockayne to launch a project designed to boost the earnings of those involved in the manufacture of undyed cloth setting up a dyeing industry to do the job at home. The government was promised £40,000 p.a. from increased customs through the importing of dyestuffs. James gave control to Cockayne and the new company was given permission to export in 1615. It was clear by 1616 that Cockayne had not the resources to buy the cloth from the clothing districts and hold it until it could be marketed. Matters became worse when the Dutch banned the import of cloth. Merchants went bankrupt, weavers rioted, cloth exports slumped and the industry stagnated. By 1617 James abandoned Cockayne and the Merchant Adventurers regained control.  It should also be noted that James wasn’t without his own share of riot and rebellion related to sheep and enclosure – the Midland Revolt of 1607 demonstrates that problems didn’t go away for a few years before returning with a vengeance during the eighteenth century.

Times change and by the mid seventeenth century there was a requirement to be buried in a woollen shroud to help keep the wool market going (The Burying in Woollen Acts) This act of 1666 required all the dead to have woolly shrouds apart from plague victims and presumably that was because no one wanted the job of checking to see whether the deceased was complying with the law – families were liable to a five pound fine if the shroud was anything other than English wool.  The law was in force for about a century although it remained on the law books for much longer.

James I banned the sale of untreated wool to Flanders and ultimately the ban on sales of wool was not lifted until 1824. In 1698 there was even an act that meant that farmers with flocks of sheep near the cost had to give an account of the numbers in their flocks to prevent wool smuggling.

In 1699 it was forbidden that any of England’s colonies should export wool anywhere other than England – so it was sold to Enlgish markets and then sold on elsewhere.  It doesn’t take a genius to see why the colonists felt somewhat out of sorts about the matter. And of course wool is one of the reasons behind the Highland Land Clearances that began in about 1750 and lasted for the next century.

If you like the sampler pictured at the start of this post and you do cross stitch it is now possible to buy and download it from the HistoryJar shop which can be accessed at the top of the page or by clicking on the link.

 

Edwin’s Place

KSCN0001King Edwin’s kingdom stretched from Edinburgh – Edwin’s Town- to the River Trent.   This was the Kingdom of Northumbria He was accepted as the High King or Bretwalda.  Following his marriage to Ethelburga of Kent (daughter of Ethelbert) in AD 627 he became Britain’s second Christian king. Bede described Edwin  as more powerful than any earlier king and as time passed he extended his kingdom to the Isle of Man and Anglesey.

His invasion of North Wales resulted in Cadwallada of Wales and Penda of Mercia forming an alliance against him and invading his kingdom in 633.  He and two of his sons were killed at the Battle of Heathfield  which could be near Cuckney or alternatively at Hatfield near Doncaster – though it would be unlikely for the next part of the story to be true if this were the case.

Edwin’s comrades carried his body from the scene of the battle and buried it in the forest.  They carried his head back to St Peter’s in York., though another version has Cadwallada displaying Edwin’s head on the ramparts of York’s city walls following a veritable  Saxon-killing spree.  In either event the battle was bloody and decisive.

 

Eventually it was decided that Edwin’s body should be buried in Whitby Abbey where his niece St Hilda was abbess.  By that time people were calling him a saint.  The spot where his body had been buried was deemed a holy place and a wooden chapel built on the site.  This became known as the ‘place of Edwin’ or Edwinstowe.

Edwinstowe was part of the royal manor of  Mansfield in 1066.  Inevitably, given the Norman kings love of hunting the land around Mansfield and Edwinstowe became part of a royal forest.  The Domesday Book of 1086 records the church, a priest and four bordars – these were essentially slaves working the priest’s land.  Twenty years later there was even less land being cultivated.

 

In later times King John, who had a hunting lodge at Ollerton, paid a priest to live in a nearby chantry to say prayers for his soul and for the souls of the people he had wronged.

The local people probably felt they ought to have been included in the number as they were bound by the strict forest laws that protected the timber and the game of royal forests.   Those caught breaking the law were taken before the Forest Court or Eyre which was held every six or seven weeks.  More serious offences were tried at the Nottingham Eyre.

Ribald of Middleham

388a8dd5ca26ea292479e9883b0a69caThe land around Middleham was given to Alan The Red. Alan built a wooden motte-and-bailey castle, 500 yards to the south-west of where the present castle stands, on a site known as William’s Hill. It can be seen from the current keep. It was built to guard Coverdale and to protect the road from Richmond to Skipton.

By the time of the Domesday Book in 1086 Middleham had been granted to Alan the Red’s brother Ribald. Two generations later Alan’s grandson, Robert FitzRibald built a new castle which featured a massive stone keep . The keep, one of the largest in England, had twelve-foot thick walls and three floors; for its time, this would have provided palatial accommodation. It contained a great chamber, large kitchen, chapel, dovecot, cellars and the living rooms of the lord of Middleham.  No wonder it was so popular with one of its later inhabitants – The Duke of Gloucester a.k.a. Richard III.  The castle came to be known as The Windsor of the North.

But what of Ribald?  He appears to have been born circa 1050 and died in 1121 in St Mary’s Abbey York where he had withdrawn after the death of his wife, Beatrix de Tallebois in 1110.  He lived the final years of his life as a monk in Benedictine habits – hence the illustration. His lands, and he benefitted from being Alan’s brother – click on the image to see a list of lands he owned at the time of the Domesday Book- were passed to his son Ralph FitzRibald.  Four generations later the family line ended but not before the daughters of the family had married into the Percy and Bigod families.

Incidentally, the word ‘ribald’ referring to a coarse or vulgar person doesn’t make an appearance in the language until the thirteenth century and it came from the French word ‘riber’ meaning to live licentiously; it seems to have almost referred to a certain kind of henchman when it was first used.

 Ribald was almost a class name in the feudal system . .
      . He was his patron's parasite, bulldog, and tool . . .
      It is not to be wondered at that the word rapidly
      became a synonym for everything ruffianly and brutal.
                                               --Earle.
http://www.hyperdictionary.com/dictionary/ribald

Sadly, my Oxford Dictionary of Baby names doesn't offer any 
clue as to the origins or meaning of the name Ribald.

Alan of Brittany

images-6

Richmond Castle is exceptionally impressive, towering at over 300 ft, it is also one of Britain’s oldest stone keeps.  There has been one on this site since 1088 . Richmond was granted to Alan the Red, Count of Brittany in 1071.  Alan was a relation of William the Conqueror, a second cousin.  His father was Count Odo of Brittany. He was part of Duke William of Normandy’s household and was at the Battle of Hastings commanding the Breton contingent.

As a consequence, Alan was an extremely rich and powerful man – a position that he improved upon when he helped to quell the rebellion in the North in 1069.  Click on the image of Richmond Castle to open a new page listing all of Alan’s lands in the Domesday Book. He founded St Mary’s Abbey in York.  His power base was the north and his building work demonstrates how important it was for him to make his mark upon the landscape.  He also built the first castle at Middleham which was in the hands of his brother.  By the time of his death he was the fourth largest landowner in England.5-alan-rufus

His ambitions included marriage to the King of Scotland’s daughter Edith also known as Matilda.  William the Conqueror saw this as a step too far but somehow or other Alan had become entangled with another royal lady during this time.  Edith was living at the nunnery of Wilton.  It appears that King Harold’s daughter Gunnhild was living there as well.  She may well have been sent there for her education as well as her own protection.

Alan’s plans for Edith fell through but apparently Gunnhild took herself off to Richmond to be with Alan.  Seems straight forward?  Well, it would be if there was only one source involved – did she go willingly or was she abducted?  Was she a nun or was she simply living in a nunnery as many well-born women did? Was it love or was it a match between a Saxon and a Norman to secure for Alan the lands that came to Gunnhild via her mother (Edith Swanneck)?  If the latter was the case, then Alan was seeking to secure some of his lands not just by conquest but also by union with the woman whose lands they rightfully were.

When Alan died in 1093, shortly after he carried off Gunnhild, his estates went first to his brother, the imaginatively named, Alan the Black and then to their younger brother Stephen.

As for Gunnhild, having eloped from her nunnery, she was in no hurry to return so she took up with Alan the Black and earned a stinging rebuke from Archbishop Anselm.

There is also the intriguing possibility that the dates given above are not the correct ones and that the correct story occurs much earlier. She and Alan eloped in the 1070s rather than just before Alan’s death.  This isn’t as far-fetched as it seems.  After all there are different accounts as to when he died – one gives the date as 1089 when he was very much alive.  If the dates for the match are earlier then it is possible that the couple had a daughter called Matilda who was married to Walter d’Agincourt. Matilda gave large gifts of land at the time of her marriage to Lincoln Cathedral – these were all the property of Alan the Red. This version would, perhaps, also account for the seemingly dramatic swapping of one Alan for another.

Gunnhild is a chance discovery when I was researching Alan the Red to find out more about the man who built Richmond Castle.  She’s sitting on the margins of history and once again the moth-holed accounts are tantalizingly incomplete.

Sources:

Sharpe, Richard. “King Harold’s Daughter”  The Haskins Society Journal 19: 2007. Studies in Medieval History

 edited by Stephen Morillo, William North.  This can be accessed via Google Books and makes for fascinating reading.