Life in the Middle Ages – War, Politics and Religion.

Our second full day in York we took to the roads and went exploring through the Yorkshire Dales.  The theme, again, was history.  England’s countryside is dotted with relics attesting to the politics and religious fervor that dominated life in the Middle Ages.


First stop, just a few miles outside of York, was the Towton battlefield, site of the largest and deadliest battle ever fought on English soil.  Fought on Palm Sunday in 1461, Edward of March, son of the Duke of York  (head still hanging from Micklegate Bar), brought his forces to bear against those of Henry VI and his queen (and power behind the throne) Margaret of Anjou, to take his revenge and press his claim to the throne as Edward the IV.  Edward won the day, but at the cost of tens of thousands (the estimates vary) of mostly common foot soldiers slaughtered with a brutality that was extreme even within the context of medieval warfare. Mass graves have been excavated from the site in modern times testifying to the violence of this battle, fought in the snow, over 500 years ago.

Today the site is peaceful and bucolic. A memorial cross put up in 1929 stands near the road, small tokens and fading flowers left at its base in remembrance.  The site is now on a working farm, but a path has been put in to allow visitors access. We strolled part of the way, taking in the scenery, listening to the birds and seeing no one but a lone farmer walking the path with his dog.


We continued on, driving through the spectacularly beautiful Yorkshire Dales, making our way to Middleham Castle about an hour northwest of York.

Castles were unknown in England until the Normans came in the 11th Century and constructed continental style castles throughout England to ensure their domination.  Many of those castles still stand, in varying degrees of disrepair.

Middleham Castle is a 12th Century castle and was home to the powerful Neville family during the Wars of the Roses. Richard III spent much of his childhood here as a ward to the Earl of Warwick, at which time he met his future wife, the Earl’s daughter, Anne Neville. The castle was only one of numerous land holdings Richard inherited through his marriage to Anne, but it remained his favorite residence.

After Richard’s death at the Battle of Bosworth, Middleham reverted to the Crown. Like most medieval castles, it fell out of use by the 17th Century.  By the 1700s Middleham was a ruin, many of its stoneworks broken down and reused for newer construction projects.

The castle today stands in the middle of the village of Middleham. A quiet little town boasting a number of small pubs and Inns. We found lunch at the Richard III Inn.

Rievaulx Abbey

By the end of the first week of the trip we began to run out of words to describe the great cathedrals, churches and abbeys we encountered. Grand, spectacular, sublime, majestic, awe inspiring…. Dating back close to a thousand years and often replacing churches established as early as the 5th to 7th Centuries, these magnificent constructions reflect the deep devotion to God that was central to life in the Middle Ages. The sheer size and immense beauty of these places, which took decades and sometimes centuries to build, reflect the yearning of people to connect with something greater than themselves and a strong belief in a better life beyond their frequently harsh everyday existence.

North and east of Middleham, near the Yorkshire moors, tucked away into a secluded valley, lies Riveaulx Abbey.  Founded on the banks of the River Rye in 1132, Rievaulx was the first Cistercian Abbey in the north of England.  Started by a band of twelve monks, it grew  into one of the largest and wealthiest abbeys in England.  At its height, Rievaulx housed 150 monks and over 500 lay brothers, operating a successful sheep and wool business, as well as iron and lead mining.  Although the Abbey declined somewhat following the black death and other reversals of fortune in the 14th Century, it was still an active community until 1538 when it was ordered to be closed by Henry VIII as part of his Dissolution of the Monasteries.  The monks were turned out and the buildings stripped of valuable lead and other materials.  The ruins that stand today hint at the grandeur that was once Rievaulx. Stand in the Presbytery and imagine the art works, stained glass and vaulted ceilings.  Sit on the stone benches in the Chapter House and hear the Abbot reading Scripture to the monks.

The surrounding area is as secluded and peaceful as it was when they selected this site over 800 years ago.  Sheep graze nearby and the River Rye flows gently past.

Rievaulx Abbey - Nave
Rievaulx Abbey – Nave

St. Mary’s Abbey and York Minster

Returning to the city of York, St. Mary’s Abbey dates to 1088 and was built on the site of an earlier church dedicated to St. Olaf II.  The surviving structure dates to the early 13th Century.  St. Mary’s was a Benedictine Abbey and was once the richest abbey in northern England.  It was dissolved by Henry VIII in 1539 and all of its great wealth reverted to the Crown, and the buildings largely destroyed.  Today the ruins stand surrounded by lovely gardens in the center of town, next to the Yorkshire museum.

York Minster, also known as St. Peter’s, is one of the largest gothic cathedrals in Europe. It was built starting in 1080 on the site of a series of Christian churches dating back to 627 AD.  Building continued as the church expanded into the 16th Century.  Although it survived the Reformation it was heavily looted during Elizabeth I’s reign as she acted to remove all vestiges of Roman Catholicism from England’s churches. Restoration work started as early as the 18th Century and today the Cathedral is about as is about as magnificent/spectacular/awe-inspiring as they come.

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