The Local History column with Sheila Graham

Livestock: The sheep belonged to Bolton Priory (Abbey).
Livestock: The sheep belonged to Bolton Priory (Abbey).

A chance discovery in the Lancashire Records Office in Preston set local historian Mike Spence on a quest to uncover its meaning and what it reveals about Malham, in North Yorkshire, around the time of the Black Death.

As Mike explained to the Hebden Bridge Local History Society, the document, written in medieval Latin, was catalogued as a copy, made in the 16th century, of an account relating to Malham, originally written in the 14th century.

The puzzling out of the contents began with translating the Latin, which itself used many abbreviated forms which had to be de-coded. It was clearly set out as an account, with quantities and costs recorded, and it became clear that it was a record of the costs of keeping a flock of sheep in Malham. And the product of these sheep was not wool or meat, but dairy, and specifically large quantities of cheese. Cheese, also known as ‘white meat’ was an important part of the religious diet, which excluded meat, so Mike was set on the trail of finding out which religious order had farmed these sheep in Malham.

A process of elimination and careful cross referencing of other documents led him to conclude that these sheep belonged to Bolton Priory (Bolton Abbey). Fountains was the most powerful and wide-ranging order, but they kept cattle for their dairy needs. Bolton Priory’s records showed they had sheep and also that they used sheep’s cheese. Further clues in the document pointed to Bolton Priory as the owners of these dairy sheep, so Mike wanted to discover where in Malhamdale the sheep has been pastured.

Work done previously by archaeologists had identified possible settlements in an area known as Prior Raikes, not far from Malham tarn.

These had been linked to the keeping of sheep, and were in the middle of pasture land known to have been used by the Bolton Priory. Records from the Priory added weight to the theory that this is where the flock of sheep which were the subject of the Lancashire document had been kept.

A further puzzle was why these accounts had been copied out two hundred years later. The answer proved to be a missing link which pulled together many of the threads of Mike’s research.

After the dissolution of the monasteries in 1540, the land belonging to Bolton Priory had been awarded to a John Lambert and since then he had been amassing land.

In 1569 he was involved in a land dispute over the rights to Prior Raikes pasture on Malham Moor. He had to establish that the rights had been granted to Bolton Priory, and the copy of the accounts from two centuries earlier helped him to prove that was the case. But the John Lambert link in fact goes back much earlier than this. Somewhat confusingly each eldest son of the Lamberts was called John, and more records showed various generations of John Lamberts closely involved with the Priory.

In 1538 they were leasing land from Bolton Priory; in 1536 acting as a steward to the priory; and in the early 14th century one John Le Lambhyrd was appointed as ‘Master of Sheep’ to re-organise the flocks of the priory.

It is possible that this was the man who set up the dairy flock which was the subject of the document of accounts that started Mike on this trail through a host of medieval records. He communicated the thrill of research and discovery alongside fascinating information about medieval life.

Visit the www.hebdenbridgehistory.org.uk website for more information about the history group.