My story begins in the Britain of World War II, in an industrial town called Burnley in Lancashire, which owed its existence and its growth to the Pennine hills that surround it and the moisture they provide. The town plays a formative part in my tale and just to keep things in order a few dates will be necessary, although I promise you, you needn’t remember any of them.
You can Google map Burnley now but it once wasn’t so easy to find. It takes its name from one of the two rivers that flow through the town, the Calder and the Brun, its original name being, Brun-Lea, “the meadows beside the Brun.” Some claim that Brun-Lea translates as “brown fields” and anyone acquainted with Burnley and it’s inclement weather might well prefer it.
Its origins as a settlement relate to the stone and bronze age people whose flints, tools and weapons would be excavated from the moorland above it, bleak now but once covered in oak forest.
There is little evidence that Caesar’s legions got to Burnley but they did find nearby Ribchester to their liking. They were there six centuries before the Normans arrived on our shores and won what we now refer to as the Battle of Hastings. Then, the “Tun” of Burnley was still only a hamlet composed of loosely connected farmsteads and some very bad roads. Roads that the Anglo-Saxons had let deteriorate a little since their original builders had retreated to hot baths in Rome. The Anglo-Saxons might well have cried, “ Roads, roads? Don’t talk to us about roads, lads. You want to try to fight off bands of marauding Vikings raping and pillaging about the place. Give you a lot more to think about the state of the roads, we can tell you.”
So it may well have taken a while for the 1066 News of the Norman conquest to arrive in Burnley. The Normans didn’t call it that, probably saying something like, “ We are just taking back what is rightfully ours. Besides, you need liberating. Regime change? Don’t be ridiculous.” Not a bad argument. That’s exactly what we did to them nearly 400 years later. Shakespeare wrote a play about it called Henry V.
After their victory the Normans did what all conquerors do, built a plethora of castles to protect themselves and exercise power over people. One of the castles, Arundel, was founded on Christmas day, 1067 by Roger de Montgomery, who had stayed behind to look after Normandy when William sailed off to England and in 1092, Montgomery’s son, Roger de Poitou was simply granted all the land between the Mersey and the Ribble, what would become Lancashire. Which is, sort of, how the Normans arrived in Burnley. When he was, “Un petit garcon,” in Normandy, Roger could never have imagined that about 900 years later he’d have a Masonic Lodge named after him on Burnley’s, Nelson Street.
A couple of hundred years after the invasion things had settled down a bit. Then, one Henry de Lacy was granted the right to hold a market in what was known as the “Vill,” of Burnley. A grand opportunity for a Burnley lad, you might think, except that he was also Earl of Lincoln and a Norman, which in those days, with an army and a few hundred castles behind you, meant you could do more or less what you wanted. Especially if you were a mate of the Norman King and he made your family Lords of the Manor and you had a big house at Ightenhill and almost everyone else around you was a serf with no rights. When I say, “A mate,” I run the risk of over familiarity. He was, to give him his correct title, “A privileged friend and adviser to King Edward I,” a position that, in one form or another, never seems to have gone away. Interestingly, Burnley doesn’t appear in the Domesday book, the Normans preferring Clitheroe where they installed Roger de Lacy, following on from the Romans who also preferred the delights of the Ribble Valley and not a damp spot in the Pennines.
The de Lacy’s were still well in with the Royals when Edward II visited in 1323. Having a royal visit could be a mixed blessing in that they tended to bring a huge retinue, stay for weeks and eat you out of house and home. You could also wake up to find that they had used up all your arrows and there wasn’t a stag left standing in your deer park.
Having said that, your Lordships influential friend could issue Charters and the establishment of a market in Burnley in 1294 was deemed a very good thing indeed, especially as the day appointed was a Tuesday which in 1294, like now, was a particularly boring day. Thus it came to pass that the “Vill” grew up into a small market town with maybe 50 grovelling, grateful families living in thatched,wood and clay dwellings huddled at the foot of a church called St Peter’s that belonged to the French Dominican monks of Pontefract Priory in Yorkshire. The all-conquering de Lacy’s had brought them over from the Abbey de la Charite sur Loire. One can imagine that there must have been some grumbling about having to leave the vines of Burgundy behind for the delights of Pontefract. Perhaps some of them wouldn’t stop grumbling so their Abbot sent them to Burnley to teach them some humility.
Burnley’s first market wasn’t much but at least the locals now had market day to look forward to and a pint of Roger Smith’s Ale. as well as their regular church services where they would be reminded that the king’s authority and the de Lacy’s came directly from God and there was no denying it. If a bold lad had perhaps consumed a pint or two of strong ale, he might have been rash enough to question the divine right of kings and before he found himself in the stocks, or on top of a large pile of burning wood, he’d hear the French friars screaming, “”Erisie !” If the lad’s mother, on hearing the fracas, said, “He were only asking,” there’d be much narrowing of ecclesiastical eyes and sighs of, “ Pliss, get back in ze line, Madame. We are ze experts and we’ll tell yew whezzer ‘e was being ‘eretical or not.”
A way to keep the serfs happy was to give them a day off and the good Lord Hugh did this by establishing the first Burnley fair lasting three days on the “even day and Morrow of the feast of St Peter and Paul on 28 June.” Burnley Fair is still with us 716 years later, nowadays on the second Thursday in July .The good Lord Hugh didn’t live long enough to show good King Edward II around the Burnley market which seems a shame.
On the other hand, he wasn’t around to see the Black death, which just goes to show that sometimes we don’t know how lucky we are.
To be continued…..