All posts by Alexander Iles

Happy Halloween : Tales of Witches, Warlocks, Mummies and Severed Heads

As Halloween approaches, ALEX ILES explores some gory and grisly events from the history of Newcastle and North East England

spookynewcastle
A Spooky Night in Newcastle. Photo: Lee Stoneman, Lee Stoneman Photography www.facebook.com/leestonemanphotography/

Well, there’s no getting away from it – Halloween does have a bit of a focus on death. Hallowe’en (All Hallows’ eve) comes from the evening before All Saints Day – a Christian festival on November 1st.  It remembers the saints who are sleeping and waiting to rise with Christ.  Saints often suffered for their faith, many losing their lives in martyrdom and so a macabre connection with death developed during the time of the Black Death.

So, with this in mind, lets look at some depictions of death in Newcastle and what happened after death! The best place to start  is with Bishop Walcher (the Bishop of Durham) who was cut to pieces outside the church of St. Mary in Gateshead in 1080 while much of his entourage burnt inside the building behind him. As it highlighted the need to defend the area with the building of a castle, this was the start of Newcastle’s story and in some ways, was just the very first gory story connected with the city.

The murder of Bishop Walcher at Gateshead played an important role in the establishment of Newcastle
The murder of Bishop Walcher at Gateshead church played an important role in the establishment of Newcastle. Photo: David Simpson

A couple of centuries later, during the Scottish wars the Scots warlord William Wallace – heroically depicted by Mel Gibson in Braveheart – came south to attack the English and met with a brutal end.

Though betrayed as a Scottish hero he had been pillaging against the Scots the year before he started his major attacks on England! Interestingly Wallace may have been of Norman decent because Wallace is a corruption of the word ‘foreigner’ and perhaps less ‘Scottish’ than people think.

When Wallace came down to Newcastle, the town and castle had prepared in advance and he looked upon the defences and realised he would lose far too many men and resources attacking such a well-defended town. He gave up and went to Corbridge instead, sacked it and crossed south towards County Durham and Yorkshire.

Wallace made a great deal of mischief further south before he was captured and taken to London where he was hung, drawn and quartered. This medieval punishment involved the individual being hung to near death and then their limbs were dislocated by pulling. It was then that disembowelling took place while the victim was kept alive and finally they were beheaded and cut into quarters. The film Braveheart missed most of this.

It was a death for traitors of the worst sort and Wallace’s body parts were sent off to the various parts of the county. His head was ‘affixed upon London Bridge’ while his body was divided amongst Berwick, Stirling, Perth and Newcastle, which received his right arm.

It was meant to cause ‘fear and chastisement of all going past and looking upon these things’ as a report on his execution stated. Imagine walking across the swing bridge and looking up to see a rotting arm hanging there. Alongside this, some of the accounts say Newcastle received parts of his ‘organs’ – read this as you will.

It would not be the last time Newcastle was graced with body parts.

blackgatecastle
Newcastle Blackgate and Castle. Photo: David Simpson

Northumberland is a great distance from London and the Lords and landed peoples have at times been a law unto themselves. One noted family were the Lisles who lived at Felton in Northumberland.

The Lisles were infamous for having a bad relationship with the Church, having on several occasions physical altercations with the local priors. In 1526 it came to a boil: William Lisle and Humprhey Lisle came into confrontation with the Prior of Brinkburn and vicar of Felton because they were occupying fields that belonged to the church and had started to harvest the grain for themselves.

When the Prior challenged the Lisles for their behaviour and asked them to leave, Humphrey killed him with a sword. This resulted in William Lisle, John Ogle, William Schafthowe and Thomas Fenwick being taken to Newcastle to be hung, drawn and quartered for treason against the King.

Their body parts were then hung from Newcastle castle and around various parts of the town. It was because of this heritage, that the Wylam Brewery launched a beer in 2015 at Newcastle castle called ‘Hung, Drawn and Quartered’ to commemorate this particularly grim event.

From the accounts of the time, though, outside of their family no one particularly missed the executed men as they were reivers and attacked people on both sides of the borders to supplement their incomes.

The practice of leaving the body parts of executed criminals hanging for all to see was once common. This 'gibbet' in Redesdale, Northumberland recalls a local murderer who was hanged at Newcastle in 1791. The real head of the criminal was, however eventually replaced by the wooden one seen hanging here. Photo: David Simpson
The practice of leaving the body parts of executed criminals hanging as a warning to all was once a common sight. This ‘gibbet’ in Redesdale, Northumberland recalls a local murderer who was hanged at Westgate in Newcastle in 1791. The real head of the criminal was, however, eventually replaced by the wooden one seen hanging here. Photo: David Simpson

When it comes to Man’s inhumanity to Man, one of the great examples I personally think about are the witch trials in England after the English Civil War. This period is famous for being one of great upheaval.

Friends and families were often split in two as they supported the Royalist and Parliamentarian factions. As in all wars, the loss of life affected people’s lives and the economy. Disease was spread by armies and disposed peoples. All in all, people were looking for someone to blame. Witches were a perfect target.

During the middle ages – contrary to modern belief – magic was not believed to be an actual force. Monks, priests and the authorities pointed out the sovereignty of God and ridiculed the idea of magic – much like modern scientists. Most ‘witch trials’ were conducted by secular courts. During times of fear such as the civil war this increased dramatically.

Ralph Gardner, who was a merchant, wrote the book ‘England’s Grievance’ (1655) that reported on the Newcastle Witch trials of 1649/50. Twenty-seven people in the town were accused of being witches and eventually after ‘interrogation’ 18 women – supposed witches, and one man, supposedly a warlock were hung. Ralph writes with disgust:

“These poor souls never confessed anything but pleaded innocence and one of them, by name Margaret Brown, beseeched God that some remarkable sign might be seen at the time of her execution …. as soon as she was turned off the ladder her blood gushed upon the people to the admiration of the beholders.”

Illustration from ralph Gardner's 'England's Grievances' showing the execution of witches
Illustration from ralph Gardner’s ‘England’s Grievance’ showing the execution of witches

I imagine the crowd being left with a sense of security and peace after this horrific occurrence. These ‘witches’ who had plagued them with disunity, disease and being servants of the devil were now dead. Their bodies were dumped into a mass grave in St. Andrews Churchyard at Gallowgate, without ceremony.

The Scots witch hunter, Cuthbert Nicholson, who had been paid 20 shillings per witch had been using a retractable needle with a long handle so it appeared that the accused did not bleed – a sign they were in league with the devil. He was eventually caught and confessed to the false execution of 220 women throughout the entire North. He was executed by hanging just as his victims had been.

In the Victorian period, the care for the human body after death had still not improved. With the expansion of the British Empire and the interest in the classics there was a fascination about Egyptology. Mummies would be bought on mass and delivered to locations to be unwrapped in front of audiences.

The Mummy Irtyru who can be seen in the Great North Museum (then the Hancock Museum) was brought to Newcastle to be unwrapped. She was unwrapped in two hours.

With 22.5kg of bandages on her body this shows that they were rushing! Her organs which were kept in Coptic jars were rushed to the Royal Victoria infirmary only to be ‘lost’ – one theory is that they ended up in a private collection.

The mummy, Irtyu at the Great North Museum : greatnorthmuseum.org.uk
The mummy, Irtyru at the Great North Museum : greatnorthmuseum.org.uk Photo: Tyne and Wear Museums

When Irtyru was unwrapped, they wished for an easy way to display her and she was stapled to the back board of her sarcophagus and a hook was screwed into her skull. The final insult to her remains was that when they used varnish to seal her body against decay they trapped carpet beetles in her body.

Today Newcastle does not display the body parts of traitors or criminals (no matter how much fans of Newcastle United would likely enjoy this idea) around our city, nor do we have kangaroo courts where the prosecution is paid per person they get convicted.

This having been said, let us not look at the past and brand it as barbaric. Each of the events listed here happened within the context of their day and age – what will our descendants write of us in future Halloweens to prove our darker nature and consider the darker stories of our day and age?

All Saints church in Newcastle dates from the Georgian era. The festival of All Saints is closely connected to Halloween
All Saints church in Newcastle dates from the Georgian era. The festival of All Saints is closely connected to Halloween. Photo: David Simpson

To discover more why not join Iles Tours on our Gory Tour of the city?

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The Norman Invasion and the North East

Every schoolchild knows the events of 1066 but what happened next here in the North East? As the 950th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings approaches, ALEX ILES investigates.

In Britain we are very good at taking snippets of history, short info bites, and creating a very good in depth study of them. One of the best examples I use is the school curriculum – creating in depth studies of snapshots of our history when we have a good ten to fifteen thousand years of currently well documented history on this Island! The Norman Invasion is like this.

bayeux
The famous Bayeux Tapestry depicts the events of 1066

Stop anyone on the street and they can tell you the two main combatants – William Duke of Normandy (referred to as ‘The Conquer’ most of the time) and his rival Harold Godwinson – who should be called King Harold. Just from the names we can see how much of our history is shaped by the victors!

The third element of the 1066 drama is the famous Scandinavian king Harald Hardrada (The Hard Ruler). Now, as much as the events of 1066 are fascinating I would like to tell you about what happened afterwards but before we do that, we have to look at the cause and effect of 1066.

Most students can tell you that after Edward the Confessor died in 1066 Harold Godwinson rushes to London to be crowned, though he had promised, swearing on holy relics to support William’s claim.

Harald Hardrada finds out and decides to follow in the steps of the mighty Cnute who was king of England, Scotland, Denmark, Norway and parts of Ireland and Sweden and unite his Kingdom of Norway with England again.

William of Normandy flies into a rage at Harold Godwinson’s betrayal and starts building a navy. He attains Papal support for the invasion of England. Harald Hardrada invades Yorkshire and after defeating the Northumbrian forces –a half-hearted battle at York– he has the North of England swear allegiance to him and Harold Godwinson’s brother Totsig.

Tostig wanted his old earldom back after being banished for rebelling against his brother; already the story looks like a soap opera!

Harold swears allegiance to William on oath
Harold Godwinson had sworn an oath of allegiance to William

Harold Godwinson then marches north and defeats Hardrada at the battle of Stamford Bridge a few miles north east of York. He then hears that William has invaded and is building a castle at Hastings.

Godwinson marches his army south, stays in London for a week and then makes his way to Hastings arriving on October 13th. Historians who favour the Saxons are bitter about this point – he would have won if he had fortified London and the nearby land and waited for William but instead he rushed to Hastings.

When Harold joined the great battle on the 14th  the English took the ridge and fought in their traditional shield wall. They would have won, had they not chased the Normans who had feigned retreat. Harold and his Brothers died – cut down by Norman knights not by arrows to the eye – and William was victorious.

What happens next is the interesting part for us.

In schools it is all nice and clean. William is crowned King in London on Christmas day, the history book for the Anglo-Saxons is closed and the Norman dynasty is now ruling England.

To the English, this would not have been the end of the world. The Northern English were very used to ‘foreign’ rule – with the Danelaw (in Yorkshire and the East Midlands) and connections to Scandinavia, north Germany and even the Baltic a common part of everyday life for the North East folk.

The North West of England and the Lakes was heavily Norwegian and southern Scotland was both Scots-Irish and English. King Cnute had been half Polish by his mother and half Danish by his father,

King Edward the Confessor was half Norman himself and likely spoke Norman French as well as speaking Old English. William was seen as being king for his lifetime and then a likely English or noble dynasty would take over. The idea of hereditary kingship was not set in stone, kings’ sons could be king after them but they needed to have powerful allies and prove their worth to do so. To the Anglo-Saxon English therefore William was just another invader who had to prove his worth.

Because of this the England revolted from 1067-1068.  Backed by Scots, Danes and Anglo-Saxons. Danes and Irish who were hiding in Scotland and Ireland invaded The North East, Devon rose in the South West.

Following this in 1069, King William placed Robert De Comines as the Norman Earl of Northumberland. He was staying in Durham when his Norman knights pushed the Local Anglo-Saxons too hard and committed crimes against the local populous.

Durham where 700 Normans were killed in
Durham where 700 Normans were massacred in 1069. Photo: David Simpson

The Anglo-Saxons told him that he was sitting on a tinder box, but he did not listen. The population of Durham rose and seven hundred Normans were killed including Robert – many burnt to death inside the houses in which they were staying. William, in retaliation committed genocide – harrying the North, killing civilians in Yorkshire and County Durham and salting the land. The North East then quietened for a while.

William then placed Bishop Walcher as Prince Bishop of Northumberland and Durham. Walcher worked hard to deal with his rebellious population, appointing Ligulf a descendant of the kings of Northumbria as his adviser.

This worked well until 1079 when King Malcom III of Scotland attacked Northumberland, killing, burning and enslaving. Because of this, Ligulf openly criticised the bishop for failing to protect the North East from Scots attack.

This resulted in an open feud between Ligulf and Bishop Walcher’s relation Gilbert. Ligulf’s house at Newburn was attacked by Gilbert during the night and murdered him and the majority of his family.

Ligulf’s remaining relations made their way to a peace conference in Gateshead with Walcher and demanded that Gilbert be handed over to face justice for murder. Walcher stated he could not hand over a member of his family and the meeting broke down.

Because it was on holy land the Anglo-Saxons could not attack directly but as Walcher, Gilbert and their hundred Norman nights had dinner, the church in Gateshead was set fire to. The Normans fled from the burning building and were ambushed by the Anglo-Saxons resulting in the death of Walcher, Gilbert and the majority of their entourage.

St Mary’s church at Gateshead may stand on the site of the ambush. Photo: David Simpson

King William once more returned to Northumberland and ravaged this time, from the Tyne to the Scots border. This therefore resulted in the harrowing being an unspoken part of the North East’s History.

Some scholars state that a total of one hundred thousand people died in the ‘Harrowing’, though the number may be far less, it still had a large impact on the North East with many villages being abandoned or massacred.

In all it shows you why the Normans were such a force in England and why the Norman and Plantagenet Dynasties were established in England ruling over the Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-Danish population.

William was truly a conqueror and ruled by the Sword.

 

Alex Iles Iles Tours in Newcastle upon Tyne

Entrepreneurs of Tyneside Past

ALEX ILES delves into the history of Newcastle and is inspired by three notable entrepreneurs

The Guildhall Newcastle
The Guildhall, Sandhill, Newcastle upon Tyne. Photo: David Simpson

This is my first blog for England’s North East, so it’s best to introduce myself. I own and manage a tourism company in Newcastle called Iles Tours, established in 2012.

I do a number of different tours and one thing that fascinates me is the region’s entrepreneurs who have inspired me in my own business.

Here I look at three such entrepreneurs from different eras in the history of Newcastle: Rodger Thornton (died 1430), Ralph Carr (1711-1806) and William Armstrong (1810-1900).

According to legend, Rodger Thornton’s entrance into Newcastle’s story has highly romantic beginnings:

‘West-Gate came Thornton in, 

With a hap and a halfpenny and a lambskin’.

In fact as the son of a minor noble Thornton’s father helped him start up in business in Newcastle. Membership of the trading guilds and involvement with the Right Honourable Company of Merchant Adventurers set up this young man well. The Adventurers met in the top of St. Thomas’s Hospital on the Sandhill where the modern guildhall stands today.

The Sandhill, Newcastle
The Sandhill, Newcastle Photo: David Simpson

There Thornton became involved in Newcastle’s most important trade during his lifetime – wool and hides. Wool was the petroleum of the Middle Ages and Newcastle’s wool was sold to the Low Countries where the major fabric producers were based.

It was the trade in wool that made Thornton successful, as a young man, although it was not an easy start. On some occasions during trade disputes his cargoes would spoil on the quayside while waiting to be sold or transported but bit by bit Thornton rose in power and wealth.

Brass depicting Rodger Thornton and his wife in St Nicholas Cathedral, Newcastle. Photo: Simon Neil Scott
Brass depicting Rodger Thornton and his wife in St Nicholas Cathedral, Newcastle. Photo: Simon Neil Scott

It enabled him to expand his business and invest in Weardale lead and local coal – two growing and very profitable trades in the North East of England. The investments paid off as the construction of churches in England and abroad meant there was much need for lead.

As his wealth increased Thornton was able to give to charitable causes – including vast quantities of lead for Durham Cathedral’s roof as well as great sums of money for St. Nicholas Church and St. Johns church in Newcastle. These donations were often written off as Rodger looked to ensure his place in heaven or perhaps it is better to see this as an ingrained understanding of the responsibility of the wealthy to care for the poor in the Middle Ages.

St John's Church Newcastle Photo: David Simpson
St John’s Church Newcastle Photo: David Simpson

Thornton also invested heavily in monasteries which were the schools and hospitals of the Middle Ages, providing education and healthcare for all in society.  Medieval merchants were also involved in politics as they were “between worlds” – not landed elite, not clerics or priests and not workers of the land.

Because of this Rodger became the MP for Newcastle for five years and was Mayor of Newcastle nine times. He sided with the King when the Percys of Northumberland rose against Henry IV and his wealth made him an important ally.

Town Walls Newcastle Photo: David Simpson
Town Walls Newcastle Photo: David Simpson

Thornton invested in the town watch, established a professional army and rebuilt the town walls. He held Newcastle against one of the most powerful lords in England and a grateful King Henry gave him the Percy lands in Yorkshire – making him a member of the landed elite. When I look at Rodger Thornton I learn that to fight for what you care about and invest in a location creates opportunities and opens doors in the future!

Ralph Carr is our second entrepreneur. As a young man Ralph’s father allowed his son’s membership of the Right Honourable Company of Newcastle’s Merchant Adventurers to slip, meaning that Ralph had to take an apprenticeship with the company to earn membership. During this term he took a break to visit all the ports that Newcastle traded with and learned about their needs, gaining a detailed knowledge of the North Sea and Baltic ports.

In the late 1700s there was an established oligarchy of merchants in the coal trade and breaking into this elite group was both hard and expensive – so Ralph branched out, investing in shipping, naval equipment, whaling, lead, insurance and millstones from Gateshead. He then went on to build alum factories, glass factories, lead works and linen mills.

These buildings in the Close near Newcastle's Quayside would have been familiar to Ralph Carr Photo: David Simpson
These buildings in the Close near Newcastle’s Quayside would have been familiar to Ralph Carr Photo: David Simpson

In later life he was so wealthy he was approached to become one of the first members of Newcastle’s first provincial bank.

The lesson I take from Ralph Carr is that when your path is blocked by groups with vested interests, take a step to the side and build areas that are not developed. You can do a better job in those areas and eventually get invited into new and exciting deals.

When he died Carr was worth £200,000 in old money or £300 million today – a highly successful man who started on an apprenticeship.

Our third entrepreneur is Lord Armstrong. From a young age William Armstrong was fascinated with engineering and mathematics but honoured his father and studied law. He practiced law for over twenty years, teaching himself engineering in his spare time.

Eventually he designed the Armstrong crane and approached his father and Godfather with the new business opportunity. They backed the project and the crane revolutionised the way ports functioned. This created a great amount of wealth for Armstrong and he became established in the business community.

Following this – for better or worse – he was moved by the loss of life for British troops during the Crimean War which he put down to ineffectual artillery.

William Armstrong
William Armstrong

This brought about the invention of the Armstrong Gun which required eleven patents because of its revolutionary design. Armstrong continued to produce these revolutionary guns and partnered Mitchell’s Shipyards to create warships on the Tyne.  He eventually produced ships for eleven great powers and in some ways prepared the world for the First World War.

Armstrong’s works at Elswick employed twenty five thousand people in Newcastle and were one of the largest employers in Britain. Alongside this, Armstrong was a huge supporter of renewable energies and saw a future where they would replace coal as the main form of energy.

In Armstrong I see that educating yourself, being dependable and ready for an opportunity may enable you to launch the business you always wanted to do.

I hope we have captured your minds and inspired you with these Newcastle Entrepreneurs. If you have enjoyed this blog, Iles Tours offers a tour focused on the entrepreneurs whose businesses and inventions have shaped Newcastle.

For more information visit www.ilestours.co.uk

or email Alex at info@ilestours.co.uk

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