Northallerton, Osmotherley and Thirsk

Northallerton and Allertonshire

Northallerton, the administrative centre of North Yorkshire and historically the capital of the North Riding can trace its origins back to Anglo-Saxon times. Originally called Alverton or Aelfereton, the name is Anglo-Saxon and means ‘the farm belonging to Aelfere’, a relatively common Anglo-Saxon personal name.

Northallerton © David Simpson

By the fourteenth century the place was called Northallerton to distinguish it from other places in Yorkshire called Allerton. Anglo-Saxon sculpture has been found in the church of All Saints at Northallerton, suggesting that this has long been a place of some importance.

The settlement of the Anglo-Saxons here was later followed by the Vikings and a Viking ‘hogback’ sculptured stone can also be seen at the church. The Vikings made Northallerton a ‘Wapentake’ or centre of an administrative district where the local Danish and Norse settlers would assemble to discuss local affairs.

Allerton Wapentake shared its boundaries with the neighbouring wapentakes of Sadberge,  to the north of the Tees; Gilling in Swaledale;, Birdforth, with which it was closely associated and Langbaurgh in Cleveland.

Allerton’s Viking wapentake became Allertonshire in later medieval times and held the special status of a ‘Liberty’, similar to that of Richmondshire. The Allertonshire Liberty belonged to the Bishops of Durham from the reign of William Rufus and the Bishops held special rights here, though not to the extent of their Prince Bishop status within the Palatine Durham.

Northallerton Town Hall
Northallerton Town Hall © David Simpson

Northallerton was once the site of a castle dating from the twelfth century, but this fell into ruins and now only traces can be seen in the cemetery of the church. During the Civil War King Charles I was imprisoned for short time in a house opposite the church.

The main feature of Northallerton today is its broad main street, similar to those at Yarm and Bedale. This curving High Street is nearly half a mile long and has many interesting shops, but the town was historically known as a coaching stop and it has some notable pubs and inns. One of the oldest is The Fleece, where Charles Dickens stayed while writing Nicholas Nickleby.

Brompton Church
Brompton church near Northallerton © David Simpson

Brompton in Allertonshire

At the village of Brompton just to the north of Northallerton fascinating Viking sculptures called ‘hogbacks’ can be seen in the church of St Thomas. They are tomb-sized, were possibly grave covers and resemble the shape of a long-house.

Carvings of bears clutch each end of the sculptured tones. Hogbacks are a relatively rare phenomenon even within Viking settled Yorkshire but the highest geographical density of their occurrences is in an area stretching roughly from Northallerton to the Tees at Sockburn.

Brompton church near Northallerton
Brompton church near Northallerton © David Simpson

Brompton is the usual straightforward name for the village but it was occasionally referred to as Brompton in Allertonshire to distinguish it from the not too far away Brompton on Swale near Richmond and perhaps also from Brompton by Sawdon near Scarborough.

Romanby, to the south of the Northallerton is a further indication of Viking setlement, taking its name from a Viking called Hromund. It has nothing whatsoever to do with the Romans.

The Battle of the Standard

Two miles north of Northallerton, near the Darlington road is a stone obelisk marking the site of the Battle of the Standard. Here near Cowton Moor on the 22 August 1138 the Scots under King David were heavily defeated by the barons of the North of England.

Memorial Battle of the Standard, Northallerton

King David was supporting the interests of Matilda, daughter of Henry I against the claims of Stephen and had penetrated into the north of England with his army. Thurstan, the Archbishop of York set up a ship’s mast tied to a four-wheeled carriage with church banners (Saints’ standards) tied to it, before the battle.

Thurstan and the barons were so determined to drive the Scots out of England that they left their horses behind to make retreat impossible. Around 12,000 Scots were killed in the battle, mainly under the heavy onslaught of the English archers.

The Vale of Mowbray

Twelve miles of flat, but agriculturally rich countryside formed by the most northerly reaches of the Vale of Mowbray link Northallerton to the Darlington area in the Vale of the Tees to the north.

To the east of Northallerton are the North York Moors, always providing a stunning and beautiful backdrop to the vale and to the west we can see the Pennines which play host to the valleys of Swaledale and Wensleydale. The flat Vale of Mowbray is the northerly extension of the Vale of York that separates the dales and Pennines in the west from the North York Moors in the east.

Northallerton is one of North Yorkshire’s most northerly towns and only eight miles away to the north we find the southern tip of the Sockburn peninsula, which was historically County Durham’s most southerly point. The peninsula is formed by a long snaking southward pointing loop of the River Tees and is thus surrounded by Yorkshire. In legend this area was inhabited by a notorious beast known as the Sockburn Worm which seems to have its roots in Viking legend.

The vale hereabouts is sparsely populated, despite its relative proximity to the more urbanized regions of Darlington and Teesside. Villages in the Northallerton area include Great Smeaton, Danby Wiske and Appleton Wiske.

The River Wiske is a little river which rises to the north east of Northallerton at Osmotherley in the North Yorkshire Moors. It curls its way to the north, coming within a few miles of the River Tees before winding its way down the western flank of Northallerton to join the Swale.

As with other parts of Yorkshire Viking place-names are abundant around Northallerton. The aforementioned Danby for example means farm of the Danes but other examples include Kirby Sigston, Hornby, Romanby, Warlaby, Crosby, Newby Wiske and Kirkby Fleetham. These Danish type place-names disappear quite rapidly as we cross the Tees into County Durham.


In legend Osmotherley on the fringe of the Cleveland Hills to the east of Northallerton, was associated with a young Saxon prince of Northumbria called Osmund. The prince was warned by an astrologer of an evil curse which would cause him to be drowned on a certain day.

When the day arrived Osmund’s mother took him to Roseberry Topping, in the Cleveland Hills, where it was thought he would be safe from danger. Strangely, by some miracle as the poor prince lay sleeping on the top of the hill, a huge fountain of water gushed from its distinctive summit rock and drowned the young man.

Osmund’s body was taken to Osmotherley for burial and that is how it is said to have got its name – from ‘Osmund lies here’ – corrupted to Osmotherley. Sadly, there is no evidence to support this legend. It is far more likely that Osmotherley means the clearing or ley belonging to a Viking called Asmund or a Saxon called Osmund, but no proof that Osmund was a Saxon prince. There have been a number of variations in the spelling of the name over the centuries including Asmundrelac, Osmundeslay, Osemunderl, Osmonderlay and Osmthrly.

Mount Grace - the house
Mount Grace – the house © David Simpson

Mount Grace

At Mount Grace Priory near Osmotherley on the edge of the moors, we can find the remains of the finest example of a Carthusian monastery in England. It was one of only nine Carthusian priories (known as Charter Houses) in the country and was the only one in Yorkshire.

Mount Grace was founded by Thomas of Holland, the Duke of Surrey (the nephew of Richard II), in 1398. Thomas was later executed at Cirencester for plotting against Henry IV and buried at Mount Grace.

The Carthusian order of monks obeyed a strict order of silence and monks were strictly separated from one and other in cells. Each cell had a little garden attached and a hatchway for food to be passed to the monks. Around twenty monks were based at the priory and they only ate together on Saturdays.

Part of the priory guest house became the manor house of Mount Grace in the seventeenth century and later came into the possession of the wealthy and influential nineteenth century industrialist Sir Isaac Lowthian Bell. Lowthian Bell (1816 – 1904) had industrial connections to Tyneside, Wearside and Teesside with links to the iron industry and chemical industry.

Lowthian Bell was also a keen promoter of the arts with an interest in the Arts and Crafts movement. He extended the manor house at Mount Grace and decorated it with numerous Arts and Crafts features by the artist and designer William Morris.

The lost village of Leake

Three miles to the south of Mount Grace and Osmotherley along the A19 towards Thirsk, can be seen the isolated and enigmatic church of St Mary at Leake in a somewhat lonely location to the east of this busy road. Leake church is Norman in origin while the nearby farmhouse called Leake Hall is of the seventeenth century.

From the time of William Rufus (and Bishop William Carileph of Durham) Leake belonged to the Prince Bishops of Durham who used it as a resting place on their travels from Durham to York.

Leake is the site of a deserted medieval village, which was perhaps a victim of the plague, Scottish raids or simply a victim of the medieval economy. The name Leake (which includes a nearby farm with the amusing name of Little Leake) is in fact related to the word leak as in dripping water and was known as Leche in medieval times. It is probably named from the neighbouring trickle of a stream called the Leak Stell, also known as Woundales to the south of Leake.

Intriguingly a lane known as Danes Lane near the Leake churchyard is said to have been the site of the massacre of some 500 Danes by local women, though what truth there is in this and when or if it took place is hard to say. A significant quantity of human bones thrown together was discovered hereabouts in the 1850s.

Though Leake church no longer has a village it serves as the parish church for the villages of Borrowby and Knayton on either side of the A19 which were both part of Allertonshire and historically belonged to  the Bishops of Durham. Borrowby (on the west side of the A19) is of course a Danish place-name meaning ‘barrow-by’ or ‘the hill village’.

Another Viking place-name is Upsall, a hamlet on the edge of the moors a mile east of Knayton. This Norse name comes from ‘up-salir’ meaning ‘high dwellings’ and has the same meaning as the Swedish city of Uppsala.  A second Upsall can be found on the northern edge of the North York Moors near Nunthorpe, Middlesbrough.

Thirsk © David Simpson


The town of Thirsk has a Viking name that derives from the word ‘Thraesk‘ meaning lake or fen. It is now a small market town located within the Vale of Mowbray, to the south of Northallerton, north east of Ripon and to the north of Easingwold.

This is a busy market town with a large cobbled market square. There are interesting inns and houses, many of the eighteenth century when Thirsk was an important posting station.

Thirsk is divided by the Cod Beck, a tributary of the River Swale which may have formed the marshy ground of Viking times. By the eighteenth century Thirsk had developed into an important coaching stop at the centre of a crossroads and was noted for its many coaching inns. Thirsk’s oldest inns include the Three Tuns, dating back to 1698 and The Golden Fleece that is thought to date back to Tudor times.

James Herriot
Alf Wight, aka James Herriot

In the famous James Herriot stories created by the writer Alf Wight (1916 – 1995), Thirsk is the fictional ‘Darrowby’, a central location in the tales featuring the life of a Yorkshire vet. The World of James Herriot Museum in Thirsk occupies the original surgery of Alf Wight who lived in Thirsk for more than fifty years.

Wight was born in Sunderland but grew up in Glasgow where he qualified as a vet in 1939. He was briefly a vet in Sunderland before heading for a practice in Thirsk in 1940 where he would live the rest of his days. He retained a passion for Sunderland Football Club throughout his life and was made Honorary Life President of the club in 1991. Wight’s books, which were famously adapted for television, capture life in the rural farming communities of North Yorkshire in times gone by.

Thirsk © David Simpson

Thirsk is also famed as the birthplace of Thomas Lord (born 1755) the founder of Lords Cricket Club in London. Lord was born at 16 Kirkgate and this house is now the home of the Thirsk Museum which celebrates the local history of the town. It includes historic farming items and cricket memorabilia.

Apart from the racecourse, where racing has been held since 1855, the best-known feature of Thirsk is the church of St Mary, a large church of cathedral proportions described by the architectural historian, Sir Nikolaus Pevsner as “the most spectacular Perpendicular church in the North Riding of Yorkshire”. The church was begun in 1430 on the site of a chantry founded by Robert Thirsk earlier that century. It was completed in the sixteenth century.

Norse names near Thirsk

Between Northallerton and Thirsk numerous names suggest that the area was once heavily overgrown with thorns or thorn trees such as perhaps Hawthorn. Thus we have High Thornborough; South Thornborough; Thornborough Farm; Thornton House; Thornton-le-Beans; Thornton-le-Moor and Thornton-le-Street. The ‘le’ element was introduced by the French speaking Normans to distinguish places with identical names from one and other.

More noticeable than the Norman elements are the numerous places around Thirsk that have names of Danish or Norse origin, not surprising perhaps when we consider Thirsk’s location in the Vale of York to the north of York, the Viking capital of Northern England.

Most of the Danish place-names are betrayed by endings in ‘by’, signifying the site of a Danish farm or village. Examples include Borrowby, Sowerby, Crosby, Warlaby, Bagby, Thirkleby, Thirlby, Cowesby, Thormanby, Baldersby, Maunby, Thimbleby, Kirby Sigston, Busby Stoop, Newby Wiske, Kirby Wiske (on the River Wiske) and Boltby. Sowerby, now a part of Thirsk has a name which derives from Saur-by meaning the muddy or boggy farm, a reminder that Thirsk itself means ‘marshy place’.

Ainderby Quernhow, about five miles west of Thirsk, just over the River Swale, is also a Viking place-name and means the village belonging to Eindrithi, a Viking whose name meant ‘sole-ruler’.

Quernhow, which has also been spelled Whernhowe and Whernou means mill-hill, the first element deriving from the Old Norse ‘kvern’, a mill stone. How or Howe, was an old word for a hill and is a common element in Yorkshire place names.

The Quernhow at Ainderby is a small mound on the nearby Roman Road called Dere Street, which marked the boundary between the parishes of Ainderby and Middleton Quernhow (near Wath). Ainderby Mires and Ainderby Steeple (near Northallerton) are also in the district. The word steeple actually refers to the local church tower (it doesn’t have a spire). Mires of course refers to marshy mires.

Kilburn White Horse view
View from the Kilburn White Horse © John Simpson

Sutton Bank – White Horse and Mouse Man

Thirsk is centrally located in the flat Vale of Mowbray with the lowland sections of the River Swale only five miles to the west. In the other direction the North Yorkshire Moors are only two or three miles to the east and rise suddenly from the lowland district. This is in marked contrast to the more subtle appearance of the Pennines in the dales to the west.

Sutton-under-Whitestoncliffe is situated in the Hambleton Hills on the edge of the North Yorkshire Moors near one of the most dramatic changes from lowland to upland. Hambleton means scarred hill.

Sutton-under-Whitestoncliffe has an Anglo-Saxon name that translates as ‘The southern farm near the white stone cliff’. It claims to be the longest place-name in England and rivals Blakehopeburnhaugh in Redesdale, Northumberland.

Nearby, we find a number of places which have Viking origins – Osgoodby, Thirkleby, Bagby and Thirlby. Sutton-under-Whitestonceliffe is famous as the location for the impressive Sutton Bank, home of a gliding club and the very steep incline of the A170 road that struggles to make its way up the hill on the way east towards Ryedale and Scarborough.

It is well worth the climb. There are excellent views from Sutton Bank of the surrounding countryside down towards the vale. Close by the neighbouring Roulston Scar is where the White Horse of Kilburn is cut into the escarpment and can be seen from miles around. This is not an ancient hill carving, it only dates from 1857, when it was carved by the village school master Thomas Hodgson with the help of the village school boys. The horse is 314 feet long.

The village of Kilburn lower down the hill was also famous as the home of Robert Thompson (1876-1955) known as ‘Mousey Thompson’, a furniture maker who incorporated a carving of a mouse into each of his creations, as a trademark.

A plain of land on the hill top above the horse at Roulston Scar does have ancient connections however. In recent years a huge iron age hill fort was discovered here that rivals North Yorkshire’s other great iron age fort at Stanwick near Scotch Corner. Covering about 53 acres it consisted of ramparts stretching more than a mile and dates from around 400BC.

Easingwold and Crayke

The A19 road heads south from Thirsk to York bypassing the town of Easingwold. This town’s main feature is its cobbled market square and its fine Georgian buildings. A wold was historically a piece of uncultivated elevated country with small rolling hills.

Easingwold was the wold belonging to an Anglo-Saxon called Easa. The hilly areas around Easingwold and Coxwold can be described as wolds, but the true Yorkshire Wolds are much further to the south-east in East Yorkshire, between Hull, York and Malton.

The village of Crayke to the east of Easingwold has a peculiar history because it was once a small isolated and quite separate district which belonged to the Prince Bishops of Durham. The parish was considered a part of the County Palatine of Durham and was not transferred into Yorkshire until 1844.  Unlike Northallerton and Allertonshire which had also once belonged to the bishops, their powers as ‘Prince Bishops’ were applied to Crayke.

Crayke Castle, which consists of two separate fifteenth century buildings was a house of the bishops. Other isolated places outside of County Durham which were historically part of the Prince Bishops’ political realm included Holy Island (Islandshire), Bedlingtonshire and Norhamshire in Northumberland. Crayke’s name derives from a Celtic word Kraik meaning a rock. It has the same meaning as Craig in Celtic place-names.

Coxwold, Shandy Hall, Newburgh and Byland

Coxwold, about three miles south of Kilburn was once the wold belonging to an Anglo-Saxon called Cucha. It has a fifteenth century church with monuments dedicated to the Belasis family. Three sites of historic interest lie close to Coxwold. They are Shandy Hall, Newburgh Priory and Byland Abbey and a little further to the east are Ampleforth and Gilling Castle that are covered in our Ryedale page.

Shandy Hall was the home of the writer and Vicar of Coxwold, Laurence Sterne, from 1760 until his death in 1768. His famous works were ‘Tristram Shandy‘ and a ‘Sentimental Journey‘. Shandy Hall was a fifteenth century timber-framed house, later modified by Sterne who named it Shandy Hall.

Newburgh Priory was founded by Augustinian canons around 1150 and passed into the hands of the Belasis family in 1529 (later the Lords Fauconberg). It was converted into a house by the family but retained the name Newburgh Priory. The first Belasis to own the priory was Anthony Belasis, chaplain to Henry VIII. The house still remains in the hands of Anthony’s descendants. One Lord Fauconberg married Oliver Cromwell’s daughter and it is claimed that a tomb within the house contains Cromwell’s body.

Byland Abbey, once Britain’s largest Cistercian church, lies to the north of Coxwold in the village of Wass (an Old English word for a swamp). Byland, now a ruin was founded in 1177 by monks from Furness in Cumbria, although the first site they chose was near Helmsley in Ryedale. Apparently its location caused confusion for the monks when the bell was tolled at nearby Rievaulx Abbey, so the monks moved to their present site. Their former location is called Old Byland.

Yorkshire Pages Links

Cleveland Coast | Cleveland

 Middlesbrough | Yarm

Ryedale | Scarborough

 Whitby and Robin Hood’s Bay 

Richmond and Swaledale


Harrogate, Ripon, Knaresborough


Airedale and Ribblesdale

 Leeds and West Yorkshire

City of York origins

 York Streets | York Minster

Selby and Tadcaster

 Hull and East Riding

Sheffield and South Yorkshire

 Leeds and West Yorkshire


North East England History and Culture