Selby, Tadcaster, Elmet and Goole

Selby Abbey

It was Benedict of Auxerre in France who founded the abbey at Selby after (it is said) he was directed in a vision to a place called Selebaie – the Sallow village – somewhere in England. He came to England in 1069, bringing with him the preserved finger of St Germain.

When Benedict arrived at Selby three swans landed in the waters on or near the River Ouse. Benedict took this as a sign and with the permission of King William the Conqueror, chose the place as the site for his abbey. The Benedictine abbey was built in typical Norman style with Herringbone masonry and its internal architecture received a design similar to Durham Cathedral.

In the Dissolution of the monasteries in the reign of Henry VIII, many of the powerful Yorkshire monasteries were destroyed and left to ruin. Selby was lucky enough to escape and although part was pulled down, the central nave survived and in 1618 it became the parish church of Selby.

Selby Abbey
Selby Abbey from an old postcard.

King Henry’s Birthplace

Selby Abbey overlooks Selby’s market place which with its market cross of 1790 is a bustling place of activity on Monday market days. It was a busy place too in eighteenth century coaching days when many of its inns first opened in association with Selby’s role as a coaching stop.

Selby’s most famous son was King Henry I who was born here in 1068. His mother Matilda was staying at Selby while her husband, King William the Conqueror was busy subjugating the North.

The Selby area is perhaps best known today for coal mining and the massive power station at nearby Drax. Drax, to the east of Selby and west of Goole is located in a section of land between the River Ouse and the River Aire. It was the site of a Norman priory, Norman castle and a Norman church, but only the church remains.

Around Selby

Selby stands on the River Ouse at a point half way between York and the River Humber. Places to note in the wide stretch of land between the two places include Acaster Malbis, Appleton Roebcuck, Escrick and Cawood.

Acaster Malbis was the site of a Roman fort later acquired by an Anglo-Saxon called Aca. It later passed into the hands of the Malbis family after the Norman conquest.

Appleton Roebuck was in Anglo-Saxon times a farm where apple trees grew. In the fourteenth century it was owned by a man called Rabuk and that is how it gets its name.

Escrick is the site of Escrick Park which which was once the home of Sir Thomas Kynvet who discovered the gunpowder hidden in the Houses of Parliament by another Yorkshireman – Guy Fawkes of York.

Cawood is situated close to Wharfesmouth where the River Wharfe joins the River Ouse. The Wharfe forms the valley of Wharfedale in its upper reaces but it has to pass through Ilkley, Otley, Wetherby and Tadcaster before it reaches Cawood and the River Ouse.

Cawood can trace its origins back to Roman times and was for many centuries the home of a palace belonging to the Archbishops of York. The palace was built on the site of a fort built by King Athelstan but only the fifteenth century gatehouse of the palace remains. One of the most famous residents of the palace was Cardinal Wolsey who was arrested for treason at Cawood in 1530 on the orders of King Henry VIII. Wolsey, who was ill ,died on his way south to face imprisonment in London.

Tadcaster and Towton

Tadcaster on the River Wharfe, nine miles north west of Selby means Tada’s Caster, the land belonging to Tada, an Anglo-Saxon who owned land on the site of a caster or Roman fort. This fort had been known to the Romans as Calcaria. A Roman villa also existed at nearby Kirkby Wharfe. In 1066 Tadcaster was known as Tada.

Since the eighteenth century Tadcaster has been famous for brewing and is the home to Sam Smith’s, the oldest brewery in Yorkshire which has been brewing here since 1758. Historic features at Tadcaster include a bridge over the River Wharfe which dates from the eighteenth century.

Two miles south of Tadcaster on the A162 is Towton, site of the Battle of Towton, a Wars of the Roses battle that was fought on March 29, 1461 during a snowstorm.


South of Towton the A162 reaches Sherburn in Elmet where the name Sherburn means bright stream. Sherburn in Elmet and Barwick in Elmet (near Leeds) refer to an ancient district of Welsh origin called Elmet that was situated between York and Leeds.

When the Anglo-Saxons colonised Britain in the sixth century from Germany and Denmark, they defeated the native Britons who they called ‘Waelisc’ meaning ‘foreigner’. This is how we get the name of present day Wales and its Welsh inhabitants. The Angles from Denmark called their newly colonised territory England – the ‘Angle land’ and divided this land into a number of kingdoms like Northumbria and Mercia, while the German Saxons called their kingdoms Sussex, Essex and Wessex.

In the north some Welsh speaking native British kingdoms held out against the Anglo-Saxons into the seventh century. Elmet was one such kingdom and was probably bordered by the River Don and River Wharfe. Elmet’s neighbour, immediately to the west was another Welsh kingdom called Loidis, from which we get the name of Leeds. Both of these kingdoms, along with a Welsh kingdom called Meicen, situated in the marshy heathfields of Hatfield near Doncaster were all eventually subdued by the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria. The survival of their names commemorates their initial strong resistance.

Goole and its rivers

Goole lies on the River Humber to the west of Selby and is an industrial port but Goole was once the name for a small stream or ditch. The town is located near to the so-called Dutch River, a drainage channel linking the River Don with the River Ouse. This channel was surveyed by a Dutch engineer Cornelius Vermuyden in the seventeenth century. Goole is linked to mill towns like Halifax in the Calder valley to the west by the Aire and Calder Navigation canal.

The River Derwent from Ryedale joins the Ouse from the north at Barmby on the Marsh and a few miles further east near Goole, the Ouse is joined by the River Aire near Airmyn. The Aire begins its course in Airedale before travelling through Leeds and West Yorkshire. Airmyn is an old Anglo-Saxon name meaning air mouth.

From Goole the River Ouse continues east to merge with the River Trent which is of course the dominant river of the English East Midlands. Close by the united rivers form the massive estuary of the River Humber – the great dividing line between East Yorkshire and Lincolnshire.

Howden and Hemingborough

On the opposite northern side of the River Ouse from Goole is Howden which has a large collegiate church dedicated to St Peter that dates from the thirteenth century. The manor of Howden belonged to the Prince Bishops of Durham from the time of Bishop William Carileph, who was the builder of Durham Cathedral.

The church was made collegiate by a Prior of Durham in 1267 and extensions to the church were later made by Walter Skirlaw a fourteenth century Bishop of Durham. The Prince Bishops held a palace near Howden.

Hemingborough on the road to Selby about four miles to the east of Howden has a church which belonged to the monks and priors of Durham. This church was built around the thirteenth century and has a distinguished needle-like spire which was added by the Prior of Durham sometime between 1416 and 1446. The River Derwent flows half way between Howden and Hemingborough before joining the Ouse T-Junction style near Barmby on the Marsh.

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