'The ecclesiastical jurisdiction of Bilbrough is peculiar and curious…'


Hello Bilbrough history aficionados! 

Here is my first posting on our village history – from notes on the Fairfax family and Bilbrough Manor: 


‘The ecclesiastical jurisdiction of Bilbrough is peculiar and curious.


‘The place was originally held in capite by Ralph Paganell, one of the followers of William the Conqueror, who also received a grant of the church dedicated to the Trinity in Micklegate, York. In 1089 he saved this church as a cell to the great Benedictine Abbey of St. Martin Marmoutier on the Loire, near Tours, to be perpetually held by that French monastery.


‘In the time of Edward III Bilbrough belonged to Roger de Bascy, son of Walter de Bascy, who was Mayor of York in 1290.


There was a small village called Sandwith, in the north-western part of Bilbrough parish ; but when Edward IV. marched to York, after the bloody battle of Towton in 1460, there was a feeble rally of Lancastrian fugitives in the houses at Sandwith. The village was consequently razed to the ground, and no vestige of it remains save the name applied to some of the fields.


‘At that time Bilbrough was held by a family named Norton


John Norton, in his will dated February 6, 1464, desired that his body might be interred in the church of Bilbrough, in a vault between the church and a chapel then newly built. 


‘His manor of Bilbrough was left to his wife for her life, and then to his son and heir William… Margaret, the widow of John Norton, made her will on April 24, 1506. She desired to be buried in the tomb of her late husband. She left six silver spoons to her grandson Christopher Norton, and desired that her son William should find a priest to sing for her, for a year. She left… her primer and books of prayer to her daughter Joan Nelson, and …to each of the children of her son William, to whom she bequeathed the residue of her property. Finally she left all her bees towards keeping up a light in the chapel of Bilbrough Church, as long as it shall please God to preserve them. 

‘In 1556 the tithes and manor were purchased by Sir William Fairfax of Steeton.  Here, in the old manor house at Bilbrough, the purchaser’s grandson Thomas, afterwards first Lord Fairfax, was born in 1560.


‘This manor house stood in the high field at the back of the churchyard and of the present Bilbrough Hall, enjoying a superb view over Tadcaster and the rich vale of York. The ownership of Bilbrough was afterwards in dispute for a long time between the two Fairfax branches of Steeton and Denton. During this period the manor house fell into ruin, and the stones were allowed to be taken away for building material in the village.


‘At length the controversy was amicably settled in 1609, through the mediation of the ‘President of the North’. The Steeton branch received Newton Kyme, and Bilbrough became the property of Lord Fairfax of the Denton branch.


‘The heads of the two branches married Lady Frances and Lady Mary Sheffield, daughters of the Earl of Mulgrave.


‘When Lady Fairfax died on October 16, 1665, the great General selected the chantry built by John Norton at Bilbrough as the burial place for himself and his wife. He himself died on November 12, 1671, and a description of the altar tomb erected to his memory in the Norton chantry will be found in my life of the great Lord Fairfax. 


‘By his will, dated November 8, 1667, he left the manor of Bilbrough to his daughter, the Duchess of Buckingham, for her life, and then to the heirs male of his grandfather.


‘The codicil is dated November 11, 1671. In it he left all the tithes of Bilbrough to his domestic chaplain, Mr. Richard Stretton, provided that he supplied the office of a preaching minister there, or procured one to do it.


‘Afterwards the tithes were left to the testator’s successor, Henry, fourth Lord Fairfax, and his heirs, for the use and behoof of a preaching minister to be nominated by the said Henry and his heirs. In those days the tithes of Bilbrough were only worth 40/- a year, and, in accordance with the provisions of the codicil, Mr. Stretton nominated the Rev. William Topham as preaching minister of Bilbrough.

  • Mr. Stretton died in 1712, when the whole of the 40/- came to poor old Mr. Topham, who survived until 1720.
  • On the death of his old friend Mr. Topham, whom the Admiral had known since he was a child, the living of Bilbrough was given to Mr. Sowray, a nephew of Mr. Hardwick, the lawyer at York, and one of the Admiral’s most active supporters.
  • Mr. Sowray died in 1755. He was succeeded from 1755 to 1760 by Mr. Swaine.
  • In 1760 the Rev. Guy Fairfax, the Admiral’s grandson, succeeded as preaching minister of Bilbrough.

In his time there was a great question and lawsuit respecting the tithes. In 1777 the sum of 40/- paid since the time of the great Lord Fairfax, was found to be far below the value of the tithes. The Rev. Guy Fairfax, therefore, demanded either the tithes in kind or a fresh and more just composition, at the same time offering to abide by an amicable arbitration. The farmers refused, and an action was brought against them to oblige them to account for the tithes. They responded that 40/- a year had been payable from time immemorial in lieu of tithes. On June 6, 1782, Chief Baron Skinner decreed that the farmers must pay the tithes in kind. This decision raised the income from 40/- to 180/- a year, besides 4/6s still paid for Masses for the soul of old John Norton.


The Rev. Guy Fairfax died very suddenly, when performing the service at Newton Kyme, on September 7, 1794. He was succeeded by the Rev. Thomas Lambe, who, dying in 1821, was succeeded by the Rev. Benjamin Eamonson.


The farmers then raised another point. Their lawyer contended that the decima garbarum mentioned in the grant of Bilbrough tithes to the Priory of Trinity, and to which Lord Fairfax succeeded, only referred to crops of corn and did not include grass. 


The position of the preaching minister at Bilbrough was quite peculiar. The tithes had always belonged to a foreign monastery, independent of the Archbishops of York, down to the time of the Reformation, and then they became the property of laymen. Lord Fairfax, by his will, left them in trust to his heirs to maintain a preaching minister or chaplain of their own, who was under no ecclesiastical jurisdiction.


There is no glebe, ‘except a small churchyard,’ and no parsonage. The income of the preaching minister consists of the tithes received under the will of Lord Fairfax, and 41/6s… for praying for the soul of John Norton.


When Admiral Fairfax became Lord of the Manor in 1716, he found the old manor house destroyed, but a house had been built at the foot of the hill, near the church, in which Thomas March, the agent, resided. It had become a freehold, but the Admiral reserved the use of a room in it for the transaction of business.


The Baron Alexander decided against the farmers on November 11, 1830. This once more raised the income from 180/- to 270/- a year.




‘Ainsty Cliff (or Bilbrough Hill), with its noble clump of trees, is said to have been a landmark for ships coming up the Humber. (Drake : also Andrew Marvell in his poem)’ 


This first posting by Fiona Pearson – 25th October 2012

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