Northallerton and Osmotherley


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.

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, who made Northallerton a Wappentake or centre of an administrative district where Vikings would assemble to discuss local affairs. Allerton shared its boundaries with the neighbouring wappentakes of Sadberge, across the Tees, Gilling in Swaledale, Birdforth, and Langbaurgh. Fascinating Viking scuptures called hogbacks have been found at Northallerton's church in addition to those of Anglo-Saxon origin and have also been found at the nearby village of Brompton.

Brompton Church site of Viking Tombs

Brompton Church, Northallerton, Viking tombs have been found here. Photographed by David Simpson

Romanby, to the south of the town is a further indication of Viking setlement, taking its name from a Viking called Hromund. It has nothing whatsoever to do with the Romans. Allerton's Viking wappentake later became Allertonshire and later still , the Liberty of Allerton, reflecting this town's important status.


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 and as the town was historically known as a coaching stop it has some notable pubs and inns. One of the oldest is the Fleece, where Charles Dickens stayed while writing Nicholas Nickleby.

Northallerton was once the site of a castle dating from the 12th 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 in a house opposite the church.

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 Yorkshire 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 of York hereabouts is sparesly 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 afforementioned Danby for example means farm of the Danes but other examples include Kirby Sigston, Hornby, Romanby, Warlaby, Crosby, Newby Wiske and Kirkby Fleetham. Strangely these Danish type place-names disappear as we cross the Tees into County Durham.


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.

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 ships mast tied to a four-wheeled carriage with church banners (Saints' standards) tied to it prior to 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.


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 have been a number of variations in the spelling of the name over the centuries including Asmundrelac, Osmundeslay, Osemunderl, Osmonderlay and Osmthrly.

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 (nephew of Richard II) in 1398. Thomas was later executed at Cirecnester for plotting against Henry IV and was 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.

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