AN ILLUSTRATED HISTORY OF ROUNDHAY PARK
Roundhay Park lies only three miles to the north of Leeds, yet it remained outside the bounds of the city until 1912. The survival of this great medieval hunting park and its transformation into one of the finest municipal parks in the country is a most fortunate and remarkable accident of history. The baron's hunting park was remodelled by a wealthy banker as a desirable country estate. Then an acrimonious family dispute resulted in its sale to a visionary Victorian businessman, who even mortgaged his own home to obtain it for the people of Leeds! The history of the park is a fascinating story of power, prestige and self-interest which has produced Leeds' greatest jewel.
The Round Hay
Roundhay Park is well over nine hundred years old and derives its name from the circular 'hay' or 'round enclosure' created at the end of the eleventh century as a hunting park for members of the Norman aristocracy. Hunting was one of the favourite activities of the nobility and during the medieval period around two thousand of these enclosures were constructed, including Leeds Park and Rothwell Hay.1 Deer were held of the King and hunting rights were a jealously guarded privilege granted only to favoured members of the court. A deer park contained three essential elements - a tract of wild, semi-wooded land enclosed by a ditch, earth bank, hedge or fence; accommodation for the hunters, park officials, horses and dogs; and finally the deer. They were contained within the confines of the park and kept under control for breeding.2
Though Roundhay is not mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1086, the enclosed area formed part of the estates granted to Ilbert de Lacy by William the Conqueror. Ilbert was a powerful Norman baron who received extensive lands in return for the loyal support he had given the King throughout his military campaigns, particularly the brutal crushing of the Anglo-Scandinavian revolt of 1069, known as the 'harrying of the North'. The first mention of 'Lerundeheia' is in a charter of 1153, whereby Henry de Lacy confirmed the grant of ' those…lands…next to the Roundhay' to the monks of Kirkstall Abbey.3
It seems likely that members of the de Lacy family were responsible for creating the original hunting enclosure. This was an enormous undertaking. A vast army of labourers was needed to construct the perimeter bank and ditch, which stretched for almost six miles. Part of the original boundary ditch still survives on the north eastern corner of the estate, and even today this is twenty feet wide by ten feet deep.4 If the ditch surrounded the whole enclosure it would have involved the removal of around a quarter of a million tons of earth. The 'round hay' was then fenced with vertical pales of oak. A circular shape was chosen as it offered the maximum area of enclosed land for the minimum amount of fencing. The original bounds of the park can clearly be seen on the 1850 Ordnance Survey Map opposite. It is possible to identify the location of the medieval park gates which were constructed at critical access points around the perimeter.
This boundary fence needed constant maintenance. The first documentary evidence we have of this is 'The Account of Robert de Halton, reeve' for 1373-4, which notes:
And in agreement made with divers men planting boards, posts and rails, made of six oaks felled by the purchasers of the bark, and with the same making sixty eight acres of paling between Allerton Gate and Scholes Carr, and between Gipton Hirne and Seacroft Wood, by order of the chief forester, reckoning at 12d per acre, 68s.
And one cart hired to carry the said posts, boards and rails from the places where they were felled to the places now newly constructed with the help of the old boards.5
Gate pivots are mentioned in the accounts for 1420-1, when 4d was spent on the purchase of two gudgeons and two plates ' bought for the gates of the park'.6
Once the bounds were clearly defined and the wild animals trapped within, the parker and his staff went to enormous lengths to preserve stocks. This was no easy task, particularly in the winter when food was scarce. Losses could be substantial in the winter months and diseases called the garget and the rotte flourished in confined herds.7 An interesting insight into the annual cycle of work can be gained from the accounts of 1373-4:
And in the wages of five men cutting brushwood and other trees for feeding the deer in the winter season of this year, in the park of Roundhay, viz, each of them at different times for forty days, at 2d per day.
And in six cartloads of hay to support the deer in the ensuing winter, in a certain place called le Stannk - 20s.
And in the hire of one cart to carry the hay from le Stannk to the Grange within the park by six turns at 8d a turn.
And in wages of one man driving the said cart and helping to stow the said hay in the Grange, for four days, taking by the day 3d - 12d for this year.8
The lord would contact the parker to arrange a suitable time for the hunt. He would travel to Roundhay accompanied by a huge retinue of friends and servants. The hunting lodge provided basic accommodation for members of the party, along with their horses and dogs. Very little is known about this important medieval building. It was almost certainly located on the site of Cobble Hall Farm. 'Lodge Hill' is clearly marked on Jonathan Taylor's plan of 1803.9 Furthermore we know that it was located ' within the lawn of the park' and that the two adjoining fields to Cobble Hall Farm are called 'Great Lawn' and 'Little Lawn'.
This is significant as the designers of the park deliberately created these areas of lush grass near the hunting lodge to encourage the deer to graze there.
Fair Benefield whose care to thee doth surely cleave
Which bears a grass as soft as is the dainty silk
And ……so thick and deep that the proud palmed deer
Forsake the closer woods and make their quiet leir
In beds of platted fog (thick grass)10
Medieval beaters drove the deer out of the forest on to ' the lawn' so that the less vigorous hunters, who did not wish to take part in the chase, could simply step out of the lodge and use bow and arrows to shoot the deer gathered in front of them!
The hunt was an elaborate affair with its own rules and customs. If it was the chase, a particular deer would be singled out from the herd. The chief huntsman, noting its exact position, would lead the hounds to that precise spot in order for the dogs to pick up the scent. Thereafter the hounds would only pursue that deer. The hunters followed behind, until the quarry was dragged down by the pack and killed. At other times deer were chased into narrow valleys, like The Gorge, where archers were waiting to shoot them. Once the kill had been made the huntsmen were rewarded with a complicated distribution of hides and venison. The offal or 'humbles' were given to the lowliest servants, hence the expression 'to eat humble pie'.
In the early medieval period hunters used spears, knives and bows to kill the deer. Fine horses were specially bred for the hunt. Mastiffs and a large breed of greyhound were much prized, yet costly to keep. William Wheater, the Victorian historian, claimed that in September 1212 King John visited the 'Roundhay' and spent three days hunting in the park with a pack of over two hundred hounds. He claimed that the cost of the hounds alone was 58s 4½d, over half a year's wage for a skilled roofer!11
The Lodge, like the fencing around the park, needed constant maintenance. Robert de Halton's Accounts indicate that by 1373 it was in need of major roof repairs:
And in two cartloads of thackstone* (stone slates) bought at Shadwell for the repairing the roof of the lodge within the lawn of the park, with 8d given for the carriage of the same to the said lodge - 2s.
And in wages to three tilers roofing the said lodge, for two days at 5d a day each - 2s 6d.
And for 200 nails bought for the laths under the said slates, to be fixed in the roof aforesaid - 6s.
And in wages of one woman gathering moss for the said slates to be laid upon, for one day - 2d.12
Sixty years later the Lodge was once again 'ruinous'.13 By this time the deer population appears to have been in decline and on the 21st February 1503, Sir Thomas Wortley, the King's Steward, could only 'view' thirty four beasts. Its days as a hunting park were numbered.14
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1. Steven Burt and Kevin Grady, An Illustrated History of Leeds (Derby, 1994) pp. 10-29.
2. Susan Neave, Medieval Parks of East Yorkshire (Beverley, 1991) pp.5-10.
3. W.T.Lancaster and W.P.Baildon, ed., Coucher Book of Kirkstall Abbey, Thoresby Soc., Vlll (Leeds, 1904) pp.50-51.
4. This section of exposed ditch is just west of Roundhay Grange Farm but is on private land.
5. John W. Morkill, The Manor and Park of Roundhay, Thoresby Soc. (Leeds, 1893) (hereafter, Morkill) p.20. Note that this was a reprint of the same article which originally appeared in Thoresby Soc ll, Miscellany l (Leeds, 1891) and the page numbers in brackets refer to the original volume.
6. West Yorkshire Metropolitan County Council, West Yorkshire: An Archaeological Survey to A.D.1500 (Wakefield, 1981) p.646.
7. John Cummins, The Hound and The Hawk - The Art of Medieval Hunting (1988).
8. Morkill p.20. (p.230)
9. W(est) Y(orkshire) A(rchive) S(ervice) DB/M242.
10. K. Harrison, trans., Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (1983) pp.57-67.
11. William Wheater, Old Yorkshire, 2nd Series (Leeds, 1885) p.187.
12. Morkill p.20. (p.230) *He mistakenly transcribed thackstone as chakstone (? chalkstone).
13. Ibid p.22. (p.232)
14. Ibid p.23.(p.233)