20 August 2018

#Research: Medieval Marmion Tower

The Marmion Tower
Following on from the last post on medieval Markenfield Hall with its Tudor gatehouse, this time I’m a few miles north to focus on an earlier gatehouse, the enigma that is the Marmion Tower in West Tanfield, Ripon.

Built and remodelled between 1350 and 1400, it stands tight between the drop to the River Ure and the wall of the village's church of St Nicholas, which may, or may not, explain why the barrel-vaulted entrance passage is off-set.

Not substantial in footprint, it was substantial in comfort, having three floors, at least two garderobes built into its riverside walls, three fireplaces, and an oriel window. Although there were certainly gates, and it is crenellated – permission had to be sought from the Crown – there is no provision for either a portcullis or arrow slits.

I’m not alone in finding this curious, considering the violence of the time. Like Markenfield Hall, it lies on the north-south road from Scotland, at a point where the Ure was crossed by ferry, now a bridge carrying the A6108.

Fireplace and cupboard, ground floor porter/guard's chamber
Was it built as a free-standing tower ‘house’, perhaps a dowager house with an enclosed courtyard beyond, specifically to be close to the church? Or was it built to be “of worth” – ie, not timbered – for a hall beyond, which was not, or became not, the owner’s main residence?

Or, over the intervening years since the 1066 Norman invasion, were there two residences? Certainly something was built with commanding views on a rocky spur  further along the bending River Ure, but that’s over a mile away. A motte and bailey ‘castle’ erected, as so many were, immediately after the Harrying of the North? Mmm.
Left: rise to the 1st floor oriel window, line of 2nd storey flooring plus window
Right: view from oriel window showing chantry house of priest plus modern bridge

Personally, I go for the two residences theory. When John Leyland, the noted 16th century antiquarian, passed through on business for King Henry VIII, he was not impressed to find “a meane manor place” with a towered gateway and a house of squared stone. However the cossetted Leyland felt about the state of the manor dwellings, a look inside the church at the effigies of its former owners left me in no doubt as to the worth of the families who once resided there.

Sir John Marmion and his wife Lady Elizabeth
While other chest tombs of the families are carved in eroding stone, this tomb, carved in alabaster, carries the effigy of John Marmion who, in 1387, died in Spain fighting for his overlord, John of Gaunt third son of King Edward III. It is, therefore, highly unlikely that his body resides within.

Beside him is his wife, Lady Elizabeth, who died in 1400. In the foreground and behind their heads can be glimpsed parts of the decorated wrought iron "hearse" of unknown date, which carries thick candles at its four corners.

As is usual in churches, there was neither the room nor the natural light to take full photographs, but it is from the spectacularly detailed carving that writers, and historians, gain much information of the period.

While Elizabeth's head rests on a cushion supported by angelic cherubs, John Marmion's rests on his ornately feathered tilting (jousting) helm, carved out inside to look exactly as it had when he wore it in life. Note the interlocking shoulder sections of his plate armour and the tactile nature of his mail coif. Note, too, that both hands have been hacked off, while his wife's remain in prayer. Probably he was holding his - his - sword down the length of his body and it was subsequently robbed. Around his neck is carved the collar of the Lancastrian house, a decoration instituted by King Henry IV.

This sort of attention to fine detail, and there is far more than I can show here, does not come cheap. So what happened to his, their, equally opulent dwelling?

It seems that no documented explanation exists, at least that I've come across. If Leland's assertion in the 16th century was that the property/ies was "a meane manor place", then in all probability it was being allowed, for whatever reason, to fall into wrack and ruin. According to local tradition its usable stone was carried off to build other great houses in the area. It wasn't unknown. Thankfully the gatehouse was left where it stood, or people like me would never have heard of the Marmions, or be intrigued by the enigma of the Marmion Tower.

Note:  Click on the images to bring up a larger view. All photos (c) Linda Acaster.

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