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  • A theory about what happened after the Romans left Castleford and how a new village may have been established after the Norman Conquest.

Present-day Castleford is almost entirely a product of the nineteenth century when, like so many other places, industrialisation quickly transformed it from an insignificant village into a bustling town. Strictly speaking, the first signs of commercial development were seen in the late eighteenth century following the development of the Aire & Calder Navigation system, with water transport-related businesses setting up alongside the canal on present-day Lock Lane, followed by the renowned Castleford Pottery in 1790 – although technically the pottery was located in a separate township, Whitwood Mere, within a different parish, Featherstone.

Prior to then, Castleford was merely a small, mainly agricultural community, although that community had a history stretching back many centuries. But how far back? The archaeological excavations of the 1970s and 80s in the Welbeck Street area revealed that during the first and second centuries AD there was a civilian settlement – known as a vicus – alongside the Roman fort of Lagentium. Such communities often grew up alongside military installations, supplying the garrison with all kinds of services, but they seldom developed an economic life of their own and can hardly be considered as proper villages. Even though there is evidence to suggest the Lagentium vicus was of more significance than many such places – with its spoon manufacturing industry, for example – its fortunes were still very much tied to those of the Romans in Britain and thus once the military personnel had left and the fort was abandoned, in all likelihood the population of the vicus would have dispersed into the surrounding countryside and resumed a largely agricultural way of life.

Although the river crossing which Lagentium had guarded meant it remained an important location on the road network, most of which continued to be used into the so-called dark ages of the fifth and sixth centuries and beyond, there was nothing in this either to necessitate or to prompt the establishment of a settlement alongside it, nor did the excavations which revealed Castleford’s Roman past uncover much archaeological evidence for any significant later resident population by the ford. This notion is reinforced by the first post-Roman written reference to the site of Lagentium, which records an incident that took place during 948AD.

The middle of the tenth century saw the final years of a power struggle between the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of what was soon to become England. By this time, Northumbria – essentially the area between the Humber and the Scottish border – was the only one of the four kingdoms not to have fallen under the control of the West Saxons, then led by King Eadred of Wessex; instead, it was governed from York by rulers of Scandinavian origin. During 948, Eadred’s army mounted a raid into Northumbria during which it sacked St. Wilfrid’s minster at Ripon before heading back south. As the troops in the rearguard were waiting to cross the Aire, they were ambushed by forces led by the Northumbrian king Eirik ‘Bloodaxe’ who, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, “overtook the king’s army from behind at Ceaster Forda, and a great slaughter was made there”. This confrontation must have taken place somewhere on the north bank of the Aire in the present-day Lock Lane area, although any archaeological remains are probably buried deep beneath the silt left by more than nine subsequent centuries of river floods.

The place-name Ceaster Forda – ‘the fortress by the ford’ – contains none of the elements that were so common in names from this period and which signified the presence of a settlement or population: most likely all that stood in the vicinity of the river crossing were the remains of Lagentium, which by that time would surely have disappeared, plundered for building materials, if a post-Roman settlement of any consequence had either continued or had subsequently developed prior to 948.

Reference to Castleford is conspicuous by its absence from the next written record of activity in the area: the Domesday Book of 1086, which only identifies manors at (Glass) Houghton (Hoctun), Wheldale (Queldale), Fryston (Friston) and Whitwood (Whitwode). This, however, does not mean there was not a village in existence at this time, for Domesday is a taxation assessment which records administrative areas – manors – rather than centres of population, and in any one manor there was often more than one township or vill. Consequently there could well have been a vill at Castleford, situated within one of these manors, most likely Houghton, which later became known as the manor of Houghton-with-Castleford. In fact, topographical and later historical evidence strongly suggests that this was the case.

Because the built-up area of Castleford did not expand very much until the second half of the nineteenth century, maps from immediately prior to that time show a village with a layout which had changed little in hundreds of years. Among the most noticeable features are the long narrow plots of land, known as crofts or tofts, running at right angles to the main street of the village which, during the medieval period, were utilised as privately-cultivated smallholdings and orchards behind a house facing on to the street. The majority of them run north-south, from what is now Aire Street to a parallel ‘back lane’ – what became Carlton Street – though there are also signs of similar plots running west-east from what is now Church Street. These latter tofts are much shorter than the north-south plots, which suggests they were originally longer but were cut across at their eastern ends by the north-south strips when these were laid out at a later date.

This sequence of land division points to the earliest medieval settlement in Castleford being focused on the old Roman road as it ran down to the ford, which seems a logical arrangement if this road was still the main communication route at the time. However, at some point this appears to have been superseded by the main street-back lane layout, an arrangement which was very common across the Vale of York and East Riding of Yorkshire during the medieval period and is generally agreed by historians to represent a village which was carefully planned and laid out by a local landowner, to bring together in one place the people needed to tend the surrounding fields through co-operative effort. The position of the church at one end of the grid pattern layout is also a characteristic planned village feature, added to which, until some time into the nineteenth century, Aire Street and its continuation round to Church Street were known as High Road, while Carlton Street is named on several old maps and documents as Back Lane.

Diagram: typical planned village layout

There is disagreement among historians about when such villages originated: one school of thought suggests they date from the Scandinavian settlement of Yorkshire in the ninth and tenth centuries; the other reckons they were associated with the carve-up of land following the Norman conquest or were perhaps the result of a resettlement programme after King William’s ‘harrying of the north’ in 1069–70 when many existing villages are thought to have been destroyed. Without needing to take sides in the Scandinavian versus Norman debate – other than to observe that if the first planned villages did date from the ninth century, the process could still have been ongoing two centuries later – one crucial factor suggests that Castleford as it existed for hundreds of years prior to the industrial revolution most probably dates from the later period, with the third quarter of the eleventh century the most likely date for its genesis as a planned village.

If the village had been laid out in, say, the tenth century, when the former Roman road and ford were still in use as they evidently were at the time of the 948 battle, it would surely have made use of this road as the main street or at least been influenced by its alignment. Those apparently cut-off plots running east from Church Street suggest the earliest houses were, indeed, built along this road – but most likely on a haphazard basis, not as part of any bigger plan. However, when the planned village was laid out, it appears to have completely ignored the old Roman road, cutting almost at random across its line and relegating it to the status of a minor track leading into the village fields and no farther: in present-day terms following the line of Welbeck Street, Beancroft Road and Barnes Road before petering out around the junction of Barnes Road and Love Lane. The implication of this is that by the time the village was established, the old Roman routeway had been superseded by roads reflecting new patterns of local settlement and communications, leading to and from the administrative centre of Pontefract, the markets there and at Wakefield, and the local Domesday settlements of Houghton, Whitwood, Wheldale and Fryston – all converging on what was still an important river crossing. Documentary records show that the method of crossing remained a ford at least into the second half of the twelfth century. One snippet of written evidence which might confirm this two-stage development of the medieval village is contained in a deed of 1461, which refers to land in the “old town”at Castleford, suggesting there was at that time still a differentiation between the original focus of settlement around the church and Roman fort site, and a newer part of the village based on the more recent main street-back lane layout.

Map: features of medieval Castleford

If the evidence points to a late eleventh century establishment of a planned village at Castleford, what might have been the reason for doing so on that site? The most likely one arises from the post-1066 division of territory which saw great tracts of land in Yorkshire allocated to the de Lacy family, French allies of William the Conqueror, who established their baronial headquarters at Pontefract. The de Lacys would have recognised the importance of the site for controlling access to and from Pontefract and consequently would have wanted to establish a presence there, while the meadows of Castleford Ings (the area between present-day Wheldon Road and the river) would have provided much richer grazing land and winter livestock fodder than the higher ground and thinner soil nearer Pontefract. To add to the location’s agricultural potential, twelfth century documents suggest that the river was an important source of fish, too, while it would not be too long before the first of the mills, which have been a constant feature of the riverbank ever since, was built.

Perhaps, too, the earlier settlement on the Roman road had fallen victim to the harrying of the north, when King William’s army swept across Yorkshire wreaking revenge for the defiance of the old Northumbrian earls, who had killed his placeman Robert de Comines and captured the stronghold of York: certainly, its position would have rendered it vulnerable. If so, then with its strategic location, wealth of resources and the old community lying in ruins, Castleford represented the ideal location to ‘start again’ with a planned medieval village. Whatever the ultimate reason, this represented the beginning of almost 750 years’ unbroken settlement on the site, leading directly to the Castleford of today.

Despite almost two centuries of relentless building, rebuilding and road widening since the time when Castleford could last truly be called a village, the basic shape of its medieval layout can still be traced in the modern town. Church Street, Aire Street and Bridge Street, albeit straightened in the 1970s, preserve the line of the old main street, while Carlton Street precisely follows the course of the back lane. Likewise, streets such as Bank Street, Sagar Street, Bradley Street and Wesley Street often follow the boundaries of the former tofts, while late nineteenth century street plans show that the frontages of some of the bigger buildings from that time still standing on the north side of Carlton Street are exactly the width of the old plots on which they were built, providing a direct and visible link between the village of the eleventh century and the town of the twenty-first.