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Yorkshire: A lyrical history of England’s greatest county by Richard Morris

16 February 2018

David Wilbourne joins in a quest for the soul of a gritty county

“IF ANYONE wants to feel how a poor sinner is treated in Purgatory, let him travel to Bradford.” Richard Morris, in a Gerald-of-Wales-like tour through Yorkshire, unashamedly explores my county’s dark and gritty side, including York’s ancient streets, whose red light district in the Minster’s shadow was helpfully named with Anglo-Saxon bluntness. An archaeological and geological sure touch is coupled with meticulous historical research of the Who Do You Think You Are? variety, such as spending more than a dozen pages charting the story of the Conscientious Objector Alf Myers, one of the brutally treated “Richmond Sixteen”.

Larkinesque Morris seeks the very soul of Yorkshire, whose “air of independence is apt to repel strangers”. He recalls a 1970s farmer in ancient Elmet, stubbornly leading his cows for their twice-daily milking across the busy A1. He vividly re-enacts the battles of Towton and Marston Moor, and the 1569 Northern Rebellion, whose insurgents all failed to capture York.

He describes impoverished miners tearing coal, iron ore, and potash from the county’s heart, and anguishes over children exploited in mine and mill. He decries land reclamation as a euphemism for ecological tragedy, finds his way around Hull by its smells, and ponders the Brontës’ surprise that “boring Haworth” should ever become a tourist resort.

I was sorry that Morris downplayed the Pilgrimage of Grace, which was a truly Yorkshire rebellion against the brutal excesses of Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries. The protest’s peaceable captain, Robert Aske, rooted in my boyhood in the Vale of York and in Swaledale, mustered 30,000 men, who took York, Pontefract, and Doncaster, and all stops in between.

Morris makes no mention whatsoever of William the Conqueror’s Harrying of the North in 1069, burning and salting Yorkshire’s fields, effectively condemning her to be a wasteland for a century, which still fuels a deep suspicion of all things French and South.

Morris catalogues how Yorkshire’s influence extends far beyond the county, not always for the good. “The providence of God is manifested in the tameness and timidity of many of the largest inhabitants of the earth, victims to the progress of man,” proclaimed the Whitby whaler and Evangelical William Scoresby, who lured mother bowhead whales into his harpoon’s range by mercilessly killing their calves. Before Scoresby became Vicar of Bradford, 2761 whales were landed at Whitby; fortunately, Bradford’s canny, if purgatorial, inhabitants proved not as biddable as bowhead whales and saw him off.

The Rt Revd David Wilbourne is an Hon. Assistant Bishop in the diocese of York.


Yorkshire: A lyrical history of England’s greatest county
Richard Morris
Weidenfeld & Nicolson £25
Church Times Bookshop £22.50

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