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Durham University

Cities in History: Archives and Traces, 1100 –1700

Godfrey Tofte vs Robert Swifte (1582)

The National Archives, E134/24and25Eliz/Mich1

This case concerns the use and ownership of land in the manor of Hallgarth, in Elvet, to the east of Durham city (both of these place names survive in modern Durham), brought by a number of Hallgarth tenants against Robert Swift. According to the local gentleman Cuthbert Rackett, the land (known as ‘Beansacre’ or ‘Baynes acre’) was in the occupation of Robert Burgess on behalf of the Prior of Durham before the ‘dissolucion of the house’. After the dissolution, Chrisopher Chaytor and John Watson were ‘Farmoneres [i.e. tenants] and occupiers’ for 21 years before ‘they were putt of by John Pilkington and Rob[er]t Swift who are nowe occupyers of the same’.

The complaint is chiefly that Pilkington and Swift ‘beat forthe’ cattle brought by the tenants of Elvet to Baynes acre, claiming that ‘they shulde have no Pinfold [i.e. pasture]’ there, despite the fact that, according to Rackett’s remembrance, ‘it was free aswell for the Freeholders and Tenantes dwelling on Elvett as for the Tenantes and occupiers of the hallgarth’. A number of the deponents remember that Swift’s predecessor, Chaitor, ‘one yere that he made a dyke to enclose it which the Freholders and Tenantes pulled downe againe’. Christopher Chaitor - unlike Robert Swift, it is implied - learned his lesson ‘and after that he did Lett yt Lye down’. As well as the memories of deponents and the actions of predecessors, Rackett claimed to be custodian (ex officio as churchwarden) of ‘a Composision and the Regester booke’ of St Oswald’s church, and ‘that it is conteyned within the Composision what the Tenantes of the Hallgarthe shulde occupie severallye and wh[ich] Tenantes and Freholderes should have eatage’ in Hallgarth grounds, although it is unclear if he produced the book as evidence.

A further accusation against Robert Swift seems to have been that he was a poor Queen’s tenant, refusing to provide her ‘with horse and Ponnie and other services as in Caryedge and post horses as nede required as other Tenantes have done’, including his predecessor Christopher Chaitor. A surviving counter-interrogatory administered by Swift suggests an attempt to counter this character assault, asking ‘whether doe you knowe that in tymes past two good houses & good hospitalitye was kept at Halgarthe & namely on uppon that parte now in the occupacon off the said Robert Swifte...’. Swift also countered claims that he had driven cattle off common land unreasonably, asking did Robert Swift ever ‘impounde any off the cattell off the inhabitantes of Elvet, but in case where the cattell was taken damage Fesant in his grounde & myght so by the Lawes off this Realme be impounded.’ Similarly, he sought to imply that deponents were exaggerating or misremembering: ‘what excessive pounde lawes was taken or cattall unreasonablye used: whose & what called they were when and bye whome were they either unlawfullye taken or unreasonablye used & in what manner and howe they knowe it particulerlye.’ Unfortunately, depositions of witnesses asked the questions from this interrogatory have not survived, so we cannot know what answers they would have given.

It should be noted that this case has echoes of an earlier legal battle over the right of Elvet borough freeholders to pasture in a number of fields, including a meadow belonging to Durham priory (the Benedictine priory of Durham Cathedral, which became the Dean and Chapter after the Reformation). The case was extensive and several titles have survived in the priory archives, including a map of tenement boundaries dating from about 1440. (See Margaret Bonney, Lordship and the Urban Community, Cambridge 1990, pp. 219-20, 247).