A low-lying area, described by Arthur Young in 1769 as “low, flat and disagreeable,” much of Howdenshire formerly lay close to or even below mean sea level. Roman finds at Blacktoft, Faxfleet and Broomfleet, along with the Scandinavian names of these villages, imply that the raised banks close to the Ouse and Humber were settled before the Norman Conquest. Early settlement probably focused on the higher grounds immediately north of the rivers, but in general diking and draining were necessary before settlement could be expanded beyond its pre-Conquest limits.
The earliest settlement in the region was probably established on dry raised sites amongst the carrs and salt-marshes. The town of Howden was first recorded in 959 and was the centre of a large 51- carucate estate recorded in the Domesday Book. The earliest settlement in Howden was probably centred on the church and manor house. Small amounts of 9th, 10th and 11th century pottery recovered during excavations at the Bishop’s Manor House imply that there was late Saxon settlement in the immediate vicinity. A church and a priest were recorded on the Bishop of Durham’s Howdenshire estate in 1086, presumably at Howden.
The Domesday Book recorded a large number of settlements in Howdenshire, implying that resettlement and reclamation was by then underway, later aided by a fall in relative sea levels in 12th century. Domesday settlement was confined to the higher ground amongst the marshland, much of which survived as common land until enclosure in the late 18th century. Commissioners were appointed to survey river banks in c1300 demonstrating the necessity of protecting what were, by now, areas of settlement and cultivation.
‘Howdenshire with Ouse and Derwent in which district is comprehended all the country lying to the south of the Weighton and York Road and west of the Weighton and South Cave Road, being situated far inland and completely sheltered by the Wolds from the north-east, enjoys an earlier vegetation in proportion to the quality of the soil, and a more temperate climate than the claylands, although the frost and snow continue much longer in the winter at this distance from the sea, than in its immediate vicinity’.
Acknowledgement: Agricultural Survey, East Riding. 1812. Board of Agriculture
In general, the medieval villages of Howdenshire were of nucleated farms, interspersed with hamlets and more dispersed settlement elements including isolated farmsteads and the moated sites which were relatively common in this low-lying and often waterlogged corner of the Riding.
Occasionally referred to as a borough, Howden was the only large settlement and only market in the area, although there were markets at South Cave and Holme-on-Spalding-Moor, as well as small or short-lived markets at Hemingbrough, Riccall and Faxfleet.
Howden itself was more densely populated in both 1672 (the Hearth Tax Return) and 1764 (the Visitation Return) than areas to the east. Like other market towns in the Vale of York, Howden’s population continued to grow throughout the early 19th century, reaching 2,491 by 1851.
Howdenshire was a region of vast common pastures. The largest was Wallingfen, a low-lying pasture of 5,000 acres. Bishopsoil common was not much smaller at 4,000 acres. They were primarily used for grazing, though they also provided turves, rushes and furze for fuel and building materials.
Both Bishopsoil and Wallingfen were intercommoned by the inhabitants of the parishes and townships that surrounded them and livestock were branded with the mark of their owner or township. The southern part of Wallingfen was ruled by a court of surveyors and jurymen by 1425, who managed the pastures on behalf of the inhabitants from the five surrounding parishes of North Cave, South Cave, Howden, Blacktoft and Eastrington. The ordinance of 1430 makes it clear that common rights were restricted to those dwelling on ancient tofts and crofts in the five parishes.
A regular system of drainage maintenance had been devised by the Commissioners of Sewers in the 16th century, but only after 1660 did new works appear. There were certainly low banks along the river Derwent by 1662, which protected the meadows from damaging summer floods at the same time as allowing the high winter floods to bring silt and nutrients onto the land.
Alongside the period between the 11th and 13th centuries and the later 17th century, the late 18th and 19th century stands out as a period in which drainage activities transformed the use and appearance of the common pastures. Bishopsoil and Wallingfen were drained and enclosed under acts of 1767 and 1777 respectively. The commons were enclosed and allotted to the townships and individuals who had possessed common rights there. But the drainage schemes did not solve all the drainage problems.
Enclosures continued over the following 70 years and the remaining open fields at Howden were enclosed under an informal agreement soon after 1845.
The heavy clay lands were difficult to cultivate and many of the heavier lacustrine clays fell out of cultivation in the years after the Napoleonic Wars. Tenants were only retained on some farms by allowing them to plough up old grasslands. Howdenshire was also badly affected by the agricultural depression of the 1830s. Some landlords were apparently unable to find tenants with sufficient capital to farm large holdings, so some farms were sub-divided into smaller units. The grass was said to be inferior and land which had previously been worth 20s an acre in cultivation was then worth only 2s. Individual farms were small in comparison to the great holdings on the Wolds and, as a consequence of a lack of capital, farm machinery was taken on only slowly in the Vale of York.
The tithe surveys demonstrate that the Vale of York was still largely under arable crops, even in Howdenshire where land had been tumbling to grass a few years earlier. Grassland was common on the poorly drained clays of Howdenshire and in the remaining open field parishes. Wheat, beans, oats and flax were grown in the southern Vale of York, the latter being particularly popular in the area around Howden.
Sheep and cattle were kept in relatively small numbers in Howdenshire, especially after the ‘great rot’ of 1829-1831 when large numbers of sheep fed on moist pasture lands succumbed to liver rot. Horses including thoroughbreds were bred on a far wider basis, and Howdenshire ranked as one of ‘the chief breeding-grounds for hunting and carriage horses’ in Yorkshire. Howden’s September horse fair attracted ‘dealers, breeders and purchasers from all of this and many foreign countries’.