Howdenshire lies between the north bank of the River Ouse, the east bank of the River Derwent and the south bank of the River Foulness. In the north, the line is along other watercourses: the channel of the Old Derwent and the drains called Common End Dyke and Langdyke.
Most of this region is close to or even below mean sea level. The area included the great commons of Bishopsoil and Wallingfen and covered an area of 30,765 acres, 12,450 hectares or 48.07 square miles. The enclosure of Bishopsoil and Wallingfen commons, in 1777 and 1781 respectively,annexed new territories to each of the townships in Howdenshire, producing a complicated pattern of townships and parish boundaries. Many of the townships in Howdenshire acquired new detached portions, often located several miles from the rest of the township.
Howdenshire has a documentary history long preceding Domesday Book. It first appeared in the record in a grant by King Edgar of England in 959, who bestowed two Yorkshire estates on a southern English lady called Cwen, one of which was Howden. She subsequently granted ‘Houedene’ to Peterborough Abbey, but it was taken back by King Aethelred II, because the abbey didn’t pay its danegeld bill, a form of land-tax. It was a royal estate at the time of the Norman Conquest but was granted to Bishop William de St. Calais of Durham and was held by the bishops until 1836. It was already being called Howdenshire in the mid 12th century.
Howdenshire has a complicated history. For most of its administrative history from the 1160s onwards, after the abolition of the hundreds of the East Riding, the area of Howdenshire was administered as a liberty which excluded the sheriff of York and in which civil authority was represented by the bishop’s high steward and bailiff. A liberty was an English unit originating in the Middle Ages, traditionally defined as an area in which regalian right (a right of the king to collect income) was revoked and where the land was held by a mesne lord (a feudal lord who was lord to his own tenants on land held from a superior lord).
The abolition of the bishopric of Durham by Parliament in 1646 led to the rationalisation of the anomalous former liberty as a wapentake, which it began to be called in 1647. A wapentake is an administrative subdivision in northern English counties, developed under Norse influence, and corresponding to hundreds in the rest of England. Although the Stuart restoration cancelled this ad hoc measure, the idea of Howdenshire as a wapentake remained until 1836 when the assets of the bishop of Durham were transferred to the new diocese of Ripon. This remained until 1880 when the complex arrangement of land was resolved by a local government reorganisation.
The area shown in maps therefore varied according to the date the map was drawn. The following map shows the arrangement of parishes within Howdenshire between 1956 and 1984 and is approximately the same as in the 1700s.
Howdenshire’s landscape is overwhelmingly rural, and land ownership and agriculture dominate the history of each village. By the end of the 20th century much of the farmland was divided into quite large farms.
The plan below shows the pattern of parishes that existed up to 1986.
(This information is by permission of the Victoria County History of Howdenshire, published by Boydell & Brewer Ltd and the University of London Institute of Historical Research. 2019)