ON the main line of the Great Northern Railway, as it cuts through the county on its way from London to York, is the town of Retford, discernible from the line as a mass of red-brick houses and smoking chimneys, with the tower of an old parish church rising in their midst. The borough, with many evidences in it of vigorous life, is notable in these modern days as the centre of the Parliamentary Hundred of Bassetlaw, and as comprising within its electoral area the first group of villages which enjoyed the pleasures of household suffrage. But its old-time records are not unworthy of study.
To begin as far back as the period of the Danish invasion, we find mention made by Baeda of a battle on the banks of the river Idle, A.D. 617. The circumstances were these: In the year 617 Aethelfrith, the powerful King of pagan Northumbria, demanded from Raedweald, the half-Christian and half-pagan King of East Anglia, the surrender of Edwin, the representative of the kingly stock of Daere, or Deira, the southern half of Northumbria, who had found an asylum at Raedwealds Court. The East Anglian King, after some hesitation, refused to surrender the fugitive, and, fully appreciating the consequences of this refusal, gathered his forces in haste, and set out to meet the terrible Northumbrian King. Raedweald was so expeditious that he surprised Aethelfrith on the borders of Mercia before the body of his army had come up. Here, on the eastern bank of the river Idle, near Retford, was fought a battle in which the Northumbrian King was defeated and slain. The next reference to Retford or its immediate vicinity that we meet with is in Domesday Book, and it is unusually brief and insignificant. It mentions that in Retford there was one mill belonging to the fee of Sutton, the property of the Archbishop of York, but it gives no further information of any interest or value. It is evident, however, that the place soon flourished and developed, and that it came to be looked upon as a business centre for the district around. The date of the first charter is not known, but in 1246 Henry III., for the bettering of his borough of Retford, granted to the burgesses and their heirs one fair annually of eight days, viz., on the eve, the day, and the morrow of Holy Trinity and five days following. Other liberties and privileges were given by Henry, and his son, Edward I., in 1279 granted the town to the burgesses in fee farm, paying for the same £10 a year. They were to have a market every Saturday, and to have the amendment of the assize of bread and beer, and the pillory and the ducking-stool, and wrecks and waifs, and to have a Bailiff of themselves. So important had the town become that in the reign of Edward II. (A.D. 1315) it had the honour of sending representatives to Parliament. In 1330 it sought to be excused from exercising this right on the ground of poverty and inability to pay the burgesses the heavy expenses of their long journeys, and the prayer of this petition was granted.
But if the town ceased of its own volition to exercise its influence in the control of national affairs, two of its sons made their way to the forefront, and took no small part in the government of the country. Robert de Retford, son of Richard de Retford, rose to the dignity of a judge, and was summoned to Parliament in that capacity in August, 1295.
He continued to be called upon to assist at the deliberations of the senate until 1318, and having left on one occasion without royal permission, he was peremptorily summoned to return, and not to absent himself again without the Kings licence. His name is entered amongst those present at the coronation in 1308, and there are entries of his acting in his judicial capacity in the home district and in Durham and Leicester. William de Retford, whom we believe to be his son, was appointed Keeper of the Great Wardrobe, and in 1354 made a Baron of the Exchequer.
He is described as clericus, but it did not follow that he was a clergyman, for the clerics of 600 years ago comprehended all those whom we now call the professional classes. The law of the land was merciless and cruel, hanging men on small provocation, but a cleric was only half amenable to it, and could demand the protection of the Church. As a natural and inevitable consequence of such a privilege accorded to a class, there was a very strong inducement to become a member of that class; and as the Church made it easy for any fairly-educated man to be admitted, at any rate to the lower orders of the ministry, anyone who preferred a professional career, or desired to give himself up to a life of study, enrolled himself among the "clerics," and was henceforth reckoned as belonging to the clergy. Only a small proportion of them ever became ministers of religion ; they were lawyers or lawyers clerks, and William de Retford clericus was an influential lawyer and a judge. We have shown that the town had contributed two eminent men at least to the service of the State, and we believe it had sent another, for in the records of Parliament we find that in 1404 Sir Henry de Retford was chosen Speaker of the House of Commons, and it was through his mouth that the Commons gave to the King their most humble thanks for his many valiant exploits. He was succeeded, in 1406, by Sir John Tibetot, who would also be, we presume, a Nottinghamshire man, for the Tibetots were the ancient lords of Langar, in this county.
St Swithun's church, East Retford (A. Nicholson, 2001). Pevsner reports that "it is almost completely the work of restorers of 1658, 1854-5, and 1905."
Meanwhile, the parish church of St. Swithin continued to be the principal building within the borough. When the first stones were laid of the sacred edifice, wherein so many generations of Retford people have worshipped, it is difficult to say; but it is certain that there was a church here in the twelfth century, if not in the eleventh. The earliest record is of its being given by Archbishop Roger to his newly-founded Chapel of St. Mary and Holy Angels near the Minster of York. Now, Archbishop Roger occupied the see from 1154 to 1181, and his endowment of the chapel was a very noble one. Eleven churches were appropriated to it, five of which were purchased with his own funds.
In 1258 Gilbert de Tyva was made sacrist of the cathedral, and inducted into the possession of the church by Archbishop Sewal de Bovil, the Bishop directing that the Vicar of Retford should have 100s. out of the altarage, and the small tithes, viz., of chickens, pigs, geese, and the bread and wine which should happen to be brought to the altar. In 1392 the Bailiffs founded a chantry, one altar being dedicated to the Holy Trinity and the other to St. Mary; and chantry priests continued to officiate here until chantries were abolished by Edward VI. The chapel was at the back of the chancel, but being in ruins, was demolished, and the church repaired with the old material.
We come next to an interesting item about the church, in regard to which we are able to supplement the information hitherto given. In 1651, according to Mr. Piercy, the tower, the steeple, and a considerable portion of the rest of the church were blown down, and he quotes an entry from the minute-book of the Corporation, dated November 4, 1652, describing the disaster. The following entry in the State Papers will throw some additional light on what took place in connection with this remarkable event:
June 3rd, 1658. Order on the petition of the bailiffs and burgesses of East Retford, and certificate of the Justices of the Peace of Notts, of 21st Jan., 1651, showing that the steeple of the only church there was blown down by a great wind 21st January, 1657-8 (sic), that the cost of repairing it will be £3,400, with which repair they have made considerable progress, selling their lands and contracting debts to pay for the same,to advise letters patent to collect money for the purpose in Notts, Lincoln, York, and the City of London..
The petition was thus acceded to, and the brief renewed in November, 1658. The church was thoroughly restored in 1855, and some valuable gifts and additions have been made to it since that date.
In the troublous events which arose in the reign of Charles I., Retford took little part. It was assessed to ship-money in 1635-36 at only £30, whereas Newark had to pay £120, and complaint was made that it was let off so easily. When the war prevailed the town was several times visited by bodies of troops, and the King passed through on his way to Doncaster, but it was never the scene of any great turmoil or bloodshed. There are several entries in the State Papers relating to the town during the Stuart period which may not be uninteresting. The Commissioners of Musters were in the habit of holding musters at Retford. In 1622 they reported to the Council that they had held a muster and found all in good condition, ready for instant service, and to suppress riots if required. There was a good provision of powder and bullets, and the state of the beacon was satisfactory. In 1625 a licence was granted to John Watson, of Retford, and his wife to keep a tavern and sell whisky at such prices as they pleased, certain statutes notwithstanding, upon payment to the King of £3 per annum. At the Retford Sessions in 1630 the justices reported to the Council that they had taken the recognizances of John Molanus and three other workmen of Sir Cornelius Vermuyden, the complaint being that while digging in a field of Sir Francis Thornhill the men had struck Edward Thornhill and used indecent words against Sir Francis. Sir Cornelius Vermuyden was a famous Dutch engineer, and the Cars were drained by Dutch and Flemish workmen under his supervision.
In 1745, on the occasion of the rebellion under the Young Pretender, an army of 6,000 English and Hessian troops encamped upon Wheatley Hills, and the soldiers, on marching through Retford, made a stable of the church for their horses. The members for Retford at this period were John White and William Mellish, and in connection with their return in 1741 the following curious story is told:
Mr. Mellish resided at Blyth, and in early life was betrothed to a Jewess of considerable property, but which, by a curious clause in the will of her father, her husband could not inherit until chosen member of Parliament. Accordingly, he offered himself for Retford, and as a matter of course was anxious to succeed in his endeavours. On the morning the election took place he brought two different-coloured horses to Retfordthe one gray, the other bayby means of which he was to send information of the result. If chosen, the gray one; if not, the other. There being no opposition, he was elected, and immediately despatched a messenger on the gray horse. His lady, anxious for the success of her lord, was keeping a sharp look-out for the signal, on discovering which she was so overjoyed that she fell into hysterics, and in the course of two or three days actually died from the effect.
In 1826, after an exciting contest, the members returned in that year were unseated on petition, and it was resolved that the corrupt state of the borough required the serious attention of the House. Protracted debates and divisions ensued, but eventually, in 1830, the franchise was extended to the Hundred of Bassetlaw, of which Retford has since formed the centre.