Ancient Mansfield

MANSFIELD, or, as it was formerly termed, Mannysefeld, in Shirewood, in ye County of Nottingham, is, no doubt, an ancient place, and of high antiquity. To the minds of many versed in antiquarian or historical lore, there is no question that the Druids would find growing upon the countless oaks in Sherwood Forest the mystic misletoe, which occupied so prominent a place in their religious observances. However that may be, there is at any rate no disputing the fact that it is, next to Nottingham, the most ancient place on the confines of "Merrie Sherwood." Before many large towns that now play a very prominent part in the commerce of the British Empire were, Mansfield was. Its growth has been that of the sturdy oak, slow but sure, while what are now important places and large centres of population in this country may fairly be described here as mushrooms by its side. In the earliest period of British history, Nottinghamshire appears to have formed part of the territory of the Coritani. In the division of the island by the Romans it was included in the province of Flavia Caesariensis. In the neighbourhood of Mansfield there appears to have been a Roman camp, or station; for, in the year 1787, Major Rooke, of Mansfield Woodhouse, discovered and unearthed the foundations of a Roman villa, which attracted considerable attention among antiquarians at the time. In "Black's Guide," the remains of Roman encampments are said to exist near Berry Hill and Pleasley Park. Throsby states that there are remains of several exploratory camps in the neighbourhood—one at the end of Mansfield Woodhouse, on an eminence called Whinney Hill; and another on the hill sloping down to Rainworth Water, about three miles from the town. In addition to this evidence, Roman coins have been found in and near Mansfield; and in 1849, during the construction of the Mansfield and Nottingham Railway, a Roman jar, containing about five hundred silver coins, was discovered near the Hermitage Mill, the oldest of which was a "galley" coin, about 2,400 years old. Amongst the coins found were those of Vespasian, Constantinus, Antonius Pius, and Marcus Aurelius. In the neighbourhood of the town, brass spear heads and celts have been found, which, in the opinion of antiquaries, were of ancient British manufacture, being made before the Romans had introduced the use of iron into these islands.

Mansfield, which is centrally situated on the road from London to York, is a border town, being divided from Derbyshire by the river Meden, and has five main roads leading out of it: — North, to Worksop, Doncaster, and York; east, to Southwell, Newark, and Lincoln ; south, to Nottingham, Leicester, and London; south-west, to Sutton and Alfreton; north-west, to Chesterfield and Sheffield. The parish is divided into three ecclesiastical districts, as follows:—St. Peter's (the parish church), containing 2,900 acres; St. John's, containing 2,800 acres; and St. Mark's, containing 1,552 acres; or a total of 7,251 acres, making eleven and one quarter square miles. Geographically it occupies a position in latitude 53o 7' to 53o 10' north of the equator, and longitude 1o 7' to 1° 15' west of the meridian of Greenwich. The surface is undulating, and varies in elevation from 270 to 600 feet above the mean sea level. The principal table lands are a continuation of the Robin Hood and Coxmore range of hills, and include the districts of Derby Road and High Oakham, Robin Down's Hill, Berry Hill, Thompson's Grave (from near which, on a clear day, may be seen distinctly the Lincoln Minster), the Windmill Hills, Sherwood Hall, and Ratcher Hill. The highest point in the parish is Fishpond Hill, 601 feet above sea level, on the Dalestorth, Penniment, and Baxter Hill range.

Mansfield is the principal town of the Wapentake of Broxtowe, and is built at the intersection of two ancient roads, that known as Leeming Street being undoubtedly Roman, connecting, according to Brewster, Little Chester, near Derby, with the great Rykenield Street, which extends to Cirencester.

Situated, as it was, on the confines of the celebrated Forest, and a favourite haunt of the earliest kings of England, there is no doubt it was regarded as being pre-eminent in importance among the towns of the Forest. Leland, who visited Mansfield between 1543 and 1545, says: "Soone after I had entered within a mile or less of the woody Forest of Shirewood, where is great game of deer, and so to a little pore street, or thoroughfare, at the end of the wood. More inland is Shirewood, which some render the Clear, others the Famous Forest, anciently thick set with trees, whose entangled branches were so twisted together that they hardly left room for a single person to pass. At present it is so much thinner, but still breeds an infinite number of stags and deer with lofty antlers; and has some towns, among which Mansfield claims the pre-eminence, a market town of good resort, whose name some bring in to confirm the claim of the German family of Mansfield to antiquity, asserting that the first Earl of Mansfield, whom they fetch from hence, was one of King Arthur's Round Table." Some go so far as to say that King Arthur and his knights visited the place often, and held a conference here.

There appears to be not the slightest doubt as to the hunting of our early monarchs in the Sherwood Forest. Long prior to the Norman Conquest, in 1066, the Mercian kings, between the years 586 and 874, came here to hunt; and legends state that they granted privileges to the Forest town of Mannesfield. There are, however, no authentic records bearing this out, and I only mention it for what it is worth. This much is certain, that King John frequently came to Mansfield between the years 1200 and 1216, and that he built a residence here. This was at Birklands, near Clipstone. It was here, too, that Richard Cceur de Lion received the congratulations of the Scotch king on his return from the Crusades. King Edward I. also held a Parliament here, or, as some have it, a Royal Council. It was from this place that Queen Eleanor, when seized with her fatal illness, was removed to Harby. Thoroton says the original palace was destroyed by fire, and was rebuilt in 1220 during the reign of Henry III. All that now remains of the once famous residence is a pile of thick rugged walls, perforated with what were no doubt once richly traced Gothic windows. The ruins are situated in a field adjoining the high road from Clipstone to Mansfield, from whence they can be seen, as well as from the village. When I saw them the field had been ploughed up all round, and there was no means of getting close enough to make a good inspection. If possible, the right to visit the ruins should be acquired for the public, as to students of English history they are of the greatest interest. The place has been described by some writers as a " hunting box," but there can be no doubt, from its original magnitude, that it had about it more of the palace than anything else. Several of the royal grants to Nottingham and elsewhere are dated from this palace. A few years ago, immense cellars and extensive foundations existed near the ruins. Near them is the famous Parliament oak, which derived its name from the fact that beneath its wide-spreading branches King John and his barons held a brief but earnest consultation, in consequence of intelligence having been brought to the royal party (whilst hunting in Clipstone Park) of a second revolt of the Welsh. This took place in 1212; and the first result was, according to Rapin, the execution of twenty-eight Welsh hostages then confined in Nottingham Castle. The victims of this horrible act of cruelty were all young, some of them indeed of the tender age of twelve or fourteen years, belonging to the most illustrious and powerful families in Wales; and it is stated by some, that so resolute was the Royal Tyrant to have his bloody revenge surely and promptly gratified, that he swore "by the teeth of God!" (his favourite oath when excited) that he would not eat bread again until, with his own eyes, he had seen them all put to death. Mounting his horse, therefore, and summoning his attendants, he rode with all possible speed to Nottingham, where his poor innocent victims were all seized and bound, and, amidst the most agonised cries, carried to the ramparts and there hanged. After perpetrating this demonlike act, the wretched monarch, faithful to his oath, immediately returned to Clipstone to enjoy the festivities of the table and the exciting pleasures of the chase. On this occasion the King had to pass through Mansfield both going and returning.

According to the " Annals of Nottinghamshire," page 64, about the year 1163 there was residing at Cuckney a man named Gamelbere, who was an old knight before the Conquest, and who held two carucates of land by knight's service or tenure, of the king, in chief, by the service of shoeing the king's palfrey, upon all four feet, with the king's nails, or shoeing materials, so oft as he should be at Mansfield; and if he put in all the nails the king should give him a palfrey of four marks value, and he was to forfeit the same to the king if he lamed the horse, pricked him, or shod him strait.

Throsby, in his "History of Nottinghamshire," published in 1797, says: "Mansfield is a flourishing and genteel market town, in generally well built, and in consequence of its extended commerce, this opulent town increases much."

Walpoole, who visited Mansfield towards the end of the last century, says: "Mansfield is a well-built and large town, situated at the western extremity of the County of Notts., on the borders of Lincolnshire. It is a place of great antiquity, though not so old as some writers pretend, who tell us that the Counts of Mansfield, in Germany, came hither to attend King Arthur when he celebrated one of his feasts. But at that time Mansfield was not known in Germany, nor were surnames used for many years afterwards, except on very extraordinary occasions. It appears to have been of much repute during the heptarchy, probably because it was situated near the borders of Sherwood Forest, where the Mercian kings often went to enjoy the diversion of hunting. This appears still more likely from an ancient record we have seen, wherein it is mentioned that this manor was held from the king upon condition that the lord should assist in shoeing the horses in the royal retinue whenever the court came to this place. By the same record, now in the British Museum, we learn that wardships did not take place in this manor, but that all persons, although only a day old, became immediate heirs upon the death of their fathers, and the lands were equally divided among the sons, in the same manner as was common to the Saxons in general, which has since been called Gavelkind.

There is considerable dispute as to how Mansfield derived its name. By some it is said to have been given by the noble family of Mansfield, who came over with the Conqueror. Others assert that it comes from "Manson"—Anglo-Saxon for traffic; and field— a place of trade. A third conjecture (and I am inclined to most favour this) is that it is derived from the name of the river that runs through the town—the Maun, or Man. If this be the case, it would mean that the town was built on a field on the banks of the river Maun. This river now flows along the southern and eastern side of the town. Formerly it was a famous place for salmon and trout, and the Earls of Chesterfield came here to enjoy the fishing, their lodge being located on the spot now occupied by Mr. Cursham, sub-registrar of births and deaths. The river has long since ceased to be the home of the finny tribe, owing to the quantity of poisonous matter which finds its way there from the various mills built on its banks. There is an Earl of Mansfield, but I believe he derives his name from another Mansfield, in Middlesex. The first to assume the title was an eminent lawyer, who makes a great figure in the history of England two centuries back, to whom there are frequent references in the "Gentleman's Magazine."

An early ecclesiastical reference to Mansfield is made in a return consequent on a decree, in 1171, of Pope Alexander, that every year both clergy and laity of Nottinghamshire should, at the Feast of Pentecost, attend at the Church of St. Mary, at Southwell, in solemn procession, with a Pentecostal offering from every parish and hamlet in the county. This gift, which varied in value according to the population and importance of the place, there is reason to believe, was bestowed upon the church from the period of the first foundation by Paulinus, but had never been regularly appointed until the issuing of this Bull. The sum sent from Mansfield in that year was 4s. 8d., a considerable sum when it is remembered that Nottingham only sent 13s. 4d.