Swale of Swale Hall

An introduction to and part synopsis of a forthcoming book Swale of Swale Hall 

In Swaledale, in North Yorkshire, on the south bank of the River Swale just outside the village of Grinton stands Swale Hall, a seventeenth-century listed building that on first glance appears to be a fairly unremarkable old farm house.  But for several centuries it was the seat of the Swale family, whose members were among the most controversial characters of the Yorkshire gentry.

That was until 1715 when the then head of the clan, Sir Solomon Swale, 3rd baronet, lawyer and bachelor, managed to lose Swale Hall and a number of other considerable estates in Yorkshire that his ancestors had accumulated over 600 years.  A man of great folly, after a spell in London’s Fleet Prison for debtors he ended up during his 50s living in poverty in modest lodgings in the city. He had caused his family’s ignominious and permanent exit from the landed class.

As his health and spirits slowly declined, his misery was compounded in 1724 when he was pilloried in a book by the satirist Daniel Defoe.  Published at the height of Defoe’s fame, only five years after the release of his classic Robinson Crusoe., it was a travelogue called: A tour through the whole island of Great Britain   It included this brief passage about Swaledale:

“The Swale is a noted river… for giving name to the lands it runs through for some length, which are called Swale Dale, and to an ancient family of that name, one of whom had the vanity, as I have heard, to boast that his family was so ancient as not to receive that name from, but to give name to the river itself.  One of the worthless successors of this line, who had brought himself to the dignity of what they call in London a ‘Fleeter’, used to write himself, in his abundant vanity, Sir Solomon Swale, of Swale Hall, in Swale Dale, in the County of Swale, in the North Riding of York.”  [1]

This attack in print was no here-today-gone-tomorrow humiliation.   Defoe’s book became a hugely popular work of reference that was kept on the library shelves of large houses throughout the nation.    His cutting assessment of Sir Solomon Swale was guaranteed to stick in the public’s minds, and so it did.  It inspired writers for centuries afterwards to keep alive the tale of the extraordinary events, not explained by Defoe that led to the vain baronet’s downfall.

Such was the appeal the characterisation of Sir Solomon, so brilliantly captured in just a few words, that the identity was borrowed by one of Defoe’s younger contemporaries, the poet Alexander Pope.  He used it in a fictitious satire attacking the pedantry of the legal profession.   Published in 1727, it took the form of a court report of the legal arguments concerning the disputed will of a knight of the realm who he styled “Sir John Swale, of Swale Hall, in Swale Dale, fast by the River Swale.”  [2]

It was further humiliation for Sir Solomon, who died in December 1733.   No doubt the stylish mockery of Defoe and Pope had made both the true and fictitious tales of Swale of Swale Hall popular anecdotes at fashionable gatherings.   And so they were also frequently repeated in print.   From time to time the story of Sir John Swale appeared in publications reprising the works of Pope, and it was even reproduced as a light relief in some serious publications about the law. [3]   However, far more notable were the numerous summaries of the true downfall of Sir Solomon Swale that featured in popular books about the history and antiquities of Yorkshire. [4]

In these accounts it becomes clear that as time passed commentaries on the hapless baronet tended to adopt an increasingly sympathetic approach to his memory.  It seems that writers gradually started to see him not so much as a figure of fun but more as an unlucky victim of the avarice of others.    And perhaps that’s why the story struck such a deep chord with members of the higher classes, who for the most part were the authors and the consumers of these accounts.   Perhaps for many of them it might have been considered a salutary tale that should be remembered and passed on as a warning to future generations.

The story remained so well known that even 136 years after Sir Solomon Swale’s death, in an 1860 edition of one of the most popular magazines of its day, the Gentleman’s Magazine and Historical Review, the editor recalled that:

“The story of Sir Solomon Swale, of Swale Hall in Swaledale, his misfortunes and his pride, need only be mentioned to be remembered.”   [5]

It seems remarkable that in such a highly respected journal, which circulated throughout the English-speaking world, the editor could be so confident in his readers’ knowledge that not another word needed to be said about the story.

In the later 1800s, when interest in history and antiquarianism gathered pace among wealthy Victorians, stories started to appear in print about other members of the Swale family, form earlier generations, whose characters were equally as controversial and whose life stories were just as interesting as that of Sir Solomon.  A picture emerged of a minor dynasty described as one of the most ancient in Yorkshire, and that was characterised by a consistent tendency towards inflated pride, belligerence in the face of adversity, all underpinned by a degree of skullduggery; and all of which seemed to keep the Swales lurching in and out of trouble with remarkable frequency.

The golden age of these spirited individuals started from about 1540, the time of Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries.    For the most part the Swales would have no truck with the Protestantism and remained defiantly loyal to the Roman Catholic Church.  Consequently over the next 160 years, during the most troublesome times of the Reformation, the consequences of their religious convictions caused them to feature in the record books numerous times.  Some were jailed for their faith; one was executed and became revered as a Catholic martyr; while others merely suffered public vilification.

Like most of the Yorkshire gentry the Swales were also staunch royalists.   Sir Solomon Swale’s grandfather, another Solomon, who would become the 1st baronet, was influential in raising the king’s army in Yorkshire during the civil wars, and later played a role in the restoration of the Stuart monarchy.   For this he became the first of the Swale baronets.   He was also a barrister, Member of Parliament, seemingly a rogue, and probably the root cause of many of his grandson’s woes.    And like his grandson he also attracted the attention of one of the literary giants of his times.  He was attacked in print by the poet and politician Andrew Marvell as:

“One whose word will not pass for thruppence where he is known… an old Papist if not a priest, but his bald pate excuses his tonsure; a forger of wills.”  [6]

This Solomon Swale was eventually convicted of being a recusant Catholic for which he was expelled from the House of Commons.

An earlier relation was a doctor of laws and a president of Caius College, Cambridge, who went on to become one of the nation’s most senior judges.  He managed to get himself knighted by the Protestant Queen Elizabeth I, despite having previously been accused by her chief adviser William Cecil, Lord Burghley, of “crooked proceedings” while at Cambridge where he had allegedly:

“…maintained covertly in the college a faction against the true religion received, corrupting the youth there with corrupt opinions of Popery.”  [7]

As more records of these old characters started to be discovered and written about, a Victorian genealogist called George Harrison was so taken with them all that he set himself the task of researching and compiling the most comprehensive pedigree of the Swales ever published.   At the time, he was researching hundreds of pedigrees of the gentry for his planned magnum opus The History of Yorkshire, but it is clear that he had a particular fascination with the Swale family.

So much so, that he committed himself to finding from among the living family members a suitable candidate to claim the right to revive the baronetcy, which had become extinct through lack of an heir.   Harrison certainly proved that the vanity gene was alive and flourishing in the Swale bloodline when he persuaded a Benedictine monk called John Swale to set aside his piety and claim the title.   Of course Swale Hall and all the other properties and land associated with the baronetcy were long gone by this time, but nonetheless John Swale, then serving as a parish priest in County Durham, was keen to grasp this unexpected honour and to assume the elevated rank.  He staked his claim in 1877 by public announcement in The Times newspaper, in which he quoted Harrison’s genealogical research as his authority and explained his motivation as: “…a sacred duty which I owe to the memory of my ancestors and for the future benefit and welfare of my family.”

That he did it for the future benefit of his family seemed odd reasoning from a Catholic monk who was of course childless.  The College of Heralds dismissed the claim and it was never sanctioned by any other authority.  But the priest used the title anyway, styling himself the Rev Sir John Swale, baronet, OSB.   On his death the title was picked up by an elderly nephew, who was a publican in Knaresborough, North Yorkshire.  The paradox of a mere pub landlord revelling in the title of a baronet amused the media, and as a consequence the so-called “landlord baronet” enjoyed a brief period of fame that attracted curious visitors, and most importantly more trade, to his pub.

After him there followed, through the dubiously claimed inheritance, a series of equally landless and fake baronets called Swale.  One who was also a resident of Knaresborough was of such modest social standing that he was dubbed “the workman baronet”.   All were men of no special means and whose publicly inflated egos amused Victorian commentators and served to perpetuate the various older stories of the eccentric Swale family stretching back hundreds of years.

In justifying their rights to the title these modern baronets could refer to Harrison’s first volume of his History of Yorkshire, which was published in 1879, and which included an expansive family tree of the Swale family covering two quarto pages.  It started with William the Conqueror and descended to the nephews and nieces of the priest baronet.   Spanning 800 years it covered several branches of the family and missed not a single generation of the principal line.  It appears to be a masterpiece of genealogical research, but sadly it is deeply flawed.   Some elements of the pedigree were thoroughly and accurately investigated, but Harrison was not a good historian and his obsession with completeness drove him to make things up whenever there were gaps to be filled.

With the benefit of modern and more reliable historical research it can be shown that much of Harrison’s pedigree of the Swales can be dismissed as fantasy, and much more can be labelled unsubstantiated, and therefore probably fictitious.  There does however remain some value in his work.   From his first volume – the only one to be published – and his extensive manuscripts intended for other volumes and now held at the National Archives, it is obvious that at least his claim to have spent many years searching through the public records is true.

As source material for his pedigrees he produced verbatim transcriptions of numerous and often lengthy court and land documents dating back to the 1150s, including several that related to the Swales.  They are difficult to verify because Harrison didn’t quote any document sources in the public records, but some of them could be important because they may have been taken from records that have since been lost or destroyed.    However even Harrison’s transcriptions have to be treated with caution.  In his book they appear in a haphazard way, and lack analysis and context.  Crucially, Harrison failed to mention that some of the court depositions he reproduced as if they were statements of fact were actually suspected or even proven to contain lies.

Later, more authors were drawn to include stories of the Swales in their works.   In 1897 the noted Yorkshire historian Harry Speight published his Romantic Richmondshire, in which he devoted 10 pages to the Swale family, [8] half of them being a full transcription of the extraordinary will of the first Sir Solomon Swale, who died in 1678.  Speight was a serious and respected author who, unlike Harrison, was not normally given to reproducing lengthy transcriptions that leave the reader to do all the analysis, and so he took the trouble to explain his reasoning for presenting the will in full.  He wrote:

“It is … assuredly one of the most beautiful compositions of the kind ever penned.   Its elevated and deeply religious tone, its strict judicious and loyal sentiments, its magnanimity and spirit of forgiveness towards a disobedient daughter … must commend the same to every just and thoughtful reader.”

It sounds like hyperbole, but some might think that in the context of the whole life story of Sir Solomon the will is even more telling and fascinating than Speight described.

Further versions of the decline and demise of the Swale family appeared in a clutch of local history volumes that appeared in the early 1900s.  Joseph Fletcher included a page on it headed The ancient family of Swale in his six-volume Picturesque History of Yorkshire published in 1900.  A local journalist and author of fiction, he casually lifted a mixture of facts and fables from previous publications, presenting them all as if they were true.   Eight years later another local writer, Edmund Bogg, who was also more of a story teller than a historian deployed the same lazy technique, devoting a couple of pages to the Swale family in his snappily titled Richmondshire: an account of its history and antiquities, characters and customs, legendary lore, and natural history[9]

Fortunately this gradual slide away from the pure facts was halted in 1914 with the publication of the revered History of the County of York, North Riding, edited by William Page.  It was one of the first publications of a massive project called the Victoria County History, which was started in 1899 with the aim to produce an encyclopaedic history of all of the counties of England.  So ambitious was the plan that today it remains a work in progress more than 100 years after its beginning.   Page hired only the most distinguished historians as county editors, and the standard has since been maintained with the result that the volumes published so far are considered sources of the highest authority.   The two-volume set on the North Riding included in its section on the parish of Grinton a reprise of the genuine facts of the fall of the Swales, carefully separating out any previous supposition and invention.  However it did not attempt to expand the story beyond the previously known and provable information, and like most of the other publications it gave only a brief summary of the key events.  [10]

From 1914, the course of two world wars and their economic aftermaths seem to have produced a quiet period for the study of local history.   Most people’s interests were deflected away from the past and towards the more important and arduous challenges of coping with the present and the future.   For 50 years no books were published featuring the Swales and, since this was also a period in which interest in the affairs of the landed gentry gradually declined, stories such as that of the Swale family undoubtedly faded from popular memory.   Only during the return to prosperity of the 1960s, when there began a resurgence of interest in local history, did the various tales of the Swales start to surface again.  There were four particular catalysts for their revival.

First was the emergence of a historian specialising in post-Reformation Catholic recusants in Yorkshire.  He was Hugh Aveling, a Benedictine monk and the head of the history department at the famous private Catholic school at Ampleforth Abbey in North Yorkshire.   In his seminal work Northern Catholics, published in 1966, he revealed new documentary evidence of the Swale family’s role in secretly upholding the ‘old faith’ and how this must have been a driver for many of their controversial actions, and was the cause of many of their most serious set-backs.   He also referred to the Swales in two other books on the subject.  [11]

Subsequent to Aveling’s work, the other three drivers for rekindling interest in the Swales have been books on the Yorkshire gentry during the sixteenth to eighteen centuries;  [12]  on the Pennine lead-mining industry, in which the Swales were intricately involved, and which ultimately brought about Sir Solomon Swale’s ruin;  [13]  and on the general history of Swaledale.  [14]      In all, between 1966 and 1998 at least a dozen books included references to the activities of the Swales; several of them placing significant new information into the public domain.  Most recently Tim Gates’ book on the great Swaledale lead-mining dispute of 1705-1708 has shed more light on Sir Solomon Swale’s last throws of the dice. [15]

However, like the books published during the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early-twentieth-centuries, none of these most recent works have been able to do more than provide snapshots of stories selected from among the wide variety of fascinating events concerning the Swales.    What has emerged from the research for this book is that there remains much more to tell than has been told before.   It also becomes clear that all the previously known tales are interlinked, not just because the people were related to each other but also because of the connected nature of the events and because of the consistency of the characteristics displayed by so many different members of the Swale family.   Therefore the time is right to refresh and update all the old stories and to bring them together in one book dedicated to this curious petty dynasty.

With the benefit of much wider public access to previously obscure manuscripts, and with the increased ease of research provided by the digitisation and publication online of transcriptions and early publications, this book has aimed to unpick all the previous versions of all the stories.  It has weeded out the inaccuracies and inventions of overenthusiastic Victorian writers and revealed new facts that have emerged from the archives.  It has also injected a good dose of historical context to make more sense of the facts and has re-knitted the whole lot together in what will hopefully be the first accurate and comprehensive study of the remarkable family of Swale of Swale Hall.

This book reveals that they were not people who sat back, waiting to react to events.  Through their religious convictions, their pride in their ancient heritage and their determination to succeed, the Swales were people who made things happen.   Often they knew that they were throwing themselves headlong into controversy, sometimes at risk to their livelihoods and even at risk to their lives.  Belligerence in the face of adversity was a common theme, and perhaps Yorkshire grit might be considered another.   It has turned out to be a more fulsome and compelling tale than has previously been known and it highlights a penchant for controversy and eccentricity that was far more widespread and enduring among the family than previously realised.

1. Defoe, Daniel: A tour through the island of Great Britain (1724), reprint 1991 eds. Furbank, Owens and Coulson, p268-269. ^
2. Pope, Alexander: Miscellanies in prose by Mr Pope, Dr Arbuthnot, Mr Gray & co. collected by Dr Swift and Mr Pope (1727), in The works of Jonathan Swift, vol XIII (1814), ed. Walter Scott, p133-137. ^
3. For example: Warren, Samuel ed: A popular and practical introduction to law studies (1835), p509-513.   Carruthers, Robert: The poetical works of Alexander Pope, vol IV (1854), p127-128. ^
4. Clarkson, Christopher: The History of Richmond (1814), p241-246.   Whitaker, Dunham: A History of Richmondshire, vol. 1 (1823), p106, 308, 314-315.   Baines, Edward: History, Directory and Gazetteer of the County of York, vol. 2 (1823), p555.   Whellan, T: History and Topography of the City of York and the North Riding of Yorkshire, vol. 2 (1859), p487-489. ^
5. Editor: The Gentleman’s Magazine and Historical Review, Jul-Dec 1860, p32. ^
6. Donno, Elizabeth, ed: Andrew Marvel, the critical heritage (1978), edition 2002, p240, extract from A seasonable argument to persuade all the Grand Juries in England to petition for a New Parliament, 1677. ^
7. Nicolas, Sir Harris, ed: Memoirs of the life and times of Sir Christopher Hatton (1847), p261. ^
8. Speight, Harry: Romantic Richmondshire (1897), p111, 223-231, 234. ^
9. Fletcher, J S: Picturesque History of Yorkshire (1900), p406-407.   Bogg, Edmund: Richmondshire: an account of its history and antiquities, characters and customs, legendary lore, and natural history (1908), p202-205. ^
10. Page, William, ed: Victoria County History Series – A History of the County of York, North Riding, vol.1 (1914), p239-240. ^
11. Aveling, Hugh: Northern Catholics (1966), p135, 175-176, 191, 263, 266, 295, 305, 312, 319-320, 334-335, 349, 358-359, 361; The Catholic Recusants of the West Riding of Yorkshire 1558-1790, in Proceedings of the Leeds Philosophical and Literary Society, vol. 10, part 6;  Catholic Recusancy in York 1558-1791 (1970), p92, 338-339. ^
12. Cliffe, J T: The Yorkshire gentry from the Reformation to the Civil War (1969), p133, 158-159, 381.   Roebuck, Peter: Yorkshire Baronets 1640-1760 (1980), p21-22, 57, 39, 265, 278, 368. ^
13. Raistrick, Arthur: The lead industry of Wensleydale and Swaledale, vol. 1, the mines (1975), p29.  Tyson, L O and Spensley, I M: The Grinton mines (1995), p16-17.  Hardy, John: Swaledale – portrait of a North Yorkshire mining community (1998), p91. ^
14. Cooper, Edmund: A history of Swaledale (1973), p30, 37-39; The Quakers of Swaledale and Wensleydale (1979), p4-8.   Fieldhouse, R and Jennings, B: A history of Richmond and Swaledale (1978), p 12-129, 143, 160, 200-201, 244, 278, 325, 327, 329, 340, 343, 491.   Morris, David:  The Swale – a history of the holy river of St Paulinus (1994), p20, 34-35, 62.   Fleming, Andrew: Swaledale – valley of the wild river (1998), p 26-27, 75, 99. ^
15. Gates, Tim: The Great Trial – a Swaledale lead-mining dispute in the Court of Exchequor 1705-1708, in Yorkshire Archaeological Society record Series, vol. 162 (2012). ^
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