Norton Tower – a show of strength to protect their rabbits!
When driving back from the Yorkshire Dales on the stretch of road on the B6265 between Grassington and Skipton, there are three landmarks perched up on the top of the ridge below Rylestone Fell and Barden Moor. Many people are familiar with the silhouettes of the Cracoe monument - a war memorial to the fallen of World War 1 and the Rylestone Cross, erected to celebrate the end of the Napoleonic Wars. But a bit further along about 3 miles outside Skipton sits another striking and prominent feature a ruined tower on a hill with a steep wooded slope below.
The ruin is Norton Tower, a grade II listed building that actually sits on land owned by the Bolton Abbey Estate. In 2017, after falling into disrepair and meeting “building at risk” status it was restored using the latest conservation techniques thanks to a grant from the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority.
The story behind Norton Tower is fascinating and involves a neighbourhood dispute between two of the most powerful families in the area at the time – The Cliffords and The Nortons.
So what sort of dispute would warrant a three story tower to be built on a desolate hillside you may ask? Well believe it or not it was about Rabbits!
The Clifford Family of Skipton Castle contested the hunting rights in the area, but the Norton family of Rylestone Hall disputed the Clifford’s right to hunt on their land. But to make matters worse, back in the first half of the 16th century a valuable source of meat was rabbit.
On the slope of the hill just below where Norton Tower now is perched, lay one of the largest rabbit warrens in the Yorkshire Dales. Rabbit meat was a prized meat, and had been re-introduced to Britain by the Normans (there is evidence that the Romans first brought rabbits to England but not in great numbers).
Rabbits were not as populous then and as well as their meat, their fur was used for trimming clothes. In fact during medieval times a rabbit was worth more than a workman’s wage. During the 16th Century rabbit was definitely not seen as the food of the poor.
To protect their rabbit warren, which the Norton’s suspected was being poached by the Cliffords, they set about building a very ostentatious, three story gamekeepers lodge and look out with a fortified stone watch tower. The tower was defended on the east side by a ditch and a wall and whilst no longer part of the structure, there is evidence of a spiral staircase between the three floors and a number of stone fireplaces.
It must have been a very imposing building and as well as acting as a big Keep off of my Land, statement it was also used by the Norton family to entertain their guests who had been invited on hunting parties for deer. The tower therefore doubled as a luxury hunting lodge to put up and entertain guests.
The tower in the end was not in use for long. The Norton family who had built the tower in 1540 were Catholics. Richard Norton and his 9 sons were involved in the Rising of the North, a plot by Catholic nobles to rise up against Queen Elizabeth I and replace her with Mary Queen of Scots.
The Northern rebellion was quelled and Richard Norton fled to Flanders, with many of his sons killed in battle or executed. The Norton Tower was sleighted in 1569 – deliberately ruined so it could not be used as a defensive structure.
The Rylestone estate fell into a state of ruin for some years before by a quirk of fate it was actually passed onto the Clifford family who had been loyal to Queen Elizabeth and the crown. The Tower which had originally been built to defend their rabbits against the Clifford’s eventually came into the Cliffords hands!
The ruin attracted the interest of artists and romantic poets, particularly William Wordsworth who name checked Norton Tower in his 1807 poem The White Doe of Rylestone about Richard Norton’s daughter and a mysterious White doe which appears during the Rising of the North and then again many years after. Below is a section from the poem.
High on a point of rugged ground
Amongst the wastes of Rylstone Fell,
Above the loftiest ridge or mound
Where foresters or shepherds dwell,
An edifice of warlike frame
Stands single, Norton tower its name,
It fronts all quarters, and looks round
O’er path and and road, and plain and dell,
Dark moor, and gleam of pool and stream,
Upon a prospect without bound.
(William Wordsworth) ‘White Doe of Rylstone’
A picture entitled The White Doe at Rylestone by John William Inchbold and inspired by Wordsworth’s poem can be seen in Leeds City Art Gallery.