It was in the reigns of the early Norman Kings that the towns of England began to take their rise. The country was so unsettled, Norman robbers and Saxon outlaws made life so hard for the people at large, that the shelter of towns was sort as a refuge from the lawlessness of the countryside. There was this to be said in favour of the towns – that each had its lord, and though he himself ruled the townspeople with a rod of iron, he could at any rate be depended upon to afford them protection from others.
In those days, Doncaster began to take shape. If we could pierce the veil, we should see the serfs bringing corn and cattle into the town; we should see the townsmen pursuing their trades in peace, and forming themselves into those guilds which, in later generations, were such a powerful factor in the trades and industries of the land; we should see the parish church as the centre for religious life; just as the castle was the centre of social life; we should see the town defended by gates at all the principal approaches; we should see hospitals and friaries and almshouses springing up at various points; we should see the honest burgesses gradually forming themselves into what later became the borough and the municipality, with mayor and aldermen, and town clerk and beadle; we should, in fact, see the gradual growth of the Doncaster we know today.
But before that came about the town went through many changes. We wonder if there is a town in England which has been so often totally destroyed as Doncaster has? In 1204 a great fire consumed everything that was not made of stone. Only one relic, apart from public churches and buildings, seems to have been left standing, and that was the cross in Hallgate, a newer version of which still stands on or very near to the site.
England, and particularly its highways, used to be dotted with crosses, and it was quite in keeping with the spirit of the age that a cross should be erected on the Great North Road, at the top of the hill, at the entrance to the town. The old cross stood for many centuries. The one now in its place is but a copy and was put up in 1793. It is named Hall Cross and is one of the most familiar objects both to townspeople and to travellers through the town; and there is a touch of sentiment in the thought that it perpetuates the predecessor which may have stood on or near that site for over 600 years. The original cross was erected by Ote de Tilli, who was steward to the Earl of Conisborough and who lived in the 12th century. After standing there all those hundreds of years, a link with the days of the Normans, it was taken down by the Corporation as part of a street improvement scheme in 1793, and the Hall Cross we know today was erected in its place.
Doncaster always had its castle. The Romans had one, and certainly the Saxons had one, and it is very probable that the Normans built one too. Nothing is more amazing than the fact that not a single stone marks the site of any one of them. In many towns the castle is still the show place. Its crumbling towers and battlemented walls are the epitome of local history. But though Doncaster must of had 2 or 3 castles, probably upon the same site, nothing remains to attest to their shape or grace. That they stood near the present parish church of St George is about all we know. When Leland came to write his account of the town, in the 16th century, he said that the church “stands in the very area whereon the castle of the town stood, long since decayed”. He could trace the dykes or ditches, and the foundations of the wall; but the castle itself had gone, swept clear away; and save for occasional references in title deeds of neighbouring lands, there would be little to show that we even had a castle at all.
There were mills upon the river Don, and the church of St Mary Magdalen stood in what is now the Market Place. We believe that it was older than the parish church, and perhaps it actually was the parish church before St George’s was built. The entrances to the town had some sort of gates, though the frequency of the word “gate” in street naming is not to be taken in its literal sense. We have today St Sepulchre Gate, Fishergate, Hallgate, Marshgate, Frenchgate, Baxter gate, St George’s gate, east and west Laith gates, and even other; but it is not likely that all these thoroughfares were guarded by actual gates of timber and iron. The word “gate” was often used to mean “road”, or “approach”, and it is probably in that sense that we should often regard it.
Still, the main approaches to the town undoubtedly had gates, and the one by the river bridge was the scene of many a fiece fight. King John issued a warrant to have the town enclosed according to the course of the ditch, and to have the bridge fortified, and we know that this was done and that the tower by the bridge was taken and re-taken many times in the course of the desperate fights which were such a common feature of the life of the middle ages.
The old Mill Bridge over the Don has a history of its own. History is often made in the region of bridges. It is here that city fathers have declaimed against civil oppressors; it is here that religious reformers have thundered against what they call abuses; it is here that armed bands have made assault upon tower and gate and been repulsed, or not, as the case may be, by the defenders. Yes; a towns bridge is often the repository of a great deal of local history, and it is only to repeat the lament we make about most other antiquities when we add that the early bridges crossing the Don at the approach to the town have been swept out of existence until nothing remains but vivid fancy to enable us to reconstruct the picture.
The Don and the Cheswold run almost side by side on the northern border of the town, and each has its bridge. There was a House of Greyfriars nearby, and one of the bridges was guarded by a tower or gatehouse. Then there was a chapel, called the chapel of St Mary, just as several other towns had their bridge chapels. In other words, the bridge was a fortified gateway.
There are many references to the more important of these two bridges, St Mary’s. When King John issued his warrant ordering the town of Doncaster to be enclosed with palings, he also directed that the bridge should have a barbican erected upon it, “to defend the town, if need be”. Here we see the importance of the bridge in the scheme of the towns defence. Nowadays, as traffic rumbles across it, and the electric tram-cars thunder above the gurgling water and drown the booming of the weir, we find it hard to realise that this peaceful spot was once the scene of many a fierce engagement; that the heads of many brave men have been impaled above the gate as warnings to the venturesome; that tower and barbican looked out across the road and bade defiance to the enemy; and that when the gate was slammed and bolted, and archers mounted guard within the tower, it was opened only for urgent travellers or at the orders of a superior force.
Then there were the friaries, or religious houses of the monks. The Carmelites had one in the centre of town and the Franciscans, or Greyfriars, had another. Greyfriars road still perpetuates the name of one of these religious houses. It is now devoted to tramway sheds, elctricity works, and public swimming baths; but the very name is a reminder that these old monkish orders had their establishments in our town. No sandalled friar walks our streets today. He has gone the way of the baron and the crusader, the serf and the villain, the palmer and the wandering minstrel; but so long as Greyfriars road endures we shall always have the name to connect us with those picturesque figures of the past.
Then there was the town ditch, or moat. It crossed St Sepulchre gate, Printing Office Street, Cleveland Street, Silver Street, to Sunny Bar – from the river back to the river; and if you follow the route in your minds eye, you will gather that ancient Doncaster, or at least all of it that was included within this area, was of very limited extent compared with the present widely-flung borough boundaries.
Thus we are able to obtain a fairly accurate idea of what the town was like in mediaeval times. It was not a walled town, but it was surrounded by a moat, and this, in turn, was strengthened by the “palings”, erected by order of King John. There were, in all probability, four actual “gates” to hold up undesirable travellers, and the principal of these was that fortified tower on St Mary’s bridge over the Don. Two churches, a castle in ruins, hospitals and monastic houses, completed what may be called the public buildings. Then there were the timbered and wattled houses of the people – not a very magnificent picture, but true to the spirit of the genius of the age.
Outside Doncaster the country was mostly forest and marsh. Wherever there was a clearing, there was a village; and we amy be sure that the Normans did not leave any village long without a church. To the south of the town, Sherwood Forest came almost to the edge of the old borough, and Robin Hood must often have come through Doncaster. His principal exploits were carried out in the glades of far-stretching Sherwood; but north of the town there was much wild heath, and also forest, in the region known as Barnesdale, and Robin Hood is credited with more than one merry jest in that neighbourhood. Moreover, he died atKirklees, near Brighouse, and to get there from Sherwood he would almost surely have had to pass through Doncaster.
Many great names are associated with Doncaster, but it is safe to say that there is no name around which fiction and legend have gathered such a cluster of romance of that which adorns the name of Robin Hood.