Wibsey Manor. The Question of Ownership before the Dissolution of the Monasteries

Stella H Carpenter

(First published in 2006 in volume 10, pp. 16-20, of the third series of The Bradford Antiquary, the journal of the Bradford Historical and Antiquarian Society.)


With one sentence a late 19th century local historian both created and demolished a myth. The newly created myth suited the 'romantic' approach to history popular at the time and the myth, therefore, was not only readily accepted but it also became considerably embellished in the retelling. Unfortunately, as well as retelling the myth at least two writers in the past two decades have quoted it without, apparently, giving any thought or making any reference to the myth-maker's second act i.e. his, all-be-it unintended, demolition of his newly created myth. A more rigorous and less romantic or simplistic assessment of the information available supports the rebuttal of the myth.

Myth-maker and myth

For many years, Thomas Thornton Empsall, a local businessman, was President of the Bradford Historical & Antiquarian Society (BHAS) of which he was a founder member and he may, indeed, have been the instigator of the foundation of the Society. As President he gave the inaugural address; and 'comfortable but not wealthy, (and) for whom the Public Record Office was already something of a second home' he immersed himself in Bradford's history.1

On 16th February 1894, in an address to members, Empsall spoke on Ancient Monastic Properties. This was followed by a second paper on the subject on 11th September 1895, but his intention to combine the two papers for publication did not take place due to Empsall's, apparently unexpected, death aged 71, in March 1896. The first article was printed in The Bradford Antiquary. One sentence stands out as the source of the myth. It reads: There is, I grant, not the slightest reference to Wibsey in the (Kirkstall) monastic inventory alluded to above, nor have I found it mentioned in any other documents at the Record Office in this connection, but I think there can be little room for doubt of its being recognised as a portion of the abbey lands at an early date' (my italics).2

References to the ownership of the manor

John James, author of the History and Topography of Bradford and his Continuations and Additions, gives very full details of the ownership of Wibsey manor, acknowledging his use of information in Brook's manuscripts, then at the Heralds' Office.3 James records that Sir James Danby's wife, Agnes sole heiress of Thomas Langton, brought Wibsey manor with her at the time of her marriage and James describes the descent of the manor until that event and the subsequent death of Sir James Danby in 1496. Sir James and Lady Agnes Danby had a son Christopher and his widow paid relief for possessions in Wibsey in 1514.4 Empsall’s claim of ownership by Kirkstall Abbey at an early date does not, therefore, seem tenable. Furthermore, in a deed dated 1st February 1597/8 of a sale from John Lister (see later paragraph re another deed in this name, though not necessarily the same person) listing land in Wibsey for which 'a yearly free rent of 8d' is paid to William Rookes, there is also an undertaking to pay 'yearly unto the heirs of Sir Thomas Danby late of Farnley knight deceased all such rents as it has been accustomed to pay the late Sir Thomas.' (my italics)5 which, if correct, seems to indicate that in respect of this land the superior ownership was still with the Danby family. This is almost 60 years after the dissolution of the monasteries.

James also states that according to Bernard's Survey of 1577, before that date William Rookes was already owner of the manor 'by knight’s service'6 and James Parker, a local historian and near contemporary of Empsall, (see later paragraph) gives the date of ownership as 1538, (though it may have been much earlier).

Although from 1514 to 1597/8 leaves a gap of 63 years, the dissolution of Kirkstall Abbey in November 1539 reduces that gap to only 25 years. In general terms by the early 16th century land in particular was no longer being given to religious houses in the way which had been commonplace in earlier centuries. James also states that the Rookes were already settled at Royds Hall in the time of Henry V11, (died 1509),7 Royds Hall being the manor house for Wibsey which was subsumed within the manor of Royds Hall. This manor is not recorded in the Domesday Book but Wibsey manor in south Bradford is recorded, at that time as an adjunct to Bolton manor in north Bradford. Whilst it does not automatically follow that being settled in Royds Hall before 1509 involved ownership of Wibsey manor, it seems to add weight to the view that the Rookes owned Wibsey manor no later than 1538.

William Cudworth, also a founder member of the BHAS published his book Round About Bradford in 1876 but most of the articles had earlier been published in the Bradford Observer. Cudworth clearly acknowledges his use of James's work but additionally Cudworth states 'In an award made in the year 1530, when William Rookes took possession of the manor of Wibsey...'.8 This may have been a tenancy but it could also have been outright purchase and no mention is made of a different owner of the manor.

Whilst the works of both James and Cudworth would have been easily available to Empsall – who certainly knew Cudworth personally – Empsall, in 1894, seems to have ploughed a lone furrow when he introduced the idea that Wibsey manor had been held by a monastic establishment. He also seems to have completely ignored the line of inheritance of the manor as set out in considerable detail by James.

Empsall would not have had the benefit of being able to consult the professionally researched West Yorkshire: An Archaeological Survey to AD 1500 but he certainly had opportunities to inspect many old deeds. In fact to support his case Empsall quotes from one particular deed dated, according to Empsall, 1548, where the relevant sentence reads: 'And I the said William Rookes will warrant the said John Lister and his heirs against John abbot of Crystal (Kirkstall) against all prosecutions and reprisals'.9 Eleven years earlier a deed dated 23rd August 1537 also from William Rookes to John Lister mentions the same parcels of land and has a similar warranty against 'John, Abbot of the Monastery of Cristall'.10 The messuage is Broomhill in the Brownroyd locality, close to the manor's northern boundary, together with various closes called Kar, Kar inge, Broomhill close, Intakes and Depcar. Another deed, dated 24th October 1567, refers to Depecarre 'at a place called Wibsay Bank'11 which may be the present day Bank or may infer the whole of the escarpment area. If, additionally, Kar refers to the present day Carr(bottom), the area is on the boundary with, or even partially within, the adjacent manors of Horton and Bowling; and it is recorded that certain parts of Horton manor were indeed held by Kirkstall Abbey.12 Land in the manor of Bowling was also held by the Abbey including Burnt/Burnet Field13 only a little distance from the boundary with Wibsey manor. Empsall says that he has 'seen several other deeds of or about the same date conveying lands in the same neighbourhood on similar conditions'14 but the whereabouts and ownership of such deeds and the 1548 deed are not given.

Wibsey Fair is held by 'custom and no toll is payable by anyone', according to a statement by the Low Moor Company in 1836, when there was a proposal to move the annual fair to the bottom of Wibsey Bank and thus outside the manor boundary.15 James Parker was not adverse to imaginative writing and just two pages before the above statement he writes very precisely - and probably very presumingly - of 'the jovial monks who, three hundred and seventy years ago, sat in the same hostel, the same room collecting tolls at Wibsey Fair for the Lord Abbot of Kirkstall...'. Parker also writes about the supposed relationship between Wibsey manor and Kirkstall Abbey. He does say 'tradition has handed down to us...' and 'If only the ancient records of Kirkstall could be met with...', yet he then goes on to say 'We have been able from various sources of information, to confirm the aforesaid statements about the monks and their possessions at Wibsey'16 but, as with Empsall, no details of ownership or whereabouts of documents are provided.

Furthermore, regarding the ownership of Wibsey, Parker writes 'Tradition says that Wibsey and its Common once belonged to the Monks, at Kirkstall Abbey,...(but) very little of its history can be traced prior to 1762' (my italics).17 This date refers to Counsel's Opinion apparently sought at that time and, says Parker, was in relation to the tradition (see above) that in 1538, before the actual dissolution of Kirkstall Abbey, Henry VIII granted ownership of Royds Hall and Wibsey to William Rookes 'for knight's service'.18 Later, Parker writes that William Rookes 'annexed or took possession of all the church lands in Wibsey, Revey and Odsal and also the Town of Wibsey...and no attempt was made by any inhabitants of the district, so far as we have been able to trace, to bring the fact to the knowledge of the Authorities of King Henry, either at Bradford or London'.19 The fact that Parker could not find any trace of action by local people may well have been because no such action was necessary if, as seems most probable, the lands mentioned had, in fact, never been owned by the Abbey.


Both Empsall and Parker equivocate in their writings about the ownership of the manor and their various statements (more than mentioned here) show considerable inconsistencies. They are not able to prove beyond doubt that the manor of Wibsey was ever held by the Abbey because, along with other uncertainties, the surviving records of the Abbey are limited and incomplete. Both men have made assumptions which are not reasonable, especially at a later date when the romantic approach to history is no longer acceptable in the way that it was even for local historians of the stature and dedication of Empsall, or the younger man, Parker, who wrote historical sketches for the Bradford Observer and published a number of books which remain popular a century later.

Because of the limited nature of the records of Kirkstall Abbey, it is also impossible to show that Wibsey manor never was recorded as in the ownership of the Abbey. In this connection Empsall himself admits failing to find any evidence to support his proposition. More rigorous assessment of the evidence and information which is available, however, leads, I believe, to the conclusion effectively reached by James in 1841 that the manor remained in lay, not religious, ownership from the Conquest until after the dissolution of the monasteries.

Sources & References

1. One Hundred Years of Local History, Bradford Historical & Antiquarian Society 1878-1978 Bradford Historical & Antiquarian Society, Local Records Series, Vol. 2, West Yorkshire Deeds, p.7 (back)

2. Bradford Antiquary Vol. 3 (1900), p.21 (back)

3. John James, Continuations & Additions, 1866, reprinted 1973, p. 259 (back)

4. M. L. Faull and A. Moorhouse, editors, West Yorkshire: an Archaeological Survey to AD 1500. West Yorkshire MCC, 1981, Vol. 2, p. 465 (back)

5. BHAS Local Records Series, Vol. 2, p. 157, No 455 (back)

6. James Continuations, p. 260 (back)

7. James Continuations, p. 260 (back)

8. William Cudworth, Round About Bradford, Bradford 1876, reprinted 1968, p. 19 (back)

9. Bradford Antiquary Vol. 3, p. 21 (back)

10. BHAS Local Records Series Vol. 2, p. 62 No 173 (back)

11. BHAS Local Records Series Vol. 2, p. 63 No 182 (back)

12. John James, History & Topography of Bradford, 1841, reprinted 1967, p. 62 (back)

13. John James, p. 312 (back)

14. Bradford Antiquary Vol. 3, p. 22 (back)

15. James Parker, (Illustrated Rambles) From Hipperholme to Tong, September1904, p. 118 (back)

16. James Parker, From Hipperholme to Tong pp. 46-9 (back)

17. James Parker, Historical Sketches of Wibsey, Low Moor & Bierley, October 1900, p. 5 (back)

18. James Parker, Historical Sketches of Wibsey, Low Moor & Bierley, October 1900, p. 26 (back)

19. James Parker, Historical Sketches of Wibsey, Low Moor & Bierley, October 1900, p. 49 (back)

© 2006, Stella H Carpenter and The Bradford Antiquary