What is History, but a fable agreed upon.
The sub-title of this piece is a quote attributed to Napoleon Bonaparte and summed up in the words used by Winston Churchill telling us that the victors, write history. This is probably true when reading the history of the once Knight of the Realm from Ashton under Lyne. Sir Ralphe De Assheton who was murdered 4th April 1486 in Ashton under Lyne by persons unknown.
His death was celebrated by the Ashton under Lyne community for centuries afterwards. As Sir Ralphe was in fact the seemingly infamous Black Knight of Ashton under Lyne and the celebration was originally known as the Riding of the Black Lad; later becoming the Black Knight Pageant. What I want to explore is whether this history is in fact a fable, written by the victors of the Wars of the Roses. This despite the fact that Sir Ralphe was in fact pardoned by King Henry VII.
Sir Ralphe De Assheton Page to Knight Protector
Sir Ralphe De Assheton had a colourful history as a man and boy, his elder half Brother was alchemist to King Henry VI of England. The young Sir Ralphe probably because of his family’s favour at Court became Page of Honour in Henry’s Court. The boy of thirteen years then resided wherever the Royal Court was based, as it appears there was no permanent Royal Palace at the time. He will have spent time at the great houses and castles of England before his marriage to Margaret Barton of Middleton Hall. At this point he was still a Page of honour to the King but married at the age of just seventeen. The story of his marriage to Margaret Barton was a romantic one, as Sir Ralphe was truly her Knight protector.
According to the Middleton Chronicles, in the spring of 1438 the young Ralphe De Assheton was riding the lands close to his home. When he came across a young girl and her servants, who were beset by wild Boar. The brave Knight rode to their rescue and it is reported that he saved the life of the young lady, Margaret De Barton. Margaret was the daughter of John De Barton and niece of Sir Richard De Barton, owner of Middleton Hall. It is written that the teenagers were each struck with the other and because of this they married in the same year. On their wedding day Sir Richard De Barton granted Sir Ralphe de Assheton Middleton Hall, its lands and £100 a year. Thus, Ralphe De Assheton became the first in his line to be called Lord of the Manor of Middleton, a line that lasted close to 500 years.
The last paragraph is hardly the behaviour of a man labelled the Black Knight, more the deportment of a man of honour. If nothing else he was a brave knight throughout his life, earning honours on the battlefield and was a fierce defender of the law. Whether the law was fair or not, he upheld it to the best of his ability and struck fear in the hearts of the criminal class. A 19th century historian writing about Sir Ralphe De Assheton attributed the following lines that had been spoken of him.
Sweet Jesu, for thy mercy’s sake,
and for thy bitter passion.
Save us from the axe of the tower,
and from Sir Ralphe of Ashton.
If this is to be believed, it can only be from the period 1483 to 1486 when Sir Ralphe De Assheton was Vice Constable of England; appointed by King Richard III.
A slight digression from the timeline with that last paragraph, and so in 1438 the seventeen year old Knight and his then fifteen year old bride became Lord and Lady of Middleton Hall. It is reported that Sir Ralphe’s elder half-brother Sir John de Assheton of Ashton Hall, played some part in the transfer of the lands and titles of Middleton Hall to the young couple. It can be assumed that the De Assheton’s were a powerful family at Court.
The story of the meeting of Ralphe and Margaret can be found in the names of the locality of Middleton. The area known as Boarshaw in Middleton is where Sir Ralphe rescued his bride from a wild Boar. It is also why there is a Boar on the crest of the Assheton’s of Middleton, a record of the bravery of Sir Ralphe. Some will see this as feudal boasting; I prefer it as a celebration of an act of courage.
England in Turmoil
Following their move to Middleton Hall, the De Assheton’s marriage bore fruit, with the birth of Richard De Assheton in 1440 and then Ralphe De Assheton possibly four years later in 1444. All through Sir Ralphe’s life England had been in turmoil; before he was born in 1399 the House of Lancaster had seized the English throne. It was not until 1455 that some of the Baron’s finally decided to act against King Henry VI, this was a time to choose sides. At this point Richard Duke of York, who had been Lord Protector of England since 1453 and was then deposed by King Henry VI. Who had recovered his sanity after suffering with his mental health for two years, this recovery brought civil war?
1455 was the beginning of the long and arduous civil wars known as the Wars of the Roses. The Duke of York began to raise an army in the North of England, supported by Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland and Thomas Clifford, an English Baron. This army met the Army of King Henry VI at St Albans 22nd May 1455 and defeated Henry’s force. Henry was captured and they returned to London and for twelve months the Duke of York was one of the most powerful men in England. Following another bout of mental illness for Henry VI, when he returned, the major influence over the crown was that of Henry’s wife Margaret of Anjou. This resulted in three years of uneasy peace in England, before the conflict began again in 1459.
Sir Ralphe De Assheton a rise to prominence
What can be extrapolated from local history is the fact that the De Assheton family’s loyalties were divided in these turbulent times. The De Assheton’s of Middleton Hall choosing the House of York and his half-brother’s family falling behind the House of Lancaster. Throughout the 1460s England remains divided and the Wars of the Roses continue. The Plantagenet Monarchy ruled England under the house of York from 1461 when Edward IV ascended to the throne. During Edward’s reign is when Sir Ralphe De Assheton (Black Knight) becomes a prominent figure throughout England.
In 1471 Sir Ralphe has reached 50 years of age, at this point he joined the Army of the deposed Edward IV to aid him in retaking the throne of England from Henry VI. Sir Ralphe’s bravery in the Battle of Barnet and the decisive Battle of Tewksbury lead to him being appointed Sherriff of York, a position he held for two years until 1473. It appears that throughout the rest of his life that Sir Ralphe supported the House of York, an allegiance that would later result in his murder.
Reading between the lines of history in the North of England, Sir Ralphe De Assheton’s loyalty to the House of York is probably due to the fact that the North of England was then governed by Richard Duke of Gloucester. Richard would have course rallied the northern Lords to his brother’s cause, hence Sir Ralphe getting involved in national politics and fighting alongside the man that was later to become Richard III. It can be surmised that this was the time that Richard Duke of Gloucester became Sir Ralphe’s military commander.
For the next twelve years there was relative peace in England, this was despite the fact that Henry Tudor, later Henry VII was still a threat to the Yorkist Monarchy. In 1481 trouble started to brew between England and Scotland and in 1482 an army commanded by Richard Duke of Gloucester was despatched to invade Scotland. For Sir Ralphe De Assheton this was to be his greatest campaign and his greatest rewards. Following the capture of Berwick upon Tweed 14th August 1482, it was during the siege at Berwick that Sir Ralphe De Assheton was knighted by his Commander in Chief the Duke of Gloucester.
Sir Ralphe De Assheton a Knight of the Realm
Due to his bravery, loyalty and leadership, Sir Ralphe De Assheton became a Knight Banneret. This
allowed him and his men to fly their own colours as they went into battle, the colours, and emblems of Middleton Hall. Something that was later emulated by his son Sir Richard De Assheton over thirty years later; when he led his men at the Battle of Flodden, including the then famous Middleton Archers. The Middleton Archers are still remembered in the stain glass windows of what was the De Assheton family church in Middleton.
Sir Ralphe even though he was a commoner Knight at the time, was to be rewarded even further by Richard. When the duke of Gloucester took the thrown of England in 1483 from his Brother’s son Edward V, he promoted Sir Ralphe De Assheton to the position of Vice Constable of England and Lieutenant of the Tower of London. A high honour for the man from Ashton under Lyne in turbulent times. From this point English history grows a little darker, in the struggle for power and kingship, dark deeds are often done.
In 1483 Richard Duke of Gloucester became Lord Protector in preparation for the Coronation of Edward V, son of Edward IV and Nephew of Richard. At this point the twelve year old Edward and his nine year old brother Richard were placed in the Tower of London. Mystery still surrounds the fate of these two princes of England, but many believe they were murdered to ensure that Richard Duke of Gloucester became Richard III, King of England. The person responsible for prisoners in the Tower of London was the appointed Lieutenant, who was apparently at this time, Sir Ralphe De Assheton. He was one of many Northern Lords appointed by Richard III into powerful national positions, at a time when support amongst the Southern Lords waned for King Richard. Does this bring in a new suspect in the murder of the Princes in the Tower, could the brave and fearless Sir Ralphe De Assheton have done such a thing for his King.
The Last Battle
Possible involvement with the death of Edward and Richard and his deeds as Vice constable of England may have given him the reputation of The Black Knight of Ashton. His last adventure alongside Richard III was to come at the Battle of Bosworth Field, 22nd August 1485. There are few official reports mentioning Sir Ralphe’s involvement in this historic event, but in can be assumed that the loyal Knight was part of the last charge against Henry Tudor who after the battle became Henry VII. Richard III was killed in this final attempt to put Henry Tudor to the sword, happening because Henry was without his Knights at that moment in the battle.
History records that Richard led his soldiers on one final charge directly at the position of Henry Tudor. Henry was unprotected and separated from his army and had it not been for the intervention of Sir William and Sir Thomas Stanley and their men; Henry Tudor would have surely died. They chose at that moment to protect Henry, surrounding him with their forces they rebuffed the attack of Richard III. During this skirmish, was the moment when King Richard was killed, the last English King to fall in battle.
The Riding of the Black Lad
With King Richard dead on the field of battle, the fight was over and many of the King’s followers fled to escape retribution from the newly crowned King Henry VII. Amongst these was Sir Ralphe De Assheton, now a brave Knight on the wrong side, he returned to his Middleton home. Little is known of Sir Ralphe following the Battle of Bosworth, but it can be assumed that his reputation under a new King was now tarnished. It is reported at the time that on the Monday after Easter in 1486, Sir Ralphe De Assheton was murdered in the locality of Ashton under Lyne. His death apparently was celebrated by the local population in a ceremony known as the Riding of the Black Lad.
The truth of his death will probably never be known, but two months later, Sir Ralphe De Assheton’s family name was restored by King Henry VII. When he was posthumously pardoned by the King on the 6th of June 1486, ensuring that Middleton Hall would be held by future generations of the De Assheton family. Whatever the truth is, the legend that is the Black Knight of Ashton under Lyne survives in the 21st century. Did the De Assheton’s of Ashton under Lyne sought to ridicule their relative to gain favour again in the Royal Court of England. Was it jealousy of the heroic deeds of a great Knight of the Realm? As the tag line states at the beginning of this piece, what is history, but a fable agreed upon. I believe that history in the case of Sir Ralphe De Assheton has been conveniently written by those that wanted to hide the truth.
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