In the beginning was a castle
The town of Barnard Castle stands on a prominent position high over the River Tees, with roads both into Teesdale and into the uplands of the North Pennines, as well as former railway lines, important communications routes for almost 2000 years. The River Tees functioned as a political boundary since prehistoric times, its latest use being the boundary between Country Durham and Yorkshire until 1974, with its main crossing for centuries right at the bottom of the town at Barnard Castle Bridge. The earliest structural evidence is that of a Roman Road crossing the river and connecting Bowes and Binchester, and although there are no remains of buildings, several finds of Roman coins and pottery suggest a possible small settlement near Barnard Castle Bridge. The origin of Barnard Castle as it is today dates to the late 11th century, when Guy de Baliol built the castle as the centre of his estates given to him as reward for support for William II. The fortification promised protection from Scottish attacks, land was offered to settlers, a small chapel was built within the castle walls, and a village grew around the castle along the former Roman Road, later known as Gallow Gate (today Galgate). As the castle grew and underwent changes, the village changed with it and developed into a town. Much of this early medieval structure can still be seen in the street layout of Barnard Castle, including outline burgage plots and back lanes behind the houses at Horse Market where the town’s early industries were located.
Soon, the church was too small for Barnard Castle’s congregation and a new church dedicated to St Mary’s was founded in 1130 on an elevated position that was visible from the surrounding countryside. Located in a central location in the town at the crossing of two of its most important roads, in immediate vicinity to the market place and opposite the entrance to the castle, ensured that St Mary’s was one of the first main buildings visitors to the town would see. The building of St Mary’s church is likely to have triggered the development of Newgate, which is a slightly younger street than Horse Market and The Bank. Several houses were built, as well as a small hospital and alms houses in the 13th century that were connected to the church.
Patronage of Richard III
In the following centuries, the Barnard Castle was under constant threat from Scotland until into the late 13th century when John Balliol became King of Scotland. When he was taken prisoner by the English a few years later, the castle became the property of Guy de Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick, after whose death it came into the possession of Richard Neville, the Kingmaker and one of the leaders in the War of the Roses. In 1475, Richard of Gloucester, who had in the meantime married Richard Neville’s daughter Anne, became Lord of Barnard Castle. He would later become King Richard III, but before he left the North, he spent a considerable amount of time in the Barnard Castle and ordered significant improvements to be made both in the castle and in St Mary’s church, one plan being to build an ecclesiastical college and a chantry.
However, with his early death in 1485, not many of his visions had been realised. Several boar carvings all around the town, some of which have since been lost, are a small reminder of what could have become of Barnard Castle if Richard III had survived the battle at Bosworth. Today, Richard’s white boar is depicted in the town’s coat of arms. He provided St Mary’s church with a grant of 40 marks and the building underwent significant improvements, structural as well as ornamental, most of which are still visible today and made the building bigger and lighter.
The castle loses its importance
The castle subsequently fell into disrepair but became an important location during the Rising of the North in 1569. Sir George Bowes, who supported Elizabeth I, withstood a ten-day siege before surrendering the castle. As a result, the Earl of Sussex had time to muster an army in support of the queen. Still loyal to Catholicism, the majority of the town was in support of the Rising. From 1630 onwards, the castle was in possession of Sir Henry Vane who gradually dismantled it to provide building material for improving the nearby Raby Castle.
Industrialisation, cholera and battling poverty
Barnard Castle continued to grow. During the 18th century, the towns textile industry increased significantly with several high buildings being built along Thorngate and Bridgegate that allowed for maximum light for the weavers in the upper stories. With the early industrial revolution, the weaving industry was expanded by several carpet, flax and woollen mills along the river Tees. As a result of the increase in industrialisation, the living conditions for the working class, especially at the bottom of the town, deteriorated dramatically. With the increase of the population, St Mary’s Church struggled to provide suitable space for burials. Throughout the 18th century people were still buried within the building with the pews being moved whenever a burial took place. Towards the end of the century, the pavement was broken, the floor had risen and was uneven, and it was not uncommon that during a service, people stood on freshly turned soil, with skeletal remains of earlier burials showing. Similarly, skeletal remains were becoming visible in the grave yard which was subsequently expanded in the early 19th century. The squalid conditions of the grave yard contributed to an outbreak of cholera in 1849. People living south of St. Mary’s church drank and cooked with water from wells that where contaminated with drainage water containing morbific matter from the grave yard. All 145 victims of the epidemic were buried in the grave yard, which was finally closed in the mid 19th century.
A second wave of industrial development took place in the 19th century and resulted in the creation of a second industrial area around Queen Street and Birch Road with industrial buildings and worker’s houses. A final boost in the town’s expansion and development took place in the mid 19th century with the arrival of the railway. In 1861, the railway station opened exactly 40 years after the world’s first passenger train had run from Stockton to Darlington. It facilitated not only the movements of soldiers to the new Barracks of the Durham Militia in Barnard Castle, but also turned the town into a popular destination for day tourists who also visited the Bowes Museum and the forest. The population grew from 2966 people in 1801 to 4478 inhabitants in 1861. But during late 19th and early 20th century, the local economy declined, many people lost their work and Thorngate and Bridgegate were considered slums. Throughout the centuries, St Mary’s church did its part in helping the poor. Collecting boxes for the poor were provided and the contents distributed, and from 1718 well into the 20th century, loaves of bread were given to people in need on Sunday mornings. To improve the living conditions of the poor, Reverend Dugard, who also oversaw every single one of the cholera burials, built schools, set up soup kitchens and bed and blanket stores. In 1901, St Mary’s Church Mission was set up at The Bank in response to the economic decline and high unemployment.
A building for everyone!?
By the 14th century, St Mary’s church was not only a place where people gathered for services. Late into the 19th century, the church was the only spacious and public building of the town and served as fire station, playhouse and parish hall. Religious plays and comedy were performed for the public, the priest was allowed to perform community duties and official town documents were kept in the church. After a severe fire in town in July 1748, Sir Henry Vane sent his fire engine from Raby Castle and gifted it to the town where it was stored in the church. Half a century later, Barnard Castle acquired a bigger engine partially financed from church rates and housed in a porch extending from the church’s South door. A planning committee formed in the first half of the 19th century to manage issues such as public hygiene and planning proposals met regularly in St. Mary’s church. But with the start of the 20th century, St Mary’s church became more and more isolated from everyday life and the common population of the town. Matters of local government were removed from the church to newly built public buildings. In addition, the practice of renting pews to individual families or reserving them for visitors of hotels made visiting a church service an elitist privilege excluding many of the poor people living in overcrowded and insanitary conditions at the bottom of the town.
During the 18th and 19th century, several non-conformist religions established in town and a number of chapels and meeting houses were built away from the main roads, only few of which survived until today. This was met by efforts of St Mary’s to make the Anglican church more attractive. Significant and expensive restoration and remodelling was undertaken with improvements both inside and outside the building. Examples are a taller clock tower that masked most of the Norman remains, as well as new Victorian stained glass windows. These works were partially funded by wealthy people from the town, but the effects didn’t last. Nevertheless, until 1927, St Mary’s was still an integral part of town life by ringing its rising bell for five minutes at 6am and the curfew bell at 8pm, probably instituted in England by William the Conqueror to remind people to damp down their fires. It later became a sign for children to come home.
Today, St Mary’s church is still an active church providing religious service to the people of Barnard Castle, but it is no longer at the centre of town life. Although its graveyard holds the remains of nearly all of Barnard Castle’s inhabitants up until the mid 18th century, people seem to have forgotten its colourful history and the role it played it during the past 900 years of the town’s existence.
With your help, Windows to the World will change this!