Armley Local History

Read up on a brief early history of Armley.

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Early and Medieval Armley

Saxon Armley

No one knows for certain when people first settled in the area which is now known as Armley. The name suggests settlement in the Anglo-Saxon period: it's derived from two Old English words meaning 'Earm(a)'s clearing'. Who this Earm or Earma was we have no real idea. His name is not recorded elsewhere. Presumably he was one of the many Anglo-Saxons who settled in the Aire Valley in the 7th century. Many of them had to clear away scrub and woodland to establish their homesteads. This is reflected in the number of settlements along the valley such as Headingley or Burley that have the place-name element ley meaning 'clearing'.

The effects of the Norman Conquest

The first record of Armley as a settlement occurs in the Domesday Survey compiled for William the Conqueror in 1086. From this we learn that there were 8 villagers in Armley and Reestones (the locality now known as Wortley). It is difficult to know how many people this represents and Domesday only takes account of heads of families. If we assume a multiplier of four or five, this would give us a total population of in the region of 32 - 40 people for the two communities together.

Before the Norman Conquest Armley and Reestones were held by two Saxon noblemen. After the Conquest William gave the villages to Ilbert de Lacy as part of a vast estate centred on Pontefract Castle. Ilbert in turn granted control of the manor to a man called Ligulfr. This is a rare example of a Saxon maintaining a position of relative power in the region after the Norman Conquest. Perhaps Ilbert was not giving much away. Before the Conquest Armley and Freestones were worth 20s: in 1086 they were only worth 10s.

The monks of Kirkstall

The next dramatic change in the life of the villagers came in 1152 with the establishment of the new Cistercian abbey at Kirkstall. Visitors to the Abbey ruins today often think that the precinct around the buildings was the only land which the monks owned. This is not so. Pious landholders such as Henry de Lacy, who founded Kirkstall, gave grants of money and land to help support the monks and their work. Some of these parcels of land were than amalgamated together to make a single economic unit. In Armley Kirkstall had two such Granges, as these outlying farms were called. One of these, Wether Grange, was situated near what is now the junction of Armley Ridge Road and Cockshott Lane and is still remembered in local street names such as Wyther Park Road. The other, Redcote, probably lay somewhere in the valley bottom though its exact location is uncertain. Neither of these properties was worked by the monks themselves. Labour was provided by local villagers as was the case with estates held by secular landlords.

The medieval chapel

No church in Armley is mentioned in Domesday, but one does appear in another revenue document the Valor Ecclesiasticus which was compiled for Henry VIII in 1535 after his break with Rome. The Valor was intended to establish the worth of all religious establishments in the country for taxation purposes. This included a small medieval chapel at Armley which was dedicated to St Bartholomew. This was rebuilt in 1672 and a burial ground consecrated in 1674 by which time we must assume the chapel had gained full church status. It was rebuilt again in 1834-5, but in 1872 the present St Bartholomew's church was built on a new site to the south of the old church.

Giant's Hill: an archaeological mystery

On the southern bank of the River Aire to the east of where it is crossed by the modern Viaduct Road lay Giant's Hill, a massive earthwork but no-one seems to be sure what it was. Ralph Thoresby, writing in the 1690s, describes the earthwork as having two parts. One was a circle 20 perches round (100 metres). The other was a square earthwork, each side being 30 perches (150 metres) in length. Thoresby thought that this was a Danish fortification, but later historians think that Giant's Hill was probably a motte and bailey castle built by one of the Norman overlords of Armley. This view is supported by a document of 1300 which refers to a place called Castelarmley, which suggests that there was a Castle there at the time.

The name Giant's Hill comes from a local tradition that the earthwork was inadvertently made by a giant who was throwing a rock across the river. To balance his weight, he stepped backwards and put his foot down heavily in the mud and earth. The footprint which he left behind was known from that time as the Giant's Hill and the stone he threw landed in Burley on the opposite side of the river where it was know as the Greystone.

Sadly the Giant's Hill was destroyed by the building of the canal in the 1770s and by subsequent factories built on the site. With it went one of the few remaining traces of medieval Armley. The only thing to mark its passing is the romantic tale of the Armley Giant.

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