Hylton and the Hyltons

Hylton Castle West Front

Less than a hundred yards from the old turnpike road from Monkwearmouth to Gateshead stands Hylton Castle, for more than six centuries the home of one of the oldest, richest, most powerful, and best allied families in the county of Durham. The Hyltons had a fabulous genealogy, extending back to the times of Athelstan, and a genuine pedigree which commenced in the reign of Henry II. The origin of the family is unknown. There is, however, a legend that, whilst the Saxon lord of Hylton was far away in Eastern lands making love to a Syrian maid, his daughter, left

In her gloomy hall by the woodland wild, was wooed and won by a Danish knight, who first came to her in the disguise of a raven. Fair Edith, “in her saddest mood,” had climbed to the battlements of her ancestral home

A gentle breath comes from the vale,
A sound of life is on the gale;
And see a raven on the wing
Circling around in airy ring,
Hovering about in doubtful flight
Where, where will the carrier of Odin alight?
The raven has lit on the flagstaff high
That tops the dungeon tower,
And he has caught fair Edith’s eye,
And gently, coyly, venturing nigh,
He flutters round her bower.
For he trusted the soft and maiden grace
That shone in that sweet young Saxon face;
And now he has perched on her willow wand,
And tries to smooth his raven note,
And sleeks his glossy raven coat,
To court the maiden’s hand.
And now, caressing and caressed,
The raven is lodged in Edith’s breast.
‘Tis innocence and youth that makes
In Edith’s fancy such mistakes;
But that maiden kiss hath holy power,
O’er planet and sigillary hour!
The elvish spell hath lost its charms,
And the Danish knight is in Edith’s arms:
And Harold, at his bride’s request,
His barbarous gods foreswore
Freya, and Woden, and Balder, and Thor.
And Jarrow, with tapers burning bright,
Hailed her gallant proselyte.

The story is pretty, and may have led the last baron of Hylton to adopt the raven as his badge, and with gigantic representations in wood of Odin’s messenger to mantle the east and west doors of his mansion. In history, however, we first meet with the Hyltons in the year 1157, when Romanus, “the Knight of Heltun,” agreed with the prior and convent of St. Cuthbert, at Durham, that he and his heirs might have a priest appointed to his chapel at Hylton. The ruined chapel, a few yards north of the castle, can scarcely have any portion which is older than the present castle itself, of the date and builder whereof I shall speak presently, unless it be a few courses of masonry in the east wall of the chancel, which have certainly a Norman look about them, and may well be believed to have been raised at the will of that ancient knight, Romanus.

One William de Hylton, almost certainly the grandson of Romanus, about 1198 married one Beneta, daughter and heiress of Germanus Tison, the great-grandson of Gilbert Tison, who is described as the great standard-bearer to William the Conqueror.

William’s son and heir, Alexander, was one of a number of English nobles, who in 1241, “took leave of their friends, and, commending themselves to the prayers of religious men, set out in great pomp on their way towards Jerusalem.” From this expedition, there is every reason to believe, Alexander de Hylton never returned.

In 1264, Robert de Hylton was one of the knights of the county of Durham who were present at the battle of Lewes. He took part with the barons against the king, and with the rest of the insurgents forfeited his estates. They were all, however, permitted to redeem their confiscated property. His son, also Robert, was summoned to the Parliaments of 1295, 1296, and 1297.

The present castle was built either by William de Hylton, who died in 1435, or by his son Robert, who died in 1447. It is first mentioned in the inquisition taken after the death of the latter, and is therein spoken of as “a house, built of stone, called the yatehous.”

In the account rolls of the masters of the cell of Monkwearmouth we have frequent notices of gifts bequeathed to that church as “mortuaries” by the barons of Hylton. The mortuary banner, standard, and coat armour of Baron William Hylton, who died in 1505 or 1506, were removed a few years later from Wearmouth to grace the walls of the Cathedral of Durham. Here they remained until July, 1513, when they were lent by the prior to the then baron, another William, who, in the following October, fought in his sire’s armour, and beneath his sire’s banner, on the field of Flodden.

This latter William’s son, Sir Thomas Hylton, joined in the famed Pilgrimage of Grace in 1536. In the reign of Philip and Mary he was Governor of Tynemouth Castle. In 1558, a complaint was made against him that he had illegally detained a vessel from Flanders laden with salt, and that he was in the habit of taking such wares out of ships passing Tynemouth on their way to Newcastle as he was wishful to possess or dispose of to his own advantage.

Sir Thomas Hylton died in 1561, and was succeeded in the Hylton estates by his brother William. Sir Thomas had patronised a certain Dr. Bulleyn, an eminent physician of that day. Whilst Bulleyn was in London, Sir Thomas died, and his brother accused the doctor of having poisoned him. Bulleyn was arraigned before the Duke of Norfolk, but was honourably acquitted.

The misanthrope of the family, however, was one Henry Hylton, who died in 1641. By his will he left the whole of his paternal estate for ninety-nine years to the Lord Mayor and four senior aldermen of London, in trust, that they should pay thereout £24 per annum to each of 38 parishes, £28 a year to the Mayor of Durham, £50 a year to the Vicar of Monkwearmouth, an annuity of £100 to his brother Robert Hylton, and £50 a year to his brother John. The residue he leaves to the city of London, charging them to bind yearly five children of his own kindred to some honest trade. They were to raise £4,000 out of Hylton rents, the interest whereof was to be employed in apprenticing orphans born in the manors of Ford, Biddick, and Barmston. After 99 years, his estates and the first-mentioned £4,000 were to go to his heir-at-law, “provided he be not such a one as shall claim to be the issue of the testator’s own body.” There were legacies to his servants and to the family of Shelley of Michell Grove, in Sussex. He then appoints Lady Jane Shelley his executrix, and desires to be buried in St. Paul’s Cathedral, “under a fair tomb, like the tomb of Dr. Dunn,” to erect which he leaves £1,000. For thirty years before his death he had been separated from his wife, and a scarce tract of the period states that the charitable bequests of his will were made in order “to merit pardon for thirty years’ vicious life led with the Lady Shelley.” It is needless to say that Hylton’s paramour never raised the tomb for which his morbid vanity craved.

Thus encumbered, the estates of the Hyltons, during three generations, only enabled their owners to maintain the dignity of unostentatious country gentlemen. During this period the greatest prudence was manifested in the management of the various properties, with the result that in 1739 the estate and its possessors emerged from the difficulties under which they had struggled for a century. But the last Hylton, a bachelor, was then the owner, and he by will left the home of his ancestors and all other of his possessions, to his sister’s son, Sir Richard Musgrave, on the condition of his taking the Hylton name. The last baron died in 1746, and was buried in the chapel at Hylton. In 1750 Sir Richard Musgrave obtained an Act of Parliament enabling him to sell the estates by auction. These estates covered 5,600 acres, and the annual rental was estimated at a little over £3,000. The Hyltons, it is said, owned almost all the land which could be seen from the battlements of their own castle.

It only now remains to describe the castle and the ruined chapel. The architectural features of the former indicate that its erection took place shortly before the middle of the fifteenth century. It is described in 1447 date as “the gatehouse,” though there is evidence to show that the rest of the castle buildings stood north and south of a courtyard before its grand west front. Hylton castle is noted for its heraldry. Besides the royal arms of England as borne from the reign of Henry V. to that of Elizabeth, we have on the west front the banner of the Hyltons beneath a ledge of canopied work, and the shields of the many noble families with which the Hyltons were allied. On the east front is a fine sculptured roebuck, at one time the Hylton badge. Beneath is the Hylton shield under a helmet, over which is the later Hylton crest, a head of Moses in profile, horned with triple rays. Of the origin or meaning of this extraordinary heraldic bearing I can offer no suggestion.

The west front is surmounted by four octagonal turrets with machicolations on every side. There is a round turret at each end of the east front. The central oblong tower of the east front rises a story higher than the rest of the building, and has a floor on the level of the leads, which we may conveniently call the guard room. Each turret has independent access from the roof. The octagonal turrets are even provided for defence against an enemy who might have climed to the battlements.

Hylton Castle East Front

The portion of the chapel which remains is only the chancel of the original structure, and was probably built by Sir William Hylton, who died in 1457. Its two transepts are additions of Tudor date. Each is of two stories, though the dividing floors are gone. The upper stories were reached through doorways in the east wall, now closed with masonry. The western extremity now is the ancient chancel arch, walled up in the last baron’s days, with a doorway altogether of his time beneath, and portions of what was probably the nave’s western window clumsily utilized above. Within the walls of this now ruined and abandoned though episcopally consecrated edifice, the mortal part of many of the barons of Hylton, their wives and their children, found rest. Their retainers were consigned to the graveyard outside. The chancel vault is now broken open, and the bones of the Hyltons have been scattered, no one caring whither. A thigh bone, said to have been that of the last baron, is preserved in the castle, (now the property and residence of Colonel Briggs), and the whereabouts of some other osseous reliques is known.


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