Dionissia and the robber baron: a 13th century Northumbrian drama


“My sire is of a noble line,

And my name is Geraldine:

Five warriors seized me yestermorn,

Me, even me, a maid forlorn:

They choked my cries with force and fright,

And tied me on a palfrey white.”

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Christabel, Part I

Umfraville Arms from Elsdon, Northumberland
The arms of the Umfraville lords of Redesdale


Between 20 and 26 January 1279 Dionissia Bechfeld  appeared in the royal courts at Newcastle before John de Vaux, and five other of the King’s Justices, as a plaintiff seeking damages.

The court heard that six and a half years earlier, on Monday 22 August 1272, she had been crossing Middleburn Moor in the company of her uncle Master John Pampingham, on the return leg of a journey to Newcastle where they had been pleading before Master Roger Seton, on an unknown legal matter. She was evidently a woman of some property, as the three sureties for her attendance were all men known as significant local landowners. [1]

Near “Opintel Bridge” she was set upon by Roger Inhou, William Swethop, his brother John, and Walter Swethop, and was taken to “Ilyscaghe” in Redesdale, where she was held for a night. During this time she was pressured by Walter Swethop, who was also the lord of Redesdale’s steward, to marry his son Richard, on pain of being taken into Scotland, never to be released.  Upon her refusal, Swethop made good his threat and took her to Jedburgh, where she remained for a day and a night, until rescued by her uncle John Pampingham.

To avoid a repetition of her earlier nightmare when returning from Jedburgh, Dionissia engaged a local guide, William, son of Ralph the chief forester of Redesdale, at the improbably large fee of £10 (or so she claimed in the proceedings). However, on reaching Harbottle Castle, the administrative centre of Redesdale, she was seized again by Walter Swethop, accused of trespassing “with force of arms” and was required to find two pledges for her return at a future date to answer charges, and was freed on payment of a £10 surety.

At this point she appears to have regained her liberty, albeit despoiled (or so she claimed) of horse and saddle, and a blue robe, together worth 40s.  In spite of the chivalrous culture later attributed to this locality in romantic writing such Sir Walter Scott’s Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border and in Coleridge’s Christabel, there seems a dearth of knights riding to Dionissia’s rescue.

Dionissia’s miserable experience was more than merely another story of up country medieval banditry, it was illustrative also of the peculiar context of Redesdale and its lord, Gilbert de Umfraville, earl of Angus (by right of his Scottish mother), a character well suited to the liminal zone that he dominated. The king’s writ, the common law of England, tax collectors and other agents of royal power had no authority in the 138,000 acres of the Liberty of Redesdale.

Such baronial “micro-states” were a standard feature of the Welsh marches, but those in the north were, by contrast, mostly ecclesiastical – notably the great bishopric of Durham, and the monastic towns of Hexham and Tynemouth.  In the face of repeated challenges by crown lawyers against his privileges, Umfraville claimed that his ancestor Robert had been granted Redesdale by William the Conqueror, (and therefore beyond the 1189 limit of legal memory) with the sole duty of “defending against wolf and robber.” [2]

While Umfraville’s success in lupine pest control is unrecorded, it seems that crime, as well as justice, were monopolised by himself and his fearsome retinue.  If the complaints of a neighbouring lord, Robert de Lisle of Chipchase, are to be believed, Umfraville’s stewards had an established line in livestock theft, and in 1300 he cited his immunity from royal justice to turn away the King’s commissioners who had come to investigate coinage fraud. [3]

In 1265 the young Gilbert had been in the company of The Lord Edward (future King Edward I) at the siege of Alwnick Castle, whose lord John de Vesci had been an adherent of Simon de Montfort, the great enemy of King Henry III.  On the strength of an allegation by Gilbert that his tenant, William, lord of Douglas, was with the rebels, the Lord Edward granted him the manor of Fawdon, provided that the allegation was true.  Douglas later proved the opposite in the King’s courts in Westminster, and secured a writ to recover his lands, which occurred around 20 July 1267.

But Douglas’ victory was short lived, as around 1 August Umfraville sent a force of ‘a hundred of the king’s enemies’ to eject him and his wife Constance. Douglas was arrested and taken to Harbottle Casle for eight days, his son William suffered an injury “that nearly severed his head”, and 31 marks of silver were looted from the property at Fawdon, which was burned down. Restitution only came for William Douglas when he appeared before the King’s Justice, Gilbert Preston, at Newcastle on 25 June 1269, and secured damages against Umfraville of 110 marks for the fire, although we do not know whether this was paid.[4]

Detail of Jedburgh and the border lands, from C. Smith, New Map of Great Britain and Ireland (1806)

The case of William, lord of Douglas showed that, in spite of Umfraville’s expansive claims, the crown was nevertheless keen to assert its overlordship.  By the time that Dionissia made her plea in 1279, the Lord Edward had become King Edward I, and one of the defining themes of his reign was a sustained assault on private jurisdictions. Edward I might well have concurred with the verdict of the great Victorian historian of Northumberand, J. H. Hodgson, who characterised the liberty of Redesdale as “the prolific mother of all the disorders, the crimes and peculiarities for which the population here was so long notorious.” [5]

Dionissia’s faith in royal justice would, at least in part, be vindicated. Of the defendants named in her accusation, only Swethop presented himself before John de Vaux in January 1279, the others being found guilty by default of their absence. Dionissia pressed for £100 damages for her treatment – a hefty sum, given that in 1307 the entire Redesdale estate would be assessed as yielding an annual income of £238 (about £190,000 in modern purchasing power).

The justices sentenced Swethop to prison for having detained her at Harbottle, and all of the accused were fined 20 marks (c.£13) damages payable to Dionissia, and 100 shillings (£5) for the offences.  As far as is known, Dionissia lived out her life without having to marry Richard Swethop, and was assessed for taxation in 1296 as liable for £2 2s. 4d., consistent with her owning property in her own right.[6]

Life was due to become much tougher for Gilbert de Umfraviile, and lords with similar pretensions.  In January 1293 all of the barons of Northumberland were required to produce royal charters proving their privileges as part a series of inquiries called Quo Warranto. Once again Umfraville succeeded in arguing that his Liberty of Redesdale had been enjoyed time immemorial, and therefore there was no legal way to curtail it. (The twelve local jurors finding for him included John Swethop).  However they did not accept his claim that he had licence to hold a market and fair at Whelpington, as the supposed charter from Henry III granting it could not be produced, and he was fined as a result. [7]

The golden age of the Umfravilles would soon come to an end. During the years of Anglo-Scottish peace, Redesdale and its lords had profited from its location between two royal  jurisdictions. However, the Scottish succession crisis of 1290 led to devastating wars, the impact of which can be sensed from the royal inquisition into the condition of the Umfraville estates on 10 May 1325, following the death of Gilbert’s son, Robert. Family properties such as Prudhoe Castle, and estates at Inghou, Whelpington and Alwinton were found to have been burned or wasted, while the Scottish lands and titles were lost forever.[8]

Although the title lord of Redesdale remained with the Umfravilles until the extinction of the family’s main line in 1436, by then their interests had already shifted to estates that they had acquired through marriage in Lincolnshire and Yorkshire, and which were doubtless easier to manage.

Heiress abduction in medieval England was not unknown, and several cases survive in the records. The publication of printed transcripts of the Northumbrian court rolls considerably post-dates the writing of Coleridge’s Christabel.  The fact that the judge in Dionissia’s case shares a surname with a key character in Coleridge’s poem – Roland de Vaux – is most likely a diverting coincidence.

* * *


[1]  She is referred to elsewhere in court records as Dionissia “de Ba”. Other Bechfelds are mentioned in the crown’s judicial records for Northumberland in the late 13th century, but Dionissia’s identity remains sketchy. The case that she was pleading in all likelihood related to landed property.  The sureties are named as John Herle, Walter Tyndale and John Lithgreenes.  The Moor is possibly Middle Burn in Hexham, Northumberland.  Three Early Assize Rolls for the County of Northumberland, ed. J. Raine, Surtees Society, lxviii (1891), pp. xxv-xxvi; 369-273.   

[2] Calendar of Documents Relating to Scotland III, 1307-1357 , 19, p. 4.

[3] Ancient Petitions Relating to Northumberland, ed. C. M. Fraser, Surtees Soc., 176 (1966), pp. 112-114, nos. 87 & 88; Calendar of Documents Relating to Scotland II, 1272-1307 , 1972, p. 523.

[4] Three Early Assize Rolls for the County of Northumberland, p.147.

[5] J. H. Hodgson, A History of Northumberland in Three Parts, Part II, Vol, II (Newcastle, 1827) p. 28.

[6] Three Early Assize Rolls for the County of Northumberland, p.xxv

[7] Placita de Quo Warranto (HM Record Commisson, 1831), pp. 593-4.

[8] https://www.british-history.ac.uk/inquis-post-mortem/vol6/pp373-385#fnn1  (Inquisition post mortem, Robert de Umfraville, 10 May 1325).



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