The History of Clitheroe
It cannot be said that Clitheroe was ever truly the centre of great events in Britain, though it has witnessed invasion and uprising in its time. But the charm of the modern town – with its world famous sausage shop and wonderful vintners - is reflected in the events that mark its progress from a tiny Norman fortress to the prosperous if unofficial capital of the Ribble Valley .
Before the Normans little is recorded about Clitheroe. There may have been a small settlement there when the land was granted to Roger de Poitou by William the Conqueror , indeed the name of the town is certainly Saxon , denoting the rocky hillock on which the Normans proceeded to build their castle , supposedly the smallest they constructed in Britain. This limestone outcrop rises about 100 feet above the rest of the town, itself on high ground with steep slopes that would have made the fortification even more secure.
The de Lacy family, great landholders in the North from Lincoln to Chester , followed de Poitou’s ownership. Under that great family the settlement was granted its first legal rights sometime between 1147 and 1177, rights confirmed by Henry de Lacy in the first known charter for Clitheroe dated 1283.
In 1138 Clitheroe was the scene of a minor clash when English knights faced the invading forces of the King of Scotland, led by Prince William, an army that had plundered the region during its progress. The defenders were quickly routed, most of them slaughtered or captured for ransom.
Clitheroe gained in economic importance over the years, its position amid fertile farmland and high sheep rearing country making a market there inevitable: in 1292 the right to a Saturday market was asserted by the local lord, claiming custom since the Norman Conquest. During King John ’s reign the town was granted a fair, making it a regional centre for trade rivalling nearby Whalley. This trend reached its climax in 1519 when Henry VIII allowed the transfer of Whalley’s rights to hold two fairs to Clitheroe. That positive during Henry VIII’s reign was balanced by the negative of the loss of the town’s ancient leper hospital, safely over the Ribble (and then in Yorkshire) at Edisford, though the lands seized were not disposed of by the crown until Elizabeth I ’s reign.
The second clash of arms seen by Clitheroe was in 1315 during the rising of Adam Banastre against the Earl of Lancaster, by that time the overlord of Clitheroe and its extensive surrounds. Banastre captured the castle and looted its armoury.
Pendle Hill and Forest are no distance from the town, and accordingly when the Pendle Witch scandal broke Clitheroe claimed a small part in the affair, Margaret Pearson put in the stocks there having been found guilty of a minor charge – 10 of her confederates were hanged at Lancaster Gaol.
Clitheroe’s part in the Civil Wars was less than glorious. A Captain Cuthbert Bradkirk was put in charge of the castle by Prince Rupert in 1644, but after the Royalist defeat at Marston Moor the valiant captain took off, leaving it to be seized without gunfire by Parliament. In 1649 the Parliamentary authorities ordered it be made useless to potential rebels, and a hole was engineered in the walls. The outer walls were probably demolished in the 18th century, their stones doubtless put to good use by the townsfolk.
When the Commonwealth ended and King Charles II was restored Clitheroe was given to General Monk for his part in the almost bloodless transfer of power.
There is living history in Clitheroe in its educational provision: during the reign of Mary I Clitheroe Royal Grammar School was founded, though other records indicate it had antecedents dating back to 1283. The school’s most famous alumnus is Captain James King, who sailed with Captain Cook on his third voyage of discovery. And just outside the town there is one of England’s great Catholic schools, Stonyhurst College , brought by the Jesuits to the place in 1794: Stonyhurst’s alumni include Arthur Conan Doyle of Sherlock Holmes fame; and among its masters was poet Gerard Manley Hopkins .