The East Yorkshire town with a surprising past celebrates its 800th birthday
Yet the Market Charter is just one chapter in Snaith’s long and fascinating history, and the town’s close connections with royalty go back even further. Perhaps even more surprisingly, given its relatively small size and stature today, the parish, which also comprises the neighbouring villages of East and West Cowick, was once a seat of power from which a series of English kings governed the country.
Snaith’s history can be traced as far back as Saxon times, when it was a settlement accessed from the nearby River Aire. It has been known by various different names over the centuries, with past variations including snath, snayth, snathe or sned. According to Snaith and Cowick Together Community Heritage Group, these were names given to the wooden handle of a scythe.
Snaith mayor Steve Jones said: “The Snaith area was once an island in the surrounding marshland, so people used scythes to cut the reeds.”
He revealed that Snaith and Cowick were once the “main gateway into Yorkshire”, explaining: “A map from 1408 shows that Turnbridge in East Cowick, formerly known as Turnbrigg, is where boats were able to turn around by accessing a loop system between the Rivers Aire, Went and Don. They could either enter or leave via the Rivers Ouse and Humber to the North Sea beyond.
“Whoever controlled Turnbridge controlled the main means of access to places such as Doncaster, Leeds and York. In medieval times, Turnbrigg was as important as any modern transport hub.”
There are brief references to Snaith – or Esnoid, as it was known at the time – in the Domesday book, when the surrounding land was owned by the Crown because of its close proximity to Hatfield Chase, a vast royal hunting ground.
In the early 13th century, a hunting lodge used by King John was located at Cowick. In 1323, 100 years after Snaith received its Market Charter, King Edward II converted the lodge into a moated royal manor house, which was well used for decades by several Plantagenet Kings of England. Astonishingly, this meant that, when the kings were in residence, the entire country was governed from Cowick.
Although the M62 motorway now cuts between the remains of the manor house and the town of Snaith, a “Kings and Aristocrats”-themed heritage walk – one of 15 routes in the Snaith and Cowick area – offers a decent view of the site and, with the help of an information board, you get a sense of its original layout. Another clue to the area’s past significance is in the name of the road in West Cowick that once led to the manor house, which is known as Little London Lane.
Keith Greenwood, chairman of the Vale of Snaith Action Group, said: “We are one of only 100 places in the country with ‘Walkers Are Welcome’ accreditation. We have an active walking group, and we’ve created a series of signed walks and heritage walks with interpretation boards that give lots of information about Snaith’s history.
“We’ll be running guided walks throughout Snaith’s 800th year and we’re currently working on a new Cowick Royal Way walk, which will tell the story of ten colourful characters who came to Cowick.”
As well as a succession of English kings and queens associated with Snaith, the new walk will also reference Robin Hood, who is said to have targeted the then Prince John when he was hunting in the area in 1195. As movie buffs may recall, the 1991 Robin Hood film starring Patrick Bergin mentions Snaith by name.
Although it predates the Market Charter, Snaith’s historic Priory Church will be a fitting focal point for many of the forthcoming Snaith 800 celebrations. The town as we know it today sprang up around the Priory Church of St Laurence and it still dominates the centre of Snaith. Around the year 1100, the rectory of Snaith was given to the Archbishop of York, who, in turn, gave it to the Benedictine abbey at nearby Selby. In 1310, William Greenfield, the Archbishop of York, pronounced that the abbot and convent of Selby should be allowed “to place two of their monks in the church of Snaith to be continually resident”. This small cell of Benedictine monks remained at Snaith until the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII in the 16th century.
Today, to mark St George’s Day tomorrow, the Priory of St Laurence will host an 800th anniversary celebration, featuring the Beverley Male Voice Choir and the Poets of Esnoid, who will perform Shakespeare’s complete works in just 20 minutes.
David Hutchinson, of the Poets of Esnoid, said: "We’re a group poets, writers, readers, musicians and friends based in Snaith, where some of us also live. We’re a team of 32 people, including eight poets who write their own original work and read work from the poets; three readers who are skilled at reading other poets’ work; and 12 musicians, who play their own music and other musicians’ songs and music. We have a stage management team and also a priceless group of people who help at our events.”
Meanwhile Snaith and Cowick Together Community Group, supported by Snaith and Cowick Town Council and East Riding of Yorkshire Council, has secured funding to create a Queen Elizabeth II Royal Garden in an area of Snaith known as Crosshill.
Mayor Steve Jones added: “Crosshill is on the Trans Pennine Trail. The garden will consist of large heritage planters, a sculptured bench, an information board, finger-post signage and a water bottle filling station. It will create a safe, welcoming environment for residents and tourists alike. Walkers and cyclists will be able to replenish their water bottles before continuing on their travels.
“We’re also working with the headteachers of Cowick and Snaith’s primary schools to create a time capsule that will be stored securely at Snaith Priory. Children from the schools are deciding what will go in it.”
Other events to commemorate Snaith 800 include a gathering of heritage motorcycles in Snaith Market Place on September 10. It’s hoped that this free event will attract up to 800 classic and modern motorbikes, and refreshments will be served at the Priory of St Laurence.
The milestone anniversary of the Market Charter will also make this year’s annual Christmas Market even more special, as Councillor Joanne Whiteley, Deputy Mayor of Snaith and Cowick, explained: “The market began in 2014 with 20 stalls but has grown to have more 60 stalls at present. It’s centred around Market Place, High Street and in and around Snaith Priory. The ladies of the priory provide refreshments from their kitchen and make the best mulled wine; it sells out very quickly.
“Town clerks Vicky Whiteley and Nicola Russell oversee everything, making sure the stalls are all rented out and up to scratch. All the councillors help to erect and take down the stalls on the day. We also switch on the Christmas tree lights in the church grounds and announce the winner of the contest to find the business with the best-dressed window. It’s all good fun and a very enjoyable event, bringing all the community together.”