Here Robin Longbottom tells of how scenes reminiscent of the Wild West came to this area during the Tudor period...

MANY readers may be familiar with old cowboy films and programmes – such as the Virginian and Shane – which dealt with the violent conflicts that arose between the cattle men of the Wild West and the farmers who were fencing-in the once-open range.

Few would associate any connection between such events and Sutton-in-Craven, but during the Tudor period a similar outbreak of violence and death played out in the early 1540s when the once-open fields of the village were being enclosed.

For centuries villagers had farmed an open field system, which involved three great fields being rotated with crops annually.

One field was used to grow wheat and other cereals, one to grow beans and peas and a third was left fallow for a year.

However, everything changed during the Tudor period and instead of communal farming, the land was now being divided into parcels, fenced and farmed on an individual basis.

This brought the newly-independent class of yeoman and tenant farmers into conflict with the local cattle men who had been used to driving their animals onto the open fields to graze, both on the fallow and on the stubble after harvest.

In 1541, John Copley, Lord of the Manor of Sutton, complained to the Court of Star Chamber in London that one Hugh Blakey of Malsis had kept him out of his manor by force of arms – that he had pulled down and destroyed several houses, buildings, hedges and other enclosures, to put his cattle into the fields, destroying corn, and grass in the pastures and meadows.

The villagers had retaliated by impounding his cattle but since Easter time Blakey had broken into the pinfold eight times to release them.

For good measure, Blakey had also broken-up the village stocks with an axe and set fire to them.

When John Copley died suddenly before the case had been heard, some villagers decided to take matters into their own hands and deal with Blakey themselves.

In the spring of 1543, Thomas Blakey of Newhall, Malsis (probably a relation of Hugh Blakey), together with Nichols Johnson, the Sutton miller, and Richard Garforth of Kildwick plotted to murder him.

Johnson and Garforth lay in wait for Blakey on Cononley Brow as he was returning late one night from Skipton.

Garforth seized him by the arms and Johnson struck him three mortal blows “with a stick to the value of 3d”.

They left the body in a nearby hut but went back later and threw it into the River Aire.

Once the body was discovered it was only a matter of time before the murderers were caught.

It would appear that the authorities laid their hands on Richard Garforth first and that anxious to save his own life, he turned King’s evidence on Thomas Blakey and Nicholas Johnson.

For giving evidence against them, Garforth was pardoned by King Henry VIII – “Know all ye that we of our special grace and certain knowledge have pardoned the said Richard Garforth late of Kyldwicke the murder of the said Hugh”.

Thomas Blakey and Nicholas Johnson were both hanged and afterwards their bodies would have been strung-up on a gibbet at the scene of the murder.

The gibbet site is said to have been marked by a large stone stoop, which until about 30 years ago stood in the middle of the field on the right as you descend the road on Cononley Brow.

Once known to old locals as the ‘murder stone’, it has been relocated and is now by the stile for the footpath from Cononley Brow to Cross Hills.

The murder not only put an end to the violence but also marked the end of the days when cattle were free to graze across once-open village fields.