The Early History of Alwoodley


Alwoodley map 1933

Sporadic finds like a flint axe, a Celtic carving and Roman coins remind us that human impact on the landscape of Alwoodley has been ongoing for thousands of years.1 Indeed the very place name itself is a clue to the origins of permanent settlement in the district. A.H. Smith argues that it is of Saxon derivation and means ‘Athelwald’s forest glade or clearing’.2

But what is the exact geographical area this term refers to? It is indeed fortunate that several excellent descriptions of the ancient bounds still exist today along with numerous estate plans and maps.3 It is clear that name ‘Alwoodley’ is used to describe a rectangular parcel of land just to the north of Leeds, surrounded by the townships of Harewood, Adel, Chapel Allerton and Wigton. Its ancient boundaries stretch from the Seven Arches, up Adel Beck to Stair Foot Bridge, skirt the bottom of the northern scarp slope, which is now edged by Eccup Reservoir, to Alwoodley Gates, across the eastern side of Harrogate Road to the Belvederes, then along Nursery Lane in a westerly direction and back to the starting point.

In the Saxon period Alwoodley comprised of five distinct landscapes. The most desirable agricultural land was to be found on and near the south facing scarp slope to the north of Alwoodley Lane. Just to the south of this major routeway was an area of less fertile soils that extended westward across to Adel Beck, where the rock-strewn valley side afforded meagre opportunities for agricultural activity. However substantial parts of the lordship were moorland. The well drained but sterile Sand Moor covered much of the area to the north-east and the Black Moor, a large tongue of peat moorland, extended across the whole of the southern part and formed the common land of Alwoodley.  Peat was a major asset as it gave people a free source of fuel and meant that a minimum amount of woodland had to be maintained, thus freeing this land for cultivation.

In terms of farming it was a relatively high, exposed area with a limited capacity to support a small number of families who lived in farms dispersed across the landscape. Alwoodley had no central settlement but the most important site was that of Alwoodley Old Hall, favourably located in a sheltered spot near the foot of the scarp slope, surrounded by the finest agricultural land in the lordship.

The first documentary evidence for the township is found in the Domesday Book of 1086 when King William’s commissioners visited the district to make an accurate record of the lands and people they had only recently conquered.

 ‘In Aluuoldelie Roschil had five carucates to be taxed. Land to three ploughs. Twenty shillings.’ 4

The entry is remarkably brief yet intriguing. Seventeen years earlier William’s soldiers had rampaged through the district burning farmhouses, destroying crops, killing people and driving away cattle in a calculated military operation to permanently remove opposition to Norman rule. This ruthless campaign was known as ‘the harrying of the north’ and the district suffered severely as a result of this scorched earth policy.5 Adel, Cookridge, Burdon and Eccup had been worth sixty shillings before the conquest but were all ‘waste’ with no surviving inhabitants.  Bramhope and Allerton were also totally devastated.6  Arthington had been worth 30s but was reduced  to a mere five, whereas nearby Headingley had sunk in value from 40s to a just four! 7  Unlike surrounding manors it appears that Alwoodley escaped this destruction because the value of the property remained constant at twenty shillings.

Detail of Alwoodley Old Hall from the 1682 plan by Joseph Parker. The timber framed building with the two chimney stacks (A), next to the orchard, is the former Frank residence which was eventually demolished in 1822. To the left is the 1640 stone mansion built by Clifton shortly after his acquisition of the estate (B). Below is a walled area with a formal knot garden in the middle.


1. Early Bronze Age Axe: Leeds Museums and Galleries Accession No: LEEDM.D.1964.0190, gift of Mr A.Snow, May 1947 / Rock carving of a human figure in the style of the Romano Celtic period with what appears to be a circular shield in the left hand and a possible sword or spear in the right, identified as a Celtic warrior god, Cocidius: West Yorkshire Archaeology Service’s Sites and Monuments Record, Primary Record Number 1541: found during fieldwork 1987/ 8 by A. Ross and C.A.King / Roman Road: Yorkshire Archaeological Journal, Vol. 32 (Leeds, 1934) Coins: Yorkshire Archaeological Journal, Vol.34 (Leeds, 1939) pp. 92-3; Yorkshire Archaeological Journal, Vol. 22 (Leeds, 1913) pp. 290-3.

2. A.H.Smith, ed., Place Names of the West Riding of Yorkshire, Part ΙV (Cambridge, 1961) p.180; see also L.Huntley, The Gascoignes of Harewood, Historic Yorkshire Families, Series No.12 (York, 1906) for the following story of Athelwold. About 959 A.D. King Edgar had heard of the beauty of Elfrida, daughter of Olgar who lived ‘on the Wharfe banks’. He asked Athelwold to investigate and report back. The lady proved fatally attractive and Athelwold decided to marry her himself. He told the king that she was rich but ‘plain and homely as a garden gate’. Edgar granted permission for the wedding but later on met the woman and realised he had been betrayed. The next day Athelwold was found dead with the King’s dagger deep in his back. Elfrida then became Queen.

3. W(est) Y(orkshire) A(rchive) S(ervice), Lane Fox Papers: ref. LF129/7.
4. J.Jones, The History and Antiquities of Harewood, (Leeds, 1859) p.201.
5. J.Le Patourel, ‘The Norman Conquest of Yorkshire’, Northern History, VΙ (1971), pp. 1-21.
6. W.T.Lancaster, Adel, Thoresby Soc., Misc. Vol. ΙV (Leeds, 1895) p.261; Some Notes on the Early History of Arthington, Thoresby Soc., Misc. Vol. ΙV (Leeds, 1895) pp.148-9.
7. Ibid. p.149.


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