The name Sherburn has been written in various ways throughout the ages. Shire-burn which means ‘clear stream’. In Old English was called ‘scir-burna’ which is said to mean ‘place at the bright or clear stream’. Around 900AD written as Scirburnan and later in 1086AD in the Doomsday Book as Scireburn in Elmed. In old writings it was called Schyreburn-in-Elmete by Lombard 1577.
There is no real evidence to support a Roman settlement in Sherburn though artefacts have been found from time to time including high class domestic pottery and two stone sarcophagi.
Sherburn was part of the ancient Celtic Kingdom of Elmet(or Elemet) formed by King Mascuid the Lame in 440 AD after the withdrawal of Roman rule and is famous for being one of the last British kingdoms to hold out against English expansion. It formed part of the eastern boundary and as such appears to have been constantly at war with the English Kingdom of Deira. Surrounded by pagans the Kingdom of Elmet defied their military prowess and preserved the literature, art and Christian doctrines left by their former conquerors and lords (the Romans). The autonomous kingdom fell in 617AD when King Ceretic was killed defending his kingdom against the invading Northumbrians led by King Edwin of Deira.
Probably Sherburn’s most important historical connection is with Athelstan who was the first king to have overall control of all the English kingdoms (reigned 924 -941 AD) and thus played an instrumental part in forming the English nation. The manor centred on Sherburn was probably obtained after he took control of York from the Scandinavians in 927AD. He is said to have spent a large proportion of his reign in the North of England; Sherburn being selected by him as the site of his manor house or palace and his northern home. The pattern of the day was for a king to continually move throughout his kingdom with such palaces existing as regional bases and manorial centres. After his victory at Brananburg in 937AD he bestowed his palace and a considerable part of the town on the Archbishop of York as an offering to the church for the victory God had given him.
Records state that this palace or manorial centre was of high enough status to be used as a hunting lodge by the Archbishops until 1361. The archaeological remains of this manorial centre, known as ‘King Athelstan’s Palace’ are adjacent to the church and has been given the protected status of a scheduled ancient monument.
William 1 and his followers passed through Sherburn on his way to Northumbria in 1069 intent on revenge. Most places were destroyed but Sherburn was left untouched – ‘not one peasant’s hut or blade of grass was touched’ in deference to the church. The Archbishop of York had presided at William’s coronation when all others refused. The chronicler tells us that having been detained for three days at Pontefract, they forded the Aire at Ferrybridge, and then followed the road ‘which lay through forests and marshes, over hills and along valleys, by paths so narrow that two soldiers could not march abreast’, until they reached York. This road then evidently little better than a forest path would lead them through South Milford and Sherburn to Tadcaster and then York.
Sherburn was granted a Wednesday market in March 1223 by Henry 111. It was changed to a Friday in 1239. It was important as wool market (Sherburn woolle in Elmet was sold for 5 marks).
On 23rd August 1238 Henry 111 granted permission to the Archbishop of York to hold a fair at Sherburn for two days -13th & 14th September – the day of vigil & day of Exultation of the Holy Cross.
In 1292 the Archbishop of York was summoned to explain why amongst other things he had a market, a fair and a gallows at Sherburn and other places. He clung to the rights handed down and granted by King Henry.
He also had a pillory and ducking stool in each of his towns including Sherburn and ‘woe to the poor unfortunate wretch who fell within His Grace’s clutches, for the rotten eggs and other nauseous projectiles of the pillory, and the stagnant foetid water of the filthy horse pond, soon taught them how necessary it was to acknowledge his supremacy and obey his laws’.
On June 28th 1321 the Archbishop of York, two bishops, the Earl of Lancaster and many local knights met at Sherburn to discuss resistance to the Scottish army and action against Edward II. The following year the king’s forces defeated the Earl of Lancaster at Boroughbridge and he was executed at Pontefract.
On Palm Sunday 29th March 1461, the Battle of Towton was fought near to Sherburn. This was one of the bloodiest battles in the Wars of the Roses (36,776 dead and wounded). According to ancient chroniclers many men were based and drilled at Sherburn and so much does Sherburn appear to have been connected with the battle that some early writers have gone so far as to call it the ‘Battle of Sherburn-in-Elmete’. Some maintain that the commanders stood on the church tower to watch the battle but given the conditions – heavy snow – and the lay of the land this seems unlikely. It is possible however that the troop movements towards the battle sit could have been observed from there.
After it fell into the hands of Henry VIII, the manor of Sherburn was later purchased by the Hungates of Saxton then, following a petition to the king, was granted to Arthur, Earl of Anglesey, in 1662 for 31 years.
It reverted to Hungates then because there was no male heir, and then passed to the Gascoignes in 1710 through Mary Hungate who married Sir Edward Gascoigne, Bart.
In 1569 some northern barons evinced a hatred towards the throne that eventually broke out into insurrection, destined to release Mary Queen of Scots and place her son on the English throne. In the early stages of the rebellion, Sherburn was seized by rebel troops who for some time held it as a garrison. After holding Sherburn and the towns of Tadcaster and Wetherby for some days, the increasing numbers of royal forces compelled the rebels to retreat towards the north where the sympathies of the people would provide them with a safer refuge. After the departure of the rebels and the continuance of the tumult, Sherburn was frequently the point of rendezvous for royal armies and it was not until the rebellion was repressed in the early part of 1570 that it was restored to a peaceful existence.
During the English Civil War (1642 – 1646) Sherburn was the scene of a minor yet important battle on 15th October 1645. The commander of the Royalist troops north of the Trent, Lord Digby, stopped at Sherburn to refresh his troops whilst marching to York. They were attacked by a parliamentary force and a skirmish ensued. This was an embarrassing rout during which 150 Royalist horse were killed and a baggage train containing official documents was seized.
The common arable fields, meadows, pasture grounds, commons and waste lands were enclosed in March 1770.