The History of Appleby in Westmorland
Though it is said never to have had a population greater than 3000, Appleby-in-Westmoreland has a fascinating history which includes some famous names, and for those looking at the peaceful market town today a perhaps surprising amount of conflict.
The Celts inhabited the area where Appleby now stands, and the Romans would have known the district as one of their east-west roads crosses the place, but it appears to be the Vikings who first established the settlement, or rather several smaller farmsteads which in time formed one larger grouping.
Our detailed knowledge of Appleby begins in the Norman era. Appleby at various points in its history belonged to Scottish overlords, and such was the case in the mid-11th century. William Rufus in 1092 seized much of the region from the Scots, and a fortification of some sort was erected soon thereafter. The Norman warrior Ranulf le Meschin was given the task of retaining the newly conquered lands, and he began the building of the first castle there in about 1100, retaining it until 1121 when his inheritance of the more important Earldom of Chester in November 1120 led to the stronghold being returned to the crown.
The Scots managed to retake Appleby in 1136, holding it until 1157 when the English crown regained control, giving the town (and Brough nearby) to Hugh de Morville, who was lord there until the crown confiscated both Brough and Appleby from him in 1173. The impressive Caesar’s Tower, a huge keep, was built in 1170 to improve the castle’s defences, but when King William the Lion of Scotland invaded in 1174 it still surrendered meekly.
Over the next 90 years or so the ownership of Appleby changed hands several times until Roger de Clifford in 1269 was given the place. His family held on to it until after the Civil War, almost rebuilding the structure in the mid-15th century, though for more than 20 years (1461 – 1485) during the Wars of the Roses the crown once more confiscated the castle.
Appleby’s market, still going strong today, was chartered in 1174, a sign of local economic significance. The town prospered thanks in no small part to its market status. The church of St Lawrence has elements dating back to the 12th century; but like the town itself St Lawrence’s suffered from the raids by the Scots during medieval border conflicts, meaning it required substantial rebuilding in the 14th century. During Henry VIII’s cross-border clashes with the Scots Appleby Castle again sustained damage, but this time it was self-inflicted: in 1540 the then owner Henry Clifford ‘slighted’ the already poorly maintained buildings to reduce their potential as a bridgehead for a Scottish invasion.
The most celebrated name in Appleby’s history is that of Lady Anne Clifford, who fought to inherit the town and other possessions willed by her father to an uncle. She won her cause in 1643, and moved to the town in 1649. The Civil War then ruining England saw further damage to the castle, but she rebuilt it over the rest of her life. Lady Anne also built in 1651 the almshouses known as St Anne’s Hospital; and in 1654 paid for the restoration of St Lawrence’s Church.
Today Appleby is perhaps most famous for its horse fair, once a wider trading fair. This was chartered in 1685 during the reign of James II.
As the county town of Westmoreland Appleby had the right to send two MPs to Parliament for many centuries. It is associated with two Prime Ministers: Pitt the Younger represented the borough when he became Premier in 1783; and later Viscount Howick, who subsequently as Earl Grey headed the government, was briefly its MP. Appleby in the 18th century had become a rotten borough, in the hands of one family, and such corrupt practices were ended, a touch ironically, by Earl Grey in the Great Reform Act of 1832. Appleby consequently became the only county town not to send MPs to Parliament.
In 1876 Appleby joined Britain’s railway network when the Settle-Carlisle line was completed. Happily Beeching’s suggestion that the line be closed was defeated, and the link remains today, bringing tourists and ramblers to what is a beautiful historic spot, though since 1974 no longer a county town.