The History of Thirsk
The Roman road between York and Northallerton is thought to have run through or near what became Thirsk, but the town is of Saxon origin, though perhaps a smaller Celtic settlement predated it. There is some debate about the derivation of the name, with at least three competing theories: most probably it comes from the Norse thraesk, a fen or marsh; alternatively it may be made from two Celtic words, Tre a town, and Isk a stream; less likely is the conjunction of the Norse god Thor’s name and the Celtic Wisk, water.
There is debate also about when the great castle at Thirsk, now long gone, was built: legend has it that this was either in 959 or sometime in the 970s, though a persuasive argument that it was in fact Norman is that no mention of the structure is made in the Domesday Book of 1086.
For centuries after The Conquest Thirsk and its castle belonged to the de Mowbray family, the first such owner Robert de Mowbray son of one of William I ’s companions. This Robert de Mowbray was the victor of the Battle of Alnwick nearby. In the 12th century his grandson William temporarily lost his lands, having rebelled and been captured at Lincoln .
The de Mowbrays were indeed less than loyal: in 1175 another Roger of that ilk rose somewhat ineffectually against Henry II . Thirsk castle, besieged and rapidly surrendered, was on Henry’s orders totally destroyed, though its stones supposedly found a new use in the huge church of St Mary Magdalen .
It may reflect Thirsk’s failure to develop that, though entitled to send MPs to Parliament since 1294, it did not feel constrained to do so until 1553 – though thenceforth until 1832 and the Great Reform Act it sent two, in effect a pocket borough as the majority of electors were qualified by residence in homes owned by a few families. Thanks to this relative lack of economic change the town’s centre still includes some impressive medieval buildings.
Thirsk passed from the de Mowbrays to Lord Berkeley at the end of the 15th century; he sold it to Thomas Stanley, Earl of Derby, in whose family it remained until 1723.
After the demolition of the castle Thirsk saw little martial action, though in 1489 it was reputedly the site of the murder of Henry Percy the Earl of Northumberland by an army of peasants and townsfolk during riots over taxation. The next, and last, arrival of an army in Thirsk was in 1745, when Dutch forces on their way to slaughter Jacobites in Scotland camped there.
As the sojourn of the Dutch troops indicates, Thirsk was a significant point on the route northwards for centuries. In the 18th century it became a great coaching stop, and has some inns still reflecting that history. In 1768 entrepreneurs planned to build on Thirsk’s status as a transport hub by making the Codbeck, the large stream flowing through it, navigable, but this scheme failed. In 1841, however, the railways arrived, which put paid to the coaching business.
Thirsk’s most famous son, Thomas Lord , founder of Lord’s Cricket Ground, was born there in 1755, but the town can thank the vet and novelist James Herriot who lived there for much of his life (and based Darrowby on Thirsk) for more visitors than Lord ever attracted.
The 19th century saw some of the old town’s most notable buildings disappear, including the old Tollbooth burnt down in 1834, and the Shambles demolished in 1857. But one of Thirsk’s great contemporary claims to fame, its racecourse , was established in 1854, still a great venue for flat racing (its forerunner at one time the only course other than Newmarket where prize money for races was allowed).