Aberford People

Monday, July 31, 2006





Is there an area in England which has a longer history than that around Aberford? I bet there isn’t. This area was already steeped in history when the Norman Conquest touched it. The Vavasour story dates back “only” as far as the coming of William the Conqueror ! What I have written is intended to just give a glimpse for there is so much more could have been told. It is not any kind of scholarly work, so I apologise for any inaccuracies - but I hope you enjoy this story. My sources are listed at the end.

William the Conqueror parcelled out land to his Barons and a huge area, which included present-day Aberford, was given to William de Percy. The word “Vavasor” or “Valvasor” was used to indicate a person who was a servant of a servant – he held his land not directly from the King but from a local Lord. In rank he was below a Baron. Over time the Vavasour word became the surname of the Vavasours of Hazelwood.

Our first Vavasour is recorded in the Domesday Book – Malger or Mauger – who, around 1083, held considerable estates in Stutton, Eselwood etc on behalf of the Percys. From this time the Vavasour family was a thread which ran through the nobility in this area and beyond for the next 900 years. A manor house was built – certainly it is known that Maud de Percy offered to pay for a chapel to be erected next to the Manor house in 1184.

One hundred years passed – Mauger’s grandson Sir William was a judge in the reign of Henry II and he advised Matilda Countess of Warwick (a member of the Percy family) about the refounding of a Cistercian Abbey of Sawley in Ribblesdale. Matilda granted to Sawley Abbey a Church at Tadcaster together with the Chapel at Hazlewood – the earliest reference to a place of worship at Hazlewood.

By 1217 William’s son – Robert – was Sheriff of York and began the following tradition which the Vavasours were to maintain right into the 19th century. Namely, about 1225 Robert granted a charter to York Minster which gave free passage to his quarry at Thievesdale nr Tadcaster to have stone to repair, rebuild or enlarge the Minster. This act of generosity was commemorated by a statue of Robert being placed on the left side over the West Door of the Minster. To the right side is a statue of Robert’s “Overlord” – William de Percy. Stone from this same quarry was used in many other important buildings – as far as Cambridge where it was used for the first phase of the building of Kings College Chapel. This tradition extended as late as 1879 when Sir Edward Vavasour gave stone to the Minster after a fire.

Vavasours divided ! The Barons’ Wars during the reign of Henry III saw one Vavasour (Malger of Denton) set against another (John of Hazlewood). Malger supported Simon de Montfort whilst John supported the King. Malger attacked John and his manor house and chapel were sacked and burnt ! However, under the reign of Edward I there came greater stability and Sir William – who succeeded around 1283 – was able to rebuild the house and chapel. A licence was granted to Sir William in 1290 to fortify and “crenellate” the manor – effectively turning the Hall of a “thane” into a Castle fit for a Baron. A good thing coming out of a bad thing for our Vavasours !

Sir William died in 1313 and is buried in the chapel he built. His son – Sir Walter – spent most of his time away from Hazlewood on the Scottish borders and was killed in a skirmish in 1316.

Now we go forward in time – through the time of the Black Death (which touched Aberford and would merit an article one day) – the French wars – the Wars of the Roses - which they did not take part in but which, nevertheless, came very close to our Vavasours. The Battle of Towton took place only 2/3 miles away from Hazlewood which resulted in the deaths of many thousands of men. It is said that the noise of the battle was so great that it was heard by the family and their servants during Mass in their chapel on that Palm Sunday, 29th March 1461!

The Vavasours held to their Catholic faith through the centuries. In the 16th century it was a time of radical religious and social change. Sir William – born 1514 – was twice High Sheriff of Yorkshire, first under Edward V1 and then in 1563/4 in the early years of Queen Elizabeth’s reign. He was an MP in 1554, a JP and member of the Council of the North. Somehow he managed to ensure that the chapel at Hazlewood was not suppressed by the King’s Commissioners and maintained a priest from his own pocket. He died in 1566.

Sir William’s son – John – was brought before the Commissioners in 1581 for being a “recusant”. – refusing to attend Anglican services. However Queen Elizabeth exempted the whole Vavasour “clan” from the penal laws against Catholics – it is said this was because she was extremely fond of Ann Vavasour of Copmanthorpe one of her Ladies in Waiting and because of the service of Sir Thomas Vavasour in the fleet which fought the Armada.

After the “Gunpowder Plot” the exemptions ceased and times became very tough. Poor John Vavasour – an old man of around 70 by now – was convicted of recusancy in 1609 together with his nephew William – convicted in 1610 and fined £150. William spent 5 years in Newgate prison in London before regaining his estates – and his son Thomas had to pay the King £130 per annum for his estates although having been created a Baronet in 1628.

The Vavasours always proved loyal to the monarch of the day. When the Civil War broke out, the second Baronet Sir Walter formed a regiment of horsemen which he commanded and served the King – but the King’s cause did not prosper and Walter’s brother was killed at Tewkesbury – Sir Walter fled abroad ! Better times were to come with the Restoration – Sir Walter regained his estates.

Moving forward in time to the early 18th century – there was a period of some 20 years when, curiously, the head of the family and 4th Baronet was a Jesuit ! Fr Walter succeeded his cousin in 1713 but he died in 1740 and was succeeded by his nephew Walter, whose father had been a Doctor in York. By now things had become much easier for Catholic families such as the Vavasours.

Money was not going out in fines or being used to raise regiments etc. The stable block was built about 1750 and many alterations took place The 6th Baronet – another Sir Walter – decided to modernise the house in the style of Robert Adam. The Great Hall was transformed – probably by Carr and a new entrance added.

Sir Walter died in 1802 and Hazlewood almost passed out of the family at this time for he had agreed to sell the Castle and 60 acres to the Church to become a seminary for the North of England. However, papers had not actually been signed and the new Baronet – Sir Thomas – managed to “get out of the deal”. Sir Thomas never married and the estate passed to Edward Stourton who was a Vavasour on his mother’s side. He came from an old Catholic family and took the name Vavasour being created a Baronet in 1828. He was a very pious man and, although his wife Marcia Lane-Fox of Bramham Park came from an Anglican family, she converted to Catholicism. After she died, Sir Edward went on a pilgrimage to Rome but did not reach Rome as he died on route in 1847.

The last Vavasour to live at Hazlewood was Sir Edward’s grandson – another Sir William Edward Joseph 3rd Brt. – who inherited in 1885. Unfortunately there were financial problems by the end of the century for the income from tenants was not great. This was probably the problem at this time for many such large estates. Borrowings were made and soon large mortgages had been built up - the estate was put up for sale. What a very ordinary event to bring to a close the 900 years almost continuous occupancy of our extraordinary Vavasours. We can only guess what Sir William’s feelings were at this parting.


The Vavasour story is briefly interrupted here to give a short account of what has happened up to the present time to Hazlewood Castle and Chapel. Firstly a Mr Simpson, a solicitor, bought the Castle from Sir William and he and his family lived there for over 40 years. He had the Jacobean West Wing pulled down and other changes made. In 1910, during alterations, a medieval window was discovered in the Great Hall. A terrace and balustrade were added. The property was cared for and the chapel continued to have services.

During WW11 and for a few years after, the Castle was used as a maternity hospital for Leeds and some older Aberford residents were actually born there. They must be quite proud to say that they were born in a Castle !

In 1953 the Fawcett family bought the property – they were local Catholic farmers and Richard Fawcett came to live at the Castle with his wife who was a granddaughter of Sir William Vavasour. So there was again a brief occupation by a Vavasour but – by 1960 – the Castle was sold again to Mr Donald Hart.

Mr Hart took good care of the property over the next 12 years until the Bishop of Leeds discussed with him if the Castle – particularly the Chapel – could strengthen its Catholic links. Through the Bishop and with Mr Hart’s consent, the Carmelite Friars were encouraged to purchase the property as a retreat and pilgrimage centre. Hazlewood was purchased by the Carmelites in 1967 but Mr Hart was allowed to live there until he died in 1972. The Carmelites decided to put the Castle up for sale again in 1996 and it was then bought and turned into a very “upmarket” Hotel and Conference centre which continues to the present time.


To return to the Vavasours and especially the branch that went to New Zealand – this is what I believe brings us up to date in 2006.

Here in England, information gleaned from wikipedia website seems to show that the Baronetcy line has continued from Sir Wm. the 3rd Baronet to his son Sir Leonard Pius (1881 – 1961), Sir Geoffrey William (1914 – 1997) and currently to Sir Eric Michel Joseph Marmaduke 6th Bt (born 1953). According to Burkes Peerage, this gentleman lives in Leicestershire. It’s great to know the major branch of “our” Vavasour family are still going strong here in England.

An enquiry was made to the Vavasour Winery in New Zealand to see if contact could be made with a branch of the family there but, as yet, nothing has been forthcoming from that source. Perhaps this story will be updated if contact can be made in the future. In the meantime the New Zealand information has been gleaned from various websites and the accuracy cannot be vouched for but it goes something like this.

It appears to the writer that it was Henry Dunstan Vavasour, the Grandson of 1st Baronet who was probably first of the New Zealand line. He was born in 1850, married in 1887 – a lady called Bertha Eleanor Mary Redwood of Blenheim, New Zealand. From the Vavasour Wine website comes the information that the Vavasours arrived in New Zealand and established themselves in the Awatere Valley in 1890 so this would fit.

The Awatere Valley is in the Marlborough Region which is to the north east of South Island. It sounds a wonderful part of the world and I hope you read about it yourselves through either books or via the internet. It has a temperate climate, extensive vineyards, a wonderful coastline where you can watch whales and swim with dolphins, it is the wine-growing centre of New Zealand and has several interesting towns. So, the Vavasours picked a great place to settle!

Henry and his wife had eleven children – amongst the male children it appears there were 4 or 5 who married New Zealand ladies and had families of their own, again there were sons to carry on the Vavasour name so far across the world from where they started.

From the Vavasour Winery website it can be seen that it was a Peter Vavasour, around 1985 and together with family and friends who made the investment in viticulture and the Vavasour Winery was founded in the Awatere Valley.The business seems to have been very successful and Hazlewood Castle Hotel is where you can taste some Vavasour wine for they stock it!!

How “the wheel has come full circle” for “our” Vavasour family !If Sir Mauger could have looked into the future, how wonderfully strange he would have found all that has happened to his old home and to those who bear the Vavasour name today. You cannot go to Hazlewood Castle and fail to feel some vestige of all that has happened there so close to Aberford – if you get the chance to sit in the little Chapel you will feel very close to that long history surrounding you.


Many sources were used in my research – I hope I have listed all of them and my grateful thanks to all. I’m sure there are many more to be found.

Tadcaster Library have several documents of interest. There are 2 books produced by the Carmelite order – one covering the Castle and one the Chapel. These books are extremely interesting and there is a map of the Castle interior. There are also some leaflets produced by the Carmelites when the property was being run as a “retreat” – these would have been given to visitors to use whilst there. All these documents are freely available to consult.

There are also some books :
  • H. Speight – Lower Wharfedale
  • E. Bogg - The Old Kingdom of Elmet
  • H. Speight - 2000 Years of Tadcaster History
  • K Longley - Hazlewood Chapel Hazlewood Castle

Useful websites:

Two sites not consulted but they sound very interesting:

  • The Borthwick Institute of York University has some material – Working Notes of Katherine Longley on various topics including those towards a history of the Vavasour family.
  • West Yorkshire Archive Service at Wakefield has some family and estate records of Vavasours of Hazlewood.