During the medieval period, peasant farmers across the Dales continued to raise cattle and sheep and plough their lord’s land, growing a variety of staple crops like barley and oats. At the same time, large estates were being created to raise cash incomes and food for monastic houses. By the 14th century, large upland areas of the Yorkshire Dales were given over to monastic granges. Here, sheep were farmed intensively for their wool and milk and religious houses such as Bolton Priory and Fountains became hugely wealthy on the proceeds of their sale.
In between the great monastic estates lay hunting forest. The descendants of the Norman conquerors spent a great deal of time hunting deer and other game, and modern villages such as Buckden grew from foresters’ lodges. These lodges housed the lord’s officials who policed the woods and fields making sure that the local population didn’t interfere with the lord’s property. In time, hunting use of the forests and chases declined and large cattle farms (vaccaries) were established as a valuable source of income.
Timber from the lord’s surviving woodlands was an important commodity and was used for building both box frame and cruck frame houses in the Dales. No cruck houses survive, but documentary evidence shows that they existed. A survey in Cracoe has uncovered reused cruck timbers in several later houses. Medieval box frame houses have also not survived. The closest example, Fold Farmhouse, is a hall house dating to the early Tudor period but would have looked very much like its lost medieval predecessors.
Buildings made of stone had a much better chance of surviving and there are several medieval examples in the Yorkshire Dales. Tower houses were built as defensive structures at a time when raiders from Scotland were a common problem in this part of the world. Nappa Hall built in 1459, started life as one as did Ingmire Hall. High status Bolton Castle was built on a much grander scale, but protection from Scottish raiders was also part of its purpose.
Several medieval churches have also survived such as the early 14th century Church of St Oswald in Castle Bolton, built just before the castle. The church continued to play a large part in the lives of local people. All Saints Church in Orton is first documented when it was awarded to Conishead Priory between 1154 and 1163, but possibly reused Roman masonry within its foundations may attest to a longer period of use. The earliest recorded fabric is a late 12th century pier and respond that formed part of the original crossing.
By far the largest archaeological monuments from the medieval period are the farmed landscapes of the Dales. The trained eye can easily spot the remains of the terraced fields and strip lynchets built up by the ox-drawn ploughs of generations of medieval farmers. Fine examples can be seen near Thorpe and Linton in Wharfedale and above Conistone in the same dale. A walk up to Malham Cove will reveal even more examples. Maulds Meaburn in the Westmorland Dales the well-preserved earthwork remains of the medieval settlement consist of abandoned tofts and associated earthwork enclosures which pre-date the existing post-medieval field system.