A tour around Markenfield Hall

25th August 2017

Markenfield Hall from across moat

In a previous article, we looked at a selection of the best country houses in Yorkshire. As we noted at the time, this vast county has a wide range of ancient and impressive buildings, which – if time allowed us – we could discuss at great length.

However, one country house which we did not feature in our last piece but that we feel could not be overlooked is Markenfield Hall. Whilst you could spend an entire holiday based at accommodation in Scarborough, or indeed elsewhere in Yorkshire, exploring the area’s many fine houses, we strongly recommend that you visit Markenfield above all others if you get the chance.

There are many reasons why taking the time to see the historic home of the de Markenfield family will be worth your while. To guide you through some of them we have spoken with the team at Markenfield Hall, as well as several people who have visited it over the years.

Before we look more closely at Markenfield’s history and all that you can see there today, however, it is important that we clarify one point: other than a handful of special events throughout the year, the house is only open to the public on 30 afternoons annually. This, of course, means that you will have to plan your trip in advance to be sure of being able to enjoy it; we can assure you, however, that the preparation will be well worth it!

Read on for more information about what makes Markenfield Hall one of Yorkshire’s most fascinating and unique attractions.

A brief history of Markenfield Hall

Markenfield Hall from across moat

John Kelly, who runs the happyhiker.co.uk website, was kind enough to send us a synopsis of Markenfield’s history, which excellently summarises the hall’s dramatic and often chaotic history:

“Markenfield Hall is a rare and little-known moated, fortified, medieval farmhouse, which has survived largely unspoiled as a private house and working farm since the 14th century. It has been inhabited for most of that time. Although it fell into disrepair at one time, the first Lord Grantley bought the estate in 1761 and saved the house, in one of the first cases of historic building conservation.

“Its origins go back for a thousand years and Markenfield appears in the Domesday Book. In 1310, Canon John de Markenfield became Chancellor of the Exchequer by Edward II and was awarded a licence to fortify the house to protect it from Scots raiders. The house already had a moat but the additional fortifications resulted in the present appearance. The house remained in the Markenfield family until the 16th Century when it was confiscated by the Crown during the oppression of Catholics by Queen Elizabeth I.

“The estate passed by royal patronage to one Sir Thomas Egerton who became Queen Elizabeth’s Lord Chancellor. The family became the Dukes of Bridgewater but never lived at Markenfield. It lost some of its prestige and became a working farm, let to various tenant farmers.

“The estate was bought for £9,400 in 1761 by Fletcher Norton who became Attorney General and later a peer, choosing the title Baron Grantley of Markenfield, although he actually continued to live at Grantley Hall, some ten miles away. In fact, none of the Grantley family lived at Markenfield Hall until the 1980s.

“Markenfield Hall is quite isolated and this fact may have protected it from damage and robbing of materials as, in 1777, the Turnpike Act diverted the main road away from it and its existence was largely forgotten.

“After the Grantleys resumed residence in the 1980s, they began serious restoration work, resulting in them receiving the Sotheby’s/Historic Houses Association Restoration Award in 2008.”

What you can see at Markenfield today

Markenfield Hall outbuildings

David Ross, editor of the Britain Express website (who also contributed to our previous article), describes Markenfield as “one of Yorkshire’s hidden gems”, which should give you an indication of the extent to which its beauty and idiosyncratic character has been successfully preserved. 

David explains that “The Hall is remarkably complete and essentially unaltered since it was built by the de Markenfield family. Direct descendants of the family still own the Hall today, over 700 years later.

“Visitors enter the Hall through the vaulted undercroft, built in 1310 and featuring a modern loo made from a medieval prison cell.

“The centrepiece of Markenfield Hall is the superb timber-framed Great Hall, begun around 1280…

“…Beside the Great Hall is the medieval chapel, where Sir Thomas de Markenfield and his followers heard Mass before setting out on their futile attempt to depose Elizabeth I during the Rising of the North in 1569. Look for the superbly carved double piscina in one corner of the chapel.”

John Kelly also shared his thoughts on the house as it is today, and on some of its finest features: “Externally, the main interest to the casual observer is its fortified appearance and its complete water-filled moat, in which can be seen black swans.

“Internally, various rough plastering and boxing in of features by various tenant farmers over the decades has been removed to reveal the original fabric, which has been sympathetically and beautifully restored to habitable condition.”

Markenfield Hall from across lawn

The undercroft mentioned a little earlier is one of Markenfield’s most memorable highlights, and who better to tell us more about its past and current appearance than those who work at the hall today?

“[T]he undercroft greets visitors to Markenfield Hall with a roaring fire and a cosy atmosphere - but that was not always the case. Visitors arriving to see the Markenfield family would have entered the Hall on the first floor - directly in to the Great Hall - and the undercroft would have been a hive of domestic activity with all the day to day tasks that would have served the family upstairs.

“Evidence of the undercroft’s domestic role can be seen in the shallow stone sink set under one of the windows. Water has always been an issue at the Hall, and was a precious resource in mediaeval times. Evidence has recently emerged of a lead conduit that ran from Morker Grange at nearby Fountains Abbey to Markenfield, supplying the Hall with fresh water during the Middle Ages.

“When the Hall was first built in the late thirteenth century, the whole of the ground floor would have been vaulted and divided into three large chambers. The rooms would have looked much the same as the Cellarium at Fountains Abbey. It is believed that the vaulting was removed sometime after 1570 when the Hall became a tenanted farmhouse, and the farming family required room to carry out their farming activities. The scars of the vaulting can still best be seen on the west wall of the room.

“At the same time as the vaulting was removed, the magnificent fireplace that had taken pride of place in John de Markenfields’ Great Hall was brought downstairs - stone by stone – and installed where you see it today, to provide warmth and comfort in the now-farm kitchen. As well as providing warmth for the farmer, his family and his workforce, the fire would have been the only means of cooking in the Hall. The range was fitted in Victorian times, and even then it was the only form of heat, hot water and cooking facilities to be had in the house.”

Markenfield Hall from under archway

Another internal part of Markenfield Hall which is more than worth describing in-depth is the four-poster bedroom. Again, the team at Markenfield were happy to tell us more about the room and some of the memorable features which can be seen there today:

“The Four Poster Bedroom is one of two rooms that have been fashioned out of the original Medieval Solar. It was common in Medieval times for estate workers to be allowed to sleep in the Great Hall at night in harsh winter conditions, but the Lord, his Lady and their family would sleep in the Solar – so named because of the large windows they traditionally had to allow in as much natural light as possible.

“The Solar would have been twice its present height, and would have stretched back in to the passage area that now leads off the Chapel. The area now houses the stairs to the attic, the Four Poster Bedroom and a Dressing Room beyond. There would originally have been a doorway from the passage into the Great Hall, but no marks suggesting its original location have been found. The doorway would have led from behind the top table, directly in to the Solar. The current en-suite of the Four Poster Bedroom probably once held the garderobe, which would have emptied directly in to the moat.

“The fireplace and the window seats are part of the original 1310 room. Directly in front of the fireplace are some remarkable mediaeval tiles, very similar to ones around the high altar at nearby Fountains Abbey – thus continuing the strong links between the devoutly Catholic family and the nearby Abbey.

“The large portrait depicts Katherine Norton nee McVicar, American wife of 5th Lord Grantley. Katherine was originally married to the cousin of 5th Lord Grantley, but after a family lunch when she was seated next to Lord Grantley the pair eloped together and spent the next fortnight on his yacht in the Mediterranean. The pair eventually returned to England and a divorce ensued. Katherine and 5th Lord Grantley were married on November 5th 1879 and American relatives survive to this day. The painting as you see it is greatly reduced in size, having been cut in half by 6th Lord Grantley. It is believed that he cut the portrait down to fit it over a fireplace following a house move. Looking closely, the viewer will see that the waist of Katherine has been “airbrushed” to reduce its size.”

What the visitors say

Black swan

For all its rich history and architectural brilliance, however, one thing which seems to strike a particular chord with those who visit Markenfield Hall is its atmosphere. Whether it is the buildings themselves or the friendly guides who show guests around, everyone we spoke to seems to be in agreement that it is just a bit different – in the best possible way – from many of the better-known country houses which are open all year round.

Markenfield Hall is also a popular wedding venue. We were fortunate enough to speak with the Harrogate-based Tim Hardy, who has been in charge of photography at many of Markenfield’s recent marriages, about what he thinks makes it such a special place:

“I have photographed a lot of weddings at Markenfield Hall and always love doing them. It is a real hidden gem of a venue and I am not sure many people know about it. It is a small venue which allows only 35 guests and you need to vacate by 6.00pm - this limits the audience but also filters out a lot of mainstream couples, meaning you get very interesting people who really want to be there.

“You can feel the history of the place when you are there and when attending a wedding you feel very privileged to be part of it. When you first walk in you see the fire lit in the range (even in summer!) and then go upstairs to the Great Hall and the Chapel – that’s when you know you are in a very special building.

“The pair of black swans in the moat really add to this, although beware of them when they have a nest - I have been chased through the orchard by them in the past. Luckily I am just a little bit quicker at running than a swan.”

Markenfield Hall and bridge from across moat

Markenfield was also visited several years ago by the members of PLACE - an independent charity which aims to promote research into the people and places of Yorkshire and beyond for the benefit of the public. The group’s Chief Executive, Dr Margaret Atherden, told us more about their memorable trip:

“Markenfield Hall is an historical gem - a well preserved medieval moated site with many original features, lovingly restored and cared for by the present owners. Our group from PLACE (the People Landscape & Cultural Environment Education & Research Centre, based at York St John University) visited in 2011 and were enchanted with both the interior and exterior. We felt as though we were stepping back several centuries. We were warmly welcomed and shown around the hall, with its unusual gallery, the bedrooms and the chapel.

“The gatehouse and drawbridge are impressive. The moat is still very much functional and even had black swans swimming on it! The outside of the Hall is surrounded by a small but well-kept garden with beautiful roses. Beyond the moat the site is surrounded by agricultural land, giving it a feeling of remoteness, even though it is close to a main road. A visit to Markenfield Hall is a rare treat for anyone interested in history.”

Markenfield Hall east side from moat

We also heard from Brian Hill, a photographer and novelist who has run the Yorkshire Images website since 2003, and who visited Markenfield for the inspiration it could provide for both of his passions. Here’s what he had to say about it:

“Markenfield Hall, is a remarkable, L-shaped, fortified 14th century Manor House. Completely moated, it lies in open farmland 3 miles from Ripon. After the mile-long winding drive from the A61 Ripon/Harrogate road, entry is on foot through the Tudor gatehouse into an enchanting mediaeval courtyard.

“Privately owned, Markenfield is a living, breathing family home. Restoration work is ongoing, but the Hall has retained its character, feel and many original features. Highlights are the Great Hall and Chapel. A walk round the outside of the moat is a must, where you can see the building from the outside in all its glory, and its reflections on the water. For those with a camera, its romantic setting is a dream come true.”

Our final comment on the house comes from David Ross, whose Britain Express site features a page specifically about Markenfield, which can be found here. David’s conclusion nicely sums up everything we’ve written about the hall and why you should visit it the next time you find yourself in North Yorkshire; he simply writes: “Markenfield Hall is one of the most remarkable and beautiful historic houses in England.” We couldn’t agree more!

Image Credits: Markenfield Hall, Britain ExpressJeremy Atkinson, Gordon Hatton, Dennis Lovett, David Rogers, Mick Melvin