Ranulph Lord Dacre of Gilsland – The Lord who was buried with his horse.

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The monument in All Saints Church, Saxby over the grave of Ranulph Lord Dacre and his horse. Photo Mary Emma1@Flkir

Ranulph/Ranulf/Randolph/Ralph, Lord Dacre of Gilsland’s precise date of birth is lost to us – as is his exact Christian name it would seem -but has been suggested as c.1412 although his date of death is very well known.   For he would  fall at the battle of Towton, fighting for Lancaster, fought on the 29th March 1461, making his age at time of death therefore about 50. His parents were Thomas Dacre,  6th Lord Dacre (b.1387 – d.1458) and his mother was Lady Philippe Neville.  Lady Philippe (born sometime before 20 July 1399 and death before 1458) was the daughter of the formidable Ralph Neville, Ist Earl of Westmorland (b c.1364- d.1425) and his first wife Lady Margaret Stafford ( b. c. 1364, d. 9 June 1396).  It’s well known how Westmorland would go on to  largely disinherit  his sons from his first marriage to Margaret for those by his second wife Joan Beaufort.  The second set of offspring would include Cicely Neville, mother to two Yorkists kings, Edward IV and Richard III.   This grave miscalculation on the part of Westmorland would lead to years of  repercussions, turmoil, destruction and bloodshed.   As J L Laynesmith puts it in her biography of Cicely Neville the disinheriting of the children from the first marriage wouldinevitably set generations of Nevilles at odds with one another and contributed to the baronial infighting of the Wars of the Roses’.  W E Hampton wrote:‘Ironically,  the brilliant and unjustly favoured offspring of his second marriage were to bring about the destruction of the houses of Lancaster and Beaufort while the issue of the first marriage, although injured by their stepmother,  were to support Lancaster and Beaufort with results disastrous to themselves’ ( 1) Thus it’s highly likely Ranulph’s fierce Lancastrian loyalty would no doubt have been learned at his mother’s knee.   Ranulph married Eleanor FitzHugh, daughter of  Henry FitzHugh, 5th Lord FitzHugh with their marriage appearing to have been childless.

Ranulph who came from an old Cumbrian family and was an MP for Cumberland before inheriting his father’s peerage is rather a shadowy figure but we do know he was a seasoned soldier (2). W E Hampton tells us that he  possibly fought at Wakefield, while certainly fighting both at Mortimer’s Cross and at the second battle of St Albans.

George Goodwin, author of Fatal Colours tells us he was ‘a soldier experienced in the harsh clashes of raid and counter raid in the Scottish borders; he had organised the Lancastrian Commission of Array in Cumbria in 1459 and has probably done so again in 1460-61’ (3).

 He commanded the rear left wing at Towton,  his brother-in-law, Henry Lord Fitzhugh fighting alongside Ralph as one of his lieutenants as well as  Humphrey, Ranulph’s brother (4).  Both Henry and Humphrey managed to make their escape from the horrendous carnage that day but Ranulph was fatally wounded by an arrow after he had removed his helmet to drink to quench his thirst.

He would be taken for burial in the churchyard of the  nearby All Saints Church Saxton.    This would seem strange, a 15th century nobleman being buried in a churchyard,  when it was usual practice for people of high status to be interred inside the church and as close to the altar as possible.  However when you learn that Ranulph’s horse was buried with him it immediately makes perfect sense.  Prima facie the first reaction to the  story of his horse being buried with him may be to groan and ask if it is yet another one of those local myths – like willow stakes pinning bodies down at Stoke or dead kings being thrown into the River Soar at Leicester etc – that have evolved over the years, usually a creation of the Georgians.   But no – it is actually true.  W E Hampton writing in 1979 stated that Ranolph was ‘buried in an upright position with his horse under him. In March 1787,  John Rogers,  Vicar of Saxton, dug up the skull of Lord Dacre and in 1861 the sexton, while digging a grave close by, dug into the horse’s skull. It’s vertebrae extended into its master’s grave. In 1863 a bed of concrete was laid over the grave which was not again disturbed and on which the monument was reerected (5).

A W Boardman in an article in 2021 taken from his book Towton 1461: The Anatomy of a Battle goes into more detail.  Boardman, although understandably, is unable to offer any explanation as to why Ranulph’s horse was buried with him,  explains that the metal clamps securing the tombstone were broken in 1749 to bury a Mr Gascoigne – honestly those ruddy Georgians again – disturbing the illustrious medieval dead to bury their mediocre gentry!  The identical thing was done in 1709 when the remains of George Duke of Clarence and his wife Isobel Neville were turfed out of their vault in Tewkesbury Abbey to enable to burial of a ‘periwig-pated alderman’  – what an absolute disgrace!   Ooooops I’ve gone off on a tangent here, again, and back to Ranulph’s tomb.  Boardman continues that during the digging of the grave for Mr Gascoigne ‘a skeleton was actually found in a standing position. Later, when a further grave was being dug beside the tomb, a horse’s head was found with its vertebrae extending into Dacre’s grave. A letter dated 23 January 1882 confirms these two burials, although most of the excavations in Saxton churchyard, and later at Towton, were local, amateurish, and not recorded by archaeologists‘.  The letter – which is now in the Lotherton Archives, Leeds Museums and Galleries –  was written at Saxton Vicarage by a George M Webb to a Colonel Gascoigne is printed here in full

My Dear Sir,
When I was at Craignish we had some conversation on the battle of Towton, which was fought in this Parish on Palm Sunday (March 29th Old style) 1461.
I then said that I would try to get hold of a Pamphlet which I had seen on this subject, & let you have it to read. I have not forgotton my promise, but regret that I do not recall where to lay my hand upon this source of information. I have lately had some conversation with the son of the old Sexton who dug the grave close to Lord Dacre’s tomb, and who himself was assisting. He tells me that when they had got down about 6 feet, they came upon the skull of a horse, and from the position of it, and the vertebrae of the neck, it was made plain that the body of the horse extended actually into Lord Dacre’s grave.
This discovery is a wonderful verification of the tradition in the village that Lord Dacre’s horse was actually buried with him in the churchyard. I have in my possession a portion of this skull which I hope some day to have the pleasure of showing to you. The body of the horse undoubdtedly yet lies in Lord Dacre’s tomb, as I understand the Sexton did not make any excavations further than were necessary in digging the grave he had in hand
. The ‘portion’ of the horse’s skull retrieved from the grave is today held in the British Museum (6).

So there we have it.  We will frustratingly never know why Ranulph was buried with his horse and we can only speculate.  Was it a favourite, even well loved,  steed?  Such is the uniqueness of such a burial in the 15th century that it is clear that Ranulph himself must have left instructions that his horse should be interred with him in the event of their deaths on the battlefield. This request no doubt necessitated the burial to take place in the nearest suitable place to the battlefield rather than take Ranulph home for burial which would have been more of the norm for someone of high status. It also necessitated burial in the churchyard rather than inside the church. Clearly Ranulph preferred a burial with his horse outside open to the elements rather than a fine alabaster tomb inside that would endure for much longer. Now due to being outside the tomb which displays Ranulph’s heraldic achievements on four sides has become much weathered, the abbreviated Latin inscription harder and harder to read until now almost impossible. Fortunately it has been noted by the Towton Battlefield Archaeology Project and translated before one day it disappears forever:

HIC JACET RANULPH / DNS DE DAKAR ET G[ILLESLAN]D VERU MILES Z STRENUUS IN BELLO / PR… .HENRICO VI / …O DNI MCCCCLXI XXIX DIE MNSI….RCII VIDL DNICA RAMIS PALMARU / CU’ AIE P’PCIET D’S AME

Here lies Ranulph, Lord of Dacre and Gilsland, a true knight, valiant in battle in the service of King Henry VI, who died on Palm Sunday, 29 March 1461, on whose soul may God have mercy, Amen.

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Close up of the weather worn lettering on the monument.  Taken from Towton Battlefield Archaeology Project video.

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Harder to decipher with each passing year soon, sadly, the lettering will be no more. Taken from Towton Battlefield Archaeology Project video.

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A drawing of Lord Dacre’s tomb and heraldic achievements.  Leodis and Elmete by R. Whittaker 1816.

Over 550 years later, fittingly,  the remains of 41 soldiers found in a mass grave at Towton Hall in 1996 were reinterred next to Randulph’s grave, a brave man and of steadfast loyalty,  who gave his life fighting for the cause he believed in.  

  1. Memorials of the Wars of the Roses p.52. W E Hampton 
  2. Henry Fitzhugh 5th Lord Fitzhugh. thepeerage.com quoting.BP2003 volume 1, page 1013.
  3. Fatal Colours p.181.  George Goodwin.
  4.  Memorials of the Wars of the Roses p.228. W E Hampton.
  5. Ibid 
  6. History Mondays. Online article @ https://historymondays.substack.com/p/a-horse-a-horsebury-me-with-my-horse.  A W Boardman 2021.

If you have enjoyed this post you might also like:

GEORGE DUKE OF CLARENCE, ISOBEL NEVILLE AND THE CLARENCE VAULT

STAINDROP CHURCH – A NEVILLE MAUSOLEUM

JOHN DE LA POLE EARL OF LINCOLN AND ELSTON CHAPEL – A POSSIBLE BURIAL PLACE?

RALPH NEVILLE, 2ND EARL OF WESTMORLAND – HIS HOME, BRANCEPETH CASTLE AND BURIAL IN BRANCEPETH CHURCH.

WADDINGTON HALL – REFUGE FOR HENRY VI

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