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Sir Ralph Assheton: Violent Despot or Figure of Folklore?

Sir Ralph Assheton was a nobleman listed as being close to Richard III during his short reign; some say he was even a personal friend. Over 30 years older than Richard, he had long served Edward IV, including as High Sheriff of Yorkshire, and was knighted after the Seige of Berwick. When Edward died and Richard took the throne, Sir Ralph was rewarded with many lands for his loyalty to the Yorkist cause and then given the office of Vice-Constable of the Tower.
Unfortunately, Sir Ralph has a rather evil reputation in the town of Ashton-Under-Lyne, his humiliation and death supposedly being re-enacted in the ceremony called ‘Riding the Black Lad’ or Black Knight which took place from an unknown date into the 1950’s (it died out, was revived in the 1990’s, but has apparently died out again…but there is/was an impressive statue.)
But like Richard, is Ralph’s ‘bad press’ deserved? What did Sir Ralph do, and what was his fate in the end?
Ralph’s cruelty was supposedly aroused through his abhorrence of seeing marigolds growing in the crops. He would ride through the fields in his black armour alongside his brother Robert, wresting hefty fines from unwilling peasants and, so legend goes, making an example of an innocent or two by rolling them down hills in barrels full of lethal spikes. This latter torture has the distinct ring of folklore (ie ‘the Goose Girl’ with its barrel of spikes) and gruesome Victoriana, and certainly there is no hard evidence he ever committed such an overt crime…This would have been such an extreme measure that it certainly would not have remained known only to a local region. Surely, Assheton’s infamy would have spread countrywide, as did the brutality of John Tiptoft, the Earl of Worcester, who also held high positions in the reign of Edward IV.
However, the ‘marigold’ clearing just might have some truth in it, as a reference to the removal of these plants as an important part of ground maintenance and husbandry, is also found from the reign of Alexander II of Scotland. Sir Ralph may merely have had to play the ‘heavy’ with uncaring villagers who were not practicing proper management of his lands…this does not of course mean he was unlawfully killing people.
Assheton’s personal ‘black legend’ goes on to include a rhyme about Ralph and his tenure as Vice Constable of the Tower:
Sweet Jesu, for thy mercy’s sake
And for thy bitter passion,
Save us from the axe of the Tower,
And from Sir Ralph of Ashton

Again, this poem is undated and does not have the form or sound of a genuine medieval verse. No contemporary record exists of Assheton being unduly harsh during his tenure at the Tower. Indeed, there were no wholesale executions at the Tower during Richard’s reign, the only one of note being Hastings—certainly none that would affect the common folk of Ashton-Under-Lyne. It is to be wondered if, over the intervening years and the subsequent continuous blackening of Richard’s reputation, that Sir Ralph’s character has been tarred with the same brush, and perhaps been confused or blended with that of John Tiptoft, who also served Edward, and was known and despised for practices such as impalement and dismemberment.
The last part of Assheton’s legend says that one day the angry villagers rose up against him and killed him by shooting him with an arrow. Sir Ralph died around1486, having survived Bosworth, and there is no authentic, verified record of how he died. The murder of a noble by disgruntled peasants would surely be of note in the chronicles of the time, as was the death of Percy at the hands of the lynch mob, but there is no such reference to Ralph Assheton’s demise. His place of burial is unknown; it may be at the church at Middleton, near Ashton, where there is an Assheton Chapel.
Several other references exist as to the possible meaning of the Riding the Black Lad pageant. It may have nothing to do with the supposed cruelty of Sir Ralph at all! One theory is that the Ride was originally dedicated to a Thomas Ashton, who captured the Royal Standard from the Scottish king in the reign of Edward III, and that the procession was held in his honour (looking at sources from the 1800’s, it seems like the ragged straw figure meant to represent Ralph, and the hurling of mud and missiles were late and rather unwelcome additions to the pageant.)
It has also been suggested that the whole story may be in part, or in entirety, mythic and folkloric. The golden marigolds represent spring and the sun, the Black Knight coldness and winter, or the dying Winter Solstice sun. The Knight’s power is broken by being killed by an arrow or dart, much in the manner of the Norse God Baldur.

Sources:British History Online, Middletonia. An Historical Account of Ashton Under Lyne by Edwin Butterworth

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