The de Middletons
The first recorded Lord of the Manor of Middleton was a Roger de Middleton in the 1180's when Middleton was part of the estate of the Montbegons of Tottington. The tenants renting the land often adopted the names of the towns as their surnames so little else is known about who Roger de Middleton was or where he was from. He died before 1226 and the small succession of heirs becomes hard to follow when records are few and far between but another Roger is recorded in 1313 who had no male heir. His estate was left to 6 daughters after his death in 1322 ending up in the possession of 2nd daughter Maud who married Thomas de Barton with whom she had several sons.
The de Bartons
Middleton passed to Mauds son John de Barton in the 1360's whos heir was his son Richard born in 1386. Richards son John died leaving daughter and heir Margery who in 1438 was contracted to marry Ralph Assheton, son of John Assheton of Ashton Under Lyne. Ralph Assheton began the 327 year tenure over the estate of Middleton by the more familiar Assheton family we all know and love.
The First Sir Ralph Assheton
Sir Ralph was knighted in 1483 for his bravery on the battlefields and held various public offices. He was appointed Vice Constable of England by Richard III who it is said was a personal friend.
More locally Sir Ralph had somewhat of an evil reputation. Legend has it that he terrorised the people of nearby Ashton where he still had interests and was known there as The Black Knight. A pagan custom of the time was to see in the Spring by destroying anything representing Winter.
It is said that Sir Ralph Assheton would ride to Ashton each Easter Monday and kill anyone allowing corn marigolds to grow in their fields. He would apparently do this by rolling them down a hill in a barrel spiked with nails! What a way to go.
Of course these legends and stories get blown out of all proportion and it's highly likely that this tale is greatly exaggerated. However there is no smoke without fire and Sir Ralph obviously treated people so unpleasantly to the extent that an annual event was staged in Ashton for hundreds of years involving a ritual of the burning of a straw effigy paraded through town to commemorate him. This was known as 'The Riding of the Black Lad.' This event still occurred as late as the 1950's when it fizzled out but has enjoyed a more recent revival in the form of a more modern day carnival in the area.
An old prayer also relates to 'The Black Knight';
"Sweet Jesu for thy mercies sake and for thy bitter passion,
Save us from the axe of the Tower and from Sir Ralph de Assheton."
Sir Ralph died around the late 1480's when the manor passed to his son Richard. Although such a prominent character, there is little information surrounding the death of Sir Ralph Assheton.
Sir Richard Assheton 1482-1548
In 1487 Ralph's son Richard obtained a general pardon from Henry VII, was made a Knight in 1497 and held the manor of Middleton until his death in 1507. It was his son Richard, grandson of Ralph, who aged around 31 succeeded at the Battle of Flodden in 1513 after leading the famous Middleton Archers to the field. They were part of an English army that fought the scottish Stuart army led by James IV of Scotland who tried to invade while Henry VIII was away fighting the French. The battle resulted in the death of 10,000 Scots and James IV himself. Sir Richard recieved many benefits for his efforts and in 1524 he partially re-built the Parish Church and dedicated his standard and armour to St. Leonard. They were placed in the church where they can be seen today. The stained glass window at the church depicts 17 Middleton Archers along with Richard and his wife and is thought to be the oldest war memorial in the UK. Sir Richard died in January 1548 and is buried at Middleton.
Sir Richards son and heir, also Richard, died fairly young in 1550 leaving the estate to his son who was only 14, but he also died young leaving his son Richard the estate when he was only 5 years old. This Richard served as Sherrif of Lancashire in 1597 and 1606 and was knighted at the coronation of James I. He died in 1618 leaving the manor to his son Ralph who was only 13 years old.
Ralph Assheton 1605-1650
This Ralph Refused the knighthood that went with the estate in 1632, probably through a rebellion against the Stuart Monarchy. In 1640 he was returned as one of the Knights of the Shire. In the civil war, he took a leading role on the Parliamentary side and it is said he brought £250 to the aid of Parliament. He was appointed a deputy lieutenant of the country in 1642. When civil war broke he became Colonel of the Levies for south Lancashire and was constantly in active service. He was involved with the Siege of Bolton in 1643, Chester, Nantwich and The Battle of Marston Moor. Also conflicts at Lancaster, Whalley, Middlewich, Lathom, Preston and Appleby through to 1648. Ralph was made Major General of the whole of the Lancashire armies by Oliver Cromwell. He was actually one of the Parliamentarians who opposed the execution of Charles Stuart in 1649. He died in 1650, aged 45, an air of mystery surrounding his death, and is buried at Middleton Parish Church where his tomb can still be seen.
Ralph's eldest son having died in infancy supposedly by witchcraft, the new Lord was was second son, also Ralph who welcomed the restoration of the Monarchy and was created a Baronet in 1660. He died 5 years later and is buried at Middleton. He was succeeded by his son Ralph, 1657-1716, the 2nd Baronet who enjoyed the estate for 50 years and is also buried at Middleton with a monument. Having no son, he was succeeded in the Baronetcy by his nephew Ralph, son of his brother Richard.
The Last Assheton died 1765
This nephew Ralph was the last of the Assheton dynasty of Middleton. He married twice to Mary, then Eleanor Copley and died in 1765 leaving 2 daughters as co-heirs (his only son dying aged 11) and the Baronetcy became extinct. There is a monument to him and wife Eleanor in the Parish Church erected by the daughters. Younger daughter Eleanor married Sir Thomas Egerton and recieved the manor of Radcliffe. Their daughter married the 2nd Marquis of Westminster meaning the last Assheton of Middleton was the direct ancestor through heirs female of the present Duke of Westminster and Earl of Winton. Elder daughter Mary 1741-1823, married Harbord Harbord in 1760 who later became Lord Suffield, and they inherited the estate on the death of Ralph in 1765 which remained in the Harbord/Suffield family for almost a century. It was during this time that major growth occurred alongside the industrial revolution. Ralph's widow was opposed to the introduction of the mill system due to its destructive effect on the area but as the Suffields were not always residing in the area, nothing was done to stop it.
Harbord Harbord or Lord Suffield
Sir Harbord Harbord (formerly Morden) 2nd Baronet of Gunton, Norfolk, was created Lord Suffield in 1786. Land tax returns of 1787 show that he owned almost all the land that was Middleton at that time except Langley. He obtained a Royal Charter from King George III in 1791 to hold a weekly market and annual fairs. He then built a market house and warehouses at his own expense. He died in 1810. Wife Mary died in London in 1823.
After Lord Suffield
Son of the Suffields William Assheton-Harbord succeeded but died in 1821 without heir, when his younger brother Edward Harbord followed. Edward Didnt seem to reside in the area but was said to frequently visit. Records in 1828 show that the family home, Middleton Hall, was the residence of a T. Smith Esq, agent to Lord of the Manor. Edward died in 1835 following a riding accident.
His son Edward Vernon Harbord succeeded and sold the entire estate in 1848 to Peto & Betts Railway Contractors. They went bankrupt in 1861 and the land was allocated to various people. William Wagstaffe acquired the Lordship of the Manor with a large share of the land and in 1880, Alfred Butterworth purchased them.
Middleton Hall was the family home of all of the Lords of the Manor of Middleton though the date of construction is unknown. The bulding as it stood before demolition would have been a complete mish-mash of architectural design as its occupiers would have re-built parts and added features according to architectural styles popular at the time over hundreds of years.
It was situated down the hill south to the ancient Parish Church on the banks of the River Irk. Records and particularly pictures of the hall are surprisingly difficult to come by for such a historic house including photographs as the house was demolished as late as 1845.
An account written before demolition describes it as an ancient structure erected at different periods, the old part being of timber and plaster with later additions of stone. A south front of brick was added at the beginning of the 19th century by the first Lord Suffield. The house contained some good panelling and plaster ceilings and a large stone chimney piece dated 1587. The original timber house is said to have been built around two spacious courts and was approached by a bridge over a moat. The great entrance was described in 1770 as resembling a ship turned upside down from which it appears that it had rested on crucks. A sculptured chimney piece from the hall was given to Middleton Corporation and unless it has since been installed elsewhere, one can only assume it is still in possession of the current Rochdale Council. Some of the panelling from the house is at Turton Tower.
After demolition a large cotton mill was built on the site (which would certainly have rubbed salt in the wounds of the widow of the last Ralph Assheton!) which was demolished in the 1970's to make way for the more modern bedding factory that still exists today behind what is now Market Place.
Written by the editor, July 2008
Your article concludes: "Although such a prominent character, there is little information surrounding the death of Sir Ralph Assheton."
I have a wallchart published by Leicester County Council in 1977 entitled "The Battle of Bosworth Field" showing that Sir Ralph fought for King Richard III on 22nd August 1485. As he was Marshal of England at the time it is hardly likely that he wouldn't be there! His arms are shown as Argent, a spur-rowel sable (see below). I also found a web site listing the participants at http://www.tudorplace.com.ar/Documents/the_battle_of_bosworth.htm which includes Ralph (and two knights surnamed Middleton!).
Ralph died about 1490. Interestingly there is another website www.thornber.net/famhist/htmlfiles/ashton.html which shows Richard as son, rather than grandson, of Ralph. I haven't found anything else on the Asshetons of Middleton except a painting from 1604 - see http://www.bbc.co.uk/arts/yourpaintings/paintings/richard-assheton-of-middletons-son-whilst-a-child-89899.
For what it’s worth I attach the following details I have gleaned (no guarantee of accuracy!)
Ralph Assheton of Middleton d ca. 1490
Married Margaret Barton in 1439 (seems rather early!)
Sheriff of Yorkshire 1473/1474
Was created a Knight Banneret by Richard, Duke of Gloucester (later RIII) at the battle of Hattonfield near Berwick in 1482
Knight-Marshal of England
Lieutenant of the Tower of London
"Black Knight of Ashton"
Page of Honour to King Henry VI
Vice Constable of England 1482
He was at the coronation of King Richard III
He was at the Battle of Bosworth (22nd August 1485 for King Richard III (which seems highly likely if he was still Knight-Marshal or Vice Constable)
Pardoned 6 Jun 1486 by King Henry VI for supporting King Richard III. (Henry, of course, dated his reign from 21st August so that he could claim that everyone supporting Richard at Bosworth was a traitor!)
He held property at Kingsnorth and Cheriton in Kent and Ashton under Lyne, Lancashire. He obtained Middleton, Lancashire through his first wife, Margaret Barton.
He married secondly Elizabeth Chichele, who died in 1499.
Ralph died before 6th Feb 1490, when his widow Elizabeth married her third husband
Arms: Argent, a spur-rowel sable
Burke's Peerage, Baronetage & Knightage, 107th edition, 3 volumes (Charles Mosley, editor).: Burke's Peerage (Genealogical Books) Ltd, 2003), volume 1, page 827.
John Foster, June 2012