Norton Tower

Having three hours between lessons last week, I drove to Rylstone and walked up the hill to Norton Tower. From a distance it resembles a scene from a gothic novel, its ruins set amid the moody rocks of Embsay Crag and the clouds’ shadows on Barden Moor. Upon closer inspection, it is rather less impressive, looking like one of those dilapidated barns five generations of farmer has let fall to rack and ruin. Yet it has that grand title of tower for a reason. What we see before us is a once-impressive three-storey hunting tower. Erected by Richard Norton of Rylstone Hall in 1540, it was a bold statement aimed at another local family, the Cliffords of Skipton, who were contesting hunting rights in the area. There’s nothing quite like building a fortified tower, which doubled as a banqueting house to eat the hunted venison, to assert one’s right to hunt deer.


William Wordsworth’s poem of 1807 (pub 1815) The White Doe of Rylstone described it as ‘an edifice of warlike frame’. Unfortunately for its owners, when the Catholic nobles rebelled against Elizabeth I in 1569, (‘Rising of the North’, or ‘Rebellion of the Northern Earls’), Norton joined them, in an attempt to replace Elizabeth with Mary Queen of Scots. The Nortons were either executed or exiled, their estates decaying then given to their more loyal rivals, and the tower slighted so it could never again be used to boast.  


These ruins are more than just inspiration for romantic poetry and fanciful re-telling. They are a stark reminder of the consequences of pride:

Pride goeth before destruction: and the spirit is lifted up before a fall (Prov 16:18)

The family who taunted their neighbours from a strong tower, thinking themselves wise and powerful enough to usurp one queen with another, lost all. The world is littered with ruined ambitions, slighted plans and failed objectives. Any grand scheme we devise will flop and come to nought, except those we have in Christ Jesus. What we do for Him, lasts. What we do for self, ruins.

In 1917, German prisoners of war, based at Raikes Camp at Skipton, enjoyed days out to the tower, their familiarity with Wordsworth's poem ranking it high on their to-do list. Whereas it was a humiliating reminder to the Nortons of their past arrogance, by 1917 it become a source of pleasure to foreign prisoners belonging to a proud nation soon to be humiliated even more than the Nortons. 

On a point of rugged ground

Among the wastes of Rylstone Fell

Above the loftiest ridge or mound

Where foresters or shepherds dwell,

An edifice of warlike frame

Stands single—Norton Tower its name—

It fronts all quarters, and looks round

O'er path and road, and plain and dell,

Dark moor, and gleam of pool and stream,

Upon a prospect without bound.

The summit of this bold ascent—

Though bleak and bare, and seldom free

As Pendle-hill or Pennygent

From wind, or frost, or vapours wet—

Had often heard the sound of glee

When there the youthful Nortons met,

To practise games and archery:

How proud and happy they! the crowd

Of Lookers-on how pleased and proud!

And from the scorching noon-tide sun,

From showers, or when the prize was won,

They to the Tower withdrew, and there

Would mirth run round, with generous fare;

And the stern old Lord of Rylstone-hall

Was happiest, proudest.


A man’s pride will bring him low,
But the humble in spirit will retain honour. Prov. 29:23