Thursday, November 1, 2018

Frank Stokoe of Chesterwood

In the early part of the 1700s, there lived at Chesterwood, near Haydon-bridge, a man of the name of Frank Stokoe, a person of gigantic stature, great personal strength, an expert swordsman, and, when to these qualifications we add those of fearless courage and independency of mind, we have a character of the most formidable kind:—a good friend or a dangerous enemy. 

He held possession of the moor country for several miles around—partly as his own property, and partly at a very low rent, from the Derwentwater family, and such was the terror of his name in the ears of all marauders, that his cattle remained untouched, while those of his less fortunate neighbours were driven off. He also kept a pack of hounds for his own pleasure, and when a Hexham keeper ordered him to get rid of them—his reply was, "Come and take them," a request with which that functionary did not think proper to comply. 

In the early part of his life, the lives and property of the Border people were entrusted to the care of certain country gentlemen called county keepers, appointed by government for that purpose. At this time the south Tyne was entrusted to William Lowes, of Williamoteswick castle, whilst the north Tyne was under the care of Leehall, of Leehall, near Bellingham. 

These two worthies instead of protecting their respective charges, thought proper to quarrel, and for several years the whole of this part of the country was kept in a continual uproar with their feud. Many personal encounters took place, in all of which it is evident that Leehall had the better in point of courage, as Lowes invariably saved his life by the fleetness of his steed. At one time he was so near his end that an old woman saved him by shutting a gate in the face of Leehall (having opened it to let Lowes through) his horse being nearly spent with galloping from Haltwhistle hotly pursued by his rival. He reached his castle before Leehall could recover himself. At an encounter near Bellingham, Lowes had his horse killed by a stab made at his thigh, and only escaped by throwing himself upon a horse standing near. 

This circumstance is thus alluded to in an old ballad on the subject, now lost, evidently written by a follower of Lowes: 

Oh had Leehall but been a man 
As he was never ne'an 
He wad have stabbed the rider  
And letten the horse alean

At length, however, in a conflict near Sewing Shields, Lowes was worsted and taken prisoner. His rival had, it appears, laid aside his sanguinary intentions, as he took his captive home and chained him to the grate of his kitchen fire at Leehall; allowing him sufficient length of chain to get his victuals at the kitchen table along with the servants of the house, evidently desiring to show him that he did not consider him worthy of the treatment of a man. The friends of Lowes were too weak to attempt his deliverance and the arm of the law was weaker still (even at that advanced period). 

They therefore besought Stokoe to attempt his rescue, and as such an adventure suited his daring spirit, he very readily complied. The laird of Leehall was very much astonished therefore on arising from his bed one morning, to find his house in a state of siege. His followers were moreover unwilling—or afraid to act against Stokoe, whose resolute character was well known, and who was already requiring the release of the prisoner, and threatening the place with immediate destruction, if his demands were not speedily complied with. Leehall, seeing no alternative, reluctantly gave him up to Stokoe, who restored him to his family, and there ended the feud, neither party interrupting each other afterwards. 

One winter night after retiring to rest, he was roused from his sleep by his daughter with the intelligence that some persons were trying to draw back the bolt of the door. As he had reason to suspect some of his neighbours of treacherous intentions toward him, he arose and stole gently to the door. There he perceived a knife passed through the open space between the door and the wall, by the lateral movement of which the oaken bolt was gradually drawn back a short way so that in a few minutes the door would have been open. He instructed his daughter to stand behind the door, and as the knife was withdrawn to push the bolt quietly back again, but without alarming the party. 

He then took his musquet and loading her with slugs descended through a trap door in the floor into the cow-house below, all peels being built on this plan. A door also led outward from the cow-house, the door to the dwelling being reached by a flight of heavy stone stairs outside, as may yet be seen in many parts of Northumberland. Stokoe cautiously unbarred the outer door and emerged at the bottom of the stairs, where, perched on the top of the platform, were four or five men with a dark lantern, busily employed in the task of drawing back the bolt in the manner already described, totally unconscious of the futility of their efforts, or of the proximity of an opponent so dangerous. 

After carefully surveying them for a few minutes in order to satisfy himself as to who they were, he broke silence in a thundering voice; "You damn treacherous rascals, I'll make the star-light shine through some of you". Discharging his weapon the holder of the lantern, staggered across the stair-head and fell headlong down the steps, shot through the heart. His terrified companions jumped over the wall and fled in all directions. 

Stokoe hastily entered the house, closed the door and retired to his bed as if nothing particular had happened. On the following morning, a frozen stream was upon the stairs— a sheet of blood at the door, and a track of the same hue to a neighbouring wood, where, in a hastily formed grave, lay the body of the midnight robber. 

In 1715, Stokoe, along with several other borderers, joined the unfortunate Earl of Derwentwater, in his ill-fated rebellion against the established government. He escaped from Preston by clearing a high wall with his horse, but arriving in the north was obliged to hide from his pursuers, his friends giving out that he had fled into France. 

We next find him in London in disguise, in company with several others, with the intention of bringing the body of their ill-starred leader, to his native Dilston the government having thought proper to refuse the lifeless corpse to the wretched widow. During his stay there an Italian swordsman of considerable reputation, was challenging any man in England to a proof of his skill. Stokoe at the persuasion of his companions was induced to accept his challenge. The skill of the foreigner consisted chiefly in perplexing his antagonist with his rapid movements, thus endeavouring to throw him off his guard. When, at a favourable opportunity, he would plunge the sword into his heart. 

Stokoe instead of pursuing his nimble antagonist kept to one particular place warding off with apparent ease any attempt at a cut. The foreigner tired at length of the immoveable stolidity of his antagonist made a furious and unguarded lunge, when in a moment the sword was struck out of his hand and that of Stokoe passed through his heart. 

The adventurer writhed for a second and then expired. A voice from the crowd cried at the moment he fell, "Well done Stokoe." Astonished at finding himself known, he withdrew with precipitation. Stokoe and his friends succeeded in accomplishing the object of their journey, and the remains of the amiable and lamented Earl were safely deposited in the vault of his ancestors. 

The affairs of Stokoe after this began to decline. He was a proscribed man, and a certain family in that neighbourhood having taken possession of part of his property, threatened to give him up—when he appeared to claim it. He was, however, included in the general pardon, but his property was never restored— part of it passing along with the Derwentwater estate - to Greenwich Hospital, the other to the family already alluded to, and Stokoe sunk into the grave a poor man, in which station of life his descendants remain to this day. 

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