Driffield lies on the eastern edge of the Yorkshire Wolds where the gentle dip-slope of the chalk meets the low-lying clay lands of Holderness. The settlement is located close to good water supplies, especially in the southern part of the parish, where the Driffield Beck and Driffield Trout Stream rise from the chalk and merge to the south of the town to form the River Hull. Although situated between the chalk of the Yorkshire Wolds and the clay of the Holderness plain, Driffield town sits on sand and gravel, deposited by glacial melt waters at the end of the last Ice Age, forming an area of well-draining land suitable for settlement. As with the rest of the Yorkshire Wolds, there is no evidence in the Driffield area for human activity during the Palaeolithic, but humans have certainly been living and utilising the natural resources in this landscape from the Mesolithic to the modern day. A period of around 10,000 years. 


Mesolithic people led mobile lives, moving between different parts of the landscape as the seasons influenced the resources they could access. This lifestyle left little trace of their activities, isolated worked flints are often the only evidence we have. The Mesolithic story of Driffield matches the pattern of activity seen across the Yorkshire Wolds. Worked flints have been found across the parish, providing insights into the lives of the people moving across this landscape. Flint implements and microliths would have been used for hunting related activities, such as making barbs for arrows. 


The gradual introduction of the first farming techniques and processes started to reach Britain and Ireland from continental Europe  from approximately 4000 BC. People cleared woodland to create spaces to live and farm, and used the network of rivers and the coast to move around the landscape. Across the Yorkshire Wolds there is relatively little evidence for the settlements in which people lived during the Neolithic, the most commonly recorded sites from this period are funerary and ceremonial monuments; however, at Driffield it is the reverse. Excavations at Mill Street revealed a large hollow cut into the chalk gravel subsoil. Within this hollow were the remains of post-holes and slots, defining the walls of a timber-walled sunken building, measuring approximately 8m by 7m. Nearly 300 flint flakes and implements along with fragments of pottery were found within and around the building, dating it to between 2500-2000 BC. Another Neolithic site is located near the modern day Spencers Way and St Johns Road. A hollow was filled with occupation debris containing pottery, flints, a pig tooth, and horse and cow bones, indicating that people were living nearby and either eating these animals, or using them to cultivate the land for farming. Sherds of pottery found during the excavation included Grooved Ware, a style of pottery in use for bowls and food vessels in the Middle-Late Neolithic (c.3000-2000 BC). The burials of two skeletons were also found at this site, but the lack of associated grave goods means they have not, as yet, been conclusively dated to the Neolithic. An area of discoloured soil found at Driffield West Reservoir may indicate that a hearth that was used by someone also living in this area during the Neolithic period. 

Numerous worked flints have also been found across Driffield parish, possibly related to hunting animals and clearing wooded areas to create space for living and farming. The worked flints included five stone axes, used to chop down trees, arrowheads, used for hunting animals, birds and fish, and scrapers, used for cleaning animal skins in the process of making leather.

Bronze Age

Towards the end of the 3rd millennium BC new groups of people came to settle in Britain from Europe alongside these previous inhabitants. They brought with them a characteristic style of pottery, that archaeologists have called Beaker pottery, as well as the first metal objects. Evidence for Bronze Age settlements on the Yorkshire Wolds is scarce, with most archaeological evidence for this period relating to funerary monuments. The story for the Bronze Age in Driffield is very similar. During the early Bronze Age people were buried in individual graves with grave goods of flint and metal weapons, jewellery and Beaker pottery. Round mounds of earth and chalk were then constructed over their graves. Numerous Bronze Age round barrows are known around Driffield; the best known  is Cheesecake Hill, about one mile east of Driffield town. The barrow was opened in 1845 AD and 1849 AD and subsequently completely excavated by J.R. Mortimer in 1871 AD. Two oval graves contained burnt deposits, but no human remains survived. Placed with the burials were flint arrowheads and pottery. Another possible Bronze Age barrow is located near the present Driffield Town Cricket and Recreation Club. Work in the late 19th century revealed a grave containing flint flakes, horse teeth and bones, a flint scraper and a flint knife; Beaker pottery was also present. A slight rise indicates that an earth mound may have been constructed over the grave. Isolated finds of bronze axes, a palstave, knife blade and a spear have been found around Driffield, as have flint scrapers, blades and a barbed and tanged arrowhead, indicating that people were present in this area, although no evidence of their settlements has been found. One of the bronze axes is a very small version of a late Bronze Age socketed axe-head complete with suspension loop. During the Bronze Age high status items were buried or cast into water as an offering, and the diminutive size of the axe-head may suggest that it was a votive offering. 

Iron Age

In contrast to the Bronze Age, there is an apparent explosion in the visibility of the communities living and farming in the Driffield area during the Iron Age. Aerial photographs reveal cropmarks of ditches, enclosures, trackways and field boundaries; farming settlements and routeways crossing the landscape. One of the cropmarks is located to the north of the town, to the west of Scarborough Road. It is on a north-west/south-east alignment following a dry valley between the low-lying land of Driffield and the higher ground of the Yorkshire Wolds. These cropmarks may represent a trackway linking the Yorkshire Wolds, a possible settlement around Driffield and the River Hull. None of the cropmarks seen on the aerial photographs have been investigated archaeologically so they cannot be firmly dated to the ‘Arras’ style burials of the period, but their form is suggestive of at least a late Iron Age date. An archaeological evaluation at Beck Side, Driffield revealed a pit and gully of possible Iron Age/Roman date, but there is the potential that it may be related to later activity on the site. Isolated finds include numerous coins and a middle Iron Age (c.500-200 BC) cast copper alloy pin, suggesting a firm Iron Age presence in the area. 

Towards the middle Iron Age, c.400 BC, square barrows started appearing across the Yorkshire Wolds and the East Riding. Square barrows were constructed as earth or chalk mounds, surrounded by a ditch. The main burial was placed in a pit and the mound constructed over it. Some elaborate burials from the Yorkshire Wolds are known, such as the ‘chariot’ burials found at Pocklington, Wetwang and Garton Slack. From this date until the mid-1st century BC, inhumation burials became the standard burial rite. This marked a departure from the later Bronze Age practice of cremating their dead and either burying them in earlier Bronze Age round barrows or flat cemeteries. Square barrows were either isolated or constructed as part of a larger cemetery. Within Driffield parish, aerial photographs reveal the cropmarks of two possible square barrows east of Long Lane. Two round barrows south of Driffield contained crouched inhumations with no accompanying grave goods to firmly date them and these could fall either within the Early Bronze Age or later Iron Age/early Roman period. 


There is plenty of evidence of human activity across the Yorkshire Wolds during the Roman period, and this is matched in the evidence that we have from Driffield parish. Roads were constructed across the Yorkshire Wolds, one of which linked Bridlington to Stamford Bridge and the Roman fortress at York, passing Driffield to the north. In the Moot Hill area three phases of Roman occupation and activity were identified. At some point in the late 4th century AD a building with a floor of flat chalk and cobble blocks was constructed. A possible beam slot at the edge of the floor may suggest that the walls were timber. Following the abandonment of the building soil accumulated across the area, through which two pits were dug, possibly to reuse the chalk and cobbles from the building’s floor. The latest Roman activity on the site was a ditch which contained late Roman pottery and a small piece of bronze plate with punched dot decoration. This may be part of a mount for a bucket dating from the late 4th – early 5th centuries AD. 

Further settlement has been found in the Eastgate South and Albion Street area. At Eastgate South an enclosure ditch was dug in the late 1st – 2nd centuries AD. The enclosure changed alignment in the late 3rd – 4th century AD when a ditch and possible fence line were added. During the late 4th century AD the enclosure shifted to the north-east, possibly to move away from Driffield Beck to the west. The enclosure and ditch were probably part of agricultural activity, either field boundaries or stock enclosures. A number of pits containing food waste suggest occupation nearby, and the presence of tiles and chalk indicates that substantial buildings may also have been nearby. At Albion Street pits and ditches were dug in the 4th century AD. Substantial amounts of tegulae, stone roof tile and box-tile found on the site indicate substantial buildings in the vicinity. The settlements at Eastgate South and Albion Street were both sited on the natural sand and gravel ridge by the Driffield Beck. They may be part of the same site, possibly a large farmstead. Items, such as Samian ware, indicate a sophisticated Romanised lifestyle. 

Coins, pottery, harness fittings and a buckle have also been found, as well as numerous brooches. The different styles of the Driffield brooches can be dated to specific periods, some as early as the 1st – 2nd centuries AD. Combined with the archaeological evidence for settlement activity, the items suggest that people were living in the Driffield area throughout the Roman period, possibly with an increase in occupation during the 3rd-4th centuries AD. However, there is little evidence of the way in which Roman communities were burying their dead at this time. One of the pits at Albion Street contained fragments of a child’s skull and rib cage, but they are probably from a disturbed burial and could be earlier than the Roman era. 


The evidence for Anglian and Scandinavian settlements on the Yorkshire Wolds is sparse and appears to have been located mainly along the edges of the Wolds and along the Great Wold Valley. Driffield’s name possibly indicates an Anglo-Saxon settlement, derived from the Old English drīf and feld, meaning ‘the settlement on or near the stubble field’. A reference to Driffield in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in 705 AD mentions the Northumbrian king Aldfrith dying at ‘Driffelda’, and local tradition believes that Aldfrith was wounded in a battle against the Picts at Ebberston, near Scarborough, after which he was taken to Driffield and later buried in the church of St Peter at Little Driffield. It has been suggested that Moot Hill is the site of an 8th century Northumbrian palace, but no evidence has been found to confirm this. A sunken-floored building, sherds of early Anglo-Saxon pottery and a loom weight were found at Middle Street indicating that people were living in this area between the 5th-7th centuries AD. Sherds of later Anglo-Saxon pottery were found at Eastgate South, suggesting occupation activity during the 11th century AD. Isolated finds from across Driffield include a 6th-7th century AD cruciform brooch, two gold rings with garnets, a copper alloy millefiori glass and champlevé enamel disc from a hanging bowl, and a gold ingot which may indicate Scandinavian trade in the area.  Finds from the later 10th century include an iron pommel from a sword, and two fragments of stone cross can be seen in Little Driffield church. The documentary sources and finds suggest Driffield was a significant locale during the early medieval period, witnessing major events and hosting powerful figures. 

In contrast to the Roman period, we have a better understanding of how the Anglian communities in the Driffield area were burying their dead. At Cheesecake Hill thirty-four adult inhumations were buried in the Bronze Age round barrow between the 5th-7th centuries AD. They had been placed in the barrow, although there was a distinct lack of weapons and animal bone amongst the grave goods. Other cemeteries were located along the modern Scarborough Road, at Driffield Cake Mills, at the gasworks on Eastgate North, and at Shady Lane. During the early Anglo-Saxon period, communities across this region buried their dead within or close to prehistoric funerary monuments. This may represent a deliberate association with the past: a way of asserting ownership of the land whilst connecting themselves to powerful places, as a sign of belonging and respect. 


The Yorkshire Wolds are rich in evidence for the centuries after the Norman Conquest in 1066 AD. Small village settlements with stone churches were established across the region. The Domesday Book records that Driffield was the land of King William in 1086 AD, and the manor was the largest estate on the eastern Yorkshire Wolds. The manor comprised four dependent settlements, Little Driffield, Elmswell, Kelleythorpe and Kilham, which totalled twelve ploughlands (one ploughland was the area that could be ploughed by eight oxen in one year, approximately 120 acres). The value of the lands was £40 before 1066 AD; it is recorded as waste by 1086 AD. Estates described as waste would not have paid tax. About 10% of all the estates in the Domesday Book were recorded as waste, most in the north of England, where they may have been destroyed in fighting after the Conquest. Two churches are mentioned for Driffield; probably a church on the site of the present All Saints Church, Driffield, and one in Little Driffield. 

Conditions on the main Yorkshire Wolds were not favourable for intensive farming at this time: the area was almost treeless and there was little shelter for animals or crops. However, the lower land around Driffield was close to the River Hull and several streams, making it a fertile area for agriculture. Eight mills were mentioned at Driffield in the Domesday Book, most likely watermills, located to the south and west of Driffield where streams are present. These mills would have been used to grind corn, and the presence of eight indicates the large volume cultivated and processed from the local area. Following forty years between 1139-1179 AD when Driffield manor was held by William le Gros, the estate passed back to the Crown, which resulted in a phase of more intensive exploitation of the land. In 1182 AD Henry II stocked the manor with eleven oxen; a further forty-four oxen and five ploughs were purchased by King John in 1200 AD to stock and cultivate the estate lands in an attempt to increase the revenues from the estate. Further attempts were made to improve the estate in 1228 AD when an order was made to build barns for the corn and cowsheds for the oxen, ploughs and horses. Earthworks in the area now known as Hall Garth, near North Street, are the remains of the medieval manor complex. 

The lands around Driffield utilised the classic medieval open-field system of agriculture, which predominated until gradual enclosure was finally consolidated in the 18th – 19th centuries AD. Around the village there were large open fields, with villagers holding several long, narrow strips which they farmed. To the north of Driffield the land was divided into three open fields: West, Middle and East, consisting of long, narrow, north-south aligned fields. They reached up to the open Wold tops, making use of the lighter soils for cultivation. The boundaries between the fields are still visible in the landscape today: East and Middle Fields are separated by what is now Long Lane, and the modern B1249 road separates Middle and West Fields. To the north of these fields was a large open area of common pasture on Driffield Wold. This was an area in which the villagers had the right to pasture their own livestock. An area of pasture and meadow also lay to the south of the village, known as Summerlands to the south-west, and Outgang to the south-east. 

Documentary sources provide us with some information on the livestock and crops the villagers were farming. A list of livestock owned by Ralph Crauncwick in 1468 AD included: four oxen, two cows with calves, a bull calf, two heifers, a horse, seventy-two brace of breeding sheep, twelve sheep called hogs (a sheep of 1-2 years of age: reared to combine the tenderness of lamb with the full-flavour of mutton), two boars, twelve pigs, a cock, six hens, a gander, a goose, four goslings, and two ducks. Crops grown by the villagers were wheat, barley, maslin (a mixture of wheat and rye), clean rye, oats, beans, peas, flax and saffron. The rivers and streams to the south of the village would have been used for fishing. 

Driffield received a grant to hold a weekly market and an annual fair around 1232 AD, the weekly market would have sold products from food producers, merchants and craftspeople. A document from 1235 AD records the market being held ‘below the church’, possibly in what is now Bridge Street. The document also records that the booths were to be 8ft long by 8ft wide, with each type of produce having to be sold in a specific part of the market. A description of the tolls charged illustrates what was being sold in the market: bread, timber, horses, oxen, cows, sheep and pigs. The excavation of a late 13th century AD rubbish pit in Westgate also provides evidence for the items that a Driffield inhabitant may have been eating. The pit contained carbonised wheat and barley grains, cattle and sheep bones with butchery marks, haddock, herring and cod bones, and apple and pear seeds. 

The 14th century AD saw a shift in the agrarian economy as a result of falling demand for grain following the Black Death and a series of epidemics, which drastically reduced the population. Driffield’s combination of craft and agrarian activity was better placed to weather this storm compared with other market towns: the only clear documentary reference to a reduction in population is in 1350 AD, when about 190 acres of open field land was described as waste and uncultivated as a result of ‘the mortality’. Areas devoted to grain production would have ceased to be economically viable as labour costs rose and prices fell. Aerial photographs show cropmarks of crofts, hollow ways, buildings, field boundaries, enclosures and platforms to the south of Little Driffield: the remains of Little Driffield village, which dramatically contracted in size over the later medieval and early historic period. 

A motte castle was constructed at what is now known as Moot Hill during the 11th century AD. It is not known who built the castle: either Earl Morcar during his rebellions against King William in 1068 AD or 1071 AD, or King William after either of these rebellions. Excavations in 1975 revealed that the motte was constructed from a turf stack, with boulder clay spread over it, followed by alternate layers of gravel, clay and chalk rubble. The footings for a timber bridge were found on the eastern side of the motte, spanning the ditch. There is no evidence for an adjoining bailey which would have contained the barracks and associated buildings, suggesting this was an expedient and short-lived construction. The motte appears to have been abandoned soon after, although it was brought back into use as a fortification in the mid-12th century AD, possibly during the civil war between King Stephen and Matilda. The ditch was recut and the bridge was replaced by an earth bank. Following the accession of Henry II in 1154 AD the destruction of castles constructed during Stephen’s reign was ordered and it may be after this date that the motte was slighted. 

Post-Medieval and Modern

In the 15th-16th centuries AD Driffield was still recovering from the contraction it had experienced during the 14th century. Excavations at Albion Street suggest that the area between Eastgate South and Middle Street South was abandoned and reverted to grassland during this period. The agricultural economy generally continued to follow the medieval pattern based on the three open fields, common pastures and meadows. Yet despite the lands being communal at this time, there were attempts during the 17th century AD to begin enclosing them. The Etheringtons were a prosperous middle class Driffield family, who privately enclosed areas of meadow, which the manorial court sought to recover in 1629 AD. Other by-laws from this period indicate that other villagers were attempting to enclose land for their private use. Approximately 70% of the Yorkshire Wolds was finally enclosed by parliamentary act between 1760-1819 AD. Enclosure was encouraged by the owners of larger estates, especially during the French and Napoleonic Wards (1793-1815 AD) when corn prices were high. It was thought that with proper management, through careful rotation and more extensive use of manuring, that the soils would be capable of more prolonged arable cultivation. Driffield’s lands were formally enclosed in 1742 AD, under the 1740 Driffield Enclosure Act. The reasons for the early enclosure of lands at Driffield is unknown, but it may be that the increasing population of Driffield, as well as the growing appetite of the nearby town of Hull, led to an increased demand for farm produce which could not be met by medieval styles of farming. Experimentation with novel farming methods and the discourse of improvement was probably more eagerly embraced in towns like Driffield (and nearby, farmers like Henry Best of Elmswell) than within the interior villages of the high Wolds. 

Agriculture was not the only industry in Driffield. In the early 18th century AD a cottage cloth and linen weaving industry was present, taking place in the individual workers’ homes. The cloth was finished at local fulling mills, located on the streams to the south of the town. Industries appeared to be established on the edges of the town, possibly in areas which had reverted to grassland following the 14th century AD. Albion Street was known as Dye Garth Lane or Dyehouse Garth Lane during the 18th century AD, indicating that cloth dying industries may have been located in this area next to the Driffield Beck. Paper mills were also present in Driffield, and by the later 18th century AD a large textile and carpet four-storey warehouse was established. By the late 19th century AD, Driffield was a prosperous town, with two banks, three insurance agents, three land surveyors, two doctors, brewers, brick makers, machine makers, rope makers, blacksmiths, carpenters, coopers, and shopkeepers. It also boasted the premises of the internationally significant colour printer and illustrator, Benjamin Fawcett. 

By the later 18th century AD, large volumes of grain grown on the Yorkshire Wolds was coming through Driffield. Specialised agricultural markets developed, with Driffield becoming an important centre for trade in grain and livestock. The increased demand for agricultural produce, especially in expanding towns such as Hull, highlighted the importance of transport across the region. The Beverley to Driffield road was improved and turnpiked, and plans for a canal to connect Driffield to the navigable section of the River Hull were proposed in the late 1750s or early 1760s. The River Hull was only navigable from the village of Wansford, over 3km to the south-east, and was used to transport wheat, barley, malt, coal, bricks and tiles between Hull and Driffield. The increasing prosperity of Driffield and the importation of building supplies meant that the town’s inhabitants began to replace the traditional mud-walled and thatched houses with brick and tile ones. By 1770 AD the 11-mile long Driffield Navigation had been constructed and consisted of the River Head canal basin with public wharf, and the canal with four locks, each capable of accommodating vessels up to 61 feet in length. The lock walls were constructed in brick, and the floors from timber. Warehouses, wharves and cranes were constructed by the canal basin from 1784 AD, let to Driffield corn merchants. 

The New Driffield Navigation Act was granted in 1801 AD, which allowed additional tolls to be levied on goods. Agricultural products such as wheat, rye, beans, peas, rape seed, malt, oats, barley and flour were exported to Wakefield and West Riding market centres, corn was also sent to London. Industrial products such as coal, brick, stone, tile and lime were imported. Dung, soot and pigeon dung were also brought to Driffield by the canal, and used as fertilizer for agricultural use. Driffield Navigation ensured that cheap coal was available in the area, reducing the cost of coal by as much as 50%, since one canal boat could carry as much coal as eighty wagons. The canal also had a large impact on the local grain industry. Between 1819-46 AD the quantity of wheat grown locally is estimated to have doubled and that of barley quadrupled. 

The canal declined through the early 20th century AD and by 1937 AD the locks and bridges were in disrepair; the last cargo was carried in 1951 AD. The Driffield Navigation Amenities Association was formed in 1968 AD to restore the canal, which began in the late 1970s. In the late 20th – early 21st centuries AD further restoration work by volunteers opened up the canal, with the first boat in over sixty years entering Wansford lock in 2009 AD. 

The arrival of the railway had a large impact on Driffield. The Hull to Scarborough line opened in 1846 AD, connecting the agricultural region of Driffield with the port at Bridlington. In 1853 AD the Driffield to Malton line was opened, crossing the sparsely inhabited Yorkshire Wolds. The railway opened up easier travel for people between Malton, Driffield, Bridlington and Scarborough, as well as making the distribution of agricultural produce cheaper. Farmers were now able to send their produce further and quicker, with livestock able to be transported to market without loss of condition, increasing profits. In 1890 AD a further line was added linking Driffield to Market Weighton. From there it joined the Selby line, providing access into West Yorkshire and the Midlands. The Driffield to Malton line closed in 1964 AD, and the line to Market Weighton a year later. The Hull to Scarborough line is still in use. 

Driffield-based corn, seed and manure merchant John Robert Mortimer is one of the towns’ most important residents. Born in Fimber in 1825 AD, J.R. Mortimer became interested in archaeology in 1851 AD, after visiting the Great Exhibition and the British Museum. Back on his parents’ farm on the Yorkshire Wolds, J.R. Mortimer collected over 10,000 geological and archaeological specimens over the next decade and housed them in a museum attached to the farm house. In the 1860s AD, he started to excavate the prehistoric round barrows still visible across the landscape and, before the age of modern farming equipment, J.R. Mortimer noted that the barrows “and their contents are so fast succumbing to the plough and the harrow that in less than a quarter of a century not one half of them will remain”. He went on the state that “it is almost a duty for those who have a love for ancient history to give some little assistance in preserving any knowledge of the ancient inhabitants by whom they were constructed so that it may be handed down to posterity”. Between 1863-1896 AD J.R. Mortimer was responsible for the excavation of approximately 300 Neolithic and Bronze Age barrows, over sixty Iron Age barrows, and a small number of Anglo-Saxon cemeteries, all on the Yorkshire Wolds. He published his research in 1905 AD, titled Forty Years’ Researches in British and Saxon Burial Mounds of East Yorkshire. At the time of J.R. Mortimer’s death in 1911 AD, it is estimated that he had a collection of approximately 66,000 objects demonstrating the culture of the people that inhabited this region. 

J.R. Mortimer moved to Driffield in the late 1860s and was based at 15 Middle Street. His collection of artefacts came with him, but rapidly outgrew his house. In 1877 AD he purchased a plot on Lockwood Street and constructed East Yorkshire’s only purpose-built museum, known as The Driffield Museum of Antiquities and Geological Specimens. Sixteen wall-mounted cases contained J.R. Mortimer’s archaeological collections. Each case contained the contents of individual barrows and their graves, in contrast to contemporary displays in museums which grouped similar types of items together (Giles 2005, Harrison 2009). Following his death in 1911 AD, the collection was acquired by Hull Corporation, but remained in Lockwood Street until 1918 AD. ‘The Mortimer Collection’ was finally put on display in the Victoria Galleries of Hull City Hall in 1929 AD. 

As well as his purpose-built museum, J.R. Mortimer also had a grain warehouse situated at Driffield River Head. A late 18th-early 19th century AD brick building that formed part of the canal architecture, the building was used as a grain store by J.R. Mortimer in the late 19th century AD. Known as ‘Mortimer’s Warehouse’ (the name painted on the building), it is one of the few remaining warehouses on the canal that has not been converted for residential or commercial use. In 2016 AD Mortimer’s Warehouse was bought by local benefactors hoping to transform the building into a heritage visitor centre. With the help of Heritage Lottery Funding, it is hoped that Mortimer’s Warehouse will become a heritage attraction that includes interpretation and exhibition space, visitor services and retail areas. This fitting visitor centre will tell the story of Driffield Canal and its relevance to the region’s maritime past, and how it helped to create the thriving market town that is now known as ‘the capital of the Wolds’.