The Great History of Middleham Castle

Middleham Castle, based in Middleham, Wensleydale, in the county of North Yorkshire, England, is a stunning ruined castle with an intense history. It is well-known due to the fact that it was the beloved childhood home of King Richard III, though he spent very little of his reign there. It is said to have been built to defend the road from Richmond to Skipton, however, some people suggest that the original site of the castle was far better than the later location.

The history of Middleham Castle

This grand and almost daunting castle completely dominates the lovely North Yorkshire town of Middleham. It has certainly grown in its time from a powerful Norman tower, one of the largest in the entire country, to a residence, to a ruin. It has certainly seen better days and been around for a long time, but the sheer elegance and prosperity it provides is just one reason it is so loved.

The early castle

File:Richard III earliest surviving portrait.jpg
The earliest surviving portrait of Richard III. Source: Wikimedia Commons

There is very little evidence of any occupation in the area before the time of the Norman Conquest of 1066. However, after the Norman Conquest, William I granted the lands in and around Middleham to Alan Rufus who was not only his second cousin but also one of his chief supporters. While there aren’t any written records of a castle at Middleham in the year 1216, remains of an early Middleham Castle do still remain just to the south of the present castle. The site it sits upon is lovingly known as William’s Hill.

It was likely built around the year 1086 by Alan or one of his tenants. It also could have been built by Ribald, one of Alan’s illegitimate brothers. At this time, it is said that the castle consisted of timber buildings that were surrounded by a circular earthwork. It was protected by timber defences and was surrounded by a deep and daunting ditch that is still around, just filled partly with water. Beyond the ditch, on the south side, there was also some sort of bailey or enclosure.

The stone castle

At some point, during the very late 12th century, the present castle began construction. It is said that the great tower or keep was most likely built sometime in the 1170s. The evidence of this lies in the strongly carved stone capitals based in the chapel. It is in the northeast corner of the keep which is now inaccessible. It has lovely waterleaf decoration which is an interesting form of carving known to have been used in Yorkshire in the second half of the 12th century.

A tower was added to the east side of the keep sometime during the first half of the 13th century and a chapel was featured on the top floor. The mason responsible for Middleham Castle is said to have been Richard Wolveston. This assumption was made due to the similarities of this castle to other northern castle keeps such as Bamburgh and Bowes.

the ruined walls of middleham castle with a staircase going up the side of the wall
Middleham Castle is in a ruinous state. Source: Flickr.

The early Neville’s at Middleham Castle

In the year 1258, Mary fitz Ranulph, also known as the Lady of Middleham, managed to inherit the lovely castle. Then, only a couple of years later, in 1260, she married Robert Neville. That meant that the castle essentially passed into the possession of the Neville family. Soon after their marriage, the Neville’s became one of the most powerful families in all of England and they held Middleham Castle right up until the late 15th century.

In 1271, Ranulph, who was Robert and Mary’s son, inherited Middleham Castle along with the nearby estates of Sheriff Hutton, Brancepeth, and Raby. It is thought to have been Ranulph who built the large curtain wall that surrounds the keep. During this period, there is very little evidence that any work took place at the castle. It was at this time that John, 5th Baron Neville decided to concentrate on transforming Raby and Sheriff Castle instead of Middleham.

Expansion at Middleham Castle

John’s eldest son, the 1st Earl of Westmorland, Ralph, inherited Middleham Castle in the year 1388. Ralph was likely the one who started to improve the castle’s facilities and expand it. During this time, he also granted a weekly market as well as an annual fair to the town of Middleham. The work that began at the castle in 1397 was focused mainly on better accommodation which is especially clear due to the number of extra latrines.

At the same time, the curtain wall was raised to create the first-floor ranges on three of the sides. Its towers were also heightened dramatically and the tower on the northeast corner was converted to become the main gatehouse of the castle. While on progress in the north in 1410, Henry IV stayed at Middleham Castle which means that the building work was mainly complete.

The castle is best know for it being home to Richard III during his childhood. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The Tudors at Middleham

For a long while, Middleham Castle did not have a significant place. There were a few significant events such as the Wars of the Roses, Edward IV being captured and held at the castle, and Richard III’s upbringing. Until Middleham became the possession of the Crown, it was in and out of use. In the year 1485, Richard was defeated by Henry Tudor at the Battle of Bosworth.

A little amount of money was spent on the castle in 1531 to help with its upkeep. The money spent went towards a new lock and key for the gatehouse. During this time, the gatehouse was repaired, glazed, and a few additional service buildings were added along the south and west ranges. However, in 1538, the castle had hit rock bottom and was in a very sorry state. The battlement, roofs, chimneys, and other areas were in a very poor condition.

a depiction of the battle of Bosworth of infantry and Calvary clashing
A depiction of The Battle of Bosworth. Source. Wikimedia Commons

Later history

It was in the year 1859 that a report came out stating that Colonel Thomas Wood (1770-1860), had built a large wall around the castle to prevent the castle from further decay. During the same time, the castle was cleared of debris. In 1889, the British Archaeological Association began to raise serious concerns about the castle’s condition.

Some areas of the castle were removed and in 1897, the 2nd Lord Masham began to work hard to conserve the castle. Datestones from 1906 with the letter ‘M’ marking this work can be seen in the latrine towers. The year 1926 saw the Cunliffe Listers place Middleham in the guardianship of the Office of Works, it was then gifted to the state in 1930.

The present day

These days, the entrance to Middleham Castle is through a grand, but ruined tower, on the northeast corner. Only foundations remain of some areas, but it is still an eye-opening and intriguing visit. Windows, doorways, and many other aspects have crumbled, but still, the castle is an extremely impressive ruin, and you can tell that it once held significant strength.

You may enjoy reading about other English Castles such as Kenilworth Castle.

Middleham Castle Timeline

  • 1086- Middleham Castle is built
  • 1170- The great keep/tower is built
  • 1258- Mary fitz Ranulph inherits the castle
  • 1260- The castle becomes the possession of the Neville’s
  • 1271- Ranulph, the son of Mary, inherits the castle
  • 1388- John’s eldest son, the 1st Earl of Westmorland, Ralph, inherits the castle
  • 1397- Work begins at the castle
  • 1410- Henry IV stays at the castle
  • 1531- Money is spent on the castle’s upkeep
  • 1538- The castle hits rock bottom and is in a state of ruin
  • 1889- The British Archaeological Association raises serious concerns about the castle’s condition
  • 1926- The Cunliffe Listers place Middleham in the guardianship of the Office of Works
  • 1930- The castle is gifted to the state

Facts about Middleham Castle

  • The keep is of the rarer type of tower keep, known as a hall keep
  •  It is listed as a Grade I Listed Building
  • It has alternatives names such as Midleham, Myllam, and simply, Middelham
  • It has been described as a certain Masonry Castle, and also as a Certain Palace 
  • When first built, it was by far and away the largest man-made structure for miles

Featured in TV and Film

  • Middleham Castle (2010)

Books on Middleham Castle

  • Middleham Castle by John Weaver (1993)
  • Middleham Castle Colour Handbook by John Weaver (1995)

Who owns Middleham Castle?

Nowadays, the castle is in the care of English Heritage who took it over in the year 1984. They work hard to keep the castle in pristine condition year-round. It is said that the castle will remain in it’s care for the rest of its life.

Tourism

Visiting Middleham Castle is fairly easy, and you can find ticket pricing here. It is said that no day out in Yorkshire is complete without a visit to the castle, and it isn’t hard to see why. It would be doing the castle an injustice to not visit it and marvel in all of its glory. You can quite easily relive the castles illustrious history and imagine exactly what it would have been like back in earlier times.

There is certainly a lot more to see near Middleham Castle, make sure to check out the lovely structures nearby, the gorgeous Harmby Waterfall, and last but not least, the Theakston Brewery. Enjoy all that Yorkshire has to offer.

More Images

  • Ruined castle walls

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