Updated: Apr 7, 2020
in association with English Heritage.
Middleham castle is best known as one of the childhood homes of king Richard III. Middleham Castle dominates the North Yorkshire town of Middleham. From the core of its Norman great tower, one of the largest in the country, the castle developed under the powerful Nevilles into a residence worthy of a family who dominated English affairs for over two centuries. Richard, Duke of Gloucester (later Richard III) spent his youth at Middleham & it became one of his royal homes.
There is only slight evidence of any occupation in the area before the Norman Conquest of 1066. Although a Roman bathhouse has been uncovered about 10 miles south-east of Middleham, probably part of a temple or villa. We also know from Domesday Book (1086) that a 'Gilpatrick' held land in & around ‘Medelai’ (Middleham) in the time of Edward the Confessor (reigned 1042–66). After the Norman Conquest, William I (r.1066–87) granted the lands in & around Middleham to Alan Rufus, ‘the Red’, his second cousin & one of his leading supporters.
Written records only exist from 1216 of a castle at Middleham. Though remains of an early castle survive to the south of the present castle, on the site known as William’s Hill. It was probably built in about 1086, either by Alan, one of his vassals (tenants), or by Ribald, one of Alan’s illegitimate brothers.
This castle was built of timber & surrounded by a circular earthwork (known as ringwork). The ringwork was protected with timber defences & surrounded by a deep ditch, which survives, partly water-filled. A bailey, or enclosure, stood beyond the ditch on its south side.
Present day castle
Work on the present day castle started in the late 12th century. The great tower or keep was most likely built in the 1170's. The clue to this date lies in the carved stone capitals in the chapel in the north-east corner of the keep, which have ‘waterleaf’ decoration – a form of carving known to have been used elsewhere in Yorkshire in the second half of the 12th century. A tower was added to the east side of the keep in the first half of the 13th century, with a chapel on its top floor.
Similarities between Middleham & other northern castle keeps, such as Bamburgh & Bowes, suggest that the mason responsible may have been Richard Wolveston, who served Hugh du Puiset, Bishop of Durham.
In 1258 Mary fitz Ranulph, known as the ‘Lady of Middleham’, inherited the castle. In 1260 she married Robert Neville, & so the castle passed into the Neville family. The Nevilles rose to become one of the most powerful families in England, & held the castle until the late 15th century.
In 1271 Robert & Mary’s son, Ranulph, 3rd Baron Neville, inherited Middleham, along with the nearby estates of Sheriff Hutton, Brancepeth & Raby. It was probably Ranulph who built the curtain wall that surrounds the keep in the early 14th century.
Little other work seems to have taken place at Middleham in this period. John, 5th Baron Neville, concentrated instead on transforming Raby Castle & building a new castle at Sheriff Hutton.
John’s eldest son, Ralph, 1st Earl of Westmorland, inherited Middleham in 1388. In 1388 he granted a weekly market & an annual fair to the town of Middleham. Work on the castle, which probably began in 1397, was focused on better accommodation, as is clear from the number of extra latrines. The curtain wall was raised to create first-floor ranges on at least three sides, its towers were heightened & the tower at the north-east corner was converted to become the castle’s main gatehouse. In 1410 Henry IV stayed at Middleham while on progress in the north, suggesting that the building work had been largely completed. A number of features at Middleham, such as its windows & turrets, are comparable to those at Bolton Castle, built by Lewyn.
Richard Neville, later 5th Earl of Salisbury, may have been responsible for heightening the east side of the keep in the early 15th century, with additional work on the curtain wall’s north-west tower, the gatehouse & possibly the chapel tower.
The 'Kingmaker' & the Wars of the Roses
The Neville family was at its most prominent in the mid-15th century under Richard, Earl of Warwick. During the conflict known as the Wars of the Roses (1455–85), Warwick was instrumental in Yorkist Edward, Earl of March, taking the throne from Lancastrian, Henry VI in 1461, earning him the title ‘the Kingmaker’.
Edward IV stayed with Warwick at Middleham for a few days in 1461, & in 1464 several defeated Lancastrians were executed at the castle. But by 1469 Warwick had risen in rebellion against Edward, dissatisfied with royal policy. Edward was captured & briefly held at Middleham Castle in August 1469. He later fled to France, returning in 1471 to put down Warwick’s rebellion. The campaign culminated later that year in the Battle of Barnet (14 April 1471), at which Edward defeated the Lancastrians & Warwick was killed.
Around the time of Edward IV's (pictured left) accession in 1461, his younger brother, Richard, was made Duke of Gloucester. In 1465, at the age of 13, Richard entered Warwick’s household at Middleham, remaining there until towards the end of 1468.
Following Warwick’s death in 1471, Richard acquired the Neville lands in the north, including Middleham.
His position was enhanced further through his marriage to Anne Neville, Warwick’s younger daughter, & his appointment as president of the Council of the North. Their son, Edward, was born at Middleham in about 1474. It is not known, however, whether Richard carried out any work on the castle. As the recent work of the Nevilles had converted it into a palatial residence, he may not have felt it necessary to make further embellishments to the fabric.
King Richard III
Richard became Protector of the Realm upon Edward IV’s death in 1483. Later that year he was crowned Richard III, usurping his 12-year-old nephew, Edward V. Richard continued to spend time at Middleham, staying there for several days in 1484 after his son, Edward, died at the castle.
Richard was defeated by Henry Tudor in 1485 at the Battle of Bosworth. Upon Henry’s accession to the throne Middleham became the possession of the Crown. Some money was spent on the castle’s upkeep in 1531, when a new key & lock were provided for the gatehouse. The auditor’s room on the first floor next to the gatehouse was repaired & glazed, & additional service buildings were inserted along the south & west ranges.
By 1538, the castle was in a state of decay. A Crown survey reported that the battlements, roofs & chimneys were in a poor condition, the gatehouse had no portcullis, the chapel & south curtain wall were covered in ivy, & the brewhouse had decayed. Buildings in the outer bailey were also in decay.
Seventeenth & Eighteenth centuries
In 1604 king James I & VI sold Middleham Castle to Sir Henry Lindley, whose family owned it until 1643, when it passed by marriage to the Loftus family. In 1647, during the Civil War (1642–51), Parliament ordered the destruction of the castle to prevent it being taken by the Royalists, but there is actually no records of this order having been carried out.
Middleham was garrisoned for Parliament in the 1650s – in 1652 Edward Loftus petitioned for recompense for holding & fortifying the castle at a cost of £2,000. In 1655, Colonel Robert Lilburne manned the castle with 30 men in response to a Royalist threat. In that year, Royalist prisoners were also held at the castle.
After the restoration of Charles II in 1660, Middleham was bought by the Wood family of Littleton in Middlesex. In 1779, during the American Wars of Independence, the Office of the Commissioners of Sick & Wounded Seamen asked Thomas Wood if the castle was fit to hold French prisoners of war, but it is not known whether Middleham was actually used as a prison.
Eighteenth century to present day
Written accounts of the castle appear in 18th- & 19th-century antiquarian literature. In 1859 it was reported that an earlier Colonel Thomas Wood (1770–1860) had built a wall around the castle to prevent further decay.
In 1889 the Woods sold Middleham to Samuel Cunliffe Lister, later Baron Masham. By this time the British Archaeological Association had raised concerns about the castle’s condition. The lower few feet of stone of the keep’s latrine towers had been removed for buildings in the town, leaving them hanging in the air. In 1897 the 2nd Lord Masham began to conserve the castle, commissioning the Yorkshire architect Walter Brierley to make the repairs. Datestones from 1906 with the letter ‘M’ marking this work can be seen in the latrine towers. In 1926 the Cunliffe Listers placed Middleham in the guardianship of the Office of Works, & it was gifted to the State in 1930.
The ruins are now in the care of English Heritage who took them on in 1984 & are grade I listed.
Address: Castle Hill Middleham, Canaan Ln, Middleham, Leyburn DL8 4QG
Phone: 0370 333 1181
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* All photos were taken by the website owner Lee Stuart Sherriff
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