History of Beeston Castle
Beeston Castle is one of the most dramatic ruins in the English landscape. Built by Ranulf, 6th Earl of Chester, in the 1220s, the castle incorporates the banks and ditches of an Iron Age hillfort. Henry III seized the castle in 1237 and it remained in royal ownership until the 16th century. In the Civil War it withstood a long siege in 1644–5, before being surrendered by the Royalists and partially demolished.
Neolithic Period and Bronze Age
Evidence for early human activity on the site is provided by worked flint tools dating to the Neolithic period (3500–2000 BC). There is also some evidence for early Bronze Age (c 2000–1500 BC) burial mounds and funerary material from the lower part of the crag, suggesting that it had ritual significance.
Archaeological excavation demonstrated that beneath the medieval outer gatehouse and curtain wall were a series of earthwork defences dating to the later Bronze Age and the Iron Age (c 900 BC–AD 40). The first later Bronze Age fortification comprised a simple bank at the base of the crag, probably with a wooden palisade.
Excavated objects such as moulds and crucibles for smelting indicate that Beeston was a major metalworking centre. Among the most significant finds are two copper-alloy socketed axes that had seemingly been deliberately buried beneath the earthwork bank. They almost certainly represent a votive offering, or were used for ritual purposes.
The Building of Beeston Castle
During the baronial civil war of King John’s reign (1199–1216), Ranulf, Earl of Chester (1170–1232), was a staunch supporter of the royal cause and received titles, castles and land across England in return for his loyalty.
In 1218, after Henry III (reigned 1216–72) succeeded to the throne, Ranulf left England to take part in the fifth crusade. He returned in 1220 to find the king’s justiciar, or viceroy, Hubert de Burgh, confiscating lands from other men who had enriched themselves in the previous decade. Ranulf clearly felt the need to guarantee his political position and at some point in the 1220s began work on Beeston.
The impressive rock-cut ditch, the inner and outer gatehouses, much of the curtain wall in the inner ward and at least one tower on the outer curtain wall at Beeston are most likely to date to this period. The effort expended on them is ample witness to Ranulf’s desire to show his potential strength.
The Later Middle Ages
The early 14th century saw a major programme of rebuilding. Between September 1303 and September 1304 a total of £109 2s 4½d was spent on works, indicating more than routine maintenance.
The principal work took place in the inner ward, where three towers were raised and crenellated ‘because they formerly had high wooden surfaces, and now they are made level’ – evidence that during the 13th century they had not been finished off in stone.
Much expense must have been taken up by the building of a new bridge together with a ‘great massive stone wall before the said bridge’ as a support. Repairs were made to the gate in the outer ward in 1305 and to ‘houses and towers’ in 1312–13.
In 1333 it was reported in a survey that the castle was ‘well and surely sited on a rocky eminence, and very well enclosed’ and that no repairs were necessary.
Porters were still recorded at the castle in the 15th century but the antiquarian John Leland wrote in about 1540 that the castle was ruinous.
In 1602 the manor of Peckforton, which included Beeston, was sold to a local gentleman, Hugh Beeston.
With the defeat of the king at the Battle of Rowton Heath, near Chester, on 24 September 1645 there was little point in the Royalists continuing to hold out and Beeston surrendered on 15 November.
By this stage the garrison had apparently been forced to eat cats. The victorious Parliamentarians found that ‘theire was neither meate, Ale nor Beere found in the Castle, save only a peece of Turkey pye, Twoe Bisketts, a lyve Peacock and a peahen’.
Following the surrender, the siegeworks were dismantled and Beeston was ordered to be slighted (made indefensible).
Beeston as a Tourist Attraction
The 19th century saw the castle develop as a tourist attraction, chiefly facilitated by the opening of the Chester to Crewe railway in 1846. Two years previously the castle had been the setting for the first Beeston festival, which became an annual two-day event, drawing thousands of people.
The present castle ticket office and the stone wall around the base of the crag were built in 1846. The wall also acted as a boundary for the deer and the kangaroos that were, somewhat surprisingly, kept on the site.
After 1945 the current Beeston Castle fête was established, and it continues to be held on every August Bank Holiday.
Beeston was taken into state guardianship in 1959 and passed to English Heritage in 1984. The present concrete bridge leading to the inner ward was constructed in 1975 to improve access.
About the Author
Robert Liddiard is Professor of History at the University of East Anglia, Norwich. As well as being the co-author of the English Heritage Red Guide to Beeston Castle, he has written extensively on castles and medieval high-status landscapes.