History of Middleham Castle
Best known as one of the childhood homes of 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 and it became one of his royal homes.
The First Castle
There is only slender evidence for any occupation in the area before the Norman Conquest of 1066. A Roman bathhouse has been uncovered about 10 miles south-east of Middleham, probably part of a temple or villa. We know from Domesday Book (1086) that one Gilpatrick held land in and 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 and around Middleham to Alan Rufus, ‘the Red’, his second cousin and one of his chief supporters.
There are no written records for a castle at Middleham until 1216. However, 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 consisted of timber buildings surrounded by a ringwork (a circular earthwork). The ringwork was protected with timber defences and surrounded by a deep ditch, which survives, partly water-filled. A bailey, or enclosure, stood beyond the ditch on its south side.
The Early Nevilles
In 1258 Mary fitz Ranulph, known as the ‘Lady of Middleham’, inherited the castle. In 1260 she married Robert Neville, and so the castle passed into the Neville family. The Nevilles rose to become one of the most powerful families in England, and held the castle until the late 15th century.
In 1271 Robert and Mary’s son, Ranulph, 3rd Baron Neville, inherited Middleham, along with the nearby estates of Sheriff Hutton, Brancepeth and 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 and building a new castle at Sheriff Hutton.
Warwick ‘The Kingmaker’ and 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, and 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 and 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, at which Edward defeated the Lancastrians and Warwick was killed.
Middleham and the Tudors
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 and lock were provided for the gatehouse. The auditor’s room on the first floor next to the gatehouse was repaired and glazed, and additional service buildings were inserted along the south and west ranges.
By 1538, however, the castle was in a sorry state. A Crown survey reported that the battlements, roofs and chimneys were in a poor condition, the gatehouse had no portcullis, the chapel and south curtain wall were covered in ivy, and the brewhouse had decayed. Buildings in the outer bailey were also in decay. Nevertheless, when the antiquary John Leland visited the town in about 1540 he described the castle as ‘the fairest castel of Richemontshire next Bolton’.
Accounts of the castle appear in 18th- and 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. At the same time, some of the interior was cleared of debris.
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, and it was gifted to the State in 1930.
About the Author
John R Kenyon was the head librarian and is now an Honorary Research Fellow of Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum of Wales. He is one of the UK's leading authorities on castles, and the author of the guidebook to Middleham Castle.