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.

Three bronze-age socketed axeheads from excavations at Beeston, dating from the 8th century PC
Three bronze-age socketed axeheads from excavations at Beeston, dating from the 8th century BC

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.

Aerial view of the Iron Age hillfort at Old Oswestry, Shropshire, about 20 miles from Beeston Castle
Aerial view of the Iron Age hillfort at Old Oswestry, Shropshire, about 20 miles from Beeston Castle. Beeston once had similar defences, although probably not on the same scale

During the early Iron Age (c 650–450 BC) the existing bank was enlarged and given an accompanying external ditch to create a large defended enclosure, or hillfort. An excavated cache of slingshot near the castle’s outer gatehouse suggests that the entrance was on the same site.

In the later Iron Age (c 450 BC–AD 40) a substantial earthwork bank, strengthened with stone rubble and topped with a wooden palisade, was built.

Evidence from preserved plant remains suggests that at the same time greater provision was being made within the enclosure for storing and processing crops, especially cereals. Quantities of pottery that were probably used to transport salt – large rock salt deposits lie beneath the eastern half of Cheshire – also suggest that Beeston was part of a regional trading network.

The hillfort seems to have been abandoned at the end of the Iron Age. Roman pottery has been recovered at the base of the hill, but there is little other evidence for Roman occupation.

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An 18th-century engraving of Ranulf of Chester’s seal impression, showing him as a knight on horseback
An 18th-century engraving of Ranulf of Chester’s seal impression, showing him as a knight on horseback

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.

Aerial view of the inner ward of Beeston Castle
The inner ward of Beeston Castle from the air. The uneven surface of the interior suggests that there were never many permanent buildings here

A Royal Castle

Ranulf died in 1232 and Beeston, together with the Earldom of Chester, was granted to Ranulf’s nephew, John le Scot. On John’s death in 1237 Henry III seized the earl’s estates, including Beeston.

There are no documentary records of building expenses before the Crown took possession, but the amount spent on works in the 1240s – mostly connected with the royal campaign against Wales in 1245 – suggests that the castle was incomplete before this date.

Understanding what exactly was built at Beeston at this time is not easy, as many payments in royal records also refer to concurrent work at other castles. In 1241–2, for example, £410 12d was spent on repairing and fortifying Beeston and Rhuddlan (Denbighshire). In 1245 a total of £242 17s 10½d was spent on finishing two turrets, which might refer to the completion of the defences in the outer ward.

Even after this programme of works, Beeston probably never received a full suite of domestic buildings. Instead, all the accommodation and services were concentrated in the gatehouses and curtain-wall towers.

In 1254 Henry III granted Beeston and the Earldom of Chester to his son, the future Edward I (r.1272–1307), and so Cheshire became part of the royal lands.

Throughout the late Middle Ages Beeston was overshadowed in importance by the castle at Chester, which was the base for English military expeditions against the Welsh. Intermittent payments for knights and sergeants and references to prisoners suggest that it may have functioned as a secure place in which to retain hostages. Edward I visited the castle in 1264, for example, with prisoners taken after the Battle of Evesham.

Reconstruction showing building work at the castle in 1303–4
Reconstruction showing building work at the castle in 1303–4
© Historic England (illustration by Liam Wales)

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.

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Map showing Beeston Castle and the key locations in its Civil War history (1642–6)
Map showing Beeston Castle and the key locations in its Civil War history (1642–6)

Beeston in the Civil War

Following the outbreak of the Civil War in 1642, Beeston’s location in the centre of Cheshire made it valuable to both the supporters of King Charles I (r.1625–49) and Parliament.

In February 1643 a Parliamentary garrison of between 200 and 300 men was installed in the castle, but the defences were in a poor state of repair and gaps in the curtain wall had to be filled with earth.

In the early hours of 13 December 1643 the Royalist Captain Thomas Sandford and eight men entered the castle and took control of the inner ward – the king’s men probably getting in from the north side of the outer ward and then scrambling to the top of the crag.

With more Royalists at the gate, the castle was surrendered and the reduced Parliamentary garrison was allowed to leave the following day.

In November 1644, the Parliamentary siege of Chester made it necessary to remove the potential threat of Beeston’s Royalist garrison. Parliamentary troops seized cattle from the surrounding area, fought off Royalist attempts at recovery, and enforced a blockade by raising siegeworks in front of the outer ward.

When the Royalists destroyed them in early summer 1645, the Parliamentarians responded by building a fort for 100 men within musket shot of the gate.

Detail from a stained-glass window in Farndon parish church, near Beeston, which was commissioned in 1662 to commemorate the Royalist forces who defended Chester.
Detail from a stained-glass window in Farndon parish church, near Beeston, which was commissioned in 1662 to commemorate the Royalist forces who defended Chester.

Royalist Surrender

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).

The 19th-century ticket office at Beeston Castle
The 19th-century ticket office was built by John Tollemache in 1846, where visitors paid to visit the castle. The design of two towers and a gateway imitates the medieval inner ward gatehouse

A Picturesque Ruin

After the Civil War the castle passed by marriage to Sir Thomas Mostyn (1651–c 1700), a Denbighshire gentlemen.

In the 18th century the site was quarried for rock, and the outer gatehouse was partly demolished to allow carts to come and go from the quarry site. Nevertheless, the crag increasingly became valued as a ruin, and it provided inspiration for Romantic artists and painters, including JMW Turner.

In 1840 the Peckforton estate (which included Beeston Castle) was bought by the landowner John Tollemache (1805–90), later 1st Lord Tollemache of Helmingham. As the estate lacked a suitable residence, in 1844 Tollemache commissioned the architect Anthony Salvin to build a Gothic mansion, Peckforton Castle, on the hillside to the south.

Beeston’s ruins were an integral part of Peckforton’s landscape and were intended to provide a ‘view’ and talking point for Tollemache and his guests. Much consolidation work took place during this period, including repairs to the outer curtain wall. Fir trees were planted in the outer ward to complement the estate planting around Peckforton.

An early photograph of the inner gatehouse at Beeston
An early photograph of the inner gatehouse at Beeston, showing visitors to the castle and the overgrown condition of the inner ward

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. 

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