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 Stone Castle
The present castle was begun sometime in the late 12th century. The great tower or keep was probably built in the 1170s. The clue to this date lies in the carved stone capitals in the chapel in the north-east corner of the keep (now inaccessible), 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 and other northern castle keeps, such as Bamburgh and Bowes, suggest that the mason responsible may have been Richard Wolveston, who served Hugh du Puiset, Bishop of Durham.
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A reconstruction of the keep at Middleham in about 1300
© Historic England (illustration by Chris Jones-Jenkins)
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.
The Castle Expanded
John’s eldest son, Ralph, 1st Earl of Westmorland, inherited Middleham in 1388. It was probably Ralph who started to improve the castle’s facilities. In 1388 he granted a weekly market and 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 and 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.
It is not known for certain who carried out the works at Middleham – the master mason John Lewyn, one of the leading architects in northern England, may have had some input. A number of features at Middleham, such as its windows and 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 and possibly the chapel tower.
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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.
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On the accession of Edward IV 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, and 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.
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.
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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’.
The 17th and 18th Centuries
In 1604 James I 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 no record of this order having been carried out.
Middleham was garrisoned for Parliament in the 1650s – in 1652 Edward Loftus petitioned for recompense for holding and 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. The castle was probably leased out for industrial or farming use. In 1779, during the American Wars of Independence, the Office of the Commissioners of Sick and 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.
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.
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