History of Richmond Castle
Richmond Castle is the best-preserved example of an early Norman castle in England. Probably begun in the 1070s by Alan Rufus, who had fought at the Battle of Hastings, it was expanded in the 12th century by his great-nephew Conan, who built the keep. By 1540 the castle was derelict, but it later became a popular tourist destination. During the First World War it was used as a prison for conscientious objectors, including the Richmond Sixteen.
Foundation of Richmond Castle
Richmond Castle was built in the aftermath of the Norman Conquest of 1066. The exact circumstances remain obscure, but it was most likely founded in the 1070s by Count Alan Rufus, ‘the Red’, of Penthièvre. A kinsman of William the Conqueror, Alan had commanded the Breton contingent of the Norman army at the Battle of Hastings. In return for his service, King William granted him land in the north in about 1071. Richmond Castle was probably begun soon afterwards to defend these estates from the dispossessed Anglo-Saxon nobility.
The castle is alluded to in the 1086 Domesday survey. Although the survey makes no direct reference to a castle, it describes Alan’s lands as forming a ‘castlery’, an estate organised to sustain a castle. The survey also names Richmond (then called Hindrelag) as Alan’s possession, and as Richmond came to form the centre of his estates it was doubtless Richmond Castle that he had built.
The earliest surviving buildings at Richmond were probably erected by Count Alan in the 1080s. They include long stretches of the stone curtain wall, the great archway in the ground floor of the keep, and Scolland’s Hall. No other castle in England can boast so much surviving 11th-century architecture – it is probably the best-preserved castle of this scale and age in the country.
Duke Conan and the 12th Century Castle
After Alan’s death in 1093, Richmond Castle and its estates passed in turn to two of his younger brothers, Alan Niger and Stephen. By 1136 it was held by Stephen’s son, also Alan (c.1100–1146), who was the first to style himself Earl of Richmond. Earl Alan married the heiress of the Duke of Brittany, but died before the dukedom came into his hands. His son Conan (c.1135–1171), however, successfully asserted his claim to this title in the 1150s. In so doing he combined two vast inheritances of Brittany (then effectively an independent principality) and Richmond.
Conan began to assert control over his English lands from 1154. He spent much time at Richmond over the next decade – it was almost certainly during this period that he built the keep, a statement of his exceptional power and wealth. By this time Richmond was a prosperous town: it is known to have been made a borough – a status that conferred some self-government and other privileges – as early as 1145.Read a description of Richmond Castle
A Royal Castle
Conan did not enjoy his joint inheritance for long. In 1166 he betrothed his daughter, Constance, to Henry II’s fourth son, Geoffrey, ceding the duchy of Brittany to the king as part of the deal. On Conan’s death in 1171 Constance was only nine, and Henry II (reigned 1154–89) took control of Richmond Castle. Royal accounts list several buildings as objects of repair or new work under Henry II, including the tower and houses of the castle (1171–4) and the ‘king’s house’ (1186–7), probably a reference to Scolland’s Hall.
Although Geoffrey and Constance married in 1181, the castle remained in royal hands until the end of King John’s reign in 1216. Unlike other royal castles in the north, however, there is no documentary or archaeological evidence to suggest that John did any building at Richmond.
In 1215 the north of England revolted against John, who subdued it in a rapid campaign. There is no record of a siege at Richmond at this time, but Roald must have stood against the king, because he was ousted from office and his garrison were imprisoned in the castle until January 1216.
In 1265 Simon de Montfort, who had rebelled against Henry III (r.1216–72) during the civil wars of the 1260s, ordered his supporters to lay siege to Richmond Castle. Frustratingly, though, no details of the siege, if there was one, are recorded.
Throughout the 13th and 14th centuries the fortunes of Richmond Castle were bound up with a long-running international dynastic dispute. The honour of Richmond was still held by the dukes of Brittany, but the price of enjoying it was obedience to the king of England, while holding their French lands required fealty to the king of France.
Since these two monarchs were often at war, the divided allegiance was impossible to manage and the honour and castle were therefore confiscated from time to time and held by either the English Crown or a royal favourite. This state of affairs continued until 1372, when the castle and honour were finally surrendered to the Crown.
These frequent changes of ownership had little impact on the fabric of the castle, beyond ensuring that it was not much altered during this period. The only recorded works were undertaken in 1250 by Henry III and by Edward I after 1294. In neither case is it clear what was done to the castle, but the evidence of the architecture suggests that Edward I’s work was more significant. He probably inserted the vault in the keep, renovated Scolland’s Hall, and extended the adjacent residential range along the east wall of the castle.
Richmond Castle in Ruins
Despite these repairs, the castle gradually lapsed into ruin. A survey made in 1538 showed that it was entirely derelict, and it remained in this condition for the next 300 years. Ownership of the castle passed to the dukes of Richmond in 1675. Some repairs were carried out in the 1760s by the 3rd Duke, mainly to the keep.
The works of JMW Turner and other artists in the late 18th and early 19th centuries greatly encouraged admiration of the castle as a romantic ruin, and the town became a fashionable place for tourists to visit.
In 1854 the Duke of Richmond leased out the castle and it became the headquarters of the North York Militia. The following year a barrack block was built against the west curtain wall, the keep was adapted as a depot and a range was built beside the main castle gate, intended as a reserve armoury for the militia.
In 1908 the castle became the headquarters of the Northern Territorial Army. Robert Baden-Powell, founder of the Boy Scouts, briefly commanded here until 1910. In that year the army handed over the historic fabric of the castle to the Ministry of Works, but retained control of the buildings.
The first world war and the Richmond sixteen
During the First World War the castle was occupied by the northern Non-Combatant Corps. This was a military unit in which men who had asked for exemption from military service could contribute to the war effort in non-combatant roles. However, some men who had been ordered to join the Corps refused to take part in any work touching the war effort, because it went against their fundamental beliefs. In 1916 a number of them were detained in cells at Richmond Castle in a 19th-century building, previously the castle’s reserve armoury, beside the castle gate. The walls of these tiny rooms are still covered with graffiti made by the objectors, a unique survival.
Some of these conscientious objectors, who became known as the Richmond Sixteen, were sent to France in May 1916, where they were put on trial for refusing to obey orders, and faced a potential death sentence. Their transportation to France, trial and sentencing have become notorious in the history of conscientious objection.Find out more about the Richmond sixteen
The Victorian barrack block was demolished in 1931. During the Second World War the roof of the keep was used to watch for enemy activity in the area, while the keep itself was used as a daylight air raid shelter. In 1940 the cell block was once again used to detain prisoners, although these were soldiers rather than conscientious objectors. Many of them also pencilled drawings and inscriptions on the cell walls.
The castle has been in the care of English Heritage since 1984. From the summer of 2016 we will be embarking on a conservation project to ensure that the cell block graffiti, now in an extremely delicate state because of high levels of moisture within the building, will be preserved for the long term. The project is supported by a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund.Read more about our plans to conserve the cell block
1. W Farrer and CT Clay (eds), Early Yorkshire Charters, vol 4: The Honour of Richmond, part I (Leeds, 1935), 94–5.
2. The Domesday survey was undertaken in 1085–6, on the orders of William the Conqueror, recording the landholdings and resources of much of England and parts of Wales.
3. ML Faull and M Stinson (eds), Domesday Book, Yorkshire (Chicester, 1986), Sn Ct.A 45.
4. JAA Goodall, The English Castle (New Haven and London, 2011), 87.
6. Farrer and Clay, op cit, 22.
10. TNA, E36/159
11. TNA, WORK 14/1816.
12. TNA, WORK 14/1816.