We visited Richmond Castle after its £300,000 museum makeover

History is alive and tramping over the old stones of Richmond Castle. Will Wyeth can hear those lost footsteps and summon long-dead dwellers.

Richmond Castle, North Yorkshire Looking alond curtain wall torwards the keep. (Credit: English Heritage).
Richmond Castle, North Yorkshire Looking alond curtain wall torwards the keep. (Credit: English Heritage).

“I can walk into the castle and see the earlier 11th century castle, I can see it as it’s changed over time,” says Will, properties historian for English Heritage and a man suitably animated by history.

“It’s a place where people worked. It was a place of high culture and pomp and great smells.”

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Alan Rufus, who fought at the Battle of Hastings, is thought to have laid the first stones in the 1070s. His great-nephew Conran added the keep in the 12th century.

Richmond Castle

The castle had fallen into dereliction by 1540 but was later used as a tourist attraction and a prison, incarcerating the conscientious objectors known as the Richmond 16.

Will is part of a team involved in a £300,000 makeover of the castle. The revamped museum features new interactive displays and items, including a white feather and the uniform of the Non-Combatant Corps (conscientious objectors who took on non-fighting roles).

Each period from the 11th century to the First World War is represented by different castle characters.

One of Will’s favourites is a remarkable woman.

“Gulhild is an amazing character, not just because she was an Anglo-Saxon in an increasingly Norman world,” he says. “Her father was Harold Godwinson who was killed at the Battle of Hastings, the Anglo-Saxon king. Her mother was a very powerful landlord right before the Conquest, so she is a very interesting character.”

Not all are so mighty. Robert the Usher was a senior servant who served the earl so well he was given land by the castle bridge. Ymayma looked after the Earl of Richmond’s hunting hounds and hawks, while Spernellus was the earl’s bear keeper.

Also new will be medieval flags drawing attention to parts of the castle where those represented once worked.

Visitors will be given a modern version of the medieval tally stick, with which two traders could record, say, how one had taken 12 sacks of grain from the other. A piece of wood would have been scored with 12 notches and split vertically. “I’ve got a 12-notch stich and you’ve got a 12-notch stick,” says Will.

Richmond Castle is one of the earliest big stone castles in the north. Will’s favourite feature is Scolland’s Hall, named after a steward who worked there for 50 years.

That sends Will back again. “You start 
thinking about what the average day in a castle looks like, who’s milling about and how you can recognise who is who, based on what they are wearing.

“All the great things that happened, and 
the weird things, like food, like the lack of 
plates, the lack of cutlery. People ate pies but only ate the interior of the pies, the rest and crust they gave to the poor people. They only had two meals a day and not three.”

Joe Savage is senior interpretation manager on the project. His job is akin to a TV producer, bringing everyone together.

“The key thing about Richmond is that at the moment it’s a barren landscape, the inner bailey has interpretation panels but there is no colour or life there,” says Joe. “When you think what a castle would have been like in the medieval period, vibrant place and that inner court would have been absolutely packed with staff.”

A problem with interpreting castles is most people forget they would been hubbubs of activity.

“They also think it’s all about knights and lords, and stacked out with soldiers and no one else,” he says. “Yet most people there have hospitality roles: you’ve got the cooks and the servants and the ironmonger.”

The revamped museum has been designed by Anonymous Associates. “It will be richer with many more objects that cover the full breadth of Richmond’s history, from when it’s a castle to when it’s not a castle, when it’s something else, when it’s a tourist attraction or a barracks. Or a prison. It was not a castle for just as long as it was a castle.”

Joe says the tally-sticks are deliberately non-digital, as parents want their kids to be away from screens. Visitors use the sticks to match pictures, engage in quizzes, enter mazes – while a hole in the middle allows the stick to be spun on a spindle to discover a challenge.

The revamped museum also explores the history of power. A new exhibit in the great hall plays around the idea of whose voice is heard. Where thrones would once have been there are two oversized, playful ceremonial chairs.

“In the lord’s throne, anything anyone says when they sit there is picked up by a microphone and boomed across. They’re heard as law,” says Joe.

“The person in the adviser’s seat is connected by a speaking tube, a yoghurt pot and a string kind of thing. Whatever they whisper is heard by the Lord alone; whatever the Lord says is heard by everyone. Who holds the power – is the legal expert whispering or the lord?”

As for the Richmond 16, new research has discovered a wider circle of conscientious objectors. By including non-combatants who took on non-fighting roles, it is thought that around 400 Richmond men refused to bear arms.

Will Wyeth, by the way, is such a natural enthusiast, you wouldn’t bet against him appearing on television one day.