Home really is my castle

Roy Thompson inside  St Helen and the Holy Cross church in Sheriff Hutton, and the ruins of Sheriff Hutton castle, below.
Roy Thompson inside St Helen and the Holy Cross church in Sheriff Hutton, and the ruins of Sheriff Hutton castle, below.
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As a small North Yorkshire village gets ready to celebrate its links with Richard III, Stephen McClarence investigates its royal history.

Many of us have a shed or a summer house in the back garden. Dr Richard Howarth has a medieval castle. “It just came with the farm,” he says. “When my grandfather bought it, no-one showed much interest in it. It had always been there and people took it for granted towering over the village.”

The castle is at Sheriff Hutton, between York and Malton. Its ruins loom high over the Vale of York and look grim and gaunt even on a sunny summer’s day. In winter fogs, they can look downright menacing. Grim, gaunt and menacing: words you could also apply to the castle’s most famous resident, Richard III – at least according to the popular stereotype.

Sheriff Hutton is gearing up for a Richard III festival next month. The village is spick and span and dotted with houses incorporating bits and pieces plundered over the centuries from the castle. It played an important role in the life of England’s most notorious and controversial king, who has been back in the news this summer as archaeologists appear to have found his body after digging up a Leicester car park in a bid to find his grave.

He and his wife Anne may have been at Sheriff Hutton to meet the funeral procession of their only child, Edward. He had been invested as Prince of Wales at York Minster in 1483, but died at Middleham, another of Richard’s favourite Yorkshire castles, a few months later, aged around ten.

Many believe that a mutilated alabaster tomb in Sheriff Hutton church is a memorial to the boy. Whatever the truth – and it’s much debated – the tomb will be a focus of the festival weekend (October 20 and 21). It will celebrate local links with Richard, the last Yorkist king, whose death at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485 ended the Wars of the Roses, effectively brought down a blood-soaked curtain on the Middle Ages, and ushered in the more modern, bureaucratic world of the deeply dull Henry VII and the Tudors.

The festival will feature talks by leading Richard III experts, a concert of 15th and early 16th century music by the York Waits, costumed re-enactments, and a service including prayers from Richard’s Book of Hours, his personal prayerbook, which he may (sorry) have read in his tent before Bosworth.

The organiser is Roy Thompson, a Sheriff Hutton church warden and authority on churches in general. Is he convinced that the tomb is Edward’s? “As church warden, I cannot say anything else,” he says. “It’s a way of attracting punters.”

A glance at the church’s visitors book bears him out. In recent weeks, St Helen and the Holy Cross has been visited by people from Holland, Austria, Tanzania, Australia, Canada, Israel, Texas (and Gomersal).

The mottled tomb, under Richard III’s white-boar pennant and a stained glass window with a fragment of golden sun, the badge of his brother Edward IV, hasn’t survived well. Its praying boyish figure has been chopped off at the ankles and has weathered in a curious away to a smooth blank face and thin limbs, as though the stone is gradually starving to death. On its front, angels support shields with coats of arms.

If it’s authentic, this is the only tomb of a Prince of Wales in an English parish church.

“People get quite heated about it,” says local historian Tony Wright. “People who are passionate about Richard III don’t like others to dispute its authenticity.”

There are plenty of those passionate people. Richard, the last English monarch to die in battle, has always been good box office. On the strength of “eye witness accounts” by people who weren’t even born when he died, Tudor propaganda branded him a hunchbacked monster with a withered arm and a warped, murderous mind, lopping branches off the Plantagenet family tree.

The image was carefully fostered by Shakespeare and consolidated in the twentieth century by Laurence Olivier, who based his film performance on the Big Bad Wolf in Red Riding Hood.

His rehabilitation has long been under way, with at least five societies devoted to his memory and to asserting the true facts of his reign as one of the most enlightened British monarchs. His Council of the North, for instance, was designed to improve the administration and economy of the region.

“It was regional government for the North of England, decentralisation from Westminster,” says Roy Thompson. “It was a very fair way of governing. People could go to the Council with their pleas and have them heard, rather than send them to Westminster where they could disappear into a bureaucratic hole.”

The Council often met at Sheriff Hutton castle, where history lurks in every corner. It was the home of the poet John Skelton, tutor of Henry VIII. Earl Rivers, who translated from French one of the first books printed by Caxton, also lived here, before his execution in Pontefract. It does, however, seem to be the only castle in the North where Mary Queen of Scots was never imprisoned: a curious oversight.

Richard Howarth, a retired academic, recalls the state of the ivy-draped 14th century ruins when his grandfather bought them (as part of the farm) in 1940. “At that time, no-one was interested in ‘heritage’,” he says. “There were farm buildings everywhere – a barn here, a barn there, a silo there, another building down there. My father gradually started clearing it and I finished it, clearing all the ugly old tin buildings from the place.”

As he says, it’s unusual these days for castles to have private owners: “People usually hand them over to the National Trust or English Heritage.”

The Howarth family are responsible for protecting it from damage, though in 2003 English Heritage spent £540,000 stabilising one of its towers. It’s open only by appointment. “We must get several hundred visitors a year,” he says. “We get Richard III societies from all over the world – Japanese, Germans... we had some Italian visitors this week.

“It’s said to be one of the finest romantic ruins in the North. On a spooky winter’s night, with the wind howling through it, it’s very charismatic.”

Tickets for the full Richard III weekend cost £25 from 01347 878754. Festival information: 01347 878644