Although Middleham Castle will forever be associated with the often maligned King Richard III, the building itself is of immense interest, standing on high ground above the town in the upper reaches of Wensleydale.
As part of his reward for helping William of Normandy at the Battle of Hastings, Alan the Red, Earl of Richmond, was granted Middleham in 1069. Whilst Alan had a castle at Richmond, he initially built a ‘motte and bailey’ fortification at William’s Hill, Middleham, some 400 metres to the south west of the present castle. The earthworks still survive today.
During 1086, Middleham was granted to Alan’s brother, Ribald. A century later the ‘motte and bailey’ site was abandoned with Ribald’s grandson, FitzRanulph, building the stone keep of the existing castle. By comparison to other Norman keeps, the one at Middleham is considered to be among the largest in England. It measures about 49ft (15m) high, 78ft (24m) wide and 105ft (32m) deep and is built of ashlar with a rubble core.
The keep was designed with defence very much in mind and featured thick walls standing on a plinth for greater strength; a first floor entrance approached up some stone stairs; tall narrow windows, high off the ground to deter intruders; a turret at each corner, allowing a clear, all-round view; and a crosswall dividing the inside of the keep into two.
Significant developments occurred within the castle’s history over the next few centuries. By 1270 Middleham had passed by marriage to the Nevills, one of the country’s most powerful families. The lower part of the curtain wall was built in stone around 1300 with shallow buttresses and a two-storey tower at each corner; and a three-storey block was constructed between the keep and the curtain wall. The top storey was a chapel and the two lower storeys may have been living quarters for priests, lay clerks or choristers.
On the first floor of the Keep was the Great Hall which was the centre of castle life, serving as a court, a place for public audiences, meetings, feasting and entertainment.
During 1389 the first grant for a market was made and a small town grew up because of the castle. In 1479 the town was granted the right to hold two annual fairs.
From 1400-1425 the south and west ranges were rebuilt and their height increased; the height of the south-west and north-west towers was increased; the north-east tower was converted into a gatehouse. Also in the 15th century the curtain walls were heightened and more domestic accommodation was built. Household staff (which might have numbered 200) lived in buildings around three sides of the courtyard and would be allocated rooms according to their rank. The roof over the Great Hall was also removed and a new storey added.
In the early 15th century Ralph, the fourth Lord Nevill, and the first Earl of Westmorland, was noted as the North’s most powerful lord. He fathered 23 children (nine from his first marriage and 14 from the second) and Middleham was inherited along with other estates by Richard, the eldest son by his second marriage in 1440. Alterations carried out at the castle by him included adding the north range; heightening the north-west tower and rebuilding the upper part of the gatehouse.
Richard was killed in the Wars of the Roses and Middleham passed to his son, also called Richard, becoming Earl of Warwick and also known as ‘Warwick the Kingmaker’. By the mid-15th century, Middleham was noted as a major military base and a thriving social centre. In 1469 Warwick imprisoned Edward IV for a few months at Middleham. Two years later the two men clashed at the Battle of Barnet and Warwick was killed. Edward IV gave Middleham to his brother Richard, Duke of Gloucester, and he married the late Warwick’s younger daughter Anne.
The couple chose Middleham as their chief residence. Using the wealth accrued from the Middleham estates, Richard built up a considerable army of loyal followers. This ultimately helped him to seize the throne, on the death of his brother in 1483 and become Richard III.
Once in power Richard saw very little of Middleham but his son Edward of Middleham, Prince of Wales, was noted there in 1483: a record of expenses mentions payment for a fool or jester to entertain the little boy. He died aged 10 in 1484.
After Richard III’s death in 1485, the castle remained in Crown ownership and served a role as an administrative centre. By the mid-16th century the main buildings around the keep were still in use but other areas were falling into decay.
In 1604 the castle was sold by James I and passed to Sir Henry Linley, but was sold to the Wood family in 1662 who held it until 1889. In that period it was probably leased out for industrial or farming activities. Sir Samuel Cunliffe-Lister, the inventor, bought the structure in a ruinous state for £70,000.
The Office of Works took the castle under its guardianship in 1925 and in 1984 was transferred to English Heritage. School parties regularly visit the site which is ideal for pupils to study change and development in castle design.
Following the discovery in 2012 of Richard III’s remains in Leicester, there was renewed interest in both Richard and the places associated with him. Scattered into his tomb with his coffin at his reburial in March 2015 was soil gathered from these places, including Middleham, where he grew up.
Thanks to English Heritage and Historic England Archive for help with this piece.