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Nostalgia on Tuesday: Tower of strength

Helmsley Castle from the walled garden.
Helmsley Castle from the walled garden.
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The Yorkshire Post picture archives reveal that a number of groups have staged exciting re-enactments of events from the past at Helmsley Castle.

Many, of course, reflecting incidents from the castle’s long history.

One of the images depicts the Bills and Bows re-enactment group, which specialises in bringing the Tudor age to life. They presented an Intrigue and Treachery theme at Helmsley Castle, the year imagined being 1589 when England was governed by Queen Elizabeth I. Then, Helmsley Castle was being used as a base for the recruitment and training of troops to oppose the rebels in Northumberland and Westmorland. The rebels were supporting Mary Queen of Scots and intended to raise an army and march south.

Castles and forts, ranging from Norman earthworks to mighty royal fortresses from Cornwall to Northumberland, tell the turbulent and often surprising story of power, war and siege in England and Helmsley Castle is part of this rich history.

Speculation suggests an earlier castle existed towards the end of the 11th century on the current Helmsley site.

A castle at Helmsley was established, or rebuilt in wood, masonry and earth, on a rocky outcrop overlooking the River Rye, shortly after 1120 by Walter Espec. He also built Wark Castle and was the founder of Kirkham Priory in 1122. In 1131 he granted lands to Abbott Bernard of Clairvaux for the establishment of Rievaulx Abbey. Espec is remembered in a Yorkshire ballad as a man of considerable stature, being as “large as the mountaine oake”. He held many royal positions including Justiciar of the Forests and Justiciar of the Northern Counties from Henry I, and he led the English troops at the Battle of the Standard in 1138, fought near Northallerton in North Yorkshire.

The reason behind building the new Helmsley Castle was to provide a principal residence at the centre of Espec’s Yorkshire estates. The fort was planned with two rectangular baileys divided by a ditch and wall, and entered via a gateway from the north. English Heritage’s Helmsley Castle guide book adds: “Unlike most other castles of the period, Helmsley might have had no central motte (mound) to function as the main stronghold; instead, the buildings of the castle were ranged around the perimeter of its baileys.”

When Espec died childless in 1154, the castle estates passed to his sister’s husband, Peter de Roos and eventually down to Robert de Roos, also known as Fursan (born about 1186). He was one of 25 barons chosen to enforce Magna Carta in 1215 and also joined the Knights Templar. Under Roos’s ownership the castle was rebuilt in stone, and involved a substantial enhancement and expansion of the castle’s defences and domestic arrangements.

William de Roos I took control after his father’s death and was responsible for building a new chapel, consecrated in 1246. William’s son and successor, Robert de Roos III, added a barbican to the north gate and remodelled the south gate.

Further remodelling at Helmsley, improving its defences and domestic accommodation, took place during the 14th century by de Roos family members. Among the improvements were the building of a new hall and the conversion and heightening of the west tower into apartments for the lord and his family.

The de Roos family remained at Helmsley Castle during the 14th and 15th centuries until Thomas de Roos II was beheaded for treason in 1464 and the property was transferred to the Crown. Thereafter it passed to George, Duke of Clarence; Richard, Duke of Gloucester (later Richard III) then restored to Edmund de Roos. Helmsley left the de Roos family in 1508 and was inherited by the Manners family. Significant alterations occurred at the castle under Edward Manners, third Earl of Rutland (Lord Roos 1563-1587) including the domestic ranges being replaced and a mansion built in the shell of the west tower and 12th century hall.

During the English Civil War (1642-1651), the Parliamentarian siege of Royalist Helmsley, between September to November 1644, was the castle’s first and last experience of conflict. Once the Royalists had surrendered, the Parliamentary commander, Thomas Fairfax, born in Wharfedale, Yorkshire, in 1612, was instructed to ‘slight’ the castle and a certain amount of damage was inflicted. However, the Tudor mansion remained intact. The castle, manor and borough of Helmsley came into the possession of Fairfax and his heirs in 1650.

Fairfax’s son-in-law, George Villiers, second Duke of Buckingham, moved into the mansion in 1685 but died two years later. He was notorious for his extravagant and disreputable lifestyle. At Helmsley he lived in poverty and in bad health. He is immortalised in the children’s rhyme: ‘Georgie Porgie Pudding and Pie, kissed the girls and made them cry’.

In 1695 Helmsley was sold to Charles Duncombe, a Londoner, for £95,000. On passing to his brother-in-law, Thomas Browne in 1711, the Helmsley Castle site was abandoned and Duncombe Park established.

On January 15, 1924, it was reported that Helmsley Castle had been transferred to the guardianship of the Commissioners of Works with the object of preserving the remains. The trustees of the late Earl of Feversham had offered the castle as a gift to the nation. The castle was cleared of debris and the remains of buildings exposed and consolidated. Ditches were also emptied of rubble.

The castle passed from the control of the Ministry of Works to English Heritage in 1984.