Richmond Castle, Swaledale

Built almost 950 years ago, Richmond Castle is one of the finest Norman castles in the country. A Scheduled Monument and a Grade I listed building, it is recognised as an internationally important structure.

Richmond Castle 1

Work started on Richmond Castle almost 950 years ago in 1071 by Alan the Red, a nephew of William the Conqueror and one of his closest allies. The castle has a long history of protecting England’s northern lands but fell into decline in the 14th century.

It is now a Scheduled Monument, a “nationally important” historic building, and a Grade I listed building, thus recognised as an internationally important structure.

A bit of history

After defeating King Harold at Hastings, William the Conqueror began to take control of his new fiefdom. It took some years and plenty of battles. There were many opponents who felt they had an equally good, or better, claim on the land – ‘Cedric the Wild’ of Wales, King Harold’s sons, King Malcolm III of Scotland, the Vikings to name but a few.

In 1068, there was a rebellion in the north when King Sweyn II launched an invasion to back up his claim, and the City of York had the audacity to give Sweyn a big welcome. Furious, William headed north to teach the rebels and invaders a lesson. He did just that. His scorched earth campaign saw York razed and Yorkshire laid waste with William’s troops killing everything that lived, breathed or grew. After that, he handed out large tracts of the land to his most trusted allies and relations. Their job was to make sure the locals knew their place.

Richmond Castle rises

Richmond Castle Keep. Photo by Euan Nelson.

Richmond Castle Keep1

What is now Swaledale & Wensleydale was given to one of William’s nephews, Alain Le Roux (a.k.a. Alan Rufus or Alan the Red) of Brittany. In those days the area was called the Honour of Richmond, covered parts of eight counties and was to one of the largest estates in England. In 1071 Alain set about building a castle on a hill called “Riche Mont” (strong hill) to strengthen his control over the area and defend his lands. And where there was a castle, there was also work and protection. People gathered and a town grew up. The Dukes of Brittany became the Earls of Richmond.

Additions to the castle were made over the years. The 12th century saw a 100-foot (30m) high Keep, with walls 11 feet thick, started. The Keep was, however, finished by Henry II of England after he seized the Earldom of Richmond in 1158. Henry II also added towers and a barbican. Subsequently, Henry III and King Edward I improved both the exterior and interior of the castle.

Prison of Kings

Richmond Castle became a favourite for holding Kings, both English and Scottish. In 1174, King William, the Lion of Scotland, was held in the castle after being captured at Alnwick. Another Scottish King, David II, was also kept here after his defeat at Neville’s Cross in 1346. And King Charles I stayed at the castle during his journey south in 1647 following his surrender to the Scots.

Decline and resurrection

Scollands Hall, Richmond Castle. Photo by Peter Jeffrey.

Scolland’s Hall, Richmond Castle2

By the end of the 14th-century, England was less at risk of internal unrest and Richmond Castle was no longer needed as a stronghold. It fell into a gradual decline and by 1538 was partly in ruins. It was saved by the growth of both tourism and a greater interest in history which led to repairs being carried out in the early 1800s.

After the repairs it was used in various ways. In the middle of the 19th century the North Yorkshire Militia had their headquarters at the castle. Between 1908 and 1910, Robert Baden-Powell, (of Boy Scout fame) used it when he commanded the Northern Territorial Army.

During the First World War the castle was the base of the Non-Combatant Corps, which was made up of conscientious objectors. It was also used as a prison for those conscientious objectors who refused to take part in the war in any way. These included the “Richmond Sixteen” who were taken to France from the castle, charged under Field Regulations, and sentenced to death. Thankfully, the death sentences were commuted to ten years’ hard labour.

Legend of King Arthur

There is a legend that King Arthur and his knights sleep in a cave underneath the castle and entertaining stories have grown up over the years around this idea. One involves a potter called Thompson who stumbled on them and ran away when they began to wake up. Another is of a drummer boy, lost while investigating an underground tunnel, and whose drumming is still heard to this day.

Richmond Castle today

Today Richmond Castle is seen as has one of the finest examples of Norman buildings in Britain including Scollands Hall, the Great Hall of the castle. The roof and floors of the Keep have been restored. It is classified as a Scheduled Monument, a “nationally important” historic building and is protected from unauthorised change. It is also a Grade I listed building and recognised as an internationally important structure.

English Heritage is now responsible for its care and the castle is open to the public from 10am to 6pm during the summer months, with reduced opening during the autumn and winter months. Check their website for more details.

Admission costs £5.00 per adult and £3.00 for children aged 5-15yrs. There are also concessionary rates available for seniors and families.

There is a Visitor Centre at the castle which explains the history of the building and has exhibitions as well, such as the one explaining the story, and fate, of the Richmond Sixteen.

Also on site is a gift shop, a café, a picnic area and some wonderful gardens to wander around.

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Featured image by Phil Smith
1 © Copyright Euan Nelson
2 © Copyright Peter Jeffrey
All photos licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence