Middleham Castle in Wensleydale dates back to 1190, built to provide formidable protection to the area around Richmond and a comfortable home to the Norman conquerors of England.
It was the home of the notorious ‘Kingmaker’, the 16th Earl of Warwick and to King Richard III, last Plantagenet king. Now cared for by English Heritage, it is a draw for visitors from across the world.
A bit of history
After defeating King Harold at Hastings, William the Conqueror began to take control of the country. It wasn’t straightforward – there were plenty more battles with those who felt they had a better claim to the country before he could exert total control.
In 1068, there was a rebellion in the north when the Danish King Sweyn II launched an invasion to back up his claim, and the City of York opened its gates to Sweyn. A furious and determined William headed north with a huge army with a plan to subdue the rebellious northerners once and for all. 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, and stayed in it.
Alan the Red
What is now Swaledale & Wensleydale, then called the Honour of Richmond, was given to one of William’s nephew, Alain Le Roux (aka Alan Rufus or Alan the Red) of Brittany. It was one of the largest estates in England.
Castles were used as both a show of strength and a means to protect and dominate the area. So Alan the Red built a wooden motte-and-bailey castle on William’s Hill, some 500 yards from the present castle. It guarded the area and protected the road from to also part of his huge estate.
Middleham Castle rises
By 1086 he had passed Middleham to his half-brother, Ribald. It was Ribald’s grandson, Robert Fitzrandolph, who started construction of the current Middleham castle in 1190 with the aim of building a more formidable stronghold coupled with more comfort for the family.
A huge stone keep, one of the largest in England, was the centrepiece of the castle. The walls were an impressive twelve feet thick and there were three floors of luxurious accommodation (for the time, anyway). There were a great hall, chambers, a chapel and, in the basement, kitchens, storage space and two wells. Access was through a gatehouse with huge wooden doors and a drawbridge over a moat.
Later addition expanded the castle, with a high wall around the keep, buildings for the garrison, stables and storehouses.
The Nevilles and the Kingmaker
In 1270, Robert de Nevill received Middleham through his wife, Mary, daughter and heiress of Ralph Fitzranulph. So began the growth of the Nevilles into one of the most powerful families in the Kingdom.
The best known, maybe notorious, of these was Richard Neville, 16th Earl of Warwick, known to history as the “Kingmaker”.
The 16th Earl of Warwick was born in 1428 and became a leading figure in the Wars of the Roses fought between the Houses of York and Lancaster. He first supported King Henry IV, fell out with him and switched allegiance to a challenger, Richard, Duke of York. When Richard of York was killed in battle, Warwick supported Richard’s son, Edward, later King Edward IV, in his claim to the throne. Warwick, however, then managed to fall out with Edward IV, and switched his allegiance, yet again. This time he plotted to put Edward’s brother, George, Duke of Clarence, on the throne. When this failed, he (re)crowned Henry IV in 1470 with Edward fleeing for his life. Within a year, however, Edward was back with an army, finally defeating and killing his nemesis, Warwick, at the Battle of Barnet in April 1471.
Edward’s brother, Richard, married Anne Neville, Warwick’s younger daughter, and made Middleham Castle his main home. Their son Edward was also born at Middleham and died there.
Richard III and after
After Edward IV’s death, Richard was crowned King Richard III and, as a result, didn’t spend much time at Middleham. He was killed at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485. After his death the castle remained in royal hands until the reign of James I, when it was sold. Regretfully, it fell into disuse and disrepair during the 17th century although it was garrisoned during the Civil War while it was used as a prison.
In 1646 the castle was destroyed as a usable building by orders of Parliament. It had various owners up to 1925 when it was acquired by the Office of Works, later to become English Heritage , who still care for the ruins.
Middleham Castle today
Today Middleham Castle is open to the public. Whilst a ruin, the Castle remains a hugely impressive building and great fun to explore. From its walls and walk-ways, it is easy to get a flavour of how it was in its heyday.
The visitor facilities at the Castle include picnic areas, an exhibition about the history of the castle, vending machines for hot drinks. Dogs on leads are welcome.
Admission is £4.70 for adults, £2.80 for children (5-15yrs) with concessions and family tickets available.
Opening times vary throughout the year. Between March and September, the castle is open from 10am to 6pm each day.
The castle is very close to Middleham village which offers a wide range of shops and places to stay. Middleham Gallops are a short walk out of the village.
For more information visit the English Heritage Middleham Castle website .