Updated: Dec 10, 2022
With towering walls, imposing towers and a record breaking Great Keep, Middleham Castle is one of the largest and most Impressive Castles in England.
Nestled in the heart of the Wensleydale in North Yorkshire, Middleham Castle is an impressive sight. Dating back to the Norman Invasion of England, and originally comprising a Ringwork-and-bailey Castle, Middleham became one of the grandest and most impressive palatial homes in England, and served as the childhood home of one of England’s most infamous monarchs. Join me on a photographic tour of Yorkshire’s mightiest Castle, and find out more about it’s impressive history.
The History of Middleham Castle
Alan Rufus ‘The Red’
Middleham is indeed an old Castle, but it is actually pre-dated by another more rudimentary fortification. Little of this remains today, but if you have keen eyes you might just notice remains of the earthworks, situated just up the hill. This earlier fortification was constructed in around 1086 by Alan Rufus ‘The Red’. As one of William the Conqueror’s closest allies, Rufus was rewarded lands in Northern England, and following the construction of a mighty castle at Richmond, set upon building a new fortification at Middleham.
Like many of William the Conqueror’s Generals, Rufus would have had the important job of not only controlling his lands, but also keeping the Northern Lords in check. The castle he built at Richmond was already very well established by the time he (or one of his associates), embarked on the construction of Middleham, but the latter differed somewhat from convention, in that it comprised a Ringwork-and-bailey fortification. The main difference here, was the inclusion of a circular earthwork and ditch that served to protect the complex within.
A Castle built in stone
When Alan died in 1098, the castle passed through his two brothers, and eventually found itself in the hands of an illegitimate brother, Ribald. Through Ribald, Middleham descended to his son Ralph, and later to his grandson Robert Fitz Ranulph. Robert certainly had possession of Middleham by the 1170’s, and it is reckoned by English Heritage, that it was around this time much of the current castle was built in stone. This is corroborated by architecturally similar stone buildings that also date back to this period. Robert is likely responsible for the massive Great Tower, and had he not also been responsible for the massive stone walls, a wooden palisade would certainly have stood in their place.
The rise and rise of the Nevilles
Middleham effectively changed hands in 1258, when Robert’s grandson, Ralph fitz Ranulph died. The mighty fortress descended to Ralph’s daughter Mary, and then passed to her husband Robert Neville when they married in 1260. This was the beginning of a great Neville dynasty, with the family becoming one of the richest and most influential in England. Little would Mary have imagined, that her Great, Great Grandson Ralf Neville, would in 1396 marry the daughter of a Duke, (John of Gaunt) and be elevated to 1st Earl of Westmorland.
A Palace fit for a King
A sure sign of the Earl’s enormous wealth, he made massive upgrades to his flagship residence. Not only did he commission significant upgrades to the lodgings and the castle walls, but he is also slated with constructing a mighty gatehouse and no fewer than three new ranges. Middleham was indeed a palace fit for a king, and this is evident in the fact that his brother-in-law, King Henry IV, stayed at Middleham when he was on a progress in the North in 1410.
Richard Neville, Earl of Salisbury
Richard Neville, 5th Earl of Salisbury, inherited Middleham along with the castles of Sheriff Hutton and Raby, in 1410 when his father Ralph died. A nephew of King Henry IV, Richard had been a staunch Lancastrian up until the ineffective rule of King Henry VI left a power vacuum at the very heart of government. Richard had previously served in France with his brother-in-law Richard, 3rd Duke of York, and when the King suffered his first bout of madness in 1453, the Duke was made Protector of the Realm, with Richard as Chancellor.
The Wars of the Roses
The brutal civil war that resulted saw old family alliances broken, and new ones forged. Tragically, Salisbury’s alliance with York, saw he, and the Duke, lose their lives at Sandal Castle in 1460. Their sons continued to champion the Yorkist cause however, with Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick securing the throne for Edward, Earl of March, at the Battle of Towton in 1461. Warwick was greatly rewarded for his loyalty, and effectively became the richest and most powerful magnate in England.
For more on the Wars of the Roses, please check out my documentary.
Warwick had been a staunch supporter of Edward, now King Edward IV, up until the latter part of 1460’s when the relationship drastically broke down. Warwick felt increasingly threatened by the Queen’s ever increasing influence over the King, and when Edward refused to sanction a marriage between his brother George, Duke of Clarence, and Warwick’s daughter Isabel, the relationship took an irreversible turn. In 1469 Warwick captured Edward and held him captive at Warwick Castle, and later Middleham. Having not received the support he hoped for, Warwick was forced to release Edward and flee to France in search of a new alliance.
Downfall of Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick
With Henry VI and his wife, Margaret of Anjou, in exile in France, Warwick sought a new opportunity to seize power in England. He had effectively turned coat, and with a marriage agreement in place between Warwick’s daughter Ann, and Edward Prince of Wales, invaded England and returned Henry VI back to the throne. Warwick’s success was short lived however, when in 1471 Edward returned from exile and killed his traitorous friend at the Battle of Barnet. What remained of the Lancastrian cause was obliterated when the Prince of Wales was killed, his father Henry VI murdered, and his mother taken prisoner.
Richard III, Warden of the North
Keen to secure his rule in the North of England, Edward granted his loyal brother Richard, Duke of Gloucester, the vast Warwick estates. He also made Richard President of the newly formed Council of the North, effectively making him King in his own right. Richard must have been proud of his new palatial residence at Middleham, and having spent much of his childhood as part of Warwick’s household, must have felt enough at home for his own son, Edward, to have been born there in 1474. Whether Richard made any upgrades to the castle is unknown, but certainly such modifications would not have been necessary.
Middleham remained a Royal Castle, until it was sold by James I in 1604. Little seems to have become of Middleham over the next few decades, and the castle played a very minor role during the Civil War. It is suggested that orders were given for have the castle slighted, but according to English Heritage there is no evidence to suggest this ever happened. The castle remained in private ownership until it was eventually gifted to the state in 1930, and In 1984 English Heritage became custodian. Today, Middleham Castle serves as a popular visitor attraction, and stands as one of the most substantial Castle ruins in the North of England.
What to see at Middleham Castle
Situated on the Northern fridges of the Yorkshire Dales, Middleham Castle could be considered as being fairly remote. That is partially true, but being situated not too far from the M1 motorway, Middleham is not the most difficult Heritage site to get to. Visitors making the effort to get there however, will be duly rewarded, by what I think is one of the most incredible castle ruins in England.
Middleham is a small North Yorkshire Market Town, very much dominated by the castle that towers over it. Whilst there is no car park, visitors are permitted to park within the on-street pebbled areas, and the castle is accessible via a very short uphill walk. The first thing that strikes you as you approach the site, is the size and scale of the perimeter wall. Today this stands largely intact, with only the Eastern section missing. The wall dates back to around 1300, and was heightened around a hundred years later. Unfortunately the upper section of wall is missing today, but the four original towers are still present.
The original gatehouse was situated within the Eastern Wall, and evidence of this still exists. Access would have been gained via a now, none-existent Eastern courtyard, but when the perimeter wall was heightened in 1400, the main gatehouse was moved to its current position, with the old one being turned into a smaller secondary entrance. The main Gatehouse sits within the north-east tower, which was heightened in 1440 with the addition of a third floor.
Colossal Great Tower
Moving through the Gatehouse into the Inner Court, visitors are immediately struck by the enormous scale of the Great Tower. This is clearly the crowing feature of Middleham castle, and at around 49ft in height, is one of the largest in England. The Tower is essentially divided into two halves by a central wall, and comprises two stories.
Today, the Great Tower is roofless and it is hard to imagine how it must have been structured in the Middle ages. The Tower was certainly the most important building in the medieval castle, with the most important spaces being situated on the first floor. The ‘basement’ floor would been largely used for food storage, but this is also where the main kitchen was situated.
The first floor is where the magic really happened. Accessible via a small ante-chamber, important guests would have found themselves emerging within the Great Hall. Used for feasting and entertainment, this would have been the most important room in the castle. On the other side of the dividing wall was situated the Great Chamber, and the Presence Chamber. The later would have been accessible to only the most esteemed guests.
In addition to the mighty Great Tower, Middleham Castle also comprises three large ranges. The South Range contains a number of lodgings that were added in the 15th century, with access to the newly built first floor being accessed via a bridge that connected it to the Great Keep. The North and West Ranges would have been just as impressive, and comprised well appointed rooms, latrines, administrative offices and other functional spaces.
The castle walls/ranges incorporate four impressive corner towers. Worthy of note is the so called ‘Prince’s Tower’ which sits in the South West corner. The tower gets its name from the legend that Prince Edward was born within one of its chambers; the fact that the tower also contained a nursery adds credence to this belief.
Middleham is indeed a spectacular historic site, and it’s surprising just how much there is to see, all crammed within such a modest space. The ruins are very substantial and well preserved, and they give you a real sense of just how magnificent Middleham must have been. What started as a fairly standard Norman fortification, evolved into one of the grandest and most impressive palatial residences in the North of England.
For lovers of grand medieval castles, a visit to Middleham is an absolute must. Don’t be put of by the remoteness of the site however. Visitors who make the effort, will be rewarded with not only one of the most substantial castle ruins in the country, but also spectacular views across what is one of the most beautiful regions of Yorkshire.