Middleham’s origins still remain somewhat of a mystery, as there is little written evidence of a structure standing prior to the Norman Conquest and the recording of the Domesday Book in 1086. While there was an early timber castle located just to the south of the stone castle, likely built following the Norman Conquest at the end of the 10th century, the stone structure itself is dated to sometime in the late 12th century.
Beginning as a simple structure, Middleham would grow to be a lavish Medieval castle, but it would never see violent battle or siege. In the mid-13th century, the castle passed into the Neville family who would grow to be one of the most powerful families in England. Richard Neville, the 16th Earl of Warwick, was a leading figure in the Wars of the Roses that pitted the Lancastrians against the Yorkists as they both vied for the throne. In the 15th century, Middleham would become most famous for its title as the childhood home of King Richard III who usurped the throne from his 12-year-old nephew Edward V in 1483.
There is very little preserved evidence of anyone occupying the land where Middleham castle now stands prior to the construction of the present castle in the late 12th century. Archaeologists did uncover a Roman bathhouse about 10 miles south-east of Middleham and the Domesday Book, written in 1086, noted the land was held by a Gilpatrick prior to the Norman Conquest in 1066. After the conquest, William I (aka William the Conqueror) gave the lands to Alan Rufus, ‘the Red’, who was his second cousin and one of his chief supporters.
There were remains discovered of a timber structure to the south of the present Middleham castle that is thought to have been built by either Alan or his younger brother Ribald. The original timber structure followed a Motte and Bailey pattern that was common during this time period and used mainly by the Normans as they set up points of conquest during their invasions. This pattern had a structure or tower situated on top of a hill or mound (motte) and an enclosed area surrounded by a wall and ditch at the bottom (baily). The motte of this castle sat upon William’s Hill, just south of the Middleham village. The classic Motte and Bailey design differed slightly though as the timber buildings were then surrounded by a ringwork, a circular earthwork that was then protected with timber defenses. These defenses were then surrounded by a deep ditch, along with a bailey that sat beyond the ditch on the south side.
Typical Motte and Bailey castle design
Exterior of the Norman keep in the late 1400s
The stone castle that still stands in ruins today was first begun in the late 12th century, with the Norman Keep likely being constructed in the 1170s by Ribald’s grandson Robert Fitz-Ranulph. Archaeologists have determined this date based on carved stones in the north-east chapel that depict a ‘waterleaf’ design. This form of carving was used elsewhere in Yorkshire in the second half of the 12th century, giving archaeologists strong evidence to Middleham’s construction date.
The Norman Keep itself was designed in the Norman style with walls 14-feet thick at the base and standing around 66-feet high. The tower keep held three floors and contained a great chamber, large kitchen, chapel, living quarters, and cellars. The Great Hall in the tower was central to all activity as it was where feasting and politics would take place. The original entrance to the castle was through a gatehouse on the eastern side over a moat, but the entrance would later be changed to the northern gatehouse after the entrance was rebuilt by the Nevilles.
In the latter half of the 13th century, Middleham was inherited by the Neville family when Mary Fitz-Ranulph married Robert Neville. In the late 13th or early 14th century, Mary and Robert’s son Ranulph built the curtain wall surrounding the keep which is shaped like a parallelogram with towers strengthening each angle.While the castle sat mostly unchanged during the second half of the 13th century, the future Barons would make drastic improvements in the following century.
In 1388, Ralph, 1st Earl of Westmorland, inherited Middleham from his father John, 5th Baron Neville. Ralph made vast improvements to the castle to create a lavish home for himself and his family. He granted a weekly market and an annual fair to the town and focused on improved accommodations, including the construction of extra latrines. Ralph also raised the curtain wall to create first-floor ranges, had the towers heightened, and converted the north-east corner tower into the castle’s main gatehouse. In 1410, Henry VI stayed at Middleham while on his way north, suggesting the castle was built lavishly enough for a king to visit.
In the early 15th century, additional work on the curtain wall’s north-west tower, the gatehouse, and the chapel tower was all completed, most likely by Richard Neville, 5th Earl of Salisbury. Richard’s son, Richard Neville, 16th Earl of Warwick, would bring Middleham more renown as he was a key figure in the Wars of the Roses. The Wars of the Roses (1455-1487) was a civil war fought between the Lancastrians and Yorkists over the line of ascension to the throne and included many rebellions. Warwick was given the title of ‘Kingmaker’ as he was instrumental in helping the Yorkist Edward, Earl of March, take the throne from the Lancastrian Henry VI in 1461. Following the crowning of Edward, Warwick found himself in disagreement with the king over his politics concerning allies on the continent. After a battle in July of 1469, instigated by rebels aligned with Warwick and his attempt to dethrone Edward, George Neville captured and held Edward prisoner at Middleham castle until releasing him in September.
During the Wars of the Roses, a young Richard was made Duke of Gloucester in 1461 after his older brother Edward IV was crowned king. In 1465, Richard went to live with Warwick at Middleham and remained there until 1468. A few years later in 1471, Richard inherited the Neville lands, including Middleham, after Warwick’s death and Richard’s marriage to Anne Neville, Warwick’s daughter. Richard became king in 1483 after first being named Protector of the Realm following Edward IV’s death and then usurping the throne from his young nephew Edward V. During his 2-year reign, Richard visited Middleham often.
Following Richard’s defeat in 1485 at the Battle of Bosworth, Henry Tudor would take the crown and ownership of Middleham.
Middleham at its peak around 1480
In the early 16th century, Middleham was upkept and even had additional service buildings added on its grounds. In 1538, in a Crown survey, it was reported that the battlements, roofs, and chimneys were in poor condition and the walls were beginning to crumble and be overgrown with ivy. It is clear that the upkeep of the lavish Neville castle was not made a priority by the Tudors. As the years passed, Middleham continued to crumble.
During the 17th century, Middleham passed between owners and was even at one point slated for destruction by Parliament in 1647. During the Civil War (1642-1651), Colonel Robert Lilburne manned the castle in response to a Royalist threat and later that year Royalist prisoners were held there.
During the 18th century, the castle remained in ruins with some of the land being leased out to farmers. In the early 19th century Colonel Thomas Wood, a member of Parliament and High Sheriff of Breconshire, built a wall around the castle to prevent further decay and cleared some of the debris from the inside. In 1897, the 2nd Lord Masham began to conserve the castle and commissioned an architect to make repairs to prevent further destruction.
It was in 1930 that Middleham castle was gifted to the State for preservation and has since been converted into a historical site that hosts thousands of visitors each year.
Modern ruins of the Norman keep
During the Civil War, in August of 1642, Kenilworth was taken by the Parliamentarian army and partially destroyed in 1649 so that no opposing army could station themselves there. At the time, it was an impressive fortress that could have impacted the outcome of the war, so the north wall of the keep was destroyed and the outer curtain wall was breached. Following the Civil War, the castle was stripped and sold, some of the stones were used for new roads, the moat was drained, and the land was converted to farmland. The castle was renamed Castle Farm and since then has stood as a ruin and tourist attraction.
General history - https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/middleham-castle/history/
General history - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Middleham_Castle
War of the Roses general history - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wars_of_the_Roses
Castle information and history - https://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/yorks/north/vol1/pp251-257
Castle history informationhttps://www.google.com/books/edition
Specific castle information https://www.google.com/books/edition/A_series_
History - https://www.englishmonarchs.co.uk/middleham_
History - https://eheritageuk.com/english-heritage-middleham-castle-history-and-photos/
Middleham Castle cc-by-sa/2.0 - © Richard Croft - geograph.org.uk/p/5373948
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