It’s almost worth the journey to Richmond Castle in Yorkshire, just to get some photos. It was a dubious bonus to meet someone who could have been transported there by aliens, and odd to discover that it had to wait until the 20th century to become really famous.
Richmond Castle is a massive fortress built on a rocky promontory, towering over the bubbling river Swale far below. In plan, the castle is rather like an equilateral triangle of late 11th century curtain wall, with a huddle of buildings in the bottom right-hand corner, the base running along the top of the steep slope above the river and a fine 12th century keep at the apex, where the main entrance is. Unlike many castles of this period, Richmond does not have a motte – the large mound that Normans often constructed to tuck underneath their keeps.
So I arrived, sat on a bench and contentedly munched a sandwich, cheerfully visited the small exhibitions, happily heaved myself up worn ancient stairs to the top of the keep (and back again), patiently waited for a small boy to negotiate 53 steps that were each twice his size, got mistaken en passant for someone else’s husband and was blissfully making my way across the grass into the remains of St Nicholas’s Chapel when a fellow-visitor stumbled across my path. He was about my age, sandy-haired, clutching a decent-looking camera and a long cane. I never discovered the purpose of the latter and, in retrospect, the former was probably a Geiger counter. We exchanged manly nods of greeting and mutual suspicion. “I don’t get this place”, he announced without warning. “As a castle – it doesn’t feel right”. He seemed to be expecting a response, so I mumbled something about atmosphere and ventured to suggest that Middleham Castle, not far away, was pretty good; had he tried that? Clearly, this response was wrong. It seemed that he had been forced to visit Richmond because his drive south had been blocked by an unadvertised road closure on the A66. And, what’s more, he was very, very cross about it.
Sensing that this guy’s sojourn in Richmond could just as easily have been caused by aliens, I foolishly recommended, not without a trace of sarcasm, that “something should be done”, whilst at the same time trying to take photographs of a featureless medieval wall. “You’re right” said the man. “I’m going to get the Department for Transport to pay my expenses.” There was more to the same effect – given today’s technology etc… surely it wasn’t beyond the wit of a government department to … and so on. Another mistake on my part: stifling a mental yawn, I hinted that he could have taken another route, just like normal people would. No, no, that wasn’t possible, I obviously didn’t understand, somebody had to be made to pay. “Well, good luck with that”, I said, pointedly making my escape. “I used to work in the nuclear industry”, he proudly informed me. “We couldn’t afford to mess things up the way they do now. They said it was dangerous, y’know. But though most of my friends have gone and I’ve had brain surgery twice…” And he wandered off, waving his stick vaguely and, I’m sure, glowing gently. It’s a pity, because I was just about to confess to being a squirrel.
But maybe he had a point about Richmond Castle. Because it seems that, notwithstanding the bloody history of this great land of ours, Richmond has gone out of its way to avoid getting into too much trouble. In some ways, it’s extraordinarily ordinary. What we have is a castle where normal life carried on for much of the time – though there is the hint of a siege in 1216 when the then constable, Roald, defied King John – and almost another in the 1260s during the de Montfort rebellion.
The castle was probably built in the 1070s or 80s by Alan Rufus (‘the Red’), a kinsman of William the Conqueror, who had commanded the Breton troops at Hastings. Richmond – the name comes from the old French for ‘strong hill’ – was part of his reward and a great deal of what he built, in stone, the curtain walls and a two-storey hall block now known as Scolland’s Hall (after a 12th century constable of that name), remain for us to see. It is astonishing that so much has survived almost a thousand years – the most complete surviving 11th century castle in England. The keep was added by his great-nephew, Conan, who of course I want to call ‘Conan the Keepbuilder’. Meanwhile, the town of Richmond grew up around, and reliant upon, the castle. By Conan’s time, the heirs of Richmond had become Dukes of Brittany through marriage, though Conan gave up the title to Henry II in 1166 and, on Conan’s death in 1171, the castle passed into royal hands. Later, it seems that the estate of Richmond, known as ‘the Honour of Richmond’ was generally claimed by the Dukes of Brittany, who owed fealty to the King of France – whereas whoever possessed Richmond was subject to the King of England; given that these monarchs spent a great deal of time at war with one another, we can imagine that the lawyers had a grand time.
Unfortunately, Richmond Castle fell into disuse and disrepair so that, by 1538, it was almost entirely derelict. This undoubtedly saved the keep from being slighted by Parliamentary forces in the 17th century. By the late 18th century, the castle had become a sufficiently romantic tourist attraction for Turner to paint it.
But it got a new lease of life in 1854 as the headquarters of the North Yorks Militia, a barrack block was erected along the western curtain wall (demolished in 1931) and in 1908 the castle became the home of the Northern Territorial Army. Briefly, Robert Baden-Powell, founder of the Scout Movement, was officer in command.
One of Richmond Castle’s biggest claims to fame, though, is as a prison for conscientious objectors during the First World War. The introduction of conscription in 1916 highlighted the fact that many men felt, for religious, political, or other reasons, that they could not fight. The government allowed for non-combatants and formed a Non-Combatant Corps where exempted men, under military authority, could contribute to the war effort without fighting. However, some refused any involvement whatsoever in the war and 16 of them were imprisoned in tiny makeshift cells in a former storage facility at the castle. ‘The Richmond Sixteen’, have left hundreds of graffiti behind – drawings, quotations, statements – on the walls of their prisons.
In May 1916, these men were secretly transferred to France where a tribunal sentenced them to death for refusing to obey orders in the face of the enemy. The sentences were almost immediately commuted to ten years’ hard labour. Apparently, the Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith, had ordered that no conscientious objector should be shot. There are ambivalent, and complicated, feelings about ‘conchies’ – why should some men escape the carnage and not others? On the other hand – what if everyone refused to kill? One thing’s for sure; these men made a tough decision and had tough lives as a result. One of the most ridiculous accusations to throw at a ‘conchie’ was that of cowardice; it took a type of guts not to fight.
There’s nothing visible of the buildings that once stood inside the walls of Richmond Castle. But Scolland’s Hall, where banquets were held almost thousand summers ago, is astonishing. Beyond this is a small garden, now known as ‘the Cockpit’ – probably because cockfighting took place there. This was almost certainly a garden when the castle was first built and there was a gallery in the wall above, where folk could look down and admire it. I like the idea that something was built for pleasure and beauty, not power.
The keep is impressive, too – though you have to fight the pigeons and their products. The views from the top are gorgeous and also provide a good perspective on the castle’s layout. Here, I met an Australian couple, Bruce and Sheila, who were understandably excited about the worn steps. At the front, town-facing, side of the keep, which once looked over an outer barbican wall, are three ornamental windows. It is thought these might have had balconies, where Duke Conan could have addressed his public.
Go to A Bit About Britain’s directory listing for Richmond Castle.