Last Updated on 23rd November 2019 by Mike@bitaboutbritain
The guy behind me, approaching the rather unwelcoming gatehouse, grumbled, somewhat disparagingly, “Well, it’s just a ruin.” He was evidently a reluctant visitor to Helmsley Castle, poor soul. He was half-right – Helmsley Castle is a ruin – and Britain does have more than a few wrecked castles. Maybe our fellow-traveller was just out-ruined, couldn’t see the point; or maybe he just didn’t like castles. However, Helmsley is not entirely ruined and, even if it were, it’s a pretty fine place to meander around in a leisurely fashion whilst soaking up a bit of Britain’s history over the last thousand years or so. To be fair, though, the story of many British castles does follow a similar pattern, along the following lines:
In 1066, the land was pinched from the Saxon owner and given to a chum of William the Conqueror’s. The new Norman owner built a wooden ‘motte and bailey’ castle on the site. By the 12th century, the wooden fortifications were being replaced with stone ones. At various times, the owners changed because they had been executed, died on crusade, or in France, or it had passed through marriage to someone else. If the castle was in the north of England, south of Scotland, or anywhere in Wales, it was attacked, sometimes successfully, by the Scots, English or Welsh, as appropriate. If it was in the south of England, it might have been attacked by the French, or an unruly baron or two. During Tudor times, it became less of a fortress and more of a family home. If it survived to the Civil War of the 17th century, it was probably besieged by Parliament/Royalists and was slighted so that it couldn’t be used any more. A century after that, it became a romantic ivy-covered ruin, painted by at least one famous artist, and a tourist attraction.
I wondered if I was allowing my affection for ruined castles and the stories they can tell to get the better of me, so I checked out the comments on Trip Advisor. One person mentioned that Helmsley Castle is a good place for a picnic, and another pointed out, with no trace of irony, that it’s best visited on a dry day. I’m sure the founders of the castle would have been of the same mind. Robert de Mortain, William the Conqueror’s half-brother, was granted the small manor of Helmsley after the Normans had laid waste to huge areas in the north of England in 1069-70 – a vicious campaign known as the harrying of the North. So I like to imagine this brutal Norman knight, effectively an occupier, sitting on a tartan rug, idly picking at his Marmite and cucumber sandwich whilst Mrs Mortain pours him a dark brown, steaming, cup of tea from the Thermos. Nearby, the kids are playing Frisbee, their shouts of joy bringing grins to the grim, scarred, faces of his men at arms. “A bit deeper with that ditch, there,” Robert calls good-naturedly to the group of contented workmen who were gaily building his new castle. “Good job the rain’s held off, dear,” he commented to his wife. “Perhaps we can get the barbie out later and have a couple of tinnies”.
Robert of Mortain had fought alongside William at the Battle of Hastings and had been richly rewarded, with lands throughout the kingdom, though I have no idea whether he ever actually visited Helmsley. He seems to have spent most of his time in Normandy, though he may have instructed the digging of the two massive ditches at Helmsley which are similar to those at his castle in Berkhamsted. Before Mortain, the owner of the Manor of Helmsley (Elmeslac in 1086, later Helmeslac and, sometimes, Hamlake), in the long-forgotten hundred of Maneshou, was a Saxon called Uhtred, who seems to have owned several manors in the vicinity. I wonder what happened to him?
In fact, it is generally thought that the builder of Helmsley Castle from c1120 was one Walter Espec, a Norman warrior who fought against the Scots but who also founded abbeys, most famously the Cistercian house at Rievaulx, some three miles away. There’s a fascinating description of Walter Espec as an older man, written in around 1153 by the then Abbot of Rievaulx, Aelred:
“An old man and full of days, quick-witted, prudent in council, moderate in peace, circumspect in war, a true friend and a loyal subject. His stature was passing tall, his limbs all of a size as not to exceed their just proportions, and yet to be well matched with his great height. His hair was still black, his beard long and flowing, his forehead wide and noble, his eyes large and bright, his face broad but well featured, his voice like the sound of a trumpet, setting off his natural eloquence of speech with a certain majesty of sound.”
Initially, the castle would have been built mainly in timber and was a simple defensive ringwork, without the classic Norman motte. When Walter Espec died, childless, in 1154, Helmsley passed via his sister to her husband, Peter de Roos. The de Roos, who held the castle until 1478, surely deserve to have someone in the family called Kanga. But they were a powerful family; the name is sometimes spelt Ros (pronounced Roos) and Baron de Ros is one of the oldest titles in Britain. Wooden palisades gave way to stone walls from about 1186, when Peter de Roos’ grandson, Robert Fursan de Roos, obtained Helmsley Castle. I have been unable to find out what ‘Fursan’ means – it might be Arabic and it might mean ‘knight’ – or it could be a place name. Robert was a member of the Knights’ Templar and one of the 25 barons appointed to help ensure King John kept to the terms of Magna Carta in 1215. He married the daughter of William the Lion, King of the Scots, and was buried in Temple Church, London.
During the Wars of the Roses, the de Roos family backed the Lancastrian side. Thomas de Roos III was captured after the Battle of Hexham in 1464 and beheaded in Newcastle. Helmsley was confiscated by the Yorkists and given to King Edward IV’s brother, George, Duke of Clarence. It then passed to the Duke of Gloucester, later Richard III – though Richard preferred his castle at Middleham. After Richard’s defeat at Bosworth, the victorious Henry VII gave Helmsley back to Thomas de Roos’ son, Edmund, but Edmund died without any heirs in 1508. And that was the end of the Roos.
Helmsley Castle was then inherited by the Manners family, who became staunch Protestants and who demolished the old medieval hall and created a posh Tudor residence, including new apartments and a fashionable gallery, often re-using materials removed from the by now dissolved Rievaulx Abbey. The remains of the 16th century interiors can be seen today.
In 1632, the castle passed via Katherine Villiers (née Manners), into the estate of her deceased husband, George Villiers, the Duke of Buckingham, hated favourite of James I and, later, his son Charles I. Buckingham was murdered 300 miles away in Portsmouth, in 1628.
Like many castles in the North of England, Helmsley was held for the King during the Civil War and besieged by Parliamentary troops. This was Helmsley Castle’s one and only piece of action. The siege took place in 1644, from September to November, when the garrison eventually ran out of food and surrendered to Parliament’s talented general Sir Thomas Fairfax, ‘Black Tom’. He ordered it to be slighted – pulled down so that it could not be used again – though he spared the residential block. The 2nd Duke of Buckingham (another George) ended up marrying Sir Thomas’ daughter Mary in 1657, which might have been a neat ending, but George died in 1687 and the estate had to be sold to cover his debts. In 1695 Helmsley Castle was bought by wealthy London banker, Charles Duncombe, one-time MP and Mayor of London. The Duncombes still own the castle, but between 1711-1713 created a more sumptuous stately pile nearby to live in, Duncombe Park. In 1826, Charles’ descendent, Anthony Duncombe, was created Lord Feversham, a title that remains in the family.
So Helmsley Castle’s ruinous state is due to Parliament and the fact that no one has lived there for more than 300 years. I wonder whether the reluctant visitor we met at the start appreciated the canter through history that Helmsley provides for those that want it. Not at the heart of men’s affairs in the way that, say, the Tower of London is; but nevertheless part of the wider tapestry of these islands. Somewhere linger the spirits of Uhtred, Robert de Mortain, Walter Espec, the de Roos, Manners, and Villiers. Even if you can’t picture the place as a working fortress and home, or under siege, the absolutely enormous ditches can’t fail to impress. With a bit of imagination, maybe you can rebuild the disintegrated masonry – even the soaring but slighted east tower with its fireplaces that would have heated long-forgotten rooms. The castle entrance, through the intimidating south barbican, is now defended by stylised bronze sculptures of warriors, which I rather liked. The restored Tudor rooms in the chamber block provide a glimpse of the luxury that the Manners and Villiers families would have enjoyed and there’s a small, but interesting, exhibition of local finds – canon balls, domestic knick-knacks and the like. On top of that, the Castle is right next door to the town (or vice versa), a delightful and favourite place with several good pubs, where I confess to once drinking far too many creamy pints of Theakston’s Best far too quickly, followed up with rather too much Glenmorangie. The memory puts ‘ruin’ in a whole different context.