Last Updated on 10th November 2021 by Mike@bitaboutbritain
Though undeniably a ruin, and built about 800 years ago, Yorkshire’s Middleham Castle is a place where the past doesn’t seem that far away. I am sure this is some kind of subliminal sensation due to the personalities associated with Middleham, particularly Richard Neville, the Earl of Warwick, known to history as Warwick the Kingmaker, and his younger cousin, Richard Plantagenet, who became Duke of Gloucester, later King Richard III; and, much later, well-known car-park resident.
Despite its grand age, Middleham’s defining era is actually a limited, but troubled, one when it was a castle of the Kingmaker, before passing into Gloucester’s hands. That period, from the middle of the 15th century, covers the dreadful, violent, but fascinating, dynastic conflict between the Houses of York and Lancaster known to history as the Wars of the Roses, which ended with the death of Richard III at Bosworth in 1485 and the ascendancy of the House of Tudor. So it was with this bloody saga and its dramatis personae in mind that A Bit About Britain set out to explore Middleham for you.
Any evocative photographs you may see of Middleham Castle do not really prepare you for the latent, raw, power of the place; or its physical domination over the small, attractive, settlement that bears its name. It’s a town grown round its castle, similar to many others; but Middleham has a well-ordered, comfortable, style all of its own. It was a fairly bleak winter’s day when we dropped by and most of the good townsfolk were evidently hunkered down by their fires, because the place was almost deserted. The castle, by far and away the largest man-made structure for miles, sits brooding on its past glories along the southern edge of town, with open country beyond. It was probably evidence of my frame of mind that, when walking alongside the massive north wall to the gatehouse, the sound of cantering horses behind made me turn, slightly anxiously. What I saw was not the half-expected troop of armoured knights on chargers, chain mail and harnesses jingling, pale sun glinting off steel plate, but a bunch of lean 21st century nags, with boutique-clad riders jogging neatly up and down in their saddles, out for their morning exercise. It’s race horse country around Middleham and they’re proud of it.
It is worth appreciating the castle from without before entering within. So walk past the gatehouse and turn right, south, along Canaan Lane, a bridleway. Here, on the castle’s east flank, once stood the main entrance – the footings of a bridge can be seen on opposing banks of a deep ditch, originally a moat. The lane follows the line of an inner curtain wall, beyond which, to your left (further east) there used to an outer ward, now covered with farm and other buildings. The lane continues beyond the castle, and a footpath leads a short distance across fields in a south-westerly direction to some higher ground, where the traces of a Norman motte and bailey castle can be clearly seen. This was the first Middleham Castle, built of earth and wood in the late 11th century, possibly by Alan Rufus, a cousin and supporter of William the Conqueror. Local tradition has it that whoever runs round this earthwork nine times non-stop will not only be out of breath, but will also find the door to the fabulous treasure hoard of Gilpatric the Dane – a local landowner before the Normans came along. Turning back the way you’ve come, you’re rewarded with a great view of the newer Middleham Castle, constructed in stone from around 1170. Though bereft of roofs and battlements, the walls on 3 sides – north, west and south – are reasonably intact and the keep stands proud; it must have been formidable in its day, pendants proudly snapping in the breeze and all.
In the late 13th century, Middleham Castle passed by marriage to the Neville family, who became one of the most powerful families in the north of England, rivalling the Percys of Northumberland. With roots in County Durham, the Neville’s principal residence was at Raby Castle, but by the late 14th century Middleham had become a firm second favourite and they had also acquired another Yorkshire estate, Sheriff Hutton, and built a castle there. At that time, various improvements were undertaken at Middleham. These upgrades included adding ranges on three sides to create more luxurious accommodation, increasing the height of the towers, switching the main entrance from the east to its current position in the north-east tower and putting in more latrines – a sure sign of escalating comfort. These changes were clearly not for defensive purposes; the Nevilles were developing a sumptuous home, fit for a king; and in 1410 King Henry IV indeed stayed at Middleham.
Fortune certainly appeared to shine on the Nevilles. We need a little more detail about them, their marriage arrangements, and the 15th century conflict that engulfed them and the country, to appreciate this part of Middleham’s story.
Sometime before 1421, young Richard Neville, first son of Ralph Neville and his second wife Joan Beaufort, Countess of Westmorland, married Alice Montacute. Alice was daughter and heiress of the Earl of Salisbury, that title and estate thereby passing to Richard, adding even more lands to the already extensive Neville portfolio, especially in the south west. Alice and Richard’s first son, another Richard, married Anne Beauchamp, heiress of the Earl of Warwick; thus Richard became Earl of Warwick, increasing Neville wealth and power beyond modern comprehension with estates in the midlands and further afield. Salisbury and Warwick, as we should now call them, were the principal supporters of the Duke of York (who by the way was married to Cecily Neville, Salisbury’s sister) in the early stages of the conflict with the House of Lancaster, whose figurehead was the King, Henry VI. Both the Earl of Salisbury and the Duke of York perished at the Battle of Wakefield in 1460. Their fight was continued by Warwick and his protégé, the new Duke of York, Edward. Warwick was a highly skilled political operator. With his support, Edward declared himself King Edward IV (so England now had two kings) and inflicted a devastating defeat on the Lancastrians at Towton in 1461. Sometime that year, Edward was Warwick’s guest at Middleham; what a sight that must have been.
Warwick and Edward were close in the early 1460s. Enter stage, Edward’s youngest brother, Richard, the future car park resident. Contrary to what you may read elsewhere, Middleham was not Richard’s birthplace or childhood home. He was born on 2nd October 1452 at Fotheringhay Castle in Northamptonshire. It was after Edward made him Duke of Gloucester in the wake of the victory at Towton that Richard first spent time at Middleham – as did his older brother George, who the new king created Duke of Clarence. The dates seem a little uncertain, but it is known that Richard spent part of his youth at the castle under the guardianship of his cousin, Richard Neville, the Earl of Warwick. Here, Richard would have learned much about leadership. No doubt the worldly-wise Warwick would have ensured tutelage appropriate to one of Richard’s station, which would have included military training. Richard and George would almost certainly have met Warwick’s daughters and their future wives, Isabel and Anne, at Middleham; it was the girls’ home.
Unfortunately, the strong alliance between King and Kingmaker began to fall apart, following Edward’s announcement that he had married a commoner, Elizabeth Woodville. Warwick had favoured an overseas marriage alliance and, besides, Woodville influence at Court began to eclipse his own. George, the Duke of Clarence, married Isabel Neville, Warwick’s daughter, against his brother, the King’s, wishes. At one time, in 1469, Warwick actually imprisoned Edward at Middleham. As Henry VI had been captured earlier, and was being held in the Tower of London, Warwick briefly had both of England’s kings under his control. Edward and Warwick enjoyed a short-lived reconciliation, but in 1470 Warwick was declared a traitor and forced to flee to France. There, he forged an alliance with his erstwhile bitter enemy, Margaret of Anjou, wife of Henry VI. To seal the pact, Warwick’s youngest daughter, Anne, was married to the teenage Prince of Wales (another Edward – there are too many Richards and Edwards in this story). Returning to England, Warwick reinstated Henry VI and Edward escaped to Flanders with our Richard, the Duke of Gloucester. Act IV, Scene V of Shakespeare’s Henry VI is set in ‘A park near Middleham Castle in Yorkshire’, where Gloucester waits to aid his brother, Edward of York, escape the clutches of Warwick and the Lancastrians. It didn’t happen quite like that, but there you go.
Edward and Richard returned to England the following year and met their old friend and mentor on the field of battle at Barnet in April 1471. There in the fog and confusion, the great Warwick was slain. The brothers pursued the Lancastrians to Tewkesbury and decisively beat them. Among the dead was the young Lancastrian Prince of Wales and heir, Edward.Middleham and Richard III
After Tewkesbury, the many prizes given to Richard (Gloucester) for his loyalty included his old guardian Warwick’s castle at Middleham. The following year, aged 20, Richard married Warwick’s daughter, Anne Neville, a widow at 16 since Prince Edward’s death. Richard and Anne both knew Middleham, of course, and made a home there. Their only son (another Edward), Edward of Middleham, was born in the castle, probably in 1473 and in the still standing Prince’s Tower, or the adjoining nursery – built over the bakehouse for warmth. Among the things found at Middleham have been a boar badge (Richard’s symbol) and a bronze plaque engraved with the initials ‘R’ and ‘A’.
Richard became a massive landowner in the years following Tewkesbury, particularly in the north, with castles at Sheriff Hutton, Barnard Castle, Penrith, Skipton and elsewhere. He effectively ruled the north for Edward, presiding over the King’s Council of the North, established initially at Sheriff Hutton, and had responsibility as Warden of the Western March for guarding the border with Scotland. So he and Anne would not have spent all of their time at Middleham. Nonetheless, Middleham has been called ‘The Windsor of the North’ and Victorian novelist Lord Lytton wrote, “Middleham, not Windsor, nor Sheene, nor Westminster, nor the Tower, seemed the COURT OF ENGLAND”. I detect a trace of hyperbole here, but you get the drift. The couple were at Nottingham when they heard the tragic news of their son’s death, mostly likely from tuberculosis, at Middleham in 1484. The young lad may well have died in the same Prince’s Tower that he was probably born in. According to the Croyland Chronicle (a text written at the Abbey of Croyland, in Lincolnshire), Richard and Anne were in a “state almost bordering on madness, by reason of their sudden grief”. Just like any normal parents would be.
By this time, Richard was king, having effectively seized the throne in 1483, following Edward’s unexpected death. In March 1485, Anne died and, that August, Richard himself met his death at Bosworth. Middleham Castle, inexorably, reverted to the Crown. But by 1538 it was reported to be in a poor state. Though it was actually garrisoned by a small troop of Parliamentary soldiers during the English Civil War, Middleham seems to have lost its purpose with Richard’s passing. He was only king for a short while; who knows how things might have turned out if Henry Tudor hadn’t come along.
You can’t help but wonder at the people who knew Middleham in its prime – Warwick, his wife Anne Beauchamp, their daughters Isabel and Anne, Richard and all the rest. Real people. They spent most of their lives at war – and they can’t have wanted to live like that. The great hall, now floorless and roofless, would once have hummed with the lord’s business and known great feasts at Christmas and other times of celebration. Inevitably, the castle is claimed to be haunted. Ghostly medieval music has apparently been heard coming from the great hall and a fully armoured knight on horseback has been seen to ride through solid walls. We’ve already said that Middleham is one of those places where the past doesn’t seem far away. And it really wouldn’t have surprised me to hear hoof beats clattering into the courtyard, shouts from the kitchen or soft laughter from the apartments on the west range. The views from the tower, by the way, are impressive.
The Middleham Jewel
This exquisite lozenge-shaped gold pendant was found by a metal detector in 1985 on a bridle path near the castle. It was made in London sometime around 1450-75. Its outer face holds a blue sapphire with an engraving of the Crucifixion underneath, framed with an inscription, Ecce Agnus Dei qui tollis peccata mundi … miserere nobis – behold, the Lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world…have mercy upon us, from the Latin mass – followed by the words … Tetragramaton, a Hebrew name for God and Ananyzapta – which is said to be a magic word used as a defence against demonic possession. The blue of the sapphire is believed to symbolise the Virgin Mary, maybe a charm during childbirth, and also thought to enhance the efficacy of prayers as well as treat headaches, poor eyesight, ulcers – and stammers. On the inner face is an engraving of the Nativity above an image of the Lamb of God, surrounded by 15 minuscule images of saints. Further, the pendant was probably a reliquary – it opens and fragments of richly embroidered silk were found inside; the remains, perhaps, of some holy relic. The Middleham Jewel is a unique object of beauty once owned by someone, most probably female, of great wealth. It is such a personal object and mind-boggling to imagine who might have worn it, how it came to be lost and what their reaction might have been. Was it a gift, perhaps? Possible candidates for ownership must include Anne Beauchamp (1426-92), the wife of Earl Warwick and Anne Neville (1456-85). A replica is on display in a small exhibition at the castle. The original jewel is held in York Museum, who paid £2.5 million for it. My photograph of it was so poor that I borrowed one taken by Yorkshire Museum from Wikipedia (as usual, captions appear if you hover your cursor over photographs).
I need to add two final comments. Firstly, the good lady from English Heritage, who own and run Middleham Castle, was brilliant – friendly, happy (apparently) and knowledgeable. It does make a difference; thank you. Secondly, the nearby Richard III pub was excellent – welcoming, with good beer and tasty food; I just thought that the man himself might have something to say about the name of the brewery. But whether he was a black sheep or not is a story for another day.