The Ryedale village of Sheriff Hutton is unlikely to be on most people’s tourist trails. Yet it is a reminder, if one is needed, that history, like love, is all around us. Frankly, the first I heard of the place was when reading about the dreadful wars of the fifteenth century and learning that the powerful Neville family had one of their grand castles there. It beggars belief how many castles there are – or have been – in Britain. Before you try and find out, I wouldn’t rely on arbitrary figures suggested after a simple search on the Internet – and it depends what you mean by ‘castle’, of course. Anyway, along with the serious fortresses at Raby and Middleham, Sheriff Hutton was part of the Neville power-base in the north of England. Like most castles, it is a ruin now but, unlike Raby and Middleham, it is not open to the public as a visitor attraction. It is a romantic-looking ruin, though, and to the determined heritage-hunter, these things are always worth a look.
However, this was not the first Sheriff Hutton castle. The remains of a rectangular ringwork fortification lie in the nearby churchyard of St Helen and the Holy Cross. This may have been built by one Ansketil de Bulmer – who possibly had Saxon heritage – sometime after the Norman Conquest. Alternatively, it may have been constructed a little later, during the period known as ‘the Anarchy’ (1138-53), when England was torn by war between the forces of King Stephen and Empress Matilda. In any case, the fact that Ansketil and then Bertram de Bulmer (probably Ansketil’s son) were Sheriffs of York added the ‘Sheriff’ prefix to the fairly common Old English (Anglo-Saxon) village name, Hutton, meaning a farmstead (tun) on a ridge or spur of land (hoh). The Nevilles acquired Sheriff Hutton by marriage and John Neville built the stone castle in the late 14th century, which was complete by 1398. John Neville’s great-grandson was Richard, the 16th Earl of Warwick, (1428-71), known as ‘Kingmaker’ and at one time the most influential noble in the land.
Sheriff Hutton and Middleham were Warwick’s principal bases in the north of England. After the Earl’s death in 1471 at the Battle of Barnet, Sheriff Hutton was seized by the crown and granted to Edward IV’s youngest brother, Richard Plantagenet, Duke of Gloucester, who in 1483 became Richard III. In fact, the Earl of Warwick was a cousin as well as guardian to the young Richard. So Richard would have known Sheriff Hutton quite well as a boy. As a grown man and Duke of Gloucester, he effectively ruled the north of England for his older brother, 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.
The Norman church of St Helen and the Holy Cross is just down the road from the castle. Resting against the wall in the north-east corner is the worn and mutilated effigy of a boy, formed of bone-white alabaster. The features have long gone, but he wears a coronet, a long, belted, robe and the cenotaph beneath – it is not a tomb – is richly carved with angels and heraldic devices. The effigy, so ‘tis said, is a representation of the young Edward of Middleham, son of Richard III and his Queen, Anne Neville, daughter of the Earl of Warwick. Born in 1473, Edward is thought to have been a sickly child. He was invested as Prince of Wales at York Minster in 1483, but died at Middleham in 1484, possibly of tuberculosis. His parents were in Nottingham at the time and were distraught with grief. The story is that they hastened north as soon as word of their son’s death reached them, Edward was brought south to Sheriff Hutton to meet them and then laid to rest in Neville family chapel on the south side of the church. That’s the tale, but there is no proof that this is Edward’s effigy – or, indeed, that the poor lad was buried in Sheriff Hutton at all; more likely, he was buried at Middleton. So who does this sad monument really represent? At some point, it has been very badly treated. It is now generally thought to represent a young Neville, Ralph, who died sometime around 1436.
While we’re in the church, though, there’s another, much larger, effigy nearby. This is of a mail-clad fully-armoured knight, with shield and sword. We know this is represents Sir Edmund Thweng of Cornborough Manor, who died in 1344. Some accounts suggest he died at ‘the Battle of Stirling’, but the only notable Battle of Stirling I’m aware of is the Battle of Stirling Bridge in 1297. This was a famous Scottish victory during which Edmund’s uncle Marmaduke acquitted himself well, so I’m thinking that people are getting the two of them mixed-up. It’s a fine monument, anyway, if a little past its best.
Richard III, of course, famously perished at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485. Sheriff Hutton Castle periodically hosted the Council of the North after Richard III’s death and, in 1525, Henry VIII gave it to his illegitimate son Henry Fitzroy, Duke of Richmond and Warden-General of the Marches. As a centre of local government, the castle had a staff of 142 at that time, in addition to the 100 servants in the Duke’s retinue. Despite needing repairs, the castle was described by John Leyland in 1534 as ‘princely’. It was a rectangular castle with an outer court and gardens, built as a grand home rather than a purely functional fortress. By the early 17th century, it was in a state of decay and is now in private hands, part of a large farm. However, limited accommodation and wedding facilities are now on offer (website link below).
It has long been a habit of mine, when driving a reasonable distance, to take the opportunity to divert to interesting, and sometimes obscure, places along the way. So I had to be somewhere and on this occasion calculated that I’d have time to ‘have a quick look’ at Sheriff Hutton on the way. After all, because you can’t actually visit the castle, I reasoned that it couldn’t take long. Now, I have organised a great many large projects in my working life and have always urged colleagues and clients to remember the 6 Ps – vernacular version “Proper Planning Prevents P*** Poor Performance”. I’d then follow that up with the reminder that “no plan survives contact with the enemy”. Of course, I set out on my little expedition slightly later than intended. The plan was already unravelling. Secondly, getting across Yorkshire is never swift – the roads simply do not allow it. Still, when I reached Sheriff Hutton, I had about an hour to spare; time enough, surely? Due to a combination of necessity and optimism, I stopped at a delightful delicatessen in Sheriff Hutton, for comfort and coffee. It was a buzzy kind of place; people were having business meetings there and it sold a wonderful selection of tasty-looking treats. Alas, the coffee took longer than anticipated and was so hot I had to leave half of it. Even so, I didn’t need a whole hour – did I? I almost sprinted down the aisle of the church – close to disrespectful, even for an old agnostic. I then pulled up near the castle, to scout out somewhere to take a couple of good shots before heading on my way. This is when the fact that I had ignored my own advice really mattered. There was a footpath round the castle that I hadn’t expected. It was a lovely day and the path was irresistible. But it looked a little muddy. No problem! Dashing back to the car, I quickly changed into an old pair of trainers, carefully rolled up my reasonably respectable trouser legs and must have cut an incongruous figure, clad in a tailored single-breasted jacket over a smart shirt, camera slung round my neck, picking my way across the field next to the brimming old moat, or ditch. Actually, it wasn’t too bad until I reached the point of no return, where the path resembled no man’s land on the Western Front, without the soldiers and explosives. I straddled the path, one foot either side in an effort to avoid the worst, legs gradually extending to a ridiculous angle as the mud widened. I slipped, wildly clutching for slimy fence posts, but more often grabbling brambles or barbed-wire. By the time I got back to the car, the caked mud had rendered my trainers unrecognisable and extended several inches around each foot, like muddy snow-shoes and turning my walk-trot into an amusing, ungainly, waddle. In order to avoid mud-creep, I had to perform a couple of neat pirouettes in the road whilst changing shoes, but managed to convert back to the required sartorial elegance relatively painlessly. I won’t dwell on the tractor whose considerate driver pulled out in front of me as I drove out of the village, and who irritatingly chugged along at 20mph , refusing to let me pass.
So much for not obeying my own lessons. The castle was beautiful, though. And evocative. Imagine it as the hub of local power, rather than a picturesque ruin. And I made it to where I needed to be with 10 minutes to spare. Here’s Sheriff Hutton Castle’s website.