Last updated on August 23rd, 2023 at 11:42 am
Penrith Castle doesn’t encourage the casual visitor, unless arriving by train. The railway station is conveniently opposite the castle (probably built on the top of its medieval outbuildings), but anyone driving into town who isn’t a committed castle collector could be excused for not bothering over much. A busy road runs into downtown Penrith alongside the castle ruins. Unless I missed it, there’s nothing to suggest parking in the station, nowhere to stop safely on the road and the next nearest public car park isn’t exactly handy. The absence of some simple signage may help explain why this interesting Cumbrian market town and its castle don’t have higher profiles on the tourist trail.
No one seems to have much to say about Penrith Castle, either. Even its current owners, English Heritage, are light on detail. For sure, there is much more to it than I thought there would be; but not a lot. In fairness, it is relatively small (as castles go) and you might also notice that that it is not a common, or garden, mighty Norman fortress with motte and bailey. This place is of later construction and has the look of a heavily fortified house with a central courtyard. There are certainly the remains of several fireplaces in its walls, hints of past luxury. The remains also include a couple of impressive walls and towers, all done in the local red sandstone, and a moat that, back in the day, when deeper and full of water, would have been a formidable obstacle. The castle is now the main feature of Penrith’s Castle Park, which was laid out in the 1920s and includes a bowling green, tennis courts, bandstand and an impressive memorial to the fallen of the Boer War.
Possibly the most interesting aspect to Penrith Castle is the people associated with it. Firstly, there’s a bit of uncertainty about its origins. English Heritage suggest it was raised on the site of a Roman fort – although there isn’t one marked on my trusty Historic England OS map of Roman Britain. It is generally accepted that the castle itself dates mainly from the early 15th century, but it was once thought that it was built around an earlier pele tower owned by the Bishop of Carlisle, who was granted a licence from King Richard II to crenellate and strengthen his fortification in 1397. Actually, the most likely builder was Ralph Neville (1364-1425), 1st Earl of Westmorland. Neville was granted the manor of Penrith by King Richard in 1396, but supported Richard’s overthrow by Henry Bolingbroke, who became Henry IV in 1399. The Nevilles were one of the wealthiest and most powerful landowning families in medieval England – great rivals of the Percys, the Earls of Northumberland. Other Neville estates at this time included Raby Castle, Middleham and Sherriff Hutton.
Ralph Neville helped defeat a rebellion by the Percys and, as warden of the West March from 1403, was responsible for the defence of this part of north-west England against the Scots. One of his sons, Richard, 5th Earl of Salisbury (1400–60), made Penrith his local headquarters, probably adding the prominent ‘Red Tower’. Surely, you may ask, all of Penrith’s towers were the same colour?
The people side of things can get complicated; bear with me. Richard (or ‘Salisbury’ as we should call him) was the first son from Ralph’s second marriage, to Joan Beaufort. Joan was a catch – the only daughter of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster and son of Edward III – and Katherine Swynford. Salisbury had married Alice Montagu and their eldest son, also called Richard, was the 16th Earl of Warwick, (1428-71), known as ‘Kingmaker’ and at one time the most influential noble in the land. One of Salisbury’s sisters, Cecily (known as ‘the Rose of Raby’, because that was where she was born) married Richard Plantagenet, the Duke of York (1411-60). York had a claim to the throne and he and Salisbury were allies in the dreadful dynastic struggle that history knows as the Wars of the Roses. Indeed, they were the prime movers in the Yorkist party opposing the Lancastrians. Both Salisbury and York perished at, or just after, the Battle of Wakefield, their heads displayed over the City of York’s Micklegate alongside that of York’s 17-year old son, Edmund, the Earl of Rutland. Among the other sons of York (and Cecily) were two future kings of England, Edward IV and Richard III. One of Salisbury’s other sons, Sir Thomas Neville, was also killed at Wakefield. His older brother Richard, Warwick the Kingmaker, became lord of Penrith Castle after their father’s death.
Looking at the ruins of Penrith Castle, you can’t help wondering which of these people rode into its courtyard, walked its corridors and warmed themselves on its fires.
After the death of Warwick the Kingmaker at the Battle of Barnet in 1471, Penrith Castle was granted to Richard, Duke of Gloucester (1452–85), youngest son of Richard Plantagenet (York) and Cecily Neville – and, later, King Richard III. Richard had married Anne Neville, daughter of the Kingmaker, was Sheriff of Cumberland and resided at the castle occasionally. He improved the residential wing, adding large windows and other luxuries. It is thought the moat was added during his ownership too, as well as a new gatehouse.
Richard, of course, perished at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485, which ushered in a new dynasty, the Tudors. As we know, poor old Richard’s remains were found under a car park. After his death, Penrith Castle remained a royal property but, by the mid-16th century it was in a poor state and being used as a source of building material for other nearby properties. It had a brief spell as the headquarters of the Parliamentary General John Lambert, who had 3,000 troops quartered in the town during the Civil War in 1648, but fell into further disrepair after that. As castles go, Penrith’s had a very short life.
An information board at the castle says that, before the park was laid out in 1920, various farm buildings and a house were cleared from the site.
As a footnote, there is said to be a tunnel running between Penrith Castle and Dockray Hall, a pub about 300 yards away at one time known as the Gloucester Arms. This was apparently not a means for the garrison to sneak out for a quick jar, but to supply the castle at times of need and provide an escape route. According to Historic England, Dockray Hall dates from c1470 and is said to have been a home to the Duke of Gloucester (Richard III). Perhaps the castle was too draughty for him. Dockray Hall’s own website (the pub is closed at time of writing) says that it began as a “defensive pele tower and an outpost of the castle” built by Ralph Neville.