LIC Blog

Middleham Lecture 2009

The following presentation was given as a lecture at Middleham Key Centre on Tuesday 7th April 2009 by John L Fox. 

The Norman victory at Hastings in 1066 changed this island forever. But  that single battle did not secure William’s grip on these shores. It was to be a bloody conquest. Refusing to accept their Norman Conqueror as king, Yorkshire and Durham rose in rebellion against him: a rebellion which William put down with brutal and savage efficiency in the autumn of 1069. Such was the destruction of people and property that 10 years later the ground could not be tilled and towns between York and Durham stood empty, their streets a haven for robbers and wild beasts. 

By Christmas 1069 William the Bastard, Duke of Normandy, King of England was celebrating Christmas at York. And it was then that he meted out the lands of the conquered to his faithful servants.

In the North none benefited more than Alan Rufus, or Alan the Red, who had commanded William’s Breton soldiers at Hastings. To him were given the heights overlooking the River Swale, where he built Riche Monde and, according to the Domesday Book of 1086, Alan was also given the land of Middleham, Leyburn and Coverham.

And it was Alan the Red, who built the first castle here in Middleham.

Not that Alan’s fortress was located where the stone keep now resides. No, Alan built his fortress on William’s Hill some 400 yards south west of the castle’s present location.

William’s Hill gave the Normans a commanding view of the entrances to Coverdale and Wensleydale, allowing Alan to guard both.

On that ridge he built one of the wooden fortresses which were springing up all over England, the very embodiment of Norman dominance. Some glimpses of their structure survive in the stylised depictions of the Bayeaux Tapestry.

On the ridge Alan built a motte, or mound, some 40 feet high surrounded by a wide ditch. On top of the motte stood a wooden tower which acted as a redoubt for the defenders. To the east of the motte he built the bailey, a kidney shaped enclosure giving protection for livestock, storage and the main dwellings. Further east from the bailey the Normans cut ditches, running north-south across the ridge so impeding an enemy’s advance.

By 1083 Alan had given Middleham into the charge of his brother Ribald whose family held it into the twelfth century. But the location on William’s Hill was too cramped for further development, so Ribald’s grandson Robert Fitzranulph decided to rebuild the fortress on its familiar site in the town.

Our knowledge of the dates involved in the development of Middleham is circumstantial, because there is a dearth of plans, bills or letters. But the date of 1170 seems reasonable for the construction of the stone keep. The stepped base is very similar to that built at Newcastle around this time.

Middleham’s keep is impressive. It covers some 100 feet in length by 90 in width.

The original keep had 2 storeys: the ground floor contained cellars and kitchen; the first floor provided living space. (Remember no damp proof courses!)

The keep was divided into 2 unequal sections by a massive spine-wall some 10 feet thick, running north to south.

The basement sections were connected by arched tunnels through this spine wall and at the south end by a single huge fireplace providing heat and light to both parts.

The eastern section was wider than the west. So, to support the Great Hall above, a series of pillars were constructed down the length of the cellar. From these sprang a vaulted ceiling, whose scars are still visible in the walls. The western half of the basement contained wells at each end and was the kitchen for the keep.

Internally a spiral staircase in the south east corner connected the cellar to the Great Hall. The Hall was about 80 foot long by 25 wide. The thick stone walls would be plastered, white-washed and adorned with tapestries. A central open hearth provided heat through summer and winter. At the north end stood the high table for Middleham’s lord and lady. In the north-east tower lodged the original small chapel.

Middleham was luxurious by any standard and that raises the question - from where did Robert Fitzranulph get the money to build it? One thing’s for certain, it wasn’t from the Royal Bank of Scotland!

At this stage in its development the keep was probably surrounded by a wooden pallisade, enclosing a courtyard with some wooden buildings. It’s important to realise that stone castles were not made entirely of stone all at once, or indeed ever! Wooden buildings remained a feature into the sixteenth century, as our new DVD on Sandal Castle in Wakefield shows. Not everything was done (or indeed, could be done) at once!

By 1260 the male line of the Fitzranulphs came to an end. The heiress, Mary Fitzranulph, married Robert Neville, son of (another!) Robert, Lord of Raby and Brancepeth, and so began two centuries dominated by the Neville clan.

Robert and Mary’s son, Ranulf Neville, consolidated his hold on Middleham, Raby, Brancepeth and Sheriff Hutton.

It seems likely that he replaced the timber pallisade by a stone curtain wall, with 4 corner towers, each of 2 storeys and built a new chapel on the east side of the keep, next to the main gatehouse. At some point the land to the east of the curtain wall became enclosed, forming an outer bailey for Middleham - possibly still timbered. This provided much needed space for smiths, armourers, stables, herb garden and serving staff.

Ranulf died in 1331 and was succeeded by his second son Ralph, who served King Edward III in fighting the Scots, notably capturing the King of the Scots at Durham in 1346.

Ralph’s son, John fought alongside his father at Durham when he was 16 years old and went on to serve King Edward’s son, John of Gaunt for most of his life.

But it was John Neville’s own son - I fear - yet another Ralph Neville, who continued the construction of Middleham Castle. 

This Ralph Neville became 4th Lord Neville on his father’s death in 1388. By his first wife Margaret Stafford Ralph had 9 children (1382-1396). On her death in 1396 he married Joan Beaufort, illegitimate daughter of John of Gaunt and his mistress Kathryn Swynford. This marriage made Ralph cousin to Gaunt’s legitimate son, Henry Bolingbroke, the next king of England. Ralph remained loyal to the present King Richard II and was given the title Earl of Westmorland in 1397. But just 2 years later Ralph backed his cousin Henry in his coup d’état, which saw the rightful king imprisoned and murdered at Pontefract castle. Ralph’s rewards were swift and tangible.

The usurper Henry IV made him Marshal of England and gave him the Honour of Richmond, uniting his estates in Durham and Wensleydale.

And Ralph needed all the resources he could get. He and Joan had 14 children - giving him the grand total of 23, who all needed providing for. Here was motivation enough to rebuild Middleham Castle!

Ralph Neville first extended the south and west ranges to two storeys in height. This would have been the sensible time to increase the D-shaped tower in the south-west and the square tower in the north-west to at least three storeys.

The Earl’s domestic accommodation in the keep was made up of the Great Chamber and the Privy Chamber. These were on the first floor, west of the spine wall. The Great Chamber was shared by all the family but at the south end, partitioned from it, was the Privy Chamber. This was the Lord and Lady’s private accomodation. But remember that “private” did not exclude servants, who might share the marital room, though not the bed! 


When the south range was doubled in height, the Privy Chamber was  progressively abandoned in favour of the first floor rooms there. The old Privy Chamber in the keep was connected to the new by a wooden bridge. We can see the entrance to it cut in the south facing wall of the south west tower. (see Photos)

These new rooms gave comfortable accommodation for the Nevilles and their domestic staff. Some 200 were required to run the household. There was the Seneschal, deputed to adminster justice in his lord’s absence: the Constable who governed the castle; the Chancellor who dealt with all the legal documents; the Chamberlain who oversaw the domestic arrangements; and the Steward who looked after the Earl’s estates. These and all their servants needed space to live and work.

Ralph also modifed the north-east tower into a gatehouse. The main entry to the keep had been through the crowded bailey on the east side. Ralph now gave himself access to the keep separate from his men, very much like the King’s separate entry to Conway.

Ralph’s heir was his eldest son John by his first wife Margaret Stafford. But John died in 1420, 5 years before his father. So on Ralph’s death in 1425 the title of Earl of Westmorland passed to his grandson - I’m sorry to say, another Ralph. So also should all his estates.

But the wily old 1st Earl had made deep plans before his death. He used the law to give Middleham to his second wife Joan, who on her death in 1440 bequeathed it to her eldest son, Richard Neville. 

This manipulation of the rights of inheritance not only bypassed his grandson, John Lord Neville, but also laid the seeds for mutual antagonism in his family which caused it to implode during the Wars of the Roses.

So in 1440 Richard Neville became Lord of Middleham. By marriage to Alice Montacute he also became Earl of Salisbury and was given the task of preserving peace on the Scottish Border. This gave him vast resources in men and money to maintain, in effect, his own private army.

He completed the rennovation of the curtain walls by extending the north range to 2 storeys, probably rebuilding the north-west tower and inserting a latrine block between it and the north range. 

Let me take this opportunity to bury the myth that castles were, of necessity, unsavoury places to live in. In each of the south, west and north ranges stands a central tower, over 3 stories tall. These were toilet blocks. Consider the one in the west range. It contained 8 toilets, 4 at ground level, accessible from the courtyard - look for the MacDonald’s sign! - 2 more serving the rooms on the first floor and 2 more at wall-walk level. At least 24 toilets and that excludes those ensuite in the other tower rooms. Contrast this with Haworth in 1740s, which had 1 privy for 24 homes, and that at the base of a hill some distance from the dwellings.

In a castle of this size water would be poured down the sluices daily, fresh herbs would be hung to perfume the air and a team of men called gong farmers had the job of cleaning out the solid waste from the outer base of the towers. That our medieval fathers endured squalor is a myth of the “Enlightened” snobs of the eighteenth century and later.

Richard Neville also completed the development of the new gatehouse built by his father. He equipped it with machiolations to protect the entry and corner buttresses to strengthen its structure. The upper storey of the chapel block was rebuilt, the windows on the west and east sides being transformed.

He also created the magnificent window in the west wall of the Great Chamber in the keep.

Now Richard Earl of Salisbury had a young sister, Cecilly, some 15 years his junior. She was married to the Duke of York, who claimed the English throne from Henry VI in 1459. Salisbury supported his brother-in-law with men and money. But both men met a violent death at Sandal Castle when Salisbury’s nephew, John Lord Neville, betrayed them to the king’s army. So in 1460 Salisbury’s son, Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, inherited Middleham. This Richard Neville at 32 years of age was the richest and most powerful subject of the crown. Having placed his 19 year old cousin on the throne in 1461, Richard Neville and his valiant brother John held the north of England for the new king, Edward IV. For 5 years they faced down one rebellion after another, laying seige to the magnificent castles of Bambrough and Dunstanborough.

In all this time Middleham was their base of operations. Here Warwick’s wife and 2 daughters lived, and it was to Middleham that a 13 year old boy came in 1465 to complete his education as a noble and a soldier. This teenager was to stay at Middleham for 3 years where he learned to love the Earl of Warwick, but more significantly he began to fall in love with Warwick’s youngest daughter, Anne.

The youth was, of course, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, the future King Richard III, and youngest brother of the then King Edward IV.

By the time Richard left Middleham to become his brother’s strong right hand, Warwick had fallen out of the King’s favour. The Earl had been sent to negotiate the King’s marriage with the crowned heads of France and Spain, unaware that the lecherous Edward had already secretly married Elizabeth Woodville. The insult to Warwick’s pride embittered his relation with the King, his cousin, and in 1469 he brought Edward as prisoner to Middleham, whilst trying to rule in his stead. But Edward survived his confinement and within 2 short years the King led an army against Warwick at Barnet north of London. There his 19 year old brother Richard distinguished himself in battle - a battle which ended in Warwick’s death, as he fled from the rout.

As reward for his valour at Barnet and Tewkesbury Richard received the Middleham estates and the hand in marriage of Anne Neville. The young couple arrived back at Middleham in 1472 and spent most of the next 10 years of their lives here.


It may be either Richard or Warwick who built a third story over the Great Hall with panoramic views over the Cover and Ure. What is certain is that Richard and Anne’s only child, Edward was born here in 1474. Richard was established here by the King to govern the north as his vice-gerent. The man and the land seemed to suit each other. A glance at portraits of Richard shows a man well suited to live in the rugged beauty of the North.

Richard was at Middleham in April 1483 when news reached him that his beloved brother the King was dead at the age of 41. Burnt out by his insatiable appetite for sex, gold and food, Edward had named Richard as the man to enforce the provisions of his will.

So it was from Middleham that Richard set out to ride into history as the next King of England. Behind him he left his wife and child. Ahead of him lay snares and traps too many to recount here. Of one thing we can be sure, that the man who’s motto was “loyalty binds me” did not set out to secure the throne for himself. No, he rode south to execute his dead brother’s will as Protector of the Realm and to ensure that his nephew was crowned king.

This lecture is not the place - nor do we have the time - to enter into the hotly contested history of the events that followed.

I merely express my own view that Richard was not the villain created by Tudor historians and perpetuated by Shakespeare’s fiction. Rather he was a man of great personal courage and integrity. I doubt that he killed his nephews in the Tower. There is no evidence in his character or in the documents we have to justify such a conclusion. Richard’s “weakness”, if some would call it that, was that he was not an English Machievelli. Rather he was a devout Christian who was committed to re-establish the rule of law in our land. Yes, he executed 4 men, but only when they threatend his role as Protector, aiming to subvert the law for their own ends. Richard was acclaimed king and made king by act of Parliament. Undoubtedly he made mistakes, acting out of fear rather than malice. But if so he has paid for it. He lost his reputation as well as his life when he died at Bosworth.

When the craven Henry Tudor treacherously murdered his way to the English throne, Middleham became his and so began its slow decline into ruin and obscurity. Today this place is unknown to most of our fellow countrymen, let alone the tourists who cross the world to gaze at the Tower of London. But once let the lives of the men and women, who built it and lived in it, become known and Middleham will take its rightful place as one of the most magnificent castles in our nation.