Focus on Middleham and Richard III: The Castle

By Gail Falkingham, Record Assistant

In this second post, we have selected further items held here at the North Yorkshire County Record Office, to celebrate Richard III’s connections with Middleham, North Yorkshire. We show how related and complementary material is to be found in a number of different archive collections in our custody. Looked at together, these help to both tell and illustrate the history of Middleham Castle and its changes in ownership through time.

In a previous post, Focus on Middleham and Richard III: The Collegiate Church we featured material relating to Middleham and its collegiate church, including some original, 15th century documents bearing the signature of Richard, Duke of Gloucester.

These blog posts have been written to coincide with the reopening of the Yorkshire Museum, York on 9th July 2021 and its Richard III exhibition. Running until 31st October 2021, a new display of 15th century collection highlights, including the Middleham Jewel, centres around the iconic Richard III portrait loaned by the National Portrait Gallery as part of their ‘Coming Home‘ project.

Middleham, its castles and Richard III

Panoramic view from the tower of Middleham castle, looking south-west to the earthwork remains on the horizon of the earlier ringwork castle known as William’s Hill, by G Falkingham, 4th July 2021.

At the eastern edge of Wensleydale in the Yorkshire Dales, the town of Middleham, mentioned in Domesday Book of 1086 as Medelai, lies c. 11 miles south of Richmond, between the junction of the Rivers Ure and Cover. The earthwork remains of an early, ringwork and bailey castle, built of timber after the Norman Conquest in the later 11th century, survive to the south of the town at a site known as William’s Hill.

The present stone castle was built 250 yards to the north of William’s Hill in the late 12th century, and passed by marriage into the Neville family in the 13th century. By the 15th century, the Nevilles were powerful nobles who controlled a large part of the north of England, with estates at both Middleham and Sheriff Hutton in North Yorkshire. This was the time of the Wars of the Roses (1455-1487) with the rival factions of the Houses of York and Lancaster seeking control of the English throne and key battles fought on Yorkshire soil.

The youngest of four sons, Richard of York (1452-1485), the future Richard III, was raised in the Neville household as a ward of Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick after the death of his father and brother at the Battle of Wakefield. As a teenager, he lived at their northern residences in Middleham and Sheriff Hutton until c.1468. Richard was made Duke of Gloucester in 1461, at the age of eight, soon after his older brother became King Edward IV after his victory at the Battle of Towton.

The Earl of Warwick defected to the Lancastrian cause and was killed at the Battle of Barnet in 1471. Following his death, Middleham Castle was forfeited to the Crown and was then given by Edward IV to his younger brother Richard, who also received other lands that had belonged to the Nevilles at Sheriff Hutton and Penrith. Soon after, in 1472, Edward IV founded the Council of the North, of which Richard was made president, governing the north of England on behalf of Edward for the next eleven years. It is likely that Middleham Castle became his primary residence at this time, where he lived with his wife Anne (daughter of Richard Neville) after their marriage in 1472, and where their son Edward was born in 1473. He was later crowned King Richard III on 6th July 1483, and ruled for only two years, killed by the Lancastrian army of Henry Tudor (later King Henry VII) at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485.

The later history of Middleham Castle from the 17th century

After Richard III’s death at the Battle of Bosworth Field on 22nd August 1485, the castle passed to Henry VII and remained Crown property until 1604 when it was sold by James I. It was subsequently owned by the Lindley and Loftus families, before the lordship of Middleham passed to the Wood family of Littleton in Middlesex after the restoration of Charles II in 1660.

The Wood family appears in several collections in the custody of the Record Office, in particular the Wood of Middleham records [ZEH] and the Bolton Castle Estate archive [ZBO X]. Collection ZEH contains deeds and papers relating to Middleham, including yearly rental accounts to Thomas Wood, and files of letters and estate memoranda for the Wood family covering the period 1663-1834. The Wood manuscripts in ZBO X date from 1666 to 1765 and relate mainly to the lordship of Middleham, the greater part of the correspondence being addressed to Thomas Wood, Esq. of Littleton, Middlesex. During this time, the castle was in a ruinous condition and leased out by the Wood family.

Further evidence may be found in the Middleham Parish Council record collection [PC/MID], including a letter of 16th August 1670 sent from John Packe, London, to Mr Thomas Wood Esq., Littleton referring, amongst other matters, to deeds concerning Mr Wood’s father’s purchase of Middleham Castle [PC/MID 6/1].

Middleham remained with the Wood family until 1889, when it was sold to Samuel Cunliffe-Lister, later Lord Masham of Swinton, who had purchased Swinton Park and the Jervaulx Estate, near Masham in the early 1880s.

The Record Office also holds the Swinton and Middleham Estate records [ZS], a collection which contains much archive material relating to Middleham from the 16th century onwards.

This collection, for example, includes a deed of sale dated 16th July 1663, which is referred to in the letter of 1670 from John Packe mentioned above. This indenture concerns the materials of Middleham Castle, and was made between Edward Wood, Godfrey Boord and Edmund White [ZS 320].

ZS 320, box 2, bundle 21  Indenture concerning the materials of Middleham Castle, made between Edward Wood, Godfrey Boord and Edmund White, dated 16th July 1663.

The Swinton and Middleham Estate records also include the plan of 1678 below, which shows the lands belonging to the ‘worshipful Thomas Wood Esquire’ [ZS 1678], which includes the castle as well as land to the south and west. Individual field names are written on the plan, along with their extent, in acres, roods and perches. These are summarised in a table at the foot of the plan, which sums up the total areas held, with just over 452 acres to the south and 1087 acres to the west. Although this extensive landholding did not include the settlement at Middleham, there is nevertheless a delightful depiction of ‘Middleham Towne’, showing multiple houses and the church of St Mary and St Alkelda drawn in perspective.

A plan of 1811 in the same collection records the estate of a later Thomas Wood [ZS 320, 1/12]. This shows a similar area of land to the 17th-century plan, and additional fields to the south.

ZCM Landscape view of Spennithorne, Middleham and Coverdale painted by Henrietta Matilda Crompton, with Middleham Castle in the centre of the view, mid-19th century.

The sale of the castle in the 19th century

ZEK 1/9 Inset plan of Middleham Castle (Lot 17), from Plan of the estate of the lordship of Middleham with the manor of Braithwaite in the North Riding of the county of York, 1884 (see above).

In August 1884, the Middleham Estate was put up for sale by auction. A copy of the auction catalogue is held within the ZS collection, entitled the “Plans, Particulars & Conditions of Sale of the Middleham Estate, a valuable freehold agricultural & sporting property situate in Wensleydale and Coverdale in the North Riding of the County of York & comprising about 1870 acres with the Manor or lordship of Middleham… including the ruins of Middleham Castle… to be sold by auction in one or more lots by Messrs Hepper & Sons at Scawin’s Hotel, York at half-past two o’clock precisely on Thursday August 7th 1884.”

Middleham Castle is described as “An object of great historic interest as the ancient stronghold of Earl Warwick, the “King Maker”, and a favourite residence of Richard III.”

Lot 17 (as shown on the inset plan of 1884 right) is described as: “The Manor or Lordship of Middleham: Ruins of Middleham Castle and its inclosure; Allotment Gardens, Cottages and Encroachment Rents in Middleham; together with the Manorial rights appertaining to the Manor of Middleham…

However, the Estate failed to sell. A contemporary newspaper account from the York Herald of 9th August 1884 explains that:

“After asking if anyone would bid £100,000 for the entire lot, and receiving no answer, he [the auctioneer] reduced the amount successively to £80.000, £70 000, £60,000, and there being no bid the property was withdrawn. It was next put up in lots, but after offering and withdrawing some half –dozen, Mr. Hepper said that not having disposed of any of the lots, he would not be justified in putting any of the others before them. Therefore, the lot which included the manor and lordship of Middleham, with the ruins of Middleham Castle, and its enclosure, the acreage being 8a. 3r. 24p , did not come to the hammer.”

We know that the Estate was sold six years later in 1890, as recorded in a memorial of an Indenture of Conveyance enrolled in the North Riding Registry of Deeds [NRRD Vol.32, p.279, no.136]. Dated 29th April 1890, and registered the following day, this deed records the purchase of the manor or lordship of Middleham, associated lands and property totalling c.1103 acres by Samuel Cunliffe Lister of Swinton Park from Thomas Wood of Gwernyfed Park in the County of Brecon.

A few years earlier, in January 1885, Thomas Wood received a letter from the Secretary of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB) in London, expressing concern about the condition of the ruins of the castle, which they felt should be protected and preserved [PC/MID 2/2/5/74]. Secretary Hugh Thackerey Turner writes:

As there are still portions of the walls in great danger of falling on account of the parts near the ground having been robbed of the stonework and thus undermined, the Committee ventures to ask you whether you see any prospect of continuing the work of repair when the winter is over?

It is in the belief that portions of the walls are in urgent need of speedy support that we ask you on public grounds to spend a small sum in repairs during the coming Spring.

We also venture to suggest that as the castle is visited every summer by a considerable number of visitors it is probable that they would willingly contribute towards the repairs and that their contributions might be obtained by making a small charge for their admission”.

It was to be the new owners of the castle, the Cunliffe Listers, who carried out repair work, commissioning local architect Walter Brierley to do so in the early 1900s. Two decades later, in 1926, the castle was placed in the guardianship of the Office of Works and gifted to the State in 1930.

In January 1970, the castle was designated as a Grade I listed building, for its special architectural or historic interest. In recognition of its national archaeological importance, the castle was also designated as a scheduled monument in October 1981 under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979.

Since 1984, the Castle has been in the care of English Heritage.

The Castle has influenced the design of a number of later buildings in the local area, including the nearby Middleham suspension bridge which crosses the River Ure. The bridge was built in 1830, later altered in 1865 and is Listed Grade II. The pylons at either end of this bridge have turrets with castellated parapets, imitating the architecture of the medieval castle.

See our previous post: Focus on Middleham and Richard III: The Collegiate Church, featuring material relating to Middleham and its collegiate church, including some original, 15th century documents bearing the signature of Richard, Duke of Gloucester.

Find out more:

The portrait of Richard III and an associated exhibition of related objects will be on display at the Yorkshire Museum in York from 9 July – 31 October 2021.

Further details about the collections of the North Yorkshire County Record Office can be found in our online catalogue.

Copies of historic maps of Middleham and Bertram Unné photographs may be purchased via our online shop


Middleham Castle, English Heritage 

National Portrait Gallery 

The Richard III Society 

Yorkshire Museum, York 

Further Reading:

‘Richard III’ by Michael Hicks, 2000, Tempus Publishing.

‘Middleham Castle’ English Heritage Guidebook, by John R. Kenyon, 2015.

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