Historia Yorkshire: Richmond Castle

Hello everyone and welcome back to Historia Yorkshire where I discuss all things Yorkshire related. Today I will be talking about the beautiful Richmond Castle, one of the most complete 11th century fortresses in the whole country!

In 1069 William the Conqueror defeated a rebellion in York which subsequently led to an event now called the Harrying of the North. The Harrying of the North was a series of campaigns waged by William the Conqueror between 1069-1070 the aim of the campaign being to subjugate northern England. Following this, William divided the lands in Yorkshire amongst his loyal followers, with Alan Rufus gaining Richmond as his. Alan Rufus began building fortifications at Richmond almost immediately to ward off invaders and established a seat of power for himself. Eventually his holding at Richmond covered parts of eight counties and was one of the most extensive Norman estates in England. The earliest surviving buildings at Richmond were probably erected by the late 1080s, including long segments of the stone curtain wall, the archway in the ground floor of the keep, and Scolland’s Hall.

After Alan’s death in 1093, Richmond Castle passed down to his younger brothers, Alan and Stephen and by 1136 it was owned by Stephen’s son, Alan II- they loved this name didn’t they. Despite the fact that Richmond had belonged to the family for a while by this point, Alan II was actually the first one to style himself as the Earl of Richmond. Following the death of Alan II, his son Conan successfully claimed the dukedom of Brittany combining the two vast inheritances of Brittany and Richmond- rich guy!

Conan spent much time at Richmond in the 1150’s– and we believe that this is when the keep was built – which would have been a costly affair. But what better way to show off your power and wealth than with a huge castle?! By the time the keep was built Richmond was a prosperous and flourishing town. It was even made a borough in 1145, a status which brought with it multiple privileges and a degree of self-government. Conan sadly died in 1171 and as his daughter Constance was only nine and betrothed to Henry II’s fourth son Geoffrey, Henry II took control of Richmond Castle. Henry II carried out multiple repairs to the castle and also undertook several building projects to improve the castle. Geoffrey and Constance married in 1181, however the castle remained in royal hands until the end of King John’s reign in 1216.

In 1265 Richmond Castle potentially suffered a siege ordered by Simon de Montfort, who rebelled against Henry III. However, sadly for us there are no surviving records which detail whether or not the siege actually took place.

Richmond Castle changed hands multiple times throughout the 13th and 14th centuries. As Richmond was held by the dukes of Brittany this divided loyalties and fealty between the English and French crown- a precarious situation. The castle however was finally surrendered to the Crown in 1372. These changes of ownership actually had little impact on the castle itself and it remained relatively unaltered during this period. Sadly however, the castle soon became the victim of frequent raids by the Scottish and slowly but surely it fell into an increased state of disrepair. By 1462 when Edward IV granted George, the Duke of Clarence, the lands and castle of Richmond, he did not grant him the title of earl. This indicates that the castle and town were more of a symbolic asset rather than a practical one. The following years saw the castle fall into an increased state of dereliction and slowly the ruins became a romantic symbol.

In 1854 the Duke of Richmond decided to lease out the castle and it became the headquarters of the North York Militia. Construction of barracks began and slowly the keep was adapted for militia life becoming the headquarters of the Northern Territorial Army in 1908. The castle continued to be occupied during the First World War where it was home to the northern Non-Combatant Corps. This unit consisted of men who had asked to be exempt from military service but wanted to contribute to the war effort in non-combative roles. Some of the men who joined the Corps however refused point blank to aid the war effort in any way as it contrasted with their beliefs. The contentious objectors soon found themselves detained in cells at Richmond Castle and to this day you can still see graffiti drawn by these men in the walls. Some of these men, who later became known as the Richmond Sixteen, were ordered to France in 1916 where they were put on trial for their objections to the war.

After the First World War the barracks were used as cottages from 1920-1928 with the blocks demolished in 1931. During the Second World War the keep was used as a daylight air raid shelter and in the 1940’s soldiers were detained in the cell blocks once more. The castle is now in the care of English Heritage and has been since 1984.

Richmond Castle is one of the most imposing castle’s in North Yorkshire and it stands as a huge monument to Norman architecture and Yorkshire’s prominent place in the history books.

Join me next week where I discuss the ‘Harrying of the North’ in full detail. Happy Monday everyone and Happy history!


W Farrer and CT Clay (eds), Early Yorkshire Charters, vol 4: The Honour of Richmond, part I (Leeds, 1935), 94–5

Clark, G. T. (1886), “Richmond Castle”, Yorkshire Archaeological Journal9: 33–54

“History of Richmond Castle”. English Heritage.

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