2021 is the year Richmond castle celebrates its 950th anniversary. Chris Lloyd takes a potted look back


ALTHOUGH William, the Duke of Normandy, conquered England in 1066 when he killed King Harold at the Battle of Hastings, the north refused to submit – so he decided to force it, through a campaign of destruction known as “the Harrying of the North”.

In 1071, with the north cowed and burned, he gave the land between the Ure and the Tees to Count Alan Rufus, who had led the Breton knights at Hastings and was one of William’s closest friends.

The most important settlement in this area had probably been Gilling West, but Count Alan needed to show that he was the new and only power in the land, so he chose to build an overwhelmingly huge castle on a stunning new site overlooking the Swale.

This site – a splendid hill, or “riche mont”, as the French tongue had it – was near an old settlement called Hindrelac, which was probably near today’s petrol station on the road to Scotch Corner and Darlington.

Count Alan and his French masons used the clifftop site to create an impregnable, triangle-shaped castle, which quickly became the biggest stone building the locals, who lived in low wooden affairs, had ever seen.

Surrounded by a tall wall, it featured Scollands Hall, which was named after the Earl of Bedale who was Count Alan’s steward.

It is one of the oldest great halls in the country and must once have been the scene of much feasting. From its ramparts, the ladies could look down on the flat jousting field below – now the home of Richmond football club – while Count Alan could retire to his private quarters in the adjoining Gold Hole Tower, which included a fireplace, a latrine and perhaps a balcony from which he could view the castle gardens. The gardens today are known as the cockpit, so perhaps he watched a cockfight from his balcony.

Count Alan also owned land in East Anglia and London, and he became perhaps the richest man ever to live in Britain. When he died in 1093, he was worth about £81bn in today’s values, and he had given much to establish religious institutions, like St Mary’s Abbey in York.

He never married, although towards the end of his life, Gunnhild of Wessex, who was the daughter of King Harold and in her fifties and going blind, eloped from her nunnery to be with him.

English Heritage says of his castle: “No other castle in England can boast so much surviving 11th Century architecture – it is probably the best-preserved castle of this scale and age in the country.”

Count Alan must have congratulated himself for selecting such a splendid and strong hill on which to build his castle that dominated the north and ensured it remained subdued.

But he may not have been the first to be drawn to the hill. It is said that in the 6th Century, King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table crawled into a chasm beneath it and fell asleep, ready to awaken in Britain’s hour of need. We know this because a fellow called Potter Thompson once squeezed into a cave beneath the castle and spotted the armour-clad knights slumbering at a table. Sensing his presence, they began to stir, causing their armour to clank in the darkness, so brave Potter Thompson immediately ran away. We can only presume that they regained their deep sleep but they remain ready to rouse themselves should the dread hour ever come…


COUNT Alan Rufus earned his surname because of his red complexion. When he died, the castle passed to his brother, Alan Niger, who was obviously endowed with black hair. Remarkably, Guinhild of Wessex took up with him.

In 1135, his nephew, also called Alan Niger, inherited the castle and for the first time called himself “Earl of Richmond”.

There were two prosperous settlements beyond the castle walls of people who served and traded with the Norman knights inside: Frenchgate to the east and Newbiggin to the west, where the first market was probably held.


The Earl’s son was Conan the Little, who was of Napoleonic stature. However, he ruled both North Yorkshire and Brittany, and he built the huge, square keep at Richmond castle as a symbol of his power. It is 100ft (or 30 metres) high, with three rounded windows looking out onto what is now the Market Place. Perhaps Conan appeared at the windows (perhaps standing on boxes) and waved at his people below…

Before his death in 1171, Conan had had his nine-year-old daughter, Constance, betrothed to Geoffrey, the fourth son of King Henry II. This cemented his place at the English court, but he had to give the king his French estates.

Over the next two centuries, with the kings of England and France regularly at war with one another, Richmond – part English, part French – found itself with a toe in both camps, and so its importance began to fade.


With the Scots terrorising the north of England, the castle only avoids being attacked by paying a “greate summe of money” to the invaders.

By now, the Outer Bailey of the castle, which was surrounded by a wooden fence and a ditch, has become Richmond’s famous, cobbled market place instead of the stalls being placed in Newbiggin.


The English Crown took ownership of the largely ruined castle and over the following centuries gave it to its favourites until 1675 when it became the property of the Duke of Richmond. Several owners embarked on building sprees, but they were largely short-lived and the castle remained ruined.


In her book Journey by Horseback through the North of England, one of the earliest travel writers, Celia Fiennes, described the castle as “pieces of the walls on a hill” and said Richmond itself “looks like a sad chatter’d town and fallen much to decay and a disregarded place”.


Richmond was rebuilding and becoming a fashionable Georgian town of theatre, balls and horseraces. The duke created Castle Walk, as a dramatic promenade, and although the castle remained a ruin, it became regarded as a romantic ruin, especially in the early 19th Century when JMW Turner’s watercolours helped create the first tourist industry.


The castle became the headquarters of the North York Militia and a large barrack block was built along the west wall.


During the First World War, the castle was the base of the Northern Non-Combatant Corps, a unit of men who, as Conscientious Objectors, had asked for exemption from military service. However, when a number of them refused to do any work that involved the war, they were imprisoned in tiny cells. In 1916, “the Richmond 16” were sent to France to be court martialled, and left graffiti art on the cell walls.


The castle is taken over by English Heritage, and money is spent stabilising it and interpreting it – for example, in the 1990s, £550,000 has gone on securing the art of the Richmond 16 and, most recently, £300,000 on refurbishing the museum.


A programme of events is planned to commemorate the 950th anniversary, although the pandemic has curtailed the first of them. However, online talks at least are virus-proof. For full details, go to richmond950.co.uk