23rd October: THE GREAT HELMICK ANNIVERSARY ADVENTURE, PART 1
Hubcap and I celebrated our 13th wedding anniversaries this month. I use the plural because back in 2007, as some readers may recall, we got married three times in a week: the official registry office bit on 2nd October (Richard III’s birthday!); on the 6th, the magical blessing at St Mary’s, Lead, opposite The Crooked Billet where we first met, which we thought of as our ‘real’ wedding; and on the 7th, a medieval ceremony performed and attended by our re-enactor friends.
We like to mark the occasion(s) by going somewhere special on the nearest convenient date; and were delighted to find that, despite all the Covid restrictions, we could still manage to do much the same as usual. I duly arranged a visit to Richmond Castle in North Yorkshire, an English Heritage site which now requires advance booking for arrivals within a specified time slot – a place Hubcap had never been, and I’d only visited once, decades before I knew enough about medieval history to really understand what I was seeing.
But now, as Wars of the Roses anoraks, we could appreciate the significance of a castle once possessed by Edmund Tudor, first husband of Lady Margaret Beaufort, and inherited by their only son Henry, fugitive Earl of Richmond until his seizure of the crown at Bosworth in 1485. What we didn’t know was its earlier history: the granting of the huge tract of land which became known as the Honour of Richmond to Alan Rufus, one of William the Conqueror’s most stalwart Breton knights. Rufus founded Richmond town (the name derives from riche mont, meaning ‘strong hill’) and built his castle on the crown of said hill, overlooking the River Swale. In the 1150s it passed to his descendant Conan, fourth Duke of Brittany, and builder of the stunning ‘great tower’ or keep (pictured). (Unfortunately, due to social distancing issues, it’s not currently possible to go up to the roof.) This fine building was constructed more for prestige and enjoyment than for defence, with a pleasure-garden, spectacular views, and three enormous windows where the lord and important guests could show themselves to the townsfolk. It also contains a thoughtful architectural detail to help visitors find their way around: doors leading to thoroughfares have an arch overhead, while those leading to dead-ends such as intra-mural chambers and garderobes have plain rectangular lintels.
We began our tour at the Information Centre, which houses the reception desk and gift shop on the ground floor, and a museum of the castle’s history upstairs. (Masks are mandatory within this building, but not around the open site). It was fascinating to discover that the lord’s vassal knights were assigned lodgings in, and responsibility for, different parts of the castle, indicated by engravings of their heraldic arms on the masonry, and explained by a topographic drawing from c. 1400 showing and describing their locations. (Some of these are endearingly specific, like ‘Place of the Chamberlain, to the east of Scolland’s Hall beside the oven’). Then suitably primed, weset out to explore.
The best-preserved parts of Richmond Castle are its spectacular keep, and the adjacent cell-block constructed in 1878 for the North York Militia, later used as a prison for conscientious objectors in the First World War, and soldiers undergoing punishment in the Second. Of the standing remains, Scolland’s Hall, named after an 11th century steward, and its neighbouring latrine tower, are the most substantial; the curtain wall and other bailey buildings are extensively ruined, but still suffice to give an idea of Richmond’s former grandeur.
Alas, this grandeur declined within a century of its heyday, due to the expense of maintaining its fabric through the turbulent decades of anarchy and the misrule of King John; when Edward I seized it from the Dukes of Brittany in the 1290s, he had to make extensive repairs before passing it to his son John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster (and thus into the Lancastrian/Tudor royal house). Nonetheless, by 1341 a survey describes it as very dilapidated, and despite being owned by a succession of Lancastrian and Yorkist kings and dukes, Richmond wasn’t used for any significant royal purpose, and never recovered its earlier magnificence. Henry Tudor showed little interest in the place – perhaps it evoked unwelcome memories of his earldom-in-exile – although he did name his new palace after it, creating his own royal Richmond to replace the burned-down Sheen; and by the middle of his son’s reign, the castle was largely in ruins – a sad, if picturesque, end for a once-palatial site.
We very much enjoyed our visit to Richmond Castle; the site is well interpreted and family-friendly, with an activity trail for children to follow, and contains lots of useful information presented in a simple format. We particularly liked a schematic showing the full staff of upper and lower servants, some 150 people, needed to maintain the castle when the lord and his family were in residence; something we’d previously been aware of but never seen presented so clearly, and which instantly gave me a much better grasp of how a great household functioned on a day-to-day basis.
The only slight downside is the lack of café, (though snacks, drinks and loos are available), and on-site parking. Luckily we arrived early enough to find a spot in the nearby marketplace car-park, but by the time we left, around 2 pm, it was very crowded – something to bear in mind if you’re planning a visit. We'd certainly recommend it, not least for the town's historic buildings, steeo picturesque streets and narrow wynds, and three other sites of interest within easy striking distance of the marketplace. Unfortunately, The Richmondshire Museum is closed until April 2021, and opening hours at the Green Howards Regimental Museum and Georgian Theatre Royal are subject to change (we found both closed). So the message is: if you'd like to see Richmond Castle, pre-book an early visit; and if you'd like to see the museums while you're there. do check beforehand to find out whether they'll be open.