Peveril Castle

History of Peveril Castle

The ruins of Peveril Castle stand isolated on a rocky hilltop in the Derbyshire Peaks, one of the most dramatically sited castles in England.

Throughout its history, from the 11th to the 16th century, Peveril Castle served as a base for the government of the local area, the ‘Forest of the Peak’. The town of Castleton, at the foot of castle hill, was founded 100 years after the castle.

A reconstruction of how the keep of Peveril Castle might have looked in about 1200
The keep of Peveril Castle as it might have looked in about 1200
© Historic England (illustration by Peter Urmston)

Early History

Peveril Castle was established on this site soon after the Norman Conquest of 1066. The castle stood on a high hill overlooking the Hope Valley and a deep cave, the ‘Peak Cavern’. The site was probably unoccupied at the time, though prehistoric earthworks in this area and a flint blade found within the castle show that the site had been used for centuries before. In 1086, Domesday Book mentions ‘William Peveril’s castle of Pechesers’ (‘Peak’s Arse’, the medieval name for Peak Cavern).

William Peveril, after whom the castle was later named, was Keeper of the Royal Forest. The castle was sited to control the area, which included hunting grounds and lead and silver mines. Unusually for a Norman castle, buildings were constructed in stone rather than timber. Remains from the 11th century can still be seen, incorporating distinctive herringbone masonry, where the stonework is laid in an alternating pattern with one course of stones slanting one way and the next course slanting the other way.

William’s son forfeited the castle to King Henry II (r.1154–89) as a punishment for having fought in a war against the king’s mother, Matilda. It was Henry who added the keep, in around 1174, and rebuilt some of the castle’s other domestic buildings.

The present entrance to the castle, overlooking the new town, was also built at this time. It was originally a back gateway, only accessible on foot.

The ruins of Peveril Castle with the town of Castleton visible in the valley below
The ruins of Peveril Castle with the town of Castleton visible in the valley below
© Loop Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Castle and Town

The town of Castleton was laid out below the castle in the late 12th century by royal initiative. Though this is hard to detect today, the town’s layout was planned inside a bank and ditch, with a grid pattern of streets. The town contained a church, still surviving, and possibly a marketplace towards the foot of the hill.

Castleton provided an important income for the castle’s estate, including rents from town houses and fees for grinding corn in the town’s watermills.

Reconstruction drawing showing Peveril Castle in about 1250
A reconstruction drawing of Peveril Castle in about 1250, when all the known buildings of the castle seem to have been completed
© Historic England (illustration by Peter Urmston)

The Later Middle Ages

Though built in a strong and commanding position, Peveril Castle was used more as a base for hunting and administration than as a military fortress.

Peveril Castle’s only known military engagement was in 1216, when King John’s chosen constable or commander was forced to besiege his own castle in order to take up his post. During the 13th century, documented repairs and additions to the residential buildings in the castle’s inner bailey show that it was occasionally made ready for visits by the king and his large household of soldiers, servants and guests. These visits were in fact very rare. King Henry III (r.1216–72) only visited once, yet he added a new hall on the castle’s north side.

During the 14th century the castle and estate passed to a succession of royal favourites and relatives, including Queen Eleanor of Castile (1272–90) and Queen Isabella of France (1308–30). In 1372, the Forest of the Peak became part of the Duchy of Lancaster, under the influence of the king’s uncle, John of Gaunt (1340–99).

Peveril Castle remained in use during the 15th century, and its buildings were occasionally described as needing repairs. However, much of the running of the estate, such as the holding of courts and the collecting of rents, was now carried out elsewhere in Derbyshire.

A 14th-century manuscript illustration showing King John hunting
A 14th-century manuscript illustration showing King John on a hunt
© British Library Board (Cotton MS Claudius D II)

The Royal Forest

Peveril Castle’s history shows that it was concerned less with defence and warfare than with the protection and government of the Royal Forest of the Peak. William Peveril, from whom the castle now takes its name, was the Keeper of the Forest in the 11th century.

The Peak Forest contained valuable natural resources including timber, land for pasture, and lead and silver mines which had been exploited since the time of the Romans. But it was principally designated as a private royal hunting-ground for recreation. Hunting in the forest was a jealously guarded privilege for the king and those enjoying his permission.

Detail from an 18th-century engraving by Samuel and Nathaniel Buck, showing the ruinous state of Peveril Castle
Detail from an 18th-century engraving by Samuel and Nathaniel Buck, showing the ruinous state of Peveril Castle

Decline and rebirth

Peveril Castle was neglected and fell into disrepair in the 16th century. Few uses could be found for it. Its popularity was only revived centuries later, when visitors were drawn by its historical associations and by the beauty of the ruin in its landscape.

By the reign of Queen Elizabeth I (1558–1603), Peveril Castle was so ruinous that its demolition was considered. Only the keep remained usable – as a survey of 1561 reported, the building served ‘both for the terror and punishment of offenders and the keeping of the courts, the Queen’s Majesty having none other house in these parts for that purpose’. The bailey with its stone walls was used to impound straying cattle and livestock confiscated from tenants in debt. Soon afterwards, the castle fell completely into disuse.

The castle attracted little attention from early visitors to the Peak District, being too ruinous to be considered ‘Picturesque’. Interest in the site grew, however, after the publication in 1822 of Sir Walter Scott’s historical novel Peveril of the Peak, although it was not actually set in the castle. The town of Castleton and the castle have more recently benefited from the growing popularity of walking as a leisure pursuit. In 1932, the castle was placed in the guardianship of the Office of Works, and in 1984 it passed to English Heritage.

Further Reading

PS Barnwell, ‘The power of Peak Castle: cultural contexts and changing perceptions’, Journal of the British Archaeological Association, 160 (2007), 20–38

OH Creighton, Castles and Landscapes (London, 2002)

R Eales, ‘Royal power and castles in Norman England’, Thirteenth-century England II (1989); reprinted in R Liddiard (ed), Anglo-Norman Castles (Woodbridge, 2003)

R Eales, Peveril Castle (English Heritage guidebook, London 2018)

ES Evans, About Castleton (New Mills, 1961)

A Goodman, John of Gaunt: the Exercise of Princely Power in Fourteenth-century Europe (London, 1992)

J Green, The Aristocracy of Norman England (Cambridge, 1997)

WH St John Hope, ‘The Castle of the Peak and the pipe rolls’, Journal of the Derbyshire Archaeological Society, 11 (1889), 120–26

H Kirke, ‘Peverel’s Castle in the Peak’, Derbyshire Archaeological Journal, 28 (1906), 134–46

NJG Pounds, The Medieval Castle in England and Wales: a Social and Political History (Cambridge, 1990)

WL Warren, Henry II (London, 1973)