History of Richmond Castle

Richmond Castle is the best-preserved example of an early Norman castle in England. Probably begun in the 1070s by Alan Rufus, who may have fought at the Battle of Hastings, it was expanded in the 12th century by his great-nephew Conan, who built the keep. By 1540 the castle was derelict, but it later became a popular tourist destination. During the First World War it was used as a prison for conscientious objectors, including the Richmond Sixteen.

Scolland’s Hall at Richmond Castle
The 11th-century hall block at Richmond Castle, which has been known as Scolland’s Hall since at least 1400, is one of the earliest surviving examples of domestic architecture in England

Foundation of Richmond Castle

Richmond Castle was built in the aftermath of the Norman Conquest of 1066. The exact circumstances remain obscure, but it was most likely founded in the late 1070s by Count Alan Rufus, ‘the Red’, of Penthièvre. A kinsman of William the Conqueror, Alan may have commanded the Breton contingent of the Norman army at the Battle of Hastings. In return for his service, King William granted him land in the north in about 1071.[1] Richmond Castle was probably begun soon afterwards to cement royal control in the north and to maintain vigilance over the border with Scotland, which at that time was further south than it is today.

The castle is alluded to in the 1086 Domesday survey.[2] Although the survey makes no direct reference to a castle, it describes Alan’s lands as forming a ‘castlery’, an estate organised to sustain a castle.[3] The survey also names Richmond (then called Hindrelag) as Alan’s possession, and as Richmond came to form the centre of his estates it was doubtless Richmond Castle that he had built.

The earliest surviving buildings at Richmond were probably erected by Alan Rufus in the 1080s. They include long stretches of the stone curtain wall, the great archway in the ground floor of the keep, and Scolland’s Hall. 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.[4]

Reconstruction of Richmond Castle keep
Reconstruction of Richmond Castle in about 1400, with Conan’s 12th-century keep in the foreground
© Historic England (illustration by Peter Urmston)

Duke Conan and the 12th-Century Castle

After Alan’s death in 1093, Richmond Castle and its estates passed in turn to two of his younger brothers, Alan Niger, ‘The Black’, and Stephen. By 1136 it was held by Stephen’s son, also Alan (II) Niger (c.1100–1146), who was the first to style himself Earl of Richmond. Earl Alan married Bertha, heiress of the Duke of Brittany, but died before the dukedom came into his hands. It was under him that the castle may have hosted a mint, issuing coins in support of the embattled King Stephen.[5] Alan II’s son Conan (c.1135–1171), however, successfully asserted his claim to the dukedom of Brittany in the 1150s. In so doing he combined two vast inheritances of Brittany (then effectively an independent principality) and Richmond.

Conan began to assert control over his English lands from 1154. He spent much time at Richmond over the next decade – it was almost certainly during this period that he built the keep, a statement of his exceptional power and wealth.[6] Recent research undertaken by English Heritage has suggested that the upper room in the tower may have hosted a raised platform supporting chairs for important castle officers, and perhaps also the dukes. By this time Richmond was a prosperous town: it is known to have been made a borough – a status that conferred some self-government and other privileges – as early as 1145.[7]

Read a description of Richmond Castle
Aerial view of Richmond Castle
Aerial view of Richmond Castle, looking east

A Royal Castle

Conan did not enjoy his joint inheritance for long. In 1166 he betrothed his daughter, Constance, to Henry II’s fourth son, Geoffrey, ceding the duchy of Brittany to the king as part of the agreement. On Conan’s death in 1171 Constance was only nine, and Henry II (reigned 1154–89) took control of Richmond Castle. Royal accounts list several buildings as objects of repair or new work under Henry II, including the tower and houses of the castle (1171–4) and the ‘king’s house’ (1186–7), probably a reference to Scolland’s Hall.[8]

Although Geoffrey and Constance married in 1181, the castle remained in royal hands until the end of King John’s reign in 1216. Unlike other royal castles in the north, however, there is no conclusive documentary or archaeological evidence to suggest that John did any building at Richmond.

In 1215 the north of England revolted against John, who subdued it in a rapid campaign. There is no record of a siege at Richmond at this time, but Roald must have stood against the king, because he was ousted from office and his garrison were imprisoned in the castle until January 1216.

In 1265 Simon de Montfort, who had rebelled against Henry III (r.1216–72) during the civil wars of the 1260s, ordered his supporters to lay siege to Richmond Castle. Frustratingly, though, no details of the siege, if there was one, are recorded.[9]

View of the vault in the basement of the keep
The vault in the basement of the keep, inserted during building works in the late 13th century

Changing Ownership

Throughout the 13th and 14th centuries the fortunes of Richmond Castle were bound up with a long-running international dynastic dispute. The honour of Richmond was still held by the dukes of Brittany, but the price of enjoying it was obedience to the king of England, while holding their French lands required fealty to the king of France.

Since the kings of France and England were often at war, the divided allegiance was impossible to manage and the honour and castle were therefore confiscated from time to time and held by either the English Crown or a royal favourite.[10] This state of affairs continued until 1372, when the castle and honour were finally surrendered to the Crown.[11]

These frequent changes of ownership had little impact on the fabric of the castle, beyond ensuring that it was not much altered during this period. The only recorded works were undertaken in 1250 by Henry III and by Edward I after 1294.[12] In neither case is it clear what was done to the castle, but the evidence of the architecture suggests that Edward I’s work was more significant. He probably inserted the vault in the keep, renovated Scolland’s Hall, and extended the adjacent residential range along the east wall of the castle. Either Edward I or one of the 14th-century dukes was responsible for adding upper apartments to the Robin Hood and Gold Hole towers, and perhaps also the construction of the south-west tower. 

The ruins of Scolland's Hall
What remains of Scolland's Hall today

The dukes who intermittently ruled Richmond in this period continued to invest in it. In 1278 Duke John II entered into an agreement with Egglestone Abbey to furnish six canons in service at the ‘great chapel’ in the castle to pray for the soul of his late wife, Beatrice.[13] This building, now lost, was probably in the south-west corner of the castle enclosure. The castle’s owners also maintained an interest in the town. In 1313 the duke’s second son, John of Brittany, Earl of Richmond, received permission to use moneys from the fair held in Richmond town to construct a town wall.[14]

This was also a time of increased insecurity. Though the castle was spared, the area of Richmond was subject to a gruelling Scottish raid after English defeat at Bannockburn in 1314.[15] The only other known attack on the castle was the subject of a complaint by John III, Duke of Brittany in 1340.  Though the precise circumstances are unclear, a band of locals besieged the castle and injured the duke’s servants there.[16] By this point, it seems that the castle was in disrepair. The inquest into the late duke’s death in 1341 noted that the castle was ruined and the buildings within the enclosure in need of significant repair.[17]

View of Richmond Castle by Paul Sandby
Watercolour of Richmond Castle in the late 18th century, by Paul Sandby and William Taverner
© Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

Richmond Castle in Ruins

Despite the occasional repairs made over the years, the castle gradually lapsed into ruin. A survey made in 1538 showed that it was derelict,[18] and again in 1609 a survey noted it was ‘decayed’.[19] In spite of these reports, it is clear that part of the castle was still being used. In the 16th century, expensive glass was imported from northern Europe to refurbish the chapel within Robin Hood Tower, though it is not certain when this, too, was abandoned.[20] When in 1462 Edward IV granted George, Duke of Clarence, the lands and castle of Richmond, but not the title of earl, the castle had become a symbolic rather than practical asset.[21]

The castle remained in this condition for the next 300 years. Ownership passed to the dukes of Richmond in 1675. Some repairs were carried out in the 1760s by the 3rd Duke, mainly to the keep.

The works of JMW Turner and other artists in the late 18th and early 19th centuries greatly encouraged admiration of the castle as a romantic ruin, and the town became a fashionable place for tourists to visit.

A military band at Richmond Castle in the late 19th century
A military band at Richmond Castle in the late 19th century
© Historic England Archive

Victorian Barracks

In 1854 the Duke of Richmond leased out the castle and it became the headquarters of the North York Militia.[22] The following year construction of a barrack block began against the west curtain wall. The keep was adapted as a depot and a range was built beside the main castle gate, intended as a reserve armoury for the militia.

In 1908 the castle became the headquarters of the Northern Territorial Army. Robert Baden-Powell, founder of the Boy Scouts, briefly commanded here until 1910. In that year the army handed over the historic fabric of the castle to the Ministry of Works, but retained control of the buildings.

Example of graffiti in the cell block at Richmond Castle
One of several graffiti inscribed on the walls of the cell block at Richmond Castle in 1916 by John Hubert (Bert) Brocklesby, one of the conscientious objectors who became known as the Richmond Sixteen

The first world war and the Richmond sixteen

During the First World War the castle was occupied by the northern Non-Combatant Corps. This was a military unit in which men who had asked for exemption from military service could contribute to the war effort in non-combatant roles. However, some men who had been ordered to join the Corps refused to take part in any work touching the war effort, because it went against their fundamental beliefs. In 1916 a number of them were detained in cells at Richmond Castle in a 19th-century building, previously the castle’s reserve armoury, beside the castle gate. The walls of these tiny rooms are still covered with graffiti made by the objectors, a unique survival.

Some of these conscientious objectors, who became known as the Richmond Sixteen, were sent to France in May 1916, where they were put on trial for refusing to obey orders, and faced a potential death sentence. Their transportation to France, trial and sentencing have become notorious in the history of conscientious objection.

Find out more about the Richmond sixteen
Photograph of the barrack block at Richmond Castle
The barrack block against the west curtain wall at Richmond Castle, built in 1855 to accommodate staff of the North York Militia. It was demolished in 1931
© Historic England Archive

Later History

After the First World War, the barracks block were used by the Borough Council of Richmond as housing to alleviate a shortage of accommodation in the town. The castle ‘cottages’ were inhabited from 1920 until the last tenant was removed in 1928.[23]

The Victorian barrack block was demolished in 1931. During the Second World War the roof of the keep was used to watch for enemy activity in the area, while the keep itself was used as a daylight air raid shelter. In 1940 the cell block was once again used to detain prisoners, although these were soldiers rather than conscientious objectors.[24] Many of them also pencilled drawings and inscriptions on the cell walls.

The castle has been in the care of English Heritage since 1984.

Read more about our plans to conserve the cell block

Find out more about Richmond Castle


    W Farrer and CT Clay (eds), Early Yorkshire Charters, vol 4: The Honour of Richmond, part I (Leeds, 1935), 94–5.
    The Domesday survey was undertaken in 1085–6, on the orders of William the Conqueror, recording the landholdings and resources of much of England and parts of Wales.
    ML Faull and M Stinson (eds), Domesday Book, Yorkshire (Chicester, 1986), Sn Ct.A 45.
    JAA Goodall, The English Castle (New Haven and London, 2011), 87.
    M Allen, ‘The mints and moneyers of medieval England and Wales, 1066–1158’British Numismatic Journal, 82 (2012), 56.
    British Library, Cotton MS Faustina, B VII (register of the honour of Richmond), fol 85v (accessed 8 April 2016).
    Farrer and Clay, op cit, 22.
    Pipe Roll 18 Henry II, 1171–2 (London, 1891), 5 (accessed 20 April 2016); 33 Henry II, 1186–7 (London, 1915).
    Calendar of the Close Rolls of Henry III, 1264–8 (London, 1937), 113 (subscription required; accessed 20 April 2016).
    E.g. Calendar of the Patent Rolls preserved in the Public Record Office, Edward I, 1301–1307 (London, 1898), 228 (accessed 1 April 2019), cf. Calendar of the Fine Rolls preserved in the Public Record Office, Edward II, 1319-1327 (London, 1912), 377 (accessed 2 April 2019).
    Calendar of the Close Rolls of Henry III, 1247–51 (London, 1911), 257, 276 (accessed 20 April 2016); The National Archives (TNA), C53/82–88; Calendar of Close Rolls of Edward I, 1296–1302 (London, 1906), 71 (accessed 2 April 2019).
    Chronicles of the Reigns of Edward I and Edward I (London, 1883), 2, 47 (accessed 1 April 2019).
    TD Whitaker, A history of Richmondshire… (London, 1823), 54 (accessed 2 April 2019); C Clarkson, The History of Richmond, in the County of York (Richmond, 1821), 60 (accessed 2 April 2019).
    TNA, E36/159.
    TNA, SP14/45.
    The glass features in the castle museum exhibition.
    Calendarium Rotulorum Patentium in Turri Londinensi (London, 1802), 318, no.5 (accessed 2 April 2019). A similar situation is apparent in Thomas, Viscount Wentworth’s tenure of the office of Keeper of Richmond Castle in 1630: Annual Report of the Deputy Keeper of the Public Records, 43 (London, 1882), 167, no. 149 (accessed 2 April 2019).
    TNA, WORK 14/1816.
    TNA, WORK 14/795, part 2, letter dated 23 Jan 1930; TNA, WORK 14/1122, part 2, Letter 9 June 1928.
    TNA, WORK 14/1816. 
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