Yorkshire's Castles: Helmsley Castle Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Yorkshire's Castles: Helmsley Castle

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Yorkshire's Castles
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Helmsley castle in the Yorkshire countryside.

Helmsley Castle, between Pickering and York, is a ruined rectangular ringwork castle. Unlike most castles in Yorkshire Helmsley Castle did not contain a keep, but instead had two towers - one on the east and one on the west. It was also protected by two moats, with barbicans on the outer ditch on both the north and south sides. The castle inside the inner moat is a rectangular court 100 yards long north to south and 70 yards east to west on the north side and slightly narrower on the south side.

The South Barbican

The south barbican protected the main entrance to the castle through the south gate. To get to the barbican it was necessary to cross the outer moat via a drawbridge. The south barbican consists of a gatehouse flanked by twin drum-towers in the centre of a tall stretch of curtain wall east to west with two D-shaped towers on both corners. The whole barbican is 60 metres wide and is 40 metres from the southern wall of the castle proper. The barbican's corner towers were open-backed, but remain almost their original height.

The gateway itself contained a portcullis. There was also a room above the gate's passage, as well as buildings against the barbican's wall both east and west of the central gateway. These presumably provided accommodation for those manning the barbican and both latrines and fireplaces can be seen in the barbican's wall. Two smaller flanking walls led from the barbican, across the outer ditch, to join with the castle's south corner towers.

The South Gate

Near the south-east corner of the castle across the inner moat from the barbican stood the south gate. Although this is now all but destroyed, the gatehouse was originally defended by a drawbridge and portcullis and thick wooden doors.

The gatehouse was a square two-storeyed building which was originally the south-east corner of the castle. In the 14th Century, a small round tower was built east of the south gate to meet the south barbican's flanking walls and join it to the castle.

The East Tower

North of the south gate along the east wall are the remains of the imposing east tower - one of the twin towers that dominate the castle.

The east tower is U-shaped and despite its ruined state remains the dominant feature of Helmsley Castle. Although the apsed semi-circular side which originally projected into the moat was slighted and no longer exists, the straight side is perfectly preserved right up to the battlement's crenellations and bartizans above.

The east tower was originally a two-storeyed tower consisting of a basement with a chapel with a high, lofty roof above. Around the chapel's high roof was the original level of the battlements. This made it, other than in the semi-circular nature of its eastern side, similar in plan to the west tower.

The tower was later heightened in the 14th Century when it was heightened by a storey above the chapel, with the chapel itself divided into two storeys. Over the new third floor lay the battlements, with corner bartizans above them on the north-west and south-west corners of the tower.

The basement floor was originally only accessible via a staircase from the first floor, but when the tower was heightened a doorway from the bailey was inserted. From the basement, a door in the north wall allowed access to the berm outside the castle wall down a wooden stair, where it is believed that a timber palisade offered a defence before the castle wall themselves. It is also believed that a similar timber palisade ran around the outer ditch between barbicans.

The first floor was originally the castle's chapel until a chapel was built in the castle's bailey in the 13th Century. The chapel was originally a tall, lofty room, but was later divided into two. Since the slighting, the floor no longer exists but it is possible to get a good idea of where the rooms were. This area, and the third floor, were both living chambers. Above the added storey of the chapel, a third floor chamber was built. This was equipped with an external garderobe. Above this was the crenellated wall-walk battlement.

The North Wall, Gatehouse And Barbican

The north wall was wider than the south wall, with round corner towers, but is now ruined with only the foundations remaining. The focal point of the north wall was the gatehouse at its centre, flanked by two round gate-towers. These too no longer exist, but the gatehouse was originally defended by both portcullis and drawbridge over the inner moat.

The barbican built on the outer ditch defended the entry into the north side of the castle, and originally consisted of two drum towers either side of the gate. The gatehouse contained a drawbridge over the outer moat as well as a portcullis. Sadly only the foundations remain.

The West Wall

A castle in the Yorkshire countryside.

Next to the west wall lie the remains of several buildings. In the north are the remains of a bakehouse and brewhouse. There is a latrine tower next to the old hall mansion, from which the foundations of a gallery that led across the castle to the chapel. In the 16th Century the upper floor of the latrine tower was converted into chambers, complete with fireplaces.

The Old Hall

Midway along the western wall is the impressive old hall, which was converted into a manor house in the 16th Century. The manor is remarkably well preserved - little has changed from when it was originally constructed.

The hall was originally built in the 12th Century and was rebuilt between 1563 - 1587. The ground floor was divided into three rooms. The southernmost room was the largest and the central room contained a staircase down to the inner moat. The first floor was divided into two rooms - the south room is the best preserved, with access both to the west tower and the bailey via a wooden external staircase. The north room contains a door to the latrine tower.

The West Tower

The west tower was built in the 12th Century and was a three-storey building, not too dissimilar to the east tower. It contained the Lord's private quarters, being next to the old hall which was just north of it.

In the 14th Century the tower was expanded, with the west wall rebuilt further into the castle's inner moat, at which time garderobes were built into the south-west corner of the tower and a spiral staircase in the north-west. The new wall was supported by three buttresses. The west tower was also altered in the 16th Century when the old hall next to it was converted into a manor house.

The tower's main entrance is to the basement, which has been changed little since the 12th Century, other than the fact it is now open to the sky. The first floor had separate access from the bailey and old hall, and the second floor originally contained a doorway to the wall-walk surrounding the castle. A third floor was later built above the second floor in the 16th Century when the pitch of the tower's roof was lowered.

The New Hall

South of the west tower - and adjoining it - lie the remains of the new hall, which was constructed in the 14th Century. This was an L-shaped building, with the bottom of the 'L' along the south wall. The hall itself lay along the west wall, and stood 16 feet tall. At this time the west wall was raised in order to defend the wall, resulting in the wall-walk meeting the west tower's second floor.

The south side of the hall building consisted of the kitchen, pantry and buttery, with chambers above. The south-west corner tower was also accessible from this building and its ground floor may have been used as a store cellar.

The Chapel

In the middle of the castle's bailey courtyard stood the chapel. This was constructed in the 13th Century when the chapel in the east tower was dismantled. Although little remains of it today, it is known that it had a tiled mosaic floor and was later converted into a kitchen.


Helmsley was granted by William The Bastard to his half-brother Robert de Mortain. It is possible that it was he who began construction of the castle in the unusual double-ringwork form, as his castle Berkampstead in Hertfordshire had a similar plan. In 1088 William Rufus, son of William the Bastard and Robert de Mortain's nephew, confiscated the estate.

Few records of the castle in the 12th Century survive, although it is known that the castle was in the possession of Walter Espec by 1120. Walter Espec was a member of the royal court, was a justiciar (law officer), and a soldier, fighting against Scotland at the Battle of the Standard in 1138. Walter Espec's father William Speche had been a loyal follower of William The Bastard. Many believe that Helmsley Castle was built under Walter Espec to mark the centre of his estate as its position has little strategic value. It is known that during this time it was still an entirely wooden castle behind the double-moats.

Walter Espec had no children, and granted much of his lands to the Cistercian monastery of Rievaulx. On Walter's death in 1154 Helmsley Castle passed to his sister Adelina who had married Peter de Roos.

The de Roos Family

In 1186 their son Robert 'Fursan' de Roos began work on converting the castle to stone. He built the two main towers as well as the round corner towers. It was also Fursan who built the main gateway on the south side of the castle as opposed to the north where it had been previously. Fursan married Isabel, illegitimate daughter of the Scottish king William The Lion. Fursan died in 1227, granting Helmsley to his older son William de Roos.

William de Roos lived at Helmsley 1227 - 1258, the only change to the castle during this time was the construction of the chapel in the courtyard.

William's son, Robert de Roos, inherited the castle, and was Lord of Helmsley 1258 - 1285. He married Isabel, heiress of Daubeney of Belvoir. This increased his wealth, and allowed him to build the barbicans. Robert de Roos also appeared in Parliament as Lord Ros of Helmsley.

Robert's son William, Lord Ros of Helmsley and Belvoir inherited the castle in 1285. He also married well, marrying Matilda de Vaux, heiress of half of the Vaux estate. It was William who raised the east tower and built the new hall and kitchen, as well as strengthening the castle. He also built a dividing wall in the castle - dividing it into north and south sides - with the southern half designated for the private use of the lord's family in the new hall and east tower, and the northern half containing the old hall, used by the steward and other castle officials. The latrine tower on the west wall was built, and all doorways from the west tower (housing the Lord's apartments) and the adjoining old hall, now containing the steward's chambers, were blocked before he died in 1316.

In the period after William's death the Scots raided Yorkshire, and it is believed that the castle was again strengthened.

The Tudor Period

Helmsley Castle remained in the possession of the de Roos family until 1478 when Edmund de Roos sold the castle to Richard, Duke of Gloucester - by far the most powerful man in Yorkshire - and later Richard III. Richard did nothing to Helmsley Castle, staying instead at nearby Middleham Castle. After Richard III's death at the Battle of Bosworth, Helmsley castle was restored to Edmund de Roos by Henry VII.

Edmund died childless in 1508, when Helmsley Castle was inherited by his cousin Sir George Manners of Etal. On George's death in 1513 his son Thomas Manners inherited it. He was a strong supporter of the Tudor dynasty, and was created Earl of Rutland in 1525. In 1533 he deposed the strongly Catholic Abbot Edward of Rievaulx and replaced him with a more Protestant sympathetic abbot. On the dissolution of the monasteries Thomas was rewarded by being allowed to purchase the estates of Rievaulx at a very favourable price.

On his death in 1543, Thomas was succeeded by his son, but it was under the rule of his grandson Edward Manners, 3rd Earl of Rutland, that the castle was altered next. On Edward's marriage to Isabel Holcroft he had the Old Hall converted into a Tudor mansion, converted the 13th Century chapel into a kitchen linked to the old hall by a covered gallery, and knocked the new hall down. The south barbican was also converted into a more comfortable residence at this time.

On Edward's death in 1587 his brother John Manners inherited the castle, followed by John's son Roger Manners, and then Roger's younger brother Francis. On the death of Francis in 1632 passed to the family of his daughter Katherine Manners - or rather, to the family of her husband George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham.1

The Civil War

During the Civil War, Helmsley Castle was, like most of the castles in Yorkshire, garrisoned for the king under the command of Sir Jordan Crosland. The castle was besieged by the parliamentary army under Sir Thomas Fairfax between September and November 1644 and the garrison surrendered after running out of food. Parliament ordered that the castle (as was the case with many in Yorkshire) should be slighted to prevent its further use - and so much of the castle's walls, gates and the eastern half of the east tower were destroyed.

The castle was by this time inherited by the second Duke of Buckingham, who had fled the country on the defeat of Charles I. In 1657 he returned to England and married Mary Fairfax, daughter of Thomas Fairfax who had besieged his castle 13 years earlier.

After his death in 1688 the castle was sold to Charles Duncombe, a banker and politician who was knighted in 1699 and became Lord Mayor of London in 1708. His sister Mary's husband Thomas Brown, a partner in Charles's business, inherited the castle on Charles's death in 1711. Thomas changed his name to Duncombe rather than Mary becoming Brown. He lived in Duncombe Park, a mansion began during the life of Charles Duncombe, leaving Helmsley to decay. Although the castle is still owned by Lord Feversham of Duncombe Park it is now in the care of English Heritage.

1George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, was King Charles I's favourite until his assassination in Portsmouth in August 1628.

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