Commanding Power: The Norman Castle

English Heritage

Richmond Castle

Richmond Castle 
Perched above the River Swale with the town of Richmond to the north, Richmond Castle in North Yorkshire is an incredible survival of an early Norman castle. It is perhaps the most complete of its kind. 

Built shortly after the Norman Conquest, the oldest parts of Richmond Castle are the triangular curtain wall and the hall block known as Scolland's Hall.

These were built in the 11th century by Count Alan Rufus, a kinsman and supporter of William the Conqueror.

The heart of the castle lay with the great hall, chapels, assorted accommodation and ancillary buildings (kitchens, storage, etc). These were grouped around the south-east corner of the old triangular enclosure.

Scolland’s Hall is a rare survival of high-status hall space in England. Its south-facing windows overlooked the River Swale and the country beyond.

The Keep
One of the most instantly recognisable features of Richmond Castle is the keep, or great tower. The lofty four-story structure dominates the skyline of Richmond. When it was built in the 12th century, the keep would have served as a powerful visual reminder of the castle owner’s prominence, power and wealth. It was also an impressive location for welcoming visitors. 

Probably built by Count Alan’s great-nephew Conan in the mid 12th century, the keep was a major financial investment.

Contrary to popular views of this kind of building, it was not a military structure but primarily a showpiece to mark Conan’s status as the new lord in the region.

This south face of the tower shows diagonal lines of small windows (for stair lighting) up different levels of the tower.

The lower of these two lines features a blocked window at its upper end. Behind this window was a lobby area, which encouraged waiting visitors to admire the large castle enclosure.

The keep incorporates elements from the 11th to 13th centuries and later phases of repair. Embedded in the ground-floor is the original 11th-century principal entrance (left), marked by a large archway. When Conan built the keep, it is likely this gateway was blocked up to form a basement for the tower (right).

The castle is now entered through a 19th-century gatehouse which sits to the east of the keep.

On the ground floor, 13th-century ribbed vaulting springs from columns and corbels, with the large central column housing a well.

The staircase block at the back of the room probably replaces an earlier hatch and ladder.

The first floor room features three windows which probably originally reached the floor.

The middle of the room is dominated by a stone pillar, resting in a similar position to the one below it in the basement of the keep.

The decoration around these windows suggests that they were designed to impress the people inside the room.

Overlooking the market place, they are a deliberate effort to show off the town.

Externally the windows are decorated with columns, capital and arches. They are designed to impress people viewing the tower from the outside.

The central window featured a decorated semi-circle of stone (a tympanum).

While we aren’t sure what the decoration featured, we know by its presence here at the central window that this was probably the most important of the three.

The vast hall on the second floor was most likely used for feasting and receptions. The lighting at the far end marks it as the place where the lord was seated.

This end also controlled access to a small private room.

In the 12th century the roof, now flat at mid-height, would have risen to a full pitch.

Each level of the tower was accessed by straight staircases, rising through ornately decorated doorways to the socially exclusive parapet level at the top of the keep.

In an age before skyscrapers, seeing across the castle, town and landscape from the top of the tower would have been a special experience.

The crenellations and turrets of this level were not simply for show or military necessity. From great distances, they were a very striking visual marker.

The 11th-century castle was built as part of a wider plan which probably included the town of Richmond. The original medieval layout of the town survives today and can be seen in the incredible views from the parapets of the keep.

After changing ownership in the 13th and 14th centuries, Richmond Castle gradually lapsed into ruin. A survey made in 1538 showed that it was entirely derelict.

Artists in the late 18th and early 19th centuries admired the castle as a Romantic ruin, and Richmond town became a fashionable place for tourists to visit, as it remains today.

Credits: Story

Megan Leyland, Will Wyeth, Rose Arkle

Visit Richmond Castle

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