Helmsley Castle

Helmsley castle is one of the most dramatic castles in North Yorkshire.

An archer outside the South Barbican

Nestled away in the beautiful ancient town of Helmsley the castle spans many centuries and has the appearance of being melted by the hands of time. The remains are extraordinarily picturesque, as is the very small but bustling town which the castle looms over and from which it takes its name.

View west toward the inner Bailey. The South Gate and east and west towers seen here were built by Robert de Ros in the early 1200s

The remains are extensive with the place full of history, stories of those now long gone, and permanently imbued with intrigue.

After the Norman Conquest, the manor of Helmsley, was given to William the Conquerer’s half-brother Robert de Mortain. There is no evidence that Mortain himself built a castle here but by 1088 William II, the new king, had confiscated his estates which included Helmsley. Little more is known until the 12th century.

The South Gate of the castle

Walter Espec, a member of the Royal court of Henry I and an army commander, built the first castle between 1120 and 1150. Walter built a great rectangular earthwork, which unlike many Norman castles had no motte (mound) or central strongpoint.

Model of the medieval layout of the castle

Inside the earthwork there is no evidence of stonework of this date, and so it is probable that the first castle was constructed of earth and timber.

The extensive remains of this impressive earthwork are still largely visible today and form a formidable structure as the castle’s first line of defence. Walter was also the founder of nearby Rievaulx Abbey and Kirkham Priory.

The well which was the castles only supply of water

The castle’s inner bailey is the main nucleus of the castle and of course where the most fascinating history occurred. This core of the castle was divided in two by a 12th century wall and possibly a ditch. In the 1570s the Manners family built a mansion inside the castle, part of which remains on the west side of the inner bailey.

Earth ramparts and the West tower which dates to 1200

As you approach this once formidable stronghold from the South Barbican which consists of a twin towered gatehouse it is easy to imagine entering the castle through this part in medieval times.

This would have been manned in defence of potential attackers and was built between 1227 and 1285.

Approaching from the South

This gatehouse stood behind a large moat and would have been guarded by a portcullis. Thousands of visitors would have passed under these very stones including prisoners and even royalty. 

Within the inner bailey the most impressive remains are that of the East tower.

The East tower – first built in around the year 1200. It was later heightened and turrets added in the 14th century

First built by Robert de Ros II around the year 1200 the tower would have been mightily impressive and visible for miles around acting as a symbol of power for the Lords of Helmsley.

Depiction of the Tudor garden within the inner Bailey

The remains here are fascinating and you can still see what is left of the ancient staircases in the corners of the building, which held the footsteps of visitors and inhabitants over 800 years ago. Who once hurried up these steps and stayed in these cavernous rooms?

Woodwork above the fireplace in the Elizabethan range dating to 1582

These first-floor rooms would have seen some interesting tales play out most probably being used for entertaining or judicial purposes. The tower was raised in the 14th century to create additional stately rooms at the top. These fine rooms would likely have been used by King Edward III when he visited Hemsley in 1334.

East tower from behind. Only half of the structure still stands. King Edward III would have stayed on the second or third floor of this palatial building

Hemsley was Robert’s main residence and he would have spent a significant amount of time here throughout the year. Robert was generally part of the intimate inner circle of King John (r.1199-1216).

The imposing East tower

During the Baronial revolt he sided with the barons and was one of the 25 lords chosen to ensure the King complied with the provisions of Magna Carta in 1215 According the Chronicler Matthew Paris, he successfully held Helmsley against King John during his northern campaign in 1216. Robert was a witness to the third issue of Magna Carter later in 1225 and shortly after joined the order of the Knights Templar.

East tower with remains of the chapel on the right

Following the civil war much of the castle including the outer face of the tower was bought down with gunpowder to prevent reuse. The remains can still be seen lying in the huge defensive ditch in front of the tower for the previous 350 years.

As you wander around the remains of the buildings within the inner bailey it is fascinating to think what once occurred in these spaces.

The Great hall sits to the west and dates to around 1300 replacing an earlier hall on this spot. This place was where the household dined every day and grand feasts were held. It was also where the castles estates were administered with hearings and lawsuits occurring within these walls.

Interior of the hall

The lord’s family and most important guests would have entered through the doorway in the corner from the west tower and have eaten on a table sat on a ‘dais’ (a raised platform) at this end of the building. The room was heated by a central hearth and smoke would have escaped through the roof.

It is remarkable to stand on this very spot and imagine the scenes below that occurred here for hundreds of years all those centuries ago.

Site of the Great hall. The Lord and his family would have sat on an elevated Dias on this very spot. This would have been the site of centuries of festivities, business and legal hearings

The West tower is also very interesting. Originally built around the same time as the imposing East tower this was also a place of luxury, providing private and intimate accommodation for the castle’s owners. When first constructed it would have consisted of a basement and two floors above.

West tower built in around 1200. Built as a private chamber that provided intimate accommodation for the castles owners

The remains of the great fireplaces which once heated these large rooms can still be seen in the middle of the shell of the remaining building. The scenes which would have gone on in these spaces, the trials and tribulations, the love and the loss through times of great joy and hard, bleak winter days.

Interior of the west tower

Several centuries later, the castle was garrisoned by royalist forces during the Civil War and was besieged from September to November 1644. Attempts to lift the siege were foiled by Sir Thomas Fairfax with his parliamentary forces and the castle was forced to surrender through lack of food. Fairax was one of Parliament’s greatest generals and was instrumental in the creation of the New Model Army.

A canon ball from the Civil war used to slight the castle

Upon arriving at the castle to set up his artillary, Fairfax was shot in the shoulder by a member of the castle garrison and was unsure whether he would survive.

Civil war swords

The east tower was subsequently blown up and the curtain wall with the gates and towers also seems to have been partly demolished to ensure that the castle was indefensible. The Tudor mansion was not destroyed even though its owner, the second Duke of Buckingham was a royalist.

Interestingly, the castle came into the ownership of George Villars, Duke of Buckingham during the 17th century. He was the subject of the children’s nursery rhyme “Georgie Porgie Pudding and Pie, Kissed the girls and made them cry.”

East tower as seen from the entrance to the West tower

The castle is said to be haunted by the ghost of a soldier, possibly from the time of the English Civil War. Additionally, the ghost of a Green Lady has also been seen inside and outside of the castle during the dead of night. Another tale describes weird pixie-like creatures wandering the castle grounds, as well as surrounding countryside.

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