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Helmsley Castle

Also known as, or recorded in historical documents as;
Elmesley; Helmsey Blackamoor; Helmislay; Hemmisley

In the civil parish of Helmsley.
In the historic county of Yorkshire.
Modern Authority of North Yorkshire.
1974 county of North Yorkshire.
Medieval County of Yorkshire North Riding.

OS Map Grid Reference: SE61108363
Latitude 54.24497° Longitude -1.06403°

Helmsley Castle has been described as a certain Timber Castle, and also as a certain Masonry Castle.

There are masonry ruins/remnants remains.

This site is a scheduled monument protected by law.
This is a Grade 1 listed building protected by law*.


Helmsley Castle is situated in the town of Helmsley on an outcrop overlooking the River Rye. The monument consists of a single area which includes the twelfth century ringwork and its outer rampart, the twelfth to fourteenth century stone castle and the sixteenth century mansion house. The earliest castle at Helmsley was the rectangular ringwork built by Walter Espec in the 1120s. Orientated north-west to south-east, and enclosing an inner bailey measuring c.90m by c.65m, this consisted of two massive earthwork banks divided by deep ditches and crowned by timber palisades. The entrance was on the north-west side, beyond which lay the outer bailey. The outer bailey is now located beneath a carpark but one bank is still visible, running north for c.80m. The sheer size of the ringwork indicates that it was the centre of Espec's estates and would therefore have contained important domestic buildings suitable for serving and accommodating the lord and his family and guests. The remains of these buildings will survive within the inner bailey, while those of such ancillary buildings as stables, workshops and lodgings for retainers are thought to have been located in the outer bailey. The castle was rebuilt in stone some time after 1186 by Robert de Roos Fursan, when the inner bank of the ringwork was levelled and a curtain wall with round corner towers built in its place. Although only the lower courses remain standing, the curtain was originally some 4.6m high and carried a wall walk reached via a stair to the south of the east tower. Subsidiary gates, known as sallyports, through which the garrison could rush to defend the castle from attack, lead through the curtain onto a berm overlooking the inner ditch and indicate the existence of timber outworks. Also at this time, the north gate was strengthened by the addition of two round towers, and a new gate, set beneath a square tower, was built in the south-east corner and became the new main entrance into the inner bailey. Great towers were built midway along both the west and east curtains and a new outer bailey was created to the south-east of the castle to replace the now defunct outer bailey on the north side. The great east tower was originally bow-fronted and consisted of a vaulted basement with a single room above housing the castle chapel. Access was from the wall walk to north and south and traces of twelfth century crenellations are preserved in later masonry. The twelfth century west tower comprised a barrel-vaulted basement with two storeys above and contained the lord's private quarters. These connected with a hall to the north. The tower's mullioned and transomed windows date to the sixteenth century. A new chapel was built and consecrated in 1246. However, the next major phase of building was carried out by Fursan's grandson, Robert, who remodelled the south gate and added barbicans to the north and south gates. The north barbican was a simple structure with an outer gate flanked by drum towers and walls extending back over the bank between the two ditches. The south barbican, however, was more substantial and comprised an outer gatehouse, also flanked by drum towers, but with a curtain wall extending to either side and ending in round-fronted towers. All the towers were open-backed, which is typical of the mid-thirteenth century, and the outer ditch was realigned and the abutment for a massive drawbridge constructed. In the sixteenth century, the south barbican was rebuilt to serve as the gatehouse, contributing to its present appearance. In the fourteenth century, walls were built across the inner ditch to join the south barbican to the main defences of the castle. Doors in these walls provided access to the ditch. The main period of rebuilding was in the fourteenth century when Robert's son, William, completely remodelled the castle's defences and its domestic accommodation. This involved strengthening the south barbican and providing accommodation for men-at-arms, creating new accommodation by raising the east tower to its present three storeys and adding a turreted parapet, and providing a new hall with kitchen and service rooms in the south-west corner of the inner bailey. The new hall joined the west tower, which was refurbished for the lord and his family and now had fireplaces and garderobes on each floor. Meanwhile, the doorways formerly linking the west tower with the twelfth century hall were blocked and a wall was built dividing the inner bailey in two, providing separate areas of accommodation for the lord's family and that of his steward. Lodgings for retainers and a garderobe tower were built north of the twelfth century hall, and a bakehouse and brewery were built in the north-east corner. This was the form of the castle until the 1560s when the domestic ranges were replaced by Edward Manners and a house built in the shell of the west tower and twelfth century hall. The Tudor mansion has survived largely unaltered and includes the remains of sixteenth century interiors showing there to have been one large and two smaller rooms on the ground floor and two rooms on the first floor which, from their surviving decor, appear to have been reception rooms. Further chambers were built above the old garderobe tower. In addition, the thirteenth century chapel was converted to a kitchen and joined to the house by a covered passage. Although very well-defended, Helmsley Castle had no major strategic function and owes its location to the town being at the centre of the Espec and de Roos estates. It remained with the de Roos family until 1478 when it was sold to Richard, Duke of Gloucester, later Richard III. On Richard's death, however, it reverted to Edmund de Roos and passed, on his death in 1508, to Sir George Manners. It then descended through the Manners family until 1632 when it passed to George Villiers, first Duke of Buckingham, as the dowry of his wife Katharine Manners. Villiers, however, appears never to have lived at Helmsley and, though it was held for the Royalists during the Civil War, it was surrendered to Parliament in November 1644 and subsequently slighted. The second Duke of Buckingham came to live in the house in 1687, but died in 1688 when it was sold to Charles Duncombe. The Duncombes, however, abandoned the site of the castle in favour of the present Duncombe Park. The castle has been in State care since 1915 and is also a Grade I Listed Building. (Scheduling Report)

It is sometime suggested the odd form of the earthworks is because this was originally a pre-historic enclosure, specifically an Iron Age hill fort, adapted as a Norman castle. Earlier pre-Conquest high status occupation of the site is not impossible but there seems little evidence for this. Helmsley is one of many castles and manor houses built on the southern edge of the North York Moors in an area that produced great wealth from the rich agricultural land of the vale of Pickering and gave access to the hunting on the moors. It is within a particularly notable high status landscape with the wealthy Cistercian Rievaulx Abbey a few miles to the NW.
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This record last updated 02/08/2017 08:25:29

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