The Rise and Fall of Penrith Castle, Or, why it’s Not a Good Idea to have Royal Relatives

Penrith Castle, Cumbria

Penrith Castle, Cumbria

I would have been happy to tell you about Penrith Castle last year, if it wasn’t for the fact that there was a point when I was being hounded by various members of local press and radio anxious to establish that St. Andrew’s Church in Penrith should be putting in a bid to be the burial-place of the newly-disinterred Richard III. Now, I like to make my historical connections as much as the next gal, but I do not get into that kind of politicised argy-bargy.* However.

Penrith is an interesting castle. It’s not really on the tourist trail despite allegedly being one of the many ‘gateways to the Lake District’, situated on the crossroads of the two major tourist in-roads: the M6 and and the A66. Whilst the castle walls stand four storeys high in places, in common with other roofless castles with limited parking spaces on a busy road, it is free to access (hurrah!) but little promoted and with only basic tourist info available (boo!). One of the greatest things about Penrith Castle is that it has a massive dry moat – and I really do mean massive. It’s been somewhat hacked away by the road on one side, but if you walk around the back you’ll find it’s as much as 15 metres wide and 6 metres deep.

There has been quite a dispute over who originally built Penrith Castle. For many years – and you’ll still see this repeated all over the place – it was thought that this was the castle mentioned in a document of 1397 giving Bishop Strickland permission to fortify his house. Current thinking is that Bishop Strickland’s property is the pele tower at the heart of Hutton Hall, a building that was until recently part of Gregg’s Bakery offices.

Penrith Castle, Cumbria

Penrith Castle, Cumbria

This leaves the field clear for Ralph Neville, 1st Earl of Westmorland (1363-1425), to have established Penrith Castle soon after he was granted the manor in 1396. This was, probably not coincidentally, the same year that his first wife Margaret Clifford died and a certain Joan Beaufort, grand-daughter of Edward III, became Ralph’s second wife. Ralph’s eldest son by his ‘royal’ wife also managed to acquire an heiress for a wife, and became Richard, 5th Earl of Salisbury (1400-1460); he was beheaded after getting on the wrong side at the Battle of Wakefield. Their son Richard carried on the clever marrying trick and became 16th Earl of Warwick, creating the kind of trouble that led to his later epithet of ‘Warwick the Kingmaker’ and death at the Battle of Barnet in 1471. One of Ralph Neville’s daughters, Cecily (1415-1495), also snagged a powerful spouse in the person of Richard, 3rd Duke of York (1411-1460), who, like Cecily, was a great-grandperson of Edward III. After the machinations of the Wars of the Roses, in which Cecily’s cousin Richard, 16th Earl of Warwick was pivotal (and on the other side!), two of Cecily’s sons both became kings in their turn, Edward IV (1442-1483) and Richard III (1452-1485).

The dry moat, Penrith Castle

The dry moat, Penrith Castle

This brings us back to Penrith Castle. Cecily’s son Richard, as a significant member of a family with strong royal connections, was granted the title of Duke of Gloucester when he was just nine years old. Ten years later, when his cousin, Richard Earl of Warwick, died, he ‘inherited’ Penrith Castle. He later married the Earl of Warwick’s daughter, Anne.

Richard was officially Sheriff of Cumberland, so it’s believed he did spend some time at Penrith Castle and he may have built both a brand-new gatehouse and grander private apartments. A nearby pub, the Gloucester Arms, also claims that Richard stayed there and that there’s a tunnel between the two residences… although, funnily enough, that tunnel’s never been found! When Richard became King Richard III in 1483, Penrith Castle remained a Crown possession but we do not think he visited it as king. Two years later, of course, the king was dead and buried at Greyfriar’s in Leicester, later to become a certain very famous car park now popular with archaeologists.

And Penrith Castle? A survey commissioned for Elizabeth I in 1572** found that the gatehouse, chapel, great chamber, great hall and kitchens were in ‘utter ruin’ and ‘not reparable’. The report added that 96 cartloads of stones had been removed by locals for various building works as early as the reign of Edward VI (1537-1553). It seems that Penrith Castle had stood in whole and hearty condition for barely 150 years.

Penrith Castle 1786 from Wm Gilpin's book

Penrith Castle 1786 from Wm Gilpin’s book

It’s curious to think that the reason for this is that the owners had too many royal connections in a period when they were hazardous to one’s health. Perhaps Ralph should have found himself a nice local girl, after all.

© Diane McIlmoyle 07.01.14 

*Anyone revisiting that argument on this page will be defenestrated.

** See History of Penrith, by Ewainian (1895), p103.

Notes: the English Heritage file on Penrith Castle has incorrect titles for the protagonists, which is downright peculiar. Also, the Pastscape file still implies that the Bishop Strickland theory has precedence over the Neville theory, but this it incorrect (as seen on the English Heritage file, at the site, etc). I conclude that Penrith Castle is not terribly important in some circles…

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7 thoughts on “The Rise and Fall of Penrith Castle, Or, why it’s Not a Good Idea to have Royal Relatives

  1. It is a great pity that this castle has been so overlooked, especially with its royal connections. It is somewhat edifying to think that this area was familiar to Cecily Neville. I try to imagine the landscape as they saw it without the railway station etc! I’m certainly not going to risk being thrown out of a window, just get on and bury the poor soul!

    • Quite :D

      I’ve got a couple of 18th century prints of the site when the road was a dirt track (by our standards) and there was no railway station (or MacDonalds. Grrrr). The ditch/mound looks massive, then, and gives a better impression of how imposing it must have been, especially in that solid, dark red sandstone. It would be interesting to know just how far Cecily could have seen from a room at the top of the castle, as it is on the side of town where the land rolls gently towards the River Eamont, the henges and Ullswater.

      Thank you for coming over :)

  2. Since both my Savages and Sowerbys were long-time residents of Penrith and two of their spinster cousins lived a stone’s throw from St. Andrews, I was excited to see this piece about a town that seems to be unknown in the South of England. Thank you for this wonderful synopsis of Penrith Castle history, although I’ll have to get out the Crayons and a role of newsprint to sort out the royal couplings down through the years! ;-}

    • Glad you liked it, JamaGenie. You’ll find some other posts about Penrith on here. My house was built by a Savage 170 years ago, and as you will know, there is a village nearby called Temple Sowerby. And PS: I have that roll of paper and Crayola set right here. It would help if they weren’t all called Richard, and inherited titles instead of marrying them!

      Thanks for coming over :)

  3. Hi there,
    Thanks for stopping by my little corner of the blogosphere and for following. Your support is greatly appreciated, Looking forward to exploring you fascinating blog and seeing more from you :-)


  4. I’d visited Penrith Castle as a kid (many decades ago now) but didn’t know (and may or may not have been impressed) about all those powerful connections. Another informative post. Oh, and liking the new format too!

    • I think the connections were under-reported in the past largely because they thought it was basically Bishop Strickland’s gaffe, then Ralph was there for a bit, then it was Crown property, without looking at the details. To be fair, there’s very little info available on it, and it soon fell down despite the fact it’s massive. I suppose that tells us that it wasn’t often lived in after Ralph (and he had other homes).

      I decided a paint and decorate was well overdue! Glad you like it, and thanks for coming over :D

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