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.
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).
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.
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.
*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…