Monday, 8 April 2013

Middleham Castle

Nestling in the quite countryside of the magnificent Yorkshire Dales is Middleham Castle, the childhood home of King Richard III. Middleham is a perfect example of a castle designed for luxurious living rather than defence. Although it still retained features found in the defensive castles of old: high, impenetrable walls, crenulations and, of course, a drawbridge across a wide moat, it really was a palatial home, with all the stare-of-the-art amenities required in a fifteenth-century des-res.

In Richard’s time, the main entrance was the East Gatehouse, accessed via a drawbridge. Today visitors enter the castle through the gatehouse on the north side. This still contains
the remains of stone benches and a portcullis, while faces watch from the shadows above.

The castle complex was massive; the twelfth-century keep alone measured 32 by 24 metres; a second floor was added to it at some point during the fifteenth century. The living area on the first floor was reached by a well-guarded, exposed wooden staircase with a porter’s lodge situated half-way up. The staircase opened onto a small ante room, which led into an impressive Great Hall in the eastern side of the keep.

The Great Hall was the business centre of the castle. The Lord of Middleham would sit on a raised area at the end of the Hall as he receive his guests, heard petitions and conducted his business. One of the most noticeable features of the Hall is the large windows. These allowed the soft light to flood in, which reflected off the plastered and whitewashed walls, lending a sunny and airy feel to the room. The starkness of the d├ęcor was diffused by tapestries and colourful painted features, while its fireplace and open hearth ensured that it was warm and welcoming. There are two doorways at the northern end of the Great Hall, one leading to a small private chapel, the other to the Great Chamber. Servants bearing food and drink from the kitchen used a spiral staircase that was built into a tower at the south-east corner of the keep.

On the upper level of the west side of the keep was the Great Chamber. With its large fireplace, latrine, cupboards and wash-room complete with drain, this room was both comfortable and functional. Separated from it by a partition in the southern wall was another, smaller inner chamber, the Privy Chamber. This also had its own latrine, cupboards and large fireplace, and it was here that the lord of Middleham spent his private moments.

The ground floor of the keep was taken up by the kitchen on the west side and a cellar on the east. The windows of the kitchen were small and set high into the walls. Four large recesses held cupboards, wells sunk into the floor provided water and drains took away waste. The circular containers built into the floor are believed to have been fish tanks. Food was cooked on the large hearth, which was set into the dividing wall between the kitchen and the cellar.

The buildings along the outer ranges date mainly from the 12th or 13th centuries.  The north range features the auditor’s chamber and kitchen, which another set of chambers following on.

The highlight of the west range is the Garderobe Tower, a latrine block which was accessed at ground level from the courtyard or from the first floor of the inner chamber opposite via across a bridge. Beyond the Garderobe Tower is the Bakehouse and Nursery tower, where the remains of ovens can still be seen.

The Princes Tower on the south-western corner of the outer buildings is traditionally held to be where Richard’s son, Edward of Middleham, was born. Certainly, it is well-appointed, with three chambers, all of which are furnished with fireplaces and latrines. Steps can still be seen leading to chambers on the upper level of the tower.

To the right of the Princes Tower is the Privy Chamber, with the Lady Chamber above; this was accessed via the chamber below or across another bridge leading from the southwest corner of the keep. Next to the Privy and Lady Chambers are service buildings. These include a horse mill and a set of ovens dating to the Tudor period.

Facing the Southeast Tower is a small block, the second floor of which contains the ruins of a chapel. This chapel was much larger than the one off the Great Hall, and it was probably used for masses held for the household and servants. The building comprised three storeys, the lower two probably serving as a basement, vestries and, perhaps, priest’s lodgings. The second floor, the chapel itself, was reached from the stair head, but this is so badly ruined that all that can be said of it is that it had tall traceried windows on the north and south sides and a stone vaulted roof. The rooms below were also vaulted and had small, round-headed windows.

Lastly, almost touching the chapel block is the eastern curtain wall, now badly damaged, although the remains of the supports for the drawbridge can still be discerned.

All this goes to make Middleham Castle one of the finest and most interesting castles to explore.

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