We don’t normally ‘do’ castles, but who in their right minds would park next to one and ignore it? Especially when there are cameras to hand. It was hands that had brought us into Penrith on our way back to Long Meg for our second visit. Being so cold, fingers soon stopped working and started to feel the bite. We needed gloves. I had some…somewhere… but where was a mystery. They are wonderful things, being mittens and fingerless gloves combined. Perfect for wielding the camera. But for all I knew they were still at home.
As it happened, we found a shop that sold them and that was open early on a frosty Sunday morning. Typically, I then found my gloves in my coat pocket… but these were warmer anyway. And opposite the shops the castle was waiting.
The ruins now stand on the edge of a park, filled with winter trees stretching bare fingers up to the sun. There is no entry fee… or we would have been poking the cameras through the bars. With a stone circle and the hills waiting, this was no more than an opportunitistic visit.
The red sandstone was beautiful, though, against the frosted green, coloured by weather and lichen to a richness that added warmth to the frozen day. The castle was not built, as many were, on a more ancient site. Nor was it built on the highest ground in the area. This one was built on the site of an old, Roman fort and the deep, squared banks are still visible today and, on one side, are spanned by a bridge on the site of the old bridge abutment. The usual rounded earthworks of the motte were not required and the castle was laid out to suit the Roman site.
Ralph Neville was Warden of the West March, in charge of defending the area from incursions by the Scots. In 1396, he was granted the manor of Penrith and began to build his stronghold. These castles were as much a warning and a statement of power as defensive positions, making the political statement of overlordship in the region.
The castle was enlarged by Neville’s son, Richard, 5th Earl of Salisbury (1400–60). It is thought that the Red Tower, of which a single wall now stands, was one of his additions. Beneath it is a vault, with a wonderful curved ceiling.
It must have been an imposing building in its day. In 1471, the castle passed to Richard, Duke of Gloucester, who was crowned King Richard III in 1483. During his time at the castle, Richard transformed the dour military building into a more magnificent residence, adding upper windows and a new gateway to the north.
Richard died in 1485, aged 32, in the Battle of Bosworth Field, the final decisive battle of the Wars of the Roses. He was buried without ceremony in Leicester and his remains were lost… until they were discovered during an archaeological dig beneath a car-park in 2012. Richard was reinterred in Leicester Cathedral in 2015…much to the chagrin of many from Yorkshire who think the last Yorkist king should have gone home.
After Richard’s death, the castle passed to the Crown and fell into decay. By 1565, it was already being described as a ruin. At the close of the 17thC, William III gave the castle to his friend, the Earl of Portland. The family sold the castle in 1787 to the Dukes of Devonshire…. the same Cavendish family who own Chatsworth House and much of the land where we play in Derbyshire.
So perhaps there was a connection after all… and who knows, maybe we will find, at some point on our travels, that there was a better reason for visiting Penrith Castle than we had at first thought. But we were impatient. Long Meg and her Daughters was waiting.