Late C14 quadrangular castle built for Sir Thomas Percy, Earl of Worcester. Opulently refurbished for Henry Percy, fifth Earl of Northumberland, in the early C16. Slighted in 1650, the surviving south range was gutted by fire in 1796. The castle survives mainly as buried and earthwork remains, but retains the south range standing to full height as a roofless ruin, along with the ruin of the early C16 bakehouse.
Reasons for Designation
Wressle Castle, a late C14 quadrangular castle built for Sir Thomas Percy, Earl of Worcester is scheduled for the following principal reasons:
* Architectural: the castle is a good example of late C14 high status secular architecture;
* Historical: the castle was built by one of the most powerful families in the England, remaining an important residence until the later sixteenth century;
* Archaeological potential: the site retains buried remains which have the potential to increase our knowledge and understanding of the castle, and of this building type.
It is thought that Wressle Castle was originally built in the late C14 for Sir Thomas Percy, second son of Henry, the third Lord Percy, possibly after 1397 when Sir Thomas was made Earl of Worcester. Marked similarities with other late C14 castles at Castle Bolton, Sheriff Hutton and Raby suggest that it was built by John Lewyn, a master-mason from Durham. Although moated, the castle was clearly designed to display wealth and prestige, rather than being overtly defensive, and could be described as a palace-fortress. Sir Thomas was a soldier, diplomat and royal favourite to both Richard II and Henry IV. However Wressle was forfeited to the Crown in 1403 following Sir Thomas's execution after the Battle of Shrewsbury.
The castle is thought to have only been occupied sporadically during most of the C15 during which time it changed hands several times between the Crown and the rivalling Percy and Neville families. In 1489 it was inherited by Henry Percy, then becoming the fifth Earl of Northumberland at the age of 11. Taking full control of his extensive estates in 1498, he subsequently made Wressle one of his principal residences, carrying out two phases of extensive and opulent refurbishments: initially between 1498 and 1516, and then between 1524 and his death in 1527. The fifth Earl was one of the wealthiest men in the country, with a rental income of about £4700 per year. His financial accounts documenting his lavish lifestyle survive for 1512 (The Northumberland Household Book, published 1779) earning him the nickname "The Magnificent" in later histories. This period is also thought to have seen extensive work on the surrounding gardens.
Under the sixth Earl, known later as "The Unthrifty", the power of the Percy family declined, repressed by the actions of Henry VIII's chief adviser Cardinal Wolsey, but also through the Earl's ill health and his mismanagement of his estates. In 1536 the castle was a mustering point of the Pilgrimage of Grace, the Earl's brother being one of the leaders of this northern rebellion against the Dissolution of the Monasteries. The sixth Earl died the following year, leaving Wressle to the Crown in his will. The castle was visited and described by John Leland in 1538 and was then refurbished for the king who stayed there for at least three nights in 1541, the castle hosting the Privy Council.
Wressle Castle was returned to the Percy family in 1557, subsequently being held by the Earls of Northumberland until the mid C18. However the castle's fortunes declined. It is believed that the ninth Earl carried out extensive repairs to the castle around 1600, suggested by a surviving set of detailed drawings of the castle and grounds that date to this time, however more extensive refurbishment did not take place, possibly because the Earl was implicated in the Gunpowder Plot of 1603 and imprisoned until 1621.
During the Civil Wars of the mid C17, Wressle Castle was garrisoned and held for Parliament; its demolition was ordered following the Royalist capture of Pontefract Castle in 1648. In 1650, all but the south range and bakehouse were cast down. Thereafter Wressle Castle was no longer a major residence and was generally occupied by a steward managing the local estate. One steward is thought to have been Robert Prickett whose name is inscribed with the date 1674 on a lintel built into the 30m length of brick walling that is also listed Grade II. Although this wall has been suggested to be C16, it is not shown on the plans of circa 1600.
The extensive Percy estates were broken up in 1750, Wressle passing to a branch of the family, the Wyndhams, Lords of Egremont, and let to a tenant. Sometime before 1765, features of the castle were recorded by John Bell, the architect engaged by the Duchess of Northumberland for the renovation of Alnwick Castle. Although by this time much of the south range was uninhabitable, it still retained its early C16 interior. Unfortunately, in 1796 these interiors were destroyed by a devastating fire caused by the tenant which left the south range as a gutted ruin. No reconstruction was attempted; instead a new farmhouse was built to the east of the castle, just east of the boundary of the monument. The ruins of the castle were not left entirely to decay, and a number of repairs were undertaken in the C19 and C20 using brickwork and concrete to stabilise the remains.
In 2010 Peter Brears produced a detailed description of Wressle Castle in its early C16 heyday, drawing on the evidence of the surviving structure as well as the wide range of surviving documentary sources. The castle originally consisted of four large corner towers linked by ranges to completely enclose a central, square courtyard, the entrance being via a gatehouse tower at the centre of the eastern range. All this was moated, although the eastern arm was dry when described by Leland in 1538. To the east of the moated island was the Base Court, a large outer courtyard of service and other ancillary buildings, this area now being occupied by Castle Farm, outside the area of the scheduling. To the north, also outside the area of the scheduling, was another square, moated, island marked as 'New Gardens' on early C17 maps. These maps also mark an area immediately to the south of the castle as 'Old Gardens' which again extend beyond the boundary of the scheduled monument.
In 2013 a three-year conservation programme was started including a detailed scheme of archaeological recording work by Ed Dennison Archaeological Services.
Wressle Castle was scheduled on 8th February 1915. In 1966 the standing ruins of the castle, those of the Bakehouse and a C16 brick wall attached to the east side of the castle were all listed (at Grades I, II* and II respectively).
The scheduling includes the upstanding remains of the castle (the south range Listed grade I) including the Bakehouse (Listed grade II*) and a C16 brick wall (Listed grade II), along with buried remains of the rest of the castle extending across the moated island. It also includes most of the earthwork and buried remains of the moat ditch.
The moated island is approximately square and around 80-90m across, with the footprint of the quadrangular castle being just over 50m across. The south range survives as a roofless ruin standing effectively to full height, with the Chapel Tower to the east and Lords Tower to the West, linked by a slightly lower central range. The whole south range is built of ashlar magneisian limestone with later repairs in brickwork, and is furnished with a very large number of outward facing windows, many being very large. Even the ground floor rooms were lit by several outward facing windows, these subsequently being blocked.
The Lords Tower is of three storeys, with a low ground floor with tall upper floors: the first floor Lord's chamber being lit by a large oriel window which would have provided a good view across the gardens to the south, with the Lord's lodging chamber above. The chapel tower is of similar height, but divided into four storeys. Its two upper floors formed the Lady's Chamber (the only dedicated female space of the castle) with a chamber named Paradise forming the top floor above. This latter chamber was fitted out by the fifth Earl as a library and was the highest status room in the castle. The connecting range between the two towers is partially three storied, but mainly of two storeys, the centre portion being occupied by a double height hall known in the C15 as the Dining or great chamber. However this was not the principal hall of the castle: the principal hall occupied most of the castle's west range between the Lord's Tower and the Kitchen Tower to the north west, being demolished in 1650.
The extent of the central courtyard of the quadrangular castle is marked by the single storey Bakehouse which was built into the north western corner of the courtyard in the early C16. This is also constructed of ashlar magneisian limestone and is a roofless shell, measuring some 6m by 8m.
Extending about 30m eastwards from the north east corner of the Chapel tower is a length of brick walling including remains of a building on its northern side incorporating a large, blocked archway and a doorway with a carved lintel inscribed "Robert Prickett 1674".
The moat surrounding the castle is most clearly defined as an earthwork on the northern side, including the northern part of the eastern moat arm. Here it survives as a substantial ditch around 20m wide. The western and southern sides are less distinct, but can still be identified as earthworks, although the south western corner (probably including the site of a bathhouse mapped in circa 1600) was left out of the area scheduled in 1915.
The boundary of the scheduled monument is derived from the 1:10560 map used for the 1915 designation and does not necessarily follow modern boundaries. Fencing, modern gates and feed troughs are excluded from the scheduling, although the ground beneath is included.