Helmsley Castle: twelfth century ringwork, twelfth to fourteenth century enclosure castle and sixteenth century mansion
Heritage Category: Scheduled Monument
List Entry Number: 1009963
Date first listed: 08-Feb-1915
Date of most recent amendment: 11-Mar-1992
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The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.
County: North Yorkshire
District: Ryedale (District Authority)
National Park: NORTH YORK MOORS
National Grid Reference: SE 61076 83665
Legacy Record - This information may be included in the List Entry Details.
Reasons for Designation
Ringworks are medieval fortifications built and occupied from the late
Anglo-Saxon period to the later 12th century. They comprised a small defended
area containing buildings which was surrounded or partly surrounded by a
substantial ditch and a bank surmounted by a timber palisade or, rarely, a
stone wall. Occasionally a more lightly defended embanked enclosure, the
bailey, adjoined the ringwork. Ringworks acted as strongholds for military
operations and in some cases as defended aristocratic or manorial settlements.
They are rare nationally with only 200 recorded examples and less than 60
with baileys. As such, and as one of a limited number and very restricted
range of Anglo-Saxon and Norman fortifications, ringworks are of particular
significance to our understanding of the period.
The enclosure castle is a defended residence or stronghold, built mainly of stone, in which the principal or sole defence comprises the walls and towers bounding the site. Some form of keep may have stood within the enclosure but this was not significant in defensive terms and served mainly to provide accommodation. Larger sites might have more than one line of walling and there are normally mural towers and gatehouses. Outside the walls a ditch, either waterfilled or dry, crossed by bridges may be found. The first enclosure castles were constructed at the time of the Norman Conquest. However they developed considerably in form during the 12th century when defensive experience gained during the Crusades was applied to their design. The majority of examples were constructed in the 13th century. While a few were reconstructions of earlier medieval earthwork castles of the motte and bailey type, others were new creations. They provided strongly defended residences for the king or leading families and occur in both urban and rural situations. Enclosure castles are widely dispersed throughout England, with a slight concentration in Kent and Sussex supporting a vulnerable coast and a strong concentration along the Welsh border where some of the best examples were built under Edward I. They are rare nationally with only 126 recorded examples. Considerable diversity of form is exhibited with no two examples being exactly alike. As with other castle types, they are major medieval monument types, belonging to the highest levels of society which frequently acted as major administrative centres and formed the foci for developing settlement patterns. Castles generally provide an emotive and evocative link to the past and can provide a valuable educational resource, both with respect to medieval warfare and defence and with respect to wider aspects of medieval society. All examples retaining significant remains of medieval date are considered to be nationally important.
Helmsley Castle is an important and unusually substantial example of a twelfth century ringwork which developed into an enclosure castle of equally atypical form. The construction of two great towers, for example, instead of a single keep, is an especially uncommon feature for the period. In addition to the good state of preservation of all its standing remains, the castle is important for providing an almost complete picture of construction and modification from the twelfth to the sixteenth centuries. Changes relating both to its fortifications and to fashions in domestic arrangements are well represented, showing in particular the late medieval shift from communal life to greater privacy and domestic comfort. Further remains, particularly of timber buildings, are believed to survive throughout the site.
Legacy Record - This information may be included in the List Entry Details.
Helmsley Castle is situated in the town of Helmsley on an outcrop overlooking
the River Rye. The monument consists of a single area which includes the
twelfth century ringwork and its outer rampart, the twelfth to fourteenth
century stone castle and the sixteenth century mansion house. The earliest
castle at Helmsley was the rectangular ringwork built by Walter Espec in the
1120s. Orientated north-west to south-east, and enclosing an inner bailey
measuring c.90m by c.65m, this consisted of two massive earthwork banks
divided by deep ditches and crowned by timber palisades. The entrance
was on the north-west side, beyond which lay the outer bailey. The outer
bailey is now located beneath a carpark but one bank is still visible, running
north for c.80m. The sheer size of the ringwork indicates that it was the
centre of Espec's estates and would therefore have contained important
domestic buildings suitable for serving and accommodating the lord and his
family and guests. The remains of these buildings will survive within the
inner bailey, while those of such ancillary buildings as stables, workshops
and lodgings for retainers are thought to have been located in the outer
The castle was rebuilt in stone some time after 1186 by Robert de Roos Fursan,
when the inner bank of the ringwork was levelled and a curtain wall with round
corner towers built in its place. Although only the lower courses remain
standing, the curtain was originally some 4.6m high and carried a wall walk
reached via a stair to the south of the east tower. Subsidiary gates, known
as sallyports, through which the garrison could rush to defend the castle from
attack, lead through the curtain onto a berm overlooking the inner ditch and
indicate the existence of timber outworks. Also at this time, the north gate
was strengthened by the addition of two round towers, and a new gate, set
beneath a square tower, was built in the south-east corner and became the new
main entrance into the inner bailey. Great towers were built midway along
both the west and east curtains and a new outer bailey was created to the
south-east of the castle to replace the now defunct outer bailey on the north
side. The great east tower was originally bow-fronted and consisted of a
vaulted basement with a single room above housing the castle chapel. Access
was from the wall walk to north and south and traces of twelfth century
crenellations are preserved in later masonry. The twelfth century west tower
comprised a barrel-vaulted basement with two storeys above and contained the
lord's private quarters. These connected with a hall to the north. The
tower's mullioned and transomed windows date to the sixteenth century.
A new chapel was built and consecrated in 1246. However, the next major phase
of building was carried out by Fursan's grandson, Robert, who remodelled the
south gate and added barbicans to the north and south gates. The north
barbican was a simple structure with an outer gate flanked by drum towers and
walls extending back over the bank between the two ditches. The south
barbican, however, was more substantial and comprised an outer gatehouse, also
flanked by drum towers, but with a curtain wall extending to either side and
ending in round-fronted towers. All the towers were open-backed, which is
typical of the mid-thirteenth century, and the outer ditch was realigned and
the abutment for a massive drawbridge constructed. In the sixteenth century,
the south barbican was rebuilt to serve as the gatehouse, contributing to its
present appearance. In the fourteenth century, walls were built across the
inner ditch to join the south barbican to the main defences of the castle.
Doors in these walls provided access to the ditch.
The main period of rebuilding was in the fourteenth century when Robert's son,
William, completely remodelled the castle's defences and its domestic
accommodation. This involved strengthening the south barbican and providing
accommodation for men-at-arms, creating new accommodation by raising the east
tower to its present three storeys and adding a turreted parapet, and
providing a new hall with kitchen and service rooms in the south-west corner
of the inner bailey. The new hall joined the west tower, which was
refurbished for the lord and his family and now had fireplaces and garderobes
on each floor. Meanwhile, the doorways formerly linking the west tower with
the twelfth century hall were blocked and a wall was built dividing the inner
bailey in two, providing separate areas of accommodation for the lord's family
and that of his steward. Lodgings for retainers and a garderobe tower were
built north of the twelfth century hall, and a bakehouse and brewery were
built in the north-east corner. This was the form of the castle until the
1560s when the domestic ranges were replaced by Edward Manners and a house
built in the shell of the west tower and twelfth century hall. The Tudor
mansion has survived largely unaltered and includes the remains of sixteenth
century interiors showing there to have been one large and two smaller rooms
on the ground floor and two rooms on the first floor which, from their
surviving decor, appear to have been reception rooms. Further chambers were
built above the old garderobe tower. In addition, the thirteenth century
chapel was converted to a kitchen and joined to the house by a covered
Although very well-defended, Helmsley Castle had no major strategic function
and owes its location to the town being at the centre of the Espec and de Roos
estates. It remained with the de Roos family until 1478 when it was sold to
Richard, Duke of Gloucester, later Richard III. On Richard's death, however,
it reverted to Edmund de Roos and passed, on his death in 1508, to Sir George
Manners. It then descended through the Manners family until 1632 when it
passed to George Villiers, first Duke of Buckingham, as the dowry of his wife
Katharine Manners. Villiers, however, appears never to have lived at Helmsley
and, though it was held for the Royalists during the Civil War, it was
surrendered to Parliament in November 1644 and subsequently slighted. The
second Duke of Buckingham came to live in the house in 1687, but died in 1688
when it was sold to Charles Duncombe. The Duncombes, however, abandoned the
site of the castle in favour of the present Duncombe Park. The castle has
been in State care since 1915 and is also a Grade I Listed Building.
A number of features within the constraint area are excluded from the
scheduling. These are all English Heritage fixtures such as bridges,
gangways, notices, ticket kiosk and grilles, the stairs and gate by the ticket
kiosk, the surface and fixtures of the carpark, the surfaces of all paths, all
modern walling and fencing, a telegraph pole and various sheds, lean-tos and
other fixtures on the north and north-west sides and a small building on the
north side of the carpark. The ground beneath all these exclusions is,
MAP EXTRACT The site of the monument is shown on the attached map extract.
The contents of this record have been generated from a legacy data system.
Legacy System number: 13278
Legacy System: RSM
Books and journals
Coppack, G, Helmsley Castle, (1990)
McDonnell, J, A History of Helmsley Rievaulx and District, (1963)
Thompson, M W, 'Medieval Archaeology' in Helmsley Castle, , Vol. 2, (1958), 196
This monument is scheduled under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979 as amended as it appears to the Secretary of State to be of national importance. This entry is a copy, the original is held by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.
End of official listing