The Medieval Fabric of Brancepeth Castle: Level 3 Historic Building Survey and Statement of Significance

Author(s): Penny Middleton

Brancepeth Castle is a Grade I listed building located approximately 6km southwest of Durham City. Until the late 16th century it was the northern stronghold of the powerful Neville family, alongside Raby Castle which lies 19.30km (12 miles) to the south-west. The first documentary reference to the site dates to 1216, when the castle was held by King John as surety during the First Barons’ War. In the latter half of the 14th century the complex was extended and largely rebuilt. It was one of a group of castles built or remodelled at this time across the North of England, including Raby (1378), Bolton (1379), Sheriff Hutton (c1380), Lumley (1389), Hylton (c 1390) and Middleham (c 1410). The castle remained in the hands of the Neville family until 1563 when the 6th Earl, Charles Neville, was banished for his involvement in the Rising of the North and his estates forfeited to the Crown. The property then passed through a succession of owners. In the early 19th century the owner William Russell commissioned the Scottish architect John Paterson to undertake an extensive programme of rebuilding. While a considerable amount is known about the 19th-century re-modelling of Brancepeth, there has been limited research into the nature and form of the medieval castle. In particular, the extent of any surviving remains and how these may have influenced Paterson’s designs. Northern Archaeological Associates Ltd (NAA) were commissioned by Historic England to undertake a level 3 Historic Building Survey of the castle and prepare a Statement of Significance. This was intended to advance a greater understanding of the medieval structure and identify the key areas of archaeological, historic, architectural and artistic interest that contribute to the site’s unique heritage significance and sense of place. Brancepeth is one of only 21 medieval castles and fortified manors recorded in County Durham; only 13 of which are now standing. Its development reflects key changes in castle design across the country and more specifically the North of England. In layout it is a good example of a 13th-century enclosure castle. However, it is the design of the 14th-century elements that are of particular significance. Basically, three late 14th-century accommodation towers clustered together to create the impression of a single unit. There is also evidence to suggest Brancepeth may be an early, unfinished, quadrangular castle. Its construction has been attributed to the medieval mason, John Lewyn, who designed some of the most auspicious and complex medieval buildings of the period. The castle is also intrinsically linked with the fortunes of the Neville family and the Bulmers before them; both families had considerable influence on the political development of the region. The Nevilles and the Percys were the two most important noble families in the North in the late 14th century, wielding considerable political power and attaining great wealth. Key individuals directly associated with the castle are Ralph de Neville, the 2nd Baron Raby (d. 1367) who together with Henry Percy defeated the Scots at the Battle of Neville’s Cross in 1346. His grandson, Ralph de Neville (d. 1425) was made 1st Earl of © HISTORIC ENGLAND iii 55-2019 Westmorland and played an important role in royal machinations at the end of the 14th century. Finally, Charles de Neville, the 6th and last Earl of Westmorland who brought an end to the political power of the Neville line. The Bulmers were High Sheriffs of Yorkshire in the 12th century and held estates at Witton, Bulmer and Sheriff Hutton. Bertram de Bulmer (1109–1166), who may have built the first castle, was one of ten Barons of the Bishopric, and played an important role in the defence of the Palatinate during the period of The Anarchy. In terms of its aesthetic values, the setting of the castle and its surrounding landscape makes an important contribution to the site’s overall sense of place. Despite the later 19th-century developments – or because of them, depending on your opinion of Victorian architecture – the visual impact of the building is impressive. The towered gateway looms over the visitor, flanked as it is by the mass of the Westmorland Tower and surviving wall of the connecting North Range. All are seemingly impenetrable. With its turrets, machicolations, crenelated towers, and curtain wall, Brancepeth encapsulates a child’s impression of what a ‘proper castle’ should be. Although Pevsner was critical of this aspect, calling it ‘operatic scenery’, the 19th-century modifications can be seen as continuing a concept and theme started by the medieval masons in the 14th century.

Report Number:
Research Report
Medieval Standing Building Fortification


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