The East Tower, Great Hall and massive mediaeval earthworks mark the site of Helmsley Castle, which has an interesting history dating back to Norman times. The land was originally owned by William Espec, a loyal supporter who fought alongside William the Conqueror at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. He was rewarded by being given 40,000 acres of confiscated land in Yorkshire.
The earliest wooden castle on the site was built by William’s son, Walter Espec, around 1120. Sitting on a rocky outcrop above the River Rye, Helmsley Castle is less than two miles from Rievaulx Abbey and there’s a close connection; the land for building the abbey was given to the Cistercian Order of monks by Walter Espec. Magnificent Rievaulx Abbey became one of the richest and grandest in England prior to the Dissolution of Monasteries, but that’s another story!
The original Helmsley Castle passed to Walter’s sister, Adelina, on his death in 1153. By 1186, her descendant Robert de Roos began replacing the original wooden castle with a stone building surrounded by extensive earthworks. He built corner towers, a defensive curtain wall and the main south gateway. His son, another William, lived there until 1258, adding a chapel in the courtyard.
William’s son, Robert, became the first Lord Helmsley. His marriage to the heiress of Belvoir Castle conveniently provided funding for Helmsley’s new hall and kitchens to be built, along with more defensive walls. The still-standing East Tower is thought to have been improved to impress King Edward III on his visit in 1334.
By 1478, Helmsley Castle was owned by Richard, Duke of Gloucester (later the infamous Richard III) who abandoned the castle in favour of Middleham Castle. After Richard’s death at the Battle of Bosworth, Henry VII returned Helmsley to the de Roos family. There were few changes until 1563 when Edward Manners, 3rd Earl of Rutland, converted the crumbling hall into a Tudor mansion. The original 13th Century chapel became the kitchen, connected by a covered gallery. Over time, the castle passed through the generations to George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham, in 1632.
Twelve years later, Helmsley Castle was besieged by Sir Thomas Fairfax as part of the English Civil War. It was held for the Royalists (supporters of Charles I) for three months. It finally fell, due to starvation of the entrenched troops, but the impenetrable castle defenses were never breached. In retaliation, Parliament ordered the destruction of the castle walls, gates and part of the East Tower.
In 1687, Helmsley Castle was bought by Charles Duncombe, a banker, politician and Lord Mayor of London from 1708. On Charles’s death in 1711, the castle was inherited by his brother-in-law, Thomas Brown as part of the 40,000 acre Duncombe estate. Once again Helmsley Castle was abandoned. Thomas employed Sir John Vanbrugh to build him a grand country house at neighbouring Duncombe Park, which is still standing and remains within the Duncombe family today.
Meanwhile, Helmsley Castle fell into disrepair and became an interesting backdrop within sight of Duncombe Park. It was even sketched by J.M.W. Turner. The surrounding land was used to host village fetes, pageants and agricultural shows before the castle shell was taken over by the Office of Works in 1923.
Although the Castle is still owned by the Duncombe family, it is now managed by English Heritage. And while parts of the site remain in ruins, Helmsley Castle continues to dominant the landscape. The main highlights include the Visitor Centre and the massive ditches, barbican and drawbridge that protected Helmsley Castle from attack. The West Tower and Great Tower are well preserved and include displays and artefacts from the castle’s extensive and interesting history.