Penrith Castle

Penrith Castle. Attribution Clintheacock66, CC BY 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

The construction of Penrith Castle was started in the late 1390s by Ralph Neville (1364-1425), 1st Earl of Westmorland and Warden of the West March who was given the Lordship of Penrith and held responsible for the defence of this area against the Scots. There had been many disastrous raids by Scottish armies into Cumbria over the previous 100 years, with the burning of crops and villages and the slaughter of citizens. There had been a series of pele towers built, for instance the one at Yanwath Hall, but the inhabitants of Penrith must have been pleased to see a real castle rising from the grounds. The location is not the highest point around but was probably chosen as it was the site of an old Roman fort – the banks and ditches from that fort could conveniently be re-used.


The castle was developed by Ralph’s heirs: His son, Richard, first earl of Salisbury (1400 – 1460) made it his headquarters, probably building the ‘Red Tower’ on the far side and improving the entrance defences. Penrith began to rival Carlisle as the seat for law and government and the town prospered with the increased status. Scottish raids had abated too, but peace did not last long: Penrith became inevitably embroiled in the Wars of the Roses (1455 – 85). Ralph Neville supported the York cause at the beginning but when Richard of York was defeated at Wakefield in in 1460, Neville was arrested and executed. Henry VI, the Lancaster victor, then awarded the manor and castle of Penrith to John Clifford of Brougham Castle. The following year Clifford was killed at the battle of Towton, and the land went back to the Neville’s: to Richard Neville, Duke of Warwick, dubbed ’The Kingmaker’ who had played a major role in putting Edward IV, of York, on the throne. 

His emblem of ‘Beares with a Ragged Staff’ can be found in Penrith market square. 

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More change was to come however as Warwick became disaffected with life at Edward’s court and turned to the Lancaster side. He led a rebellion against Edward IV from France in 1470 and helped to restore Henry VI to the throne. This state of affairs did not last long either and in 1471 Warwick was killed by Edward at the battle of Barnet. Penrith Castle was returned to the crown and Edward granted it to his brother, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, who used Penrith as a base whilst trying to uphold law and order but also ensuring the loyalty, to his brother, of the local aristocrats and people of influence who had previously supported the Lancaster cause in the War of the Roses.

Penrith Castle © Cecilia McCabe

Richard, Duke of Gloucester, lived in the castle intermittently between 1471 – 83 and it soon became a comfortable domestic complex as well as a political centre. Though a ruin now, you can still see traces of floor levels, doorways, fireplaces and a well. Standing inside the ruin, it isn’t hard to imagine the great hall, a banqueting suite, a chapel, private chambers and busy kitchens. Entertaining the local dignitaries and making new alliances were vital parts of Richard’s role as lord warden of the western march and chief representative of the Yorkist interests in the area. This was the high point in the life of Penrith Castle. Richard of Gloucester’s coat of arms can still be seen above the doorway of Dockray Hall in Penrith evidencing his period of residence in the town.

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After Richard became king in 1483 the castle remained crown property, but it was not used again as a permanent residence. He died in 1485 at the Battle of Bosworth, the battle that brought an end to ‘The War of the Roses’. The victor was Henry Tudor from the Lancastrian side who married Richard’s niece, Elizabeth of York, and so began the Tudor dynasty.  The castle and town remained part of the Crown Estate but did not hold such a lofty role again.


After brief use during the Civil War in 1648, as the headquarters of the parliamentarian general John Lambert, much of the castle building was dismantled as the bricks and materials could be used elsewhere.

Penrith Castle 18th CenturyAttribution: Rosser1954 - Roger Griffith, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In 1696, in the reign of William III (William of Orange) Penrith castle, and most other crown property in Cumberland, was given to his friend Hans Willem Bentinck, 1st Earl of Portland.  In 1787 it was sold to the Dukes of Devonshire. They in turn sold it in the early 19th century to the Lancaster and Carlisle Railway Company who needed some of the land for the new railway station, still located opposite. Penrith Urban District Council acquired it in the 1920s and converted the grounds into a public park and built housing nearby.    

The castle is maintained by English Heritage, and is recorded in the National Heritage List for England as a designated Grade I listed building.


English Heritage

Michael Mullett ‘A new history of Penrith’

Wikipedia (last paragraph)

by Cecilia McCabe, Friends of the Ullswater Way  Charity No. 1185056

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