Don’t read on if you’re looking for a learned account of the history of Sheriff Hutton castle: many sources will be available to give you that. Do, perhaps, stay with me if you want to know what it was like to squelch round the perimeter on a glorious early-spring day, with Brimstone butterflies dancing tantalisingly along the wooded lane which forms part of the route. And perhaps look at some of my photographs of one of Richard III’s great castles.
Let’s at least attempt some kind of a potted history. I don’t claim to be any sort of an expert, so I do hope I haven’t made any mistakes in trying to condense some of the facts I’ve gleaned from the sources acknowledged below. The castle was built in the late 14th century. It belonged to the powerful Neville family, and came into Richard’s possession after the death of Richard Neville (Warwick the Kingmaker) in 1471. The four surviving towers are what remains of the inner court: the centre of the castle and the centre of power – not easily relinquished. An echo remains. What power and riches this place must have seen, firstly as a Neville stronghold, later as the headquarters of the Council of the North (along with Sandal Castle, another ruin with enormous resonance). What stories, what sadness… in Richard’s reign the castle housed a number of younger ‘royals’, including Edward, the son George, Duke of Clarence; and Elizabeth of York, daughter of Edward IV, later to marry Henry Tudor. Like the crown itself, Sheriff Hutton castle passed to Henry Tudor, and, inevitably, to Henry VIII, who granted it to his illegitimate son, Henry Fitzroy. However, by the mid-16th century (as early as that!), the splendour of the castle was waning and it entered an inexorable decline into disrepair and ruin.
I’ve been interested in Richard III for some years now, but it’s only recently that I’ve formulated a plan to visit this castle, which is in the village of Sheriff Hutton, about ten miles from York. Now seemed like the perfect time though, with a forecast of fair weather and not enough leaves on the trees yet to obscure the views. The ruins are privately owned, so it’s not possible to approach closely; somehow I’d imagined that I would only be able to glimpse them from quite a distance by peering through woods and across fields. As it happens, there is some truth in that, but the sheer size of the place allows for clearer views than I’d dared to hope for. That and my new zoom lens! A public footpath permits a journey round the perimeter, albeit from a distance. Irresistible!
Entering the village by car, I couldn’t resist a quiet(ish) “Wow!” as massive stone columns towered up behind some modern housing. And as we approached the castle on foot, the decayed grandeur of it took hold… What a statement of power and wealth it must have been – obviously was – in its time.
Now, the four ruined towers rise starkly above low, reddish farm buildings, pointing bleakly at the sky. Some windows remain. Did Richard himself, or any other luminaries of their day, peer out of any of the very ones I photographed? Did raw spring light filter through any of the same windows I capured, resting on the hand of the Lord of the North as he signed yet another document? Who knows? I can only hope so.
The peace was palpable, broken only by the sound of an unseen woman shouting orders to her two boisterous dogs. High above, jackdaws and pigeons occupied their vantage points, the only residents now of this once-bustling power-base. Only traces persist now of its late-medieval might and magnificence. Skirting the castle, from the viewpoints permitted by the footpath, I caught a frustratingly distant glimpse of what I took to be a frieze of heraldic shields carved into the stone. Imposing, intimidating, imperious. “This is who we are, this is what we are… what we were.” A few other architectural details could be observed – some only deigning to reveal more about themselves when I zoomed in on them later, with the help of my computer. Technology colliding with medieval secrets… but not quite winning.
From the word go, it was obvious that there was a lot of water around. Recent wet weather, of course, but also, I’m guessing, the legacy of old moats. This was apparent even at the front of the castle, but untold depths of water-filled footprints awaited behind, where the path runs between two watercourses. A double moat? Or something more modern? To the south, the route was seriously waterlogged. Mud sucked at my feet as if it coveted my leaking boots; I abandoned all hope of trying to keep to drier ground. The two narrow, parallel stretches of water flanked the path. Was the castle silently mocking us as we picked our way along, far below it, like incompetent enemies, trying not to slip and fall to a watery demise?
Emerging from the wood (to a braying chorus of nesting rooks), we had a choice of two routes – one marginally less boggy than the other. As spring ripped through the woodland around us, we made a somewhat forced choice, taking us further away from the castle, but into what appeared to be a relatively dry field. ‘Quagmire’ might have been a better word for it, but it was worth the struggle because it gave us clear views of what I believe are the still-present undulating furrows – more echoes in the land – of medieval strip farming. Medieval life was about ordinary people too.
So, muddy but triumphant, we reached the end of our walk; the castle, aloof, receding into its secret dreams, oblivious to the urgent activity of spring around it. A casualty of the centuries.
Two links to explain more about the history than I ever could (and thank you to these sites):
A visit to Leicester planned within the next few days. I had really hoped to witness the procession through the city before the reburial, but had to give up on that when I realised that the dates wouldn’t work for me. So, the next best thing…
I bought a camera in haste for my last (actually my first) trip there. Leicester was abuzz with the news that the remains found on the archaeological dig were indeed Richard’s; between the cathedral and the Guildhall there were lengthy queues for a small but fascinating exhibition. It was cold and grey, and a long wait, but the excitement generated by the discovery kept everyone’s spirits up. I could hardly believe that the medieval king I had first heard about at school when studying Shakespeare, then read about more deeply in search of the truth, was now at the centre of such events. History reaches out to grab you.
I took some pictures of the cathedral, the Guildhall and the site of the dig (or as close as I was allowed to get to it). Looking at them now, I can still feel that sense of anticipation on a chilly Leicester afternoon…
Rest in peace.