The Castle

Spofforth Castle was originally an 11th century fortified manor house, founded by William de Percy. In the early 13th century, the Percy family added a stone hall house, of which the undercroft remains, set against a sandstone outcrop.​

In 1309, King Edward II granted, Henry, Lord Percy of Alnwick, a licence to crenellate and he founded the quadrangle castle. Sadly only the west range remains, of two storeys, with a hall and a chamber block, flanked by a polygonal stair turret.​

The first floor hall, was modernised in the 15th century and leads directly on to the low eastern platform, which supports the buried remains of the other ranges.​

The castle is owned by English Heritage but is free to visit and open daily.

Not Really a Castle...

The Ministry of Works taking responsibility for the Castle in 1925 described it merely as a Fortified Manor.

The ‘Manor House' would have been primarily for residence rather than defence; a wooden balustrade would have surrounded the hall with one or two outbuildings forming a courtyard.​

‘Indeed it seems likely from the general Percy practice and evidence of the irregular surface of what I still called Manor Garth that the present building is only one side of original four square enclosure!!' (extract from The History of Spofforth by William Grange Topographer 181-1896)

A Short History of the Percy Family

1067: William de Percy, one of William the Conquers favourites was given 86 Lordships in Yorkshire, including Spofforth, which he established as his headquarters.

1124: Henry III granted a licence to William de Percy of the day to hold a market every Friday in the town of Spofforth.

1125: Richard de Percy and insurgent Barons meet at the Castle to reputedly draw up the provisions of the Magna Carta.

1308: William de Percy obtained a licence from Edward II to fortify his house at Spofforth.

1403: Harry Hotspur Baron of Spofforth who was born at Spofforth was killed at the Battle of Shrewsbury.

1408: Henry Baron Percy was killed at Bramham Moor in rebellion against Henry VI. Estates conferred to Sir Thomas Rokely Sheriff of Yorkshire.

Spofforth Castle History by R.J.A Bunnett

In 1067, the year before the earliest visit of William the Conqueror to York, William de Percy, the first of the English line (nicknamed ‘Aux Gernons' - the Bewhiskered: Algernon has since been a favourite name in the family), arrived in this country from Normandy. De Percy was a man of powerful physique and strength of mind and greatly esteemed by the King, who gave him no less than 86 Lordships in Yorkshire, including Spofforth, Bolton Percy, Tadcaster, Cowthorpe and Wetherby.​

The Spofforth parish covered a very large area, and here the young Norman established his headquarters, which thus became the original English home of the famous de Percy family. Within ten years, William converted a desolate waste into a fertile pasture. Doomsday book related that ‘Spawford' (i.e. the ford by the Spaw) was a manor held by Gamelbar, and that William de Percy had 4 ‘carucates' of land, 9 ‘villanes', and 10 ‘bordars'. The name of Gamelbar appears on several occasions in doomsday, and he undoubtedly must have been a man of some substance as he held extensive possessions in the Forest of Knaresborough. These were fortified at the conquest and a number of his manors were granted to Giselbert of Gilbert Tyson, another follower of William I and ‘great standard-bearer of England'.​

At Spofforth, where for 300 years the family led the life of feudal barons, de Percy built a manor house probably rather by way of residence than for defence. This would probably have consisted of a hall surrounded by a wooden palisade, with one or two outbuildings.​

There is an unconfirmed tradition that Richard de Percy, the head of the house, and one of the leading signatories of Magna Carta, held a meeting of the insurgent barons at Spofforth where the provisions of the Charter were drawn up in 1215. In 1224 Henry III granted license to William de Percy of the day to hold a market every Friday in the town of Spofforth.​

Towards the close of the thirteenth century, the direct Percy line became extinct, and the present branch of the family owes its descent to the union of Lady Agnes de Percy, sole inheritor of the vast family estates and Josceline de Louvain, Duke of Brabant, a direct descendant of Charlemagne. The marriage was arranged, however, only on the prospective bridegroom agreeing to take the name of Percy.​

Their son Henry, the first of a long line of de Percy ‘Henries', obtained from Edward II in 1308 a licence to fortify his house at Spofforth and probably at this time he began the extensive alterations and additions visible in the present building. The next year Henry purchased the Manor of Alnwick, Northumberland, from the Bishop of Durham. The family had then been established in Yorkshire for nearly 250 years before they began their more northern connection, and such place names as Bolton-Percy, Kilnwick Percy and Wharram Percy, and the exquistily sculptured Percy shrine in Beverly Minster, testify to their power and influence, and to the once vast extent of their possessions in the country. Henry de Percy also built a residence in Topcliffe, near Thirsk, the earthworks of which can still be clearly seen, alongside the Norman motte and baily castle.​

It seems as if the Percies always preferred comfort and convenience to military strength and thus they lavished their wealth on building manor houses. Spofforth, of which there is no further record of renovation until 1559, was never more than a fortified residence, in contrast with the grim fortresses which other Yorkshire barons erected for their defence of the fiefs e.g. Pontefract, Consiborough, Helmsley, and Richmond. Wressle Castle was the greatest of their Yorkshire dwellings - a magnificent palace built by Sir Thomas Percy between 1370 and 1390, where the family, when in residence, kept almost royal state until the sixteenth century. As they obtained prominence and power in Northumberland, the importance of Spofforth as a residence gradually declined.​

In 1377 Henry, Baron Percy, 4th Lord of Alnwick, was created Earl of Northumberland. Thirty-one years later the family lost possession of Alnwick and also of Spofforth, when the Earl, in a fruitless endeavour to retrieve the fallen fortunes of his son, the renowned Harry Hotspur, was killed at Bramham Moor in rebellion against Henry IV. His estates were conferred upon Sir Thomas Rokeby, Sheriff of Yorkshire, who commanded the royal forces. Hotspur, who was slain at the battle of Shrewsbury in 1403, is said to have been born at Spofforth.

A little later the Percies recovered their properties, but the 3rd Earl with Sir Richard, his brother and Sir William Plumpton, the Chief Steward of the Lordships at Spofforth, lost the lives at Towton in 1461, among thousands of other Lancastrians.​

The Yorkists under the Earl of Warwick marched to Spofforth, plundered the countryside and burnt the castle. Leland states in his intineary, ‘The manor house was sore defaced in the time of the Civil War between Henry the Sixth, and Edward Fourth by the Earl of Warwick, and the Marquis of Montacute'.​

The story runs that the heir to the now hunted Percies, a minor, was smuggled away and brought up by peasants (a similar tale is told of the heir of the clifford of Skipton Castle); but nine years after Towton, the family were reinstated in their possessions, which had meanwhile been held by the earl of Warwick.​

The young heir later married the daughter of Lord Herbert, 1st Earl of Pembroke; but in 1489 he was murdered at his home at Topcliffe by an angry mob, and for close on one hundred years Spofforth Castle remained neglected. In 1559 however, it was restored by another Henry, Lord Percy, who made the place an occasional residence. Probably by this time it was regarded as too insignificant for the growing importance of the family, and Alnwick being now the main Percy seat, they practically deserted Yorkshire.​

Spofforth, c 1600, was the home of Sampson Ingleby, steward of the family; but after his death, four years later , there is no record of further habitation, and the castle was finally reduced to ruins during he civil war.​

In 1670 on the death of Joceline, 11th Earl of Northumberland, Spofforth with the other ‘Percy' Yorkshire estates passed into the possession of his daughter, the Duchess of Somerset. Her eventual descendant dying without male issue, the inheritance came to his nephew Sir Charles Wyndham.​

The Percy arms are to be seen on the chancel wall of the village church.

Description by O.J Weaver & R. Gilyard-Beer

The castle stands on the west side of the village, on a small plateau of slightly higher ground that slopes gently towards Castle Street on the east side but, on the west, ends abruptly in a rocky outcrop against which part of the castle has been built. Also, on the west side are two small streams, one very close to the castle itself, which no doubt afforded a measure of protection, but the original aspect on this side has been changed out of recognition by the massive embankment of a now disused railway line.​

Originally, the castle would probably have consisted of a number of buildings grouped round a courtyard. All that remains now is a western range, a two-storeyed building which, owing to the difference in levels appears from the east to be of one storey only. This range contained the principal apartments of the castle, the hall at the south end and the private chambers of the lord and his family at the north.​

The oldest surviving part of the castle, however, is the undercroft below the hall, dating probably form the first half of the thirteenth century. It uses the rocky outcrop as its fourth wall and has four single light windows in the west wall, one in both the north and south walls and two opposing entrances, also in the north and south walls. There is a third doorway at the north end of the east wall, reached through means of steps from the courtyard cut through the rock and originally there was a similar stairway, now blocked, at the south end.​

In the fourteenth century, a stone vault was inserted in the undercroft. This has since disappeared but the stumps of its supporting columns survive as well as a number of wall corbels, two of which are built into masonry blocking original windows. At the same time as this alteration, the hall above was either wholly or partly rebuilt and, at the north end, a large solar block was added, thereby blocking a window at the north wall of the undercroft.

The principal room on the ground floor of this new building is on the north side and has the remains of a stone vault, a fireplace in the centre of its north wall and windows in its north and west walls, the one in the west wall having been altered subsequently to form a doorway. At the north east corner there is a doorway to a smaller, subsidiary chamber, and a second doorway at the south-west corner leads to the adjoining room on the south, which is also vaulted and must have served as a form of lobby. Originally, it had a doorway in the west wall with a window above, the doorway being later blocked and the window altered. The third and smaller doorway in the large chamber leads to a newel staircase in the corner turret giving access to the rooms above.​

On the upper floor of the solar block there is, as below, a large chamber on the north side with three handsome two-light windows and a doorway in the north east corner to a subsidiary chamber containing a garderobe at the north end of its east wall. The pit of this garderobe may be seen at the foot of the wall. There is no evidence now of a fireplace but this may have been in the vanished south wall of the main chamber or, alternatively there may have been a central hearth.​

The room between this large chamber and the hall was probably at first a chapel with a richly moulded window in its west wall, but there is evidence that it was converted later into a chamber with a garderobe in the thickness of the east wall. Also on the east side is a passage, now mostly destroyed, which gave access from the hall to the upper rooms of the solar block.​

The hall in its present form is mainly fifteenth century. Nothing survives of the original hall, which is probably smaller in width, and all that remain of the fourteenth-century alterations are the south wall and the doorway and adjoining masonry in the north east corner. The east and west walls with their large two light windows are fifteenth century and so is the greater part of the north wall which has the remains of a fireplace at its centre. At the north end of the west wall is a garderobe reached by means of a wall passage from the most northerly of the four windows.​

The entrance to the hall is at the south end of the east wall and, next to this, there is a doorway of sixteenth century date, which probably led to the now vanished buttery and kitchens.​

On the east wall of the solar block are the marks of later farm buildings, now removed, which represent the last phase of the castle's occupation.​

East again, the ground is generally uneven and here there may be foundations of other buildings of which ate present nothing is known.