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.