So it’s official. I’m guessing that the man who said, somewhat disparagingly, “Well, it’s just a ruin,” probably didn’t enjoy his visit to Helmsley Castle very much, poor soul. He was half-right – Helmsley Castle is a ruin – however, not entirely; and I suggest it’s a pretty fine place for you to meander around in a leisurely fashion whilst soaking up the atmosphere – a gentle canter through British history from the Norman Conquest to the Civil War. I wondered if I was allowing my affection for ruins (they say love begins at home) to get the better of me, so I checked out the comments on Trip Advisor. One person mentioned that Helmsley Castle is a good place for a picnic, and another pointed out that it’s best visited on a dry day. I wouldn’t disagree with either of those observations and I’m sure the Norman founders of the castle would be of the same mind. Robert of Mortain, William the Conqueror’s trusted half-brother, idly picked at his Marmite and cucumber sandwich whilst Mrs Mortain poured a dark brown, steaming, cup of tea from the Thermos. Nearby, the kids were playing Frisbee, their shouts of joy bringing grins to the scared faces of the men at arms. “A bit deeper with that ditch, there,” Robert called good-naturedly to the group of contended workmen who were gaily building his new castle. “Good job the rain’s held off, dear,” he commented to his wife. “Perhaps we can get the barbie out later and have a couple of tinnies”.
Actually, it is generally thought that the builder of Helmsley Castle was one Walter Espec, a warrior who also founded abbeys, including nearby Rievaulx. The castle would have been built mainly in timber sometime around 1120. Robert of Mortain had certainly been granted the lands before that, and may well have started work on the two massive ditches which are similar to those at his castle in Berkhamsted. From 1154-1478 the castle was in the possession of the de Roos, who surely deserve to have someone in the family called Kanga, but who were in any event powerful barons. The name is sometimes spelt Ros (pronounced Roos) and Baron de Ros is one of the oldest titles in Britain. Wooden palisades became stone walls and successive generations of Rooses improved the castle until, in 1478, Edmund de Roos (not Edmundo Ros) sold it to the Duke of Gloucester, later Richard III. After Richard’s defeat at Bosworth, Henry VII gave Helmsley back to Edmund (presumably he made a neat profit somewhere), but Edmund died in 1508 and that was the end of the Roos. Now - the weather.
Helmsley Castle was then inherited by the Manners family, staunch Protestants, who converted the old medieval hall into a posh Tudor residence. In 1632, the castle passed by marriage into the hands of George Villiers, the Duke of Buckingham, hated favourite of James I and, later, his son Charles I. If you’re minded to, you can walk past the very spot where George was murdered 300 miles away in Portsmouth in 1628. Villiers Road in nearby Southsea is very nice.
Like many castles in the North of England, Helmsley was held for the King during the Civil War and besieged by Parliamentary troops. Helmsley’s siege took place in 1644, from September to November, when the garrison ran out of food and surrendered to Parliament’s talented general Sir Thomas Fairfax, ‘Black Tom’. He ordered it to be ‘slighted’ – pulled down so that it could not be used again – though he spared the residential block. The 2nd Duke of Buckingham ended up marrying Sir Thomas’ daughter Mary in 1657, which might have been a neat ending, but the castle was subsequently sold to the Duncombe family, the Barons Feversham, who built nearby Duncombe Park and who still own the castle.
For visitor information, see Helmsley Castle on English Heritage's website.