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The extensive, triangular expanse of Richmond Castle still dominates the busy market town from it's hilltop position above a beautiful stretch of the River Swale. Once a magnificent fortress, Richmond was built after the Norman Conquest and became the residence of Alan of Brittany - a close ally of William the Conqueror. Unusually for strongholds built around this period, there are no earth ramparts and, from architectural evidence, it would seem that the castle was always a stone structure.
For the first one hundred years no major alterations were made to the castle, but in the second half of the 12th century a Keep with massive, thick walls was added. Rising to some 100ft high, this splendid stone Keep was built on the site of the original gatehouse and remains virtually intact. No signs that a forebuilding existed have been found, but there are fragmentary remains of a protective barbican.
Richmond Castle is unique amongst English castles by the fact that it has two Keeps. Lower in height, and attached to the Gold Hole Tower, Scolland’s Hall is a Keep of a kind first found in France during the 10th century, combining a residence and a stronghold within one fortified structure. Claimed to be the oldest hall in England - and named after Alan's steward - it is a superb example of Norman craftsmanship. Now only a roofless shell, it is still possible to imagine the space and splendour that this first floor hall afforded its occupants.
Between the Hall and the Keep along the east curtain wall stands Robin Hood Tower, housing one of the three chapels contained in the castle. The vaulted chapel of St Nicholas is the oldest, dating from the 11th century, and a chamber above is purported to have been the place where William of Scotland was imprisoned in 1174. For three hundred years ownership of Richmond Castle see-sawed between the dukes of Brittany, but after the Hundred Years War, the connection was finally severed. Many changes of ownership occurred during the 15th century until, by the early 16th century it was seldom inhabited and began to fall into ruins.
Latterly the castle saw a number of different uses: in 1855 the North York Militia leased it from the Duke of Richmond for their headquarters, and added a detention block of eight cells just inside the castle entrance; during the First World War it was used continuously, and conscientious objectors were locked in the cells; General Baden-Powell, as commander of the Northumbrian Division of the Territorial Army, established their headquarters at the castle; and, finally, it played a role during the Second World War.
The majestic, almost regal, appearance of Rievaulx looming from the depths of a narrow river valley symbolises the power and importance of monasticism in medieval England. This enormous Cistercian house, numbering some 150 monks and 500 lay brethren at one time, was the nucleus from which several other northern abbeys were colonised.
Although the early 13th century church – reputed to have been one of the finest monastic churches in the North - remains substantially intact, less than half of the outbuildings, recorded at the time of the suppression in 1538, are still in existence.
Rarely did the Cistercians break with convention when planning the layout of a monastery, but at Rievaulx the church had to be built more on a north-south axis (as opposed to the traditional east-west) because of severely sloping ground levels. The model for the first church built c.1135 to 1145 was probably based on the Mother House at Clairvaulx, and certainly reflected the functional austerity of that time. However, following partial demolition of the ‘eastern end’, the community undertook a rebuilding programme in a far more elaborate style with clustered columns, heavily moulded arches and elegant lancet windows.
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