The English Heritage Guidebook to Beeston Castle opens with the following statement: “Standing on a rocky crag high above the Cheshire plain, Beeston is one of the most dramatically sited medieval castles in England.” Organizations keen to puff off the virtues of their sites are often guilty of hyperbole, but in this case, the guide book speaks nothing but the truth. On a bright mid-August day, with the sky a silvery pale blue, it was absolutely spectacular, both on the approach to the solidly impressive fortifications from below, and standing in the inner ward above the plain, gazing east to the Welsh foothills and northwest to the Pennines, with the floor of the world reaching out in all directions, lovely and fabulously impressive. All this and history too.
This post has been split into two parts, with Part 1 looking at Ranulf III himself, and Part II tackling the castle itself, looking at how it was built, used and perceived, covering 600 years from the 13th to 19th Centuries.
If you would prefer to download parts 1 and 2 as single a PDF, please click here.
Although Beeston Castle was altered several times since its original construction, it was the brainchild of Ranulf III (Ranulf de Blondeville), the 6th Earl of Chester and first Earl of Lincoln (1170-1232). Ranulf’s castle building phase came fairly late in his very busy and dangerous life as the most powerful magnate in England. The first work on Beeston Castle took place c.1220, only 12 years before his death, so this needs to be understood in the context of the rest of his life.
Ranulf was a descendent of the powerful Norman Marcher Lords installed by William the Conqueror to provide a buffer against the perceived chaos across the border in Wales. Wales was at that time a set of territories controlled of powerful families headed by chieftains who were often in armed dispute with one another as well as with England The Marcher lords, acting as guardians of the border, were incentivized with land, title and, perhaps most importantly, a great deal of autonomy. Originally intending to shift the border further into Wales, the Marcher lords found the mountainous territory of the Welsh chieftains a serious impediment to progress and instead consolidated their positions in the lowlands. However, the give and take of land and lives continued throughout Ranulf’s life, in spite of both reprisals and peace treaties. It was not until after his death, during the reign of Edward I, that attacks by the Welsh chieftains were eventually squashed. The loss of Crown lands in France by previous kings meant that Edward had had plenty of time to devote to the problem.
Ranulf, being of Norman stock, probably thought of himself primarily as Norman rather than English. His mother was Bertrada de Montford, a cousin of Henry II from Evreux in eastern Normandy. His father was the 5th Earl of Chester, Hugh de Kevelioc. Hugh de Kevelioc was born in 1147, the son of Ranulf II, 4th Earl of Chester and Maud, the daughter of Robert the 1st Earl of Gloucester, who was an illegitimate son of King Henry I. When his father died in 1181, Ranulf became a royal ward of Henry II and was sent to Henry’s court in Normandy, accompanied by his mother and four sisters. When he came of age, knighted as Earl of Chester, he had inherited Chester Castle and the important trading port of Chester, together with valuable territories in Normandy until these were lost in 1204-5 by King John. Sadly, there are no images of him.
Chester had been established as a palatine by William the Conqueror, granted special powers, removing it from of the direct control of the Crown, but Ranulf’s other estates could be redistributed at the whim of the king, to reward or punish, or merely reorganize. Although Ranulf’s holdings expanded and contracted throughout his adult life he remained one of the most powerful men in England.
Ranulf, brought up in the court of Henry II, was loyal to the kings Henry II, Henry’s sons Richard I and (eventually) John, followed by John’s son Henry III. These rulers were collectively known as the Angevin kings. The period leading up to Henry II’s death was one of conflict, with his sons, Richard, Geoffrey and John turning on him due to the uncertainties of succession.
At Henry II’s request Ranulf married Constance of Brittany in 1189 at the age of 19, giving him the right to call himself Duke of Brittany. Constance was widow of Geoffrey of Brittany, and mother of Arthur of Brittany who was next in line to the Duchy of Brittany. Henry wanted to diffuse a situation in which Brittany was supporting his son Richard against him. 1189 was also the year in which Ranulf was knighted Earl of Chester by Henry. Ranulf was now in control of his estates in England and Normandy. Unfortunately, Ranulf and Constance soon developed a mutual loathing that lead to their separation within five years. 1189 was also the year in which Henry died and Richard I “the Lionheart” came to the throne, without further hostilities being required to assure the succession.
Under Richard the Lionheart, the newly knighted Ranulf, connected to Richard via their relationship to Henry I, was given a role of key importance role in the coronation procession, carrying the jewel-encrusted crown. Richard departed on crusade just a year later, having appointed a number of officers to oversee his interests in England during his absence. He also named his heir in case he perished during the crusade. Instead of his younger brother John, he named Ranulf’s stepson, heir to Brittany, Constance’s son Arthur. Unsurprisingly, Prince John’s nose was now firmly out of joint and he attempted to take the crown, supported by the king of France, Philip Augustus. He was opposed by a number of powerful barons, including Ranulf. Learning, weeks after the fact, of trouble at home, Richard decided to return, but he was humiliatingly delayed when he was recognized on the return leg of the journey, captured and held hostage in Germany. Following an eye-watering payment Richard was freed, and his return settled the matter of John’s ambitions. Richard underwent a second coronation just to push home the point. Ranulf remained loyal to the king and followed Richard into war in Normandy and Brittany, where his estranged wife Constance was now stirring up rebellion. In a rather botched attempt to split Arthur from Ranulf’s estranged wife Constance, both were ambushed in a trap set up by Richard with Ranulf’s help. Constance was taken prisoner by Ranulf, who was now able to refer to himself one again as Duke of Brittany, but Arthur fled to the comparative safety of the King of France, Philip Augustus.
Whilst Ranulf was fixed in Normandy, Llewelyn the Great attacked and took Mold (then known as Montalt). Mold was retaken but Ranulf’s trusted supporter, Ralph de Montalt, died in the conflict. Ranulf was powerless to do anything about this, but it was just one more indication that something needed to be done about Wales.
Richard died in 1199 in a minor dispute (allegedly over rights to a Roman treasure), and with Arthur now allied with France, John succeeded to the throne.
Ranulf, having opposed John’s attempted coup, needed to prove his loyalty in the face of John’s notorious paranoia. Ranulf was now about 29 years old. He spent a lot of time early in the reign shifting between his territories in Normandy and England, while John reconciled himself with Arthur by naming him Duke of Brittany (ending Ranulf’s tenure) and Earl of Richmond. The reconciliation was short-lived. Arthur attacked Angers, taking a key Angevin castle, a terrible shock to John, who took instant revenge by taking the castle at neighbouring Le Mans, where Arthur’s mother Constance was staying. He razed both castle and village to the ground.
Arthur fled back to Philip Augustus. Ranulf, joining John, swore loyalty to him at a big gathering in eastern Normandy in 1199, but John remained suspicious of him and it took time to win his trust. This was not helped when, in 1200, Ranulf married Clemence de Fougeres, whose family had connections to both Brittany (via her father) and Normandy (via her mother). John had a personal interest in Clemence himself, and was also concerned that Ranulf’s loyalties might be divided. Ranulf doggedly pursuing his policy of demonstrating loyalty to John, stayed at court and accompanied the king on his travels throughout his territories.
Constance, mother of Arthur, died in 1201 from leprosy. Arthur, attacking another Brittany castle, was captured and imprisoned. In 1202 he disappeared, probably having been murdered. In response, Brittany rose up in revolt backed by Philip Augustus, king of France, who began to move against Normandy. After an initial serious hiccough, when John charged Ranulf with treason, Ranulf was reinstated and his briefly confiscated estates returned to him. He set about proving his loyalty during the campaigns in Brittany and French-occupied Normandy.
Staggered by the speed at which Philip Augustus was moving, and anticipating defeat, John left for England in December 1203, leaving his followers to defend his territories as best they might. Ranulf followed shortly afterwards, similarly leaving his castles to defend themselves. Although the war in France had continued in both John’s and Ranulf’s absences, Normandy was lost by 1205. Ranulf, at court in England with John since late 2003, managed to weather the storms of John’s suspicions and continued to travel with the court, accompanied John in military expeditions to Poitou and Gascony and supported John in the face of the First Baron’s War. Ranulf had, however, lost his five great castles in Normandy, together with the small private army that supported them.
After another hiccough, when Ranulf’s loyalty was once again questioned in early 1205 by John, Ranulf again successfully challenged the accusations levelled at him. Given John’s suspicions, it seems bizarre that only a year later John was so impressed by Ranulf’s loyalty that he rewarded him with so many titles and “honours” (estates) that he became the most powerful and wealthy man in England. By 1208 Ranulf was not only Earl of Chester but also Earl of Lincoln, Earl of Richmond and had rights over Lancaster and Leicester. The land and income associated with these honours were vast.
Following John’s death in 1216, the 46 year old Ranulf paid homage to the new king, the 9 year-old Henry III, and went to war in his name against Louis of France. The king’s first Justiciar (effectively an acting regent) was Earl Marshall, a friend of Ranulf’s, and the transition seemed to go smoothly for Ranulf. Fulfilling a promise to King John, Ranulf took an important part in the siege of Damietta in Egypt in 1218 during the 5th Crusade, returning after two years of battle. He left Egypt in July 1220, arriving in England a month later.
Ranulf returned, having lost many friends to the crusade, to find that his friend Earl Marshall had been replaced as Justiciar by Hugh de Burgh, a long-standing enemy. With two years of accumulated business to take care of, including repairs to some of his properties, he was kept busy with his own estates, but Henry also awarded him with new estates. Disruptions over the rights to a number of castles involved Ranulf in military activity on behalf of the Crown in Northamptonshire, and then again on both his own and the Crown’s account at the Welsh borders, the latter at least partly resolved in the case of the Chester border with the marriage of Ranulf’s nephew John le Scot to Llewellyn’s daughter Helen in October 1223.
Ranulf soon embarked on a major programme of castle-building, rebuilding castles at Bolinbroke Castle in Lincoln, Chartley in Staffordshire and establishing a new castle Beeston in Cheshire. Of the three, Beeston was by far the largest. Ranulf’s reasons for wanting these castles, particularly Beeston Castle, which competed in scale and ambition with those of the kings themselves, have been much debated. It has often been assumed that Beeston Castle, which was started in around 1220, was erected as a deterrent to the Welsh princes, but this was apparently not the case. Not only is Beeston too far east of the Welsh border for this to be practical, but before building his castle, Ranulf had made his peace with Llewellyn the Great, whose territories met Ranulf’s along the Welsh border. He felt sufficiently safe after the signing of this treaty to leave on the 5th Crusade in 1218 without any risk to his territory from Wales. Although there had been a brief disruption after Ranulf’s return, this was at least partially resolved by the marriage of his nephew John le Scot to Llewellyn’s daughter, sealing peace if not actual friendship between Llewellyn and Ranulf. Nor does Wales explain his other two castle-building enterprises.
Perhaps surprisingly, the English crown represented a far greater risk to Ranulf’s security than Wales. Henry III did not assume control of his government and territories until 1227, seven years after Ranulf started the building works at Beeston. During this period control remained with Henry III’s Justiciar, Hubert de Burgh, Ranulf’s enemy. Disapproving of the way in which so much Crown territory had been given away as favours under previous reigns, Hubert de Burgh had started to claw back land and assets wherever he saw weakness. It was now that Ranulf started to make improvements to his existing properties and to build his three new castles: Beeston Castle in Cheshire, Bolinbroke Castle in Lincoln and Chartley in Staffordshire. The new castles were probably intended to be Ranulf’s insurance against a royal land-grab happening to him, mainly acting as a statement of political authority and independence.
By raising taxes, Ranulf could easily afford these great projects. Iain Soden describes Ranulf’s properties at this time:
Ranulf continued to hold the largest number of lands of any magnate in England; with them came the bulk of the armed forces. Besides his ancestral earldom of Chester, the Honour of Chester stretched right across the Midlands, out into Gloucestershire and across Staffordshire and Warwickshire into Northamptonshire. Outlying lands attached to the honour lay as far south as Devon and as far north as Derbyshire. His earldom of Lincoln was intact, stretching from Yorkshire to Leicestershire, white the honour of Leicester linked his norther n lands with those in Northamptonshire. To these, of course, could be added the family lands. His brother-in-law Ferrers held the earldom of Derby and now the honour of Lancaster while his nephew was Earl of Huntingdon.
As his castles were being built, Ranulf continued to be in attendance at court and again returned to battle in France in 1230, this time against Louis IX, remaining until 1231, with a successful outcome. He returned to England later that year.
Ranulf died on 26th October 1232 at the royal castle in Wallingford, 12 years after he began work on Beeston Castle. Consistent with the traditions of the time, when he died his body was eviscerated (internal organs removed) so that it could buried in three locations. His entrails were buried at Holy Trinity Priory at Wallingford. His heart was buried at Dieulacrès Abbey, the Cisterian monastery that he had relocated, in 1214, from Poulton on northeast Wirral to Leek in the Midlands. His embalmed body was then returned to Chester and buried in the chapter house of the Benedictine Abbey, St Werburgh’s, next to his father and grandfather. He had no children.
Ranulf was a really fascinating historical figure, a powerful magnate, and a key figure in the lives of the Angevine kings. Although he was swept up in the royal imperative to hang on to existing territories, retrieve lost ones, and acquire new ones, as well as meet the crusading demands of the Pope, he stands out as someone who was immensely powerful in his own right, loyal to the Angevine kings but perfectly confident to engage in strategic planning on his own behalf. Sadly, in spite of the skilled work of his biographers, who have delved into difficult contemporary documents, Ranulf as a personality remains elusive, lost in the accounts of military and courtly engagements, actions and deeds. He respected, cared for and supported his friends, detested his first wife, apparently rubbed along well with his second one, and engaged in bitter conflict with one of Henry III’s key advisors. He had a passion for hunting. He had a quick temper, was an excellent project manager, a compelling leader of men and was unafraid of exposing himself to the genuine horrors of war, often engaging in fearsome hand-to-hand combat. There is the suspicion that his final phase of castle building had as much to do with vanity as a fear of having his estates confiscated, but that remains pure speculation. There is not even a surviving image of him to give one an impression of what he looked like. What Ranulf was is fairly clear. Who he was remains veiled.
For anyone wanting to read more about Ranulf III, whose extraordinary and complicated life cannot be more than touched upon in a post of this length, I recommend Iain Soden’s “The First English Hero,” details of which are in Sources, at the end of this post.
Part 2 looks at the castle itself, both how it was used and how it was perceived, from the 13th to 19th Centuries.
Books and papers
Alexander, J. 1982. RANULF III OF CHESTER: An Outlaw of Legend? Neuphilologische Mitteilungen, 83(2), p.152-157.
http://www.jstor.org/stable/43343443 (available free with registration)
Gillingham, J. and Griffiths, R.A. 1984. Medieval Britain. A Very short Introduction. Oxford University Press
Liddiard, R. and Swallow, R.E. 2007. Beeston Castle. English Heritage Guidebooks
Rubin, M. 2014. The Middle Ages. A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press
Soden, I. 2021 (second edition). The First English Hero: The Life of Ranulf de Blondeville. Amberley
Ward, S. 2013 (second edition). Chester. A History. The History Press
Description of Beeston Castle
Sources for Beeston Castle
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (locked)
Ranulf (III) [Ranulf de Blundeville], sixth earl of Chester and first earl of Lincoln (1170–1232) by Richard Eales