Ranulf III’s Beeston Castle #2 – The castle, the walk, the visit

The gateway to the inner ward seen from the outer ward

In Part 1, I introduced Ranulf III, the powerful descendant of King Henry I, who started building Beeston Castle in 1220, and during his lifetime was close to four kings of the Middle Ages:  Henry II, Richard I (“the Lionheart”), John (“lackland”) and Henry III.

Here, part 2 looks at the castle itself, the walk up to the castle, 18th and 19th Century artistic interpretations of the castle, and practical visit details, including notes on accessibility for those with less than cooperative legs. The two parts are designed to be read together, as many of the photographs of the castle are in Part 1.

Topographical plan showing the site elevation and key features, colour-coded to show different construction phases. Source: English Heritage. https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/siteassets/home/visit/places-to-visit/beeston-castle/history/serpentine/beeston-castle-phased-plan-1.pdf

With so much of its stonework intact, Beeston is entirely comprehensible as a functioning castle and, together with the stunning views, is worth a visit in its own right, but arming oneself with knowledge about the its builder makes for an even more rewarding experience.

Twelve years before he died after a rich and varied life, the magnate, military leader and crusader Ranulf, Earl of Chester, set about building three new castles to add to his existing tally, of which Beeston was the most impressive.

Beeston has been the subject of investigations since the 19th Century, encompassing both documentary research and fieldwork, and is one of the most comprehensively studied sites in the mid-Cheshire area.  This  research encompasses the impressive prehistoric remains at the site, the castle’s 13th Century origins, repairs in the 14th Century and, after a period of partial abandonment, a major renovation during the Civil War (17th Century).   After the final military abandonment of the castle in the 17th Century, it entered a new phase in the 18th Century as a growing tourist attraction, which expanded during the 19th Century when rail arrived.

These are all aspects of its past that are well worth exploring, and all are handled by Beeston’s small but informative visitor centre and the really excellent illustrated guidebook.  Supplementing these resources with other material, I have written up more details about the castle’s builder, Ranulf III, and described a few of the highlights of the castle’s history below.  I am saving an account of the multi-period record of prehistory for another post.  If you have even a little curiosity about prehistory, I hope that it will be worth waiting for 🙂

Today’s approach to the monumental gateway into the outer ward. The tall tower was a later addition to Ranulf’s original gatehouse

Before launching into the history of the castle, you might want to have a look at the castle’s site plan shown above left, which can be downloaded from the English Heritage website, showing the site’s elevations and colour-coded chronological phases.  It is also reproduced in the Beeston Castle guide book.

This page is divided up as follows:

  • Beeston Castle in the 13th Century
  • Beeston after Ranulf III
  • Beeston during the Civil War in the 17th Century
  • Beeston in the 18th and 19th Centuries
  • Visiting Beeston (with accessibility notes for those with unwilling legs)

If you would prefer to download parts 1 and 2 as single a PDF, please click here.

Ranulf’s 13th Century Castle

Probably springing from multiple motivations whirling around Ranulf’s busy head, the resulting castle at Beeston is awe-inspiring.  Strategically, Beeston is in an exceptional position, with views that would have provided sight of an approaching army miles (and hours) away, control of the valley below.  These views make for an excellent visit.

A reconstruction of the early 14th Century castle, showing both inner and outer wards. Source: English Heritage’s excellent Beeston Castle guidebook.  Click to see a bigger picture.

The English Heritage guidebook has an invaluable blow-by-blow description of all the features of the castle, which should not be missed by anyone who really wants to understand it.  Soden adds additional details about what features Beeston shared with the two other castles that he was building at the same time. Here, I’ve picked out the bits that I found most interesting.

The immediate impression one has of the castle on approach is that it consists of two main colours:  white-grey and red.  The red sandstone seems to have been used in the original construction but also seems to have been the main building material used during subsequent restoration works.  The original works were dominated by the grey-white stone.  I haven’t yet pinned down exactly what sort of sandstone this is, but unlike the usual local red sandstone it is very hard and dense, and very difficult to damage.

There are two main elements of the castle, the big outer ward (or bailey) and the smaller inner ward, each defined by a stone wall interrupted with D-shaped defensive towers (known as mural towers) arranged at intervals along tall curtain walls.  Each of these defensive curtain walls was provided with a single access point, almost identical heavily defended double-towered gateways.  To ensure that no-one unwanted gained access, every tower along the walls was furnished on the ground floor with arrow-slits, tall thin “windows” in the walls and the topmost level would have been manned by archers.  The outer ward followed the line of the defences of the Iron Age hillfort incorporating its accompanying defensive ditch.

Although archaeologists were let loose in the outer ward, they found no evidence of buildings contemporary with the castle, and there is little indication in the documentary sources either.   It is possible that work was clearly concentrating on the inner ward, with just the defensive elements of the outer ward being completed, but it is also a possibility that the area of archaeological investigation did not coincide with any buildings that had been erected.

The inner ward’s gatehouse from the inside

The inner ward, the heart of the castle complex, was separated from the outer ward by a deep ditch cut into the rock.  The ditch had a double function, being both the quarry for stone for the castle, and a line of defence in its own right.  This ditch was crossed by a wooden bridge, probably with a drawbridge and portcullis, the mechanisms for which would have been housed in one of the gatehouses as suggested in the above reconstruction.  There was no keep (a big central tower, a third level of defence that usually contained accommodation and prison cells) and it appears that a keep had never been part of Ranulf’s plan.

One of the gatehouse towers in the inner ward

The ground floor of the inner ward’s gatehouse was provided with chambers, each of which had a slit through which arrows could be fire.  The first floor of the inner ward’s gatehouse would have housed the guardian of the castle, known as the constable, and the top floor would have housed the gate and bridge mechanisms, the former lowered and the latter raised at times of threat, as well as archers who would have protected access through the gate.  Even though the main accommodation for the constable was probably in the main gatehouse, the only fireplace found was in the southwest tower, perhaps a daytime office for the constable.  Other rooms could have been heated by braziers when needed.

As with the gatehouses, the D-shaped towers of were provided with slits through which arrows could be fired, and also had upper floors that acted as platforms from which other soldiers could defend the castle.  Any stairways between these floors must have been made of wood because no staircases survive.  It is thought that the upper floor of the towers, including the gatehouses, were surrounded by wooden rather than stone defences in Ranulf’s day, because a much later record talks about the replacement of wood with the crenellated stone wall that is shown in the above reconstruction.

Well within the inner ward

Both upper and lower wards were provided with water wells, which would have helped the castle to hold out during a siege.  The well in the inner ward has a circular wall and has been provided with a lid to prevent children falling into it.  A legend that King Richard II left his treasure at the castle lead to several investigations of the well.  The investigations in the 1930s found that it went down to 110yds / 100m with the medieval masonry down to 61m.  The well in the outer ward, under a big tree, looks a bit like a quarry and it is suggested that this bizarre appearance was the result of attempts during the Civil War to enlarge it.  It has now been filled in, but its depth was recorded in 1623 as 240ft / 73m.

Remains of the well in the outer ward

Views from the inner ward across the Cheshire plain showing its strategic position

Detail of the inner ward at the southeastern end

Beeston Castle was unfinished at the time of Ranulf’s death.  The north curtain wall of the inner ward was not completed until the 1280s, by which time it was in the Crown’s ownership.  The centre of the upper ward feature big outcrops of bedrock, suggesting that it had never been levelled for the construction of an imposing entrance or the addition of inner buildings. Additionally, some key castle features were missing, like a kitchen and a great hall.  This was confirmed by archaeological work that found no sign of inner structures.

Ranulf employed many of the same features at his other new castles.  Although the plans were all distinct, they shared twin-towered gates, deep ditches, D-shaped towers, individual chambers within the towers (mural rooms) and “fish tailed” arrow loops.  Ranulf had a model of the perfect castle and he was working towards achieving three different versions using the same toolkit of modern defensive options.

After Ranulf

The top courses of stonework is clearly different from the lower, showing the 15th Century rennovation of the towers.

When Ranulf died in 1232, 12 years after he began the castle, his estates were inherited by his nephew John le Scot.  However, le Scot died five years later in 1237 and Henry III confiscated all of his land, redistributing some of it and retaining the better part for his son Edward, perhaps justifying Ranulf’s belief that the Crown was a greater threat to his territories than the Welsh.  The Chester estates, together with Beeston and Chester castles, were initially put into the custodianship of John de Lacy, earl of Lincoln (c.1192-1240).

Under the Crown, Beeston languished in second position to Chester Castle, but in the 1240s hostilities against the Welsh led to it being repaired, building on Ranulf’s work, presumably to prevent the Welsh attempting to take it and reinforce it themselves.  In c.1253 Henry III granted the earldom of Chester, together with Beeston, to his son Edward I and Edward’s subsequent heirs as Princes of Wales.

Early 14th Century records of investment in the castle indicate that crenellations were added to the towers, which were themselves raised to a higher level and were roofed with lead, and the gateway of the inner ward required repair.  The gateway was provided with a new wooden bridge, anchored on a massive stone plinth that is still visible between the 1970s bridge today.  The timber was carried 8 miles from Delamere forest on ox cart to Beeston.

The southwest end of the inner ward

The castle appears to have been allowed to fall into ruin during the 15th Century.  It was sold in 1602 to Sir Hugh Beeston, a local landowner, although his reasons for his wanting a ruined castle are unknown.

The Civil War 

Silver bowl and spoon dating the the Civil War period found at Beeston and now on display in the Beeston Visitor Centre

Forty years later the Civil War broke out.  Those Royalist forces took up position at Chester in 1642,  using as a base to provision themselves from the Dee, which was still a working port with river access via the Dee to the Irish Sea and Liverpool Bay.  Shortly afterwards, parliamentarians established themselves at Nantwich.  Beeston sat bang-splat in the middle, and the parliamentarians under Puritan Sir William Brereton installed a garrison there in February 1643 under Captain Thomas Steele.  Essential repair work took place to secure the ruined castle.  Brereton’s efforts were in vain.  Royalist men entered the castle in mid December and Steele surrendered.  He was later shot for his failure to defend the castle.  John Byron, leading the Royalist forces, installed his own garrison at Beeston and went on to defeat the parliamentarians at Middlewich.  Brereton, however, was not finished and in November 1644 besieged Chester and set about cutting off the royalists entrenched in Beeston with a blockade to prevent them re-provisioning.  The Royalists managed to breach the blockade twice, but the blockade was reinforced.

The king was defeated at Rowton Heath, south of Chester, on September 24th 1645 and Beeston Castle was given up to the parliamentarians on 15th November.  Royalist soldiers, half-starved, were allowed to depart.  Beeston was now systematically dismantled (an action known as “slighting”) so that defending it would be impossible without major rebuilding.   For the next two centuries it attracted only local attention.

Beeston in the 18th and 19th Centuries

Beeston Castle’s inner ward gatehouse, a romanticized view painted by George Barret in the mid 1770s.  Source:  Wikipedia

Now a ruin, in the 18th Century the castle, visible for miles around acquired a romantic air and become something of a visitor attraction, and a number of artists represented it, three of which are shown here, offering very contrasting views of the castle.

To the right is a highly romanticized version by relatively minor painter George Barret in the mid 1770s, highly coloured and dramatic.

The  famous J.M.W Turner (1775-1851) painted a scene in 1809, based on sketches he made in 1801, showing a woodland scene with Beeston as a faint silhouette in the distance.  Turner had initially wanted to train as an architect rather than a painter, but was pushed in the direction of painting by Sir Joshua Reynolds when Turner joined the Royal Academy at the age of 14.  His love of buildings remained with him throughout his life, and painted a great many architectural themes.  He particularly liked English castles.  Typical of his work, Beeston is a mere suggestion, a ghost of a place on the edge of the real world.  By employing the traditional narrative approach of painting that he would have learned at the Royal Academy, which draws the eye from left to right, the castle’s apparently subordinate position still results in its domination of the rural woodland scene.  Past and present are juxtaposed, but while the present takes up most of the canvas, it is the past that dominates the landscape.

Joseph Mallory William Turner’s view of Beeston Castle (far right) in 1809, based on sketches he made in 1801. Source: Sandstone Ridge Trust

Another painting worth seeing is by David Cox (1783-1859) a leader of the Birmingham School and renowned watercolour and landscape painter, showing yet another view, this time in 1849.  As with Turner’s painting the castle is shown against the sky with no discernible details, apart from the towers, but unlike Turner, it is placed centre stage, surrounded by Cox’s typical use of bright, vibrant colours with extremes of light and dark.

David Cox’s view of Beeston in 1849. Source: WikiArt

 

The Beeston Festival of 1851, from the Illustrated London News, showing tents and stalls in the inner ward, and people queuing at the 1846 entrance built in the style of the castle. Source: English Heritage guidebook, p.35

In 1840 the castle was sold to landowner John Tollemache as part of the Peckforton Estate, purchased with wealth derived from sugar plantations in Antigua, first purchased by his father.  It was Tollemache who built Peckforton Castle on the neighbouring hill and carried out restoration work on Beeston Castle, re-using original stonework.  When we were at Beeston I was puzzled by the fir trees in the outer word, and it turns out that these were exotic imports designed to reflect the new gardens and grounds at Peckforton Castle.  Deer were imported and contained within the outer ward, along with goats.  Somewhat more bizarrely, so were kangaroos.  What the three species made of each other is not recorded.  The railway between Chester and Crewe opened in 1846 and a station at Beeston greatly facilitated tourism and in 1844 a two-day annual festival was held in the outer ward.  In 1846 the current entrance to the ticket office, an imitation Medieval gateway, was built to handle the thousands of visitors and provide limited accommodation.

The castle passed into the hands of the Ministry of Works in 1959 and then, in 1984, was taken over by English Heritage, who have done a really splendid job of maintaining the site and introducing visitors to all aspects of its past.

Visiting Beeston Castle

Pieces of decorated ceramic on display in the Visitor Centre

There is a car park at the foot of the castle, opposite the entrance (pay-and-display or free for members), a café and a really nice picnic area.

English Heritage has done an excellent job of ensuring that the castle is as accessible and enjoyable as possible.  The site is beautifully maintained and feels cared for.  The staff are friendly and helpful, and the Visitor Centre, on the other side of the nice little shop, is excellent.  It mixes a few cabinets of objects with big information boards with lots of helpful illustrations, and feels modern, spacious and welcoming.   If you don’t anticipate wanting to buy the guide book (which I bought, thoroughly enjoyed and have used as the basis of this post together with Iain Soden’s biography of Ranulf) I do recommend reading up on the castle on the English Heritage website, and printing off the site plan PDF shown at the top of the post (links below).

In case the opening times and entry fees change, here is the link to the Beeston Castle page on the English Heritage website that should help you find all you need to know.
https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/beeston-castle-and-woodland-park/prices-and-opening-times/

View from the inner gateway across the modern bridge across the plain

Accessibility for those with mobility challenges
This is an uphill walk, entirely suitable for anyone only averagely fit, taking perhaps 15-30 minutes depending on level of fitness, but you will anyway want to make many pauses to take in the views.  Although the walk consists of fairly easy slopes, this is not suitable for anyone who really can’t walk uphill, and there is understandably no access for wheelchair users.  Having said that, a lot of older people were doing the walk with the aid of walking sticks, pausing at benches along the way, and were doing it slowly but with enthusiasm.  Don’t forget that at the time of writing, English Heritage allows registered disabled people to bring a helper along free of charge, an “essential companion” in English Heritage terms.

There are a number of benches along the route, but all were well-used, so bringing along some form of portable stool might be an option for those with leg issues.  My Dad has a brilliant rucksack-cum-coldbag that has a hinged metal frame and folds out into a stool.  Suffering rucksack-stool envy, I’ve just ordered one for myself.

The walk up to the top of the castle can be described as a two-part enterprise.  There’s a slope up to the outer ramparts that can either be approached via a path with steps or a path without steps.   Once the outer ramparts are reached, there’s a short flight of stairs and then the approach to the upper ramparts that define the main castle are quite level for a while, followed by a fairly gentle slope up to the bridge across the ditch (what on a lowland site would be a moat).  The bridge itself is arched and quite steep for about 5-6 ft, but some good, solid railings were helpful for those with walking sticks.

For more about accessibility at Beeston, see the Beeston Castle Access page.

There’s a café at the site, but we chose to finish our visit with a very happy beer at the nearby Pheasant, a famous pub  with more great views.  The menu looks excellent.

The Pheasant, from the garden

Beeston Castle viewed from Churton, seen over the top of a field of corn.

Sources

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

Websites

English Heritage
Description of Beeston Castle
https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/beeston-castle-and-woodland-park/history/description/
Research
https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/beeston-castle-and-woodland-park/history/research/
History
https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/beeston-castle-and-woodland-park/history/
Sources for Beeston Castle
https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/beeston-castle-and-woodland-park/history/sources/

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
https://www.oxforddnb.com/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-2716;jsessionid=A550860211C96B6006DE6E8E327F88A1

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