Category Archives: Days Out

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

Ranulf III’s Beeston Castle #1 – Who was Ranulf?

The approach to the inner ward (or bailey) seen from the bridge, with the vast ditch below, part quarry and part defensive device, and a slice of the superb panoramic view in the background.

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.

Ranulf III

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. 

Hugh de Kevelioc’s coat of arms, featuring five wheatsheaves.  Source:  Wikipedia

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’s official seal, reading “Seal of Ranulf Count of Chester and Lincoln.” The wheatsheaf emblems were later adopted by the Grosvenor family and can be seen on the outside of Churton-by-Aldford’s former school.  Source:  Wikipedia’s Ranulf III page

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.  

Henry II

Henry II and his children.  From left to right – left to right: William, Henry, Richard, Matilda, Geoffrey, Eleanor, Joan and John.  Source:  Wikipedia

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. 

Richard I

Richard I painted c.1250–55 by Matthew Paris in his Historia Anglorum. Source: Dorling Kindersley findout

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. 

John

King John painted c.1250–55 by Matthew Paris in his Historia Anglorum. Source: TLS

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. 

Arthur paying homage to Philip Augustus of France. Chroniques de St Denis, British Library.  Source:  Wikipedia

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. 

Henry III

The coronation of Henry III. Source: Wikipedia

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. 

Section of the outer ward’s curtain wall with remains of one of the D-shaped towers

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.

The approach to the gateway to the inner ward with remains of the curtain walls and D-shaped towers

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.

The great ditch around the inner ward, used for quarrying building fabric for the castle, as well as defence.

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.

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