Bishop Rufus Palace, Northallerton

Has been described as a Certain Timber Castle (Motte), and also as a Certain Palace (Bishop), and also as a Possible Tower House

There are cropmark/slight earthwork remains

NameBishop Rufus Palace, Northallerton
Alternative NamesNorthallerton Bishops Palace; new castle of Alvertun
Historic CountryYorkshire
Modern AuthorityNorth Yorkshire
1974 AuthorityNorth Yorkshire
Civil ParishNorthallerton

Earthwork and buried remains of a motte and bailey castle and an adjacent fortified palace of the Bishops of Durham. Also included are parts of a 19th century civil cemetery. The monument is located near the junction of two streams, Willow Beck to the west which flows in a north to south direction and Sun Beck which flows north east to south west and forms the southern and south eastern edges of the monument.

The interest of the Bishops of Durham in Yorkshire was long standing. The bishop was a Prince Bishop who governed the County Palatine of Durham and was both a secular and spiritual lord of the area. The bishop held property throughout the north east that included enclaves of land in Yorkshire, which dated back to pre-Conquest days. The manor of Northallerton was granted by William II to Carileph, Bishop of Durham between 1087 and 1100. The first record of the castle at Northallerton is in 1130 when Bishop Rufus built a residence, the motte and bailey, in order to administer and protect property and assets held in the area. Records show that the castle was either rebuilt or enlarged in 1142 by Bishop Cumin and further work was carried out in 1174 by Bishop Pudsey. However, by 1176 the castle had been razed to the ground on the orders of King Henry II as part of his strategy to remove fortifications not approved by the crown. After this a more substantial fortified palace was built to replace the traditional motte and bailey castle which had until then served as the bishops' administrative centre in Northallerton. The new palace was built within the area of the former bailey which was re-modelled and modified to accommodate it. The outer moat was also re-cut as part of these improvements. It is not known whether any structures were re-erected on the castle motte. The resultant site of the palace was similar to a type of monument popular in England at this time known as a moated site

This was a form of construction whereby high status residences were surrounded by moats partly for defensive purposes but primarily as a statement of prestige. The palace was certainly in use by 1199 when the Archbishop of Canterbury stayed there as a guest of the Bishop of Durham. In common with aristocratic and high status buildings elsewhere there would have been a programme of enlargement, refurbishment and refortification often reflecting the latest architectural fashion: such renovation work happened in 1226, 1292 and 1309. There is a reference in the early 14th century to a pele tower being built at the palace on the orders of King Edward II at a time when there was a general fortification of towns in the north to guard against raids from the Scots. Despite this in 1317, at a time when the town was ransacked by the Scots, the palace was successfully attacked by Sir Gosselin Denville.

The palace was an important centre for the administration of the bishops' lands in Yorkshire and served as one of the major residences for the bishops and their staff. By having an obvious presence in the town the bishops were able to protect and consolidate their position in the area particularly against the rivalry of the Archbishop of York. Part of the significance of Northallerton for the bishops was that it lay on the main road from York to Durham and was a regular stopping place for royalty and other dignitaries. It is reported that King Edward I stayed with his royal retinue at the palace on six occasions between 1291 and 1304 on his way to and from Scotland. In the early 16th century, Princess Margaret Tudor the future wife of King James IV of Scotland stopped at the palace accompanied by 1500 men.

As well as being lords of the manor with the dues and entitlements therewith, the bishops had an impact on other aspects of medieval Northallerton. They founded St James hospital in c.1200, gifted an endowment to the new Carmelite Friary in 1356 and were patrons of the Grammar School in 1385. The active involvement of the bishops in Northallerton started to go into decline during the religious upheavals of the 16th century. It was described by Leland in 1505 that the palace was 'strong and well moated'. In 1539 the palace was still standing but by the following century had become neglected. In 1663 Bishop Cosins ordered that stones from the palace be taken and used to repair the Castle Mill and parts of the market place. By the end of the 17th century the palace was in ruins and was being used as a quarry. An undated print thought to be mid-18th century in date shows the palace in a thoroughly ruined state and a map of 1797 shows no structures on the site. In 1836 the jurisdiction of the Bishops of Durham as landlords ended and the property passed to the Diocese of Ripon. The area of the castle occupied by the bishops' palace was sold to the parish in 1856 and landscaped for use as a civil cemetery, which was in operation until the late 1940s.

The remains of the early motte and bailey are located in the southern part of the monument. It was built on a natural piece of dry land between the two streams, Willow Beck and Sun Beck. Although these becks are now canalised, in the 12th century there would have been a wet and boggy area that would have afforded further defence to the southern approaches to the castle. The motte is a sub-circular flat-topped mound standing approximately 4.5m high. The top of the mound is 20m across and it is 60m across at its base. There is a shallow ditch up to 4m wide on the south and south western sides. On the northern side of the motte the original encircling ditch has been re-cut by the modified bailey ditch surrounding the site of the bishops' palace to the north. To the south west of the motte there are the remains of an irregular shaped enclosure defined by a low earthen bank and ditch extending south west from the western side of the motte and by a shallow ditch extending south east from the eastern side of the motte. The southern edge of the enclosure is currently defined by Sun Beck and it is likely that this enclosure was to form a dry area. The relatively poor survival of these features as earthworks is probably due to the deliberate destruction of the castle in 1176.

The castle bailey was located to the northern, town side, of the motte. The bailey defences were heavily modified during the construction of the bishops' palace in the late 12th century and consequently the size and form of the original castle bailey is currently unknown. The surviving modified bailey survives as a ditch or moat up to 12m wide and 1m deep which encloses a raised, irregular shaped area measuring a maximum of 140m north west to south east by 90m north east to south west. The moat encloses all but the northern side of the interior. It originally extended across the northern side but was infilled in the 1940s when the current cemetery, located to the north of the monument, was established. There was an entrance through the moat, 15m wide, on the north eastern side, which still survives as the main access into the centre of the old cemetery. There is a reference to there having been a stone built gatehouse but it is unclear whether this was located inside or outside the moat. Outside the moat, on the western side, there is a flat-topped bank 8m wide with a narrow ditch on each side, which extends from the motte as far as the northern angle of the moat. It is thought to be the remains of a formal promenade dating to the time of the bishops' palace. There is no evidence that there was a similar bank on the other sides of the moat. Immediately inside the ditch the ground rises to be approximately 2m above the ground level on the outside of the ditch. It is thought that this was originally an internal bank for the defences of the bishops' palace, however the extent of this has been obscured by later modifications mostly dating to the 19th century landscaping associated with the cemetery.

In common with similar ecclesiastical and lay residences the bishops' palace would have been at the centre of a large enclosure known as the precinct. The boundaries of the precinct can be identified on maps and is still preserved in the current street plan. No significant remains are known to survive within the wider precinct area and this area is not included in the monument. A high status building such as the bishops' palace would be of a very high standard and be replete with elaborate architectural details, intended to impress and to reflect the power and prestige of the occupant. One consequence is that the approach would be carefully managed to emphasise the status and to ensure the maximum impact on the visitor. The entrance to the palace was on the north eastern side and is orientated towards the old market place and parish church, which formed the focus of the medieval town. The layout of the medieval market place funnelled the visitor into a narrow entrance which opened onto a prospect of the facade of the palace, approached along what can be regarded as a processional way through carefully managed open space. This situation is shown on the street and field plan on a map of 1797 and is still preserved in the modern street plan where the wider precinct is preserved as open space. (Scheduling Report)

Gatehouse Comments

There are two castle site in Northallerton and there may be, in some sources, confusion and confabulation between the two sites, particularly with regard to their history. See Northallerton Castle Hills.

- Philip Davis

This site is a scheduled monument protected by law

Not Listed

Historic England (PastScape) Defra or Monument number(s)
County Historic Environment Record
OS Map Grid ReferenceSE364938
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Photograph by Peter E Presford. All rights reservedView full Sized Image
Photograph by Peter E Presford. All rights reservedView full Sized Image
Photo by Philip Davis. All Rights Reserved

() above

Latitude 54° 20' 21.51" Longitude -1° 26' 26.17"

View full Sized Image
Photo by Philip Davis. All Rights Reserved

() above

Latitude 54° 20' 21.51" Longitude -1° 26' 26.17"

View full Sized Image

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Primary Sources

  • Riley, Henry T. (ed), 1853, The Annals of Roger de Hoveden (London: Bohn) Vol. 1 p. 383 online copy


  • Constable, Christopher, 2003, Aspects of the archaeology of the castle in the north of England C 1066-1216 (Doctoral thesis, Durham University) Available at Durham E-Theses Online
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