Penrith Castle was originally a Pele Tower that was later upgraded into a substantial fortification by Ralph Neville, Earl of Westmorland. It eventually passed into the hands of Richard, Duke of Gloucester and subsequently became a Royal castle when he seized the throne.
The first fortification at Penrith was a Pele Tower built in the 1380s. Constructed upon a small hillock, this structure was a rectangular tower with walls in excess of two metres thick. Directly adjacent was a courtyard occupied by ancillary buildings including stables, kitchen, brewhouse and bakehouse. It is uncertain whether these were protected by any defences such as a timber palisade. The precise builder of the Pele Tower is disputed. Richard II granted William Strickland, Bishop of Carlisle licences to crenallate (fortify) in 1397 and 1399 but it is uncertain whether this applied to Penrith. It now seems more likely that these licences actually related to the Bishop's work at nearby Hutton Hall in which case the Pele at Penrith was probably built by the Neville family.
In the early fifteenth century Penrith Castle was upgraded by Ralph Neville, Earl of Westmorland. He enhanced the existing Pele Tower into a castle by enclosing the courtyard with a substantial curtain wall and adding additional Towers. Further augmentations were made by his son Richard, Earl of Salisbury who replaced some of the early timbers buildings with new stone constructions.
Penrith Castle remained with the Neville family until the late fifteenth century. By this time it was owned by Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick - the so-called Kingmaker for his support to the Yorkist cause during the Wars of the Roses which had been instrumental in helping Edward IV seize the throne. However, he rebelled against Edward in 1471 and was killed at the Battle of Barnet. His properties, including Penrith, passed into the hands of Richard, Duke of Gloucester (later Richard III). He made some alterations to Penrith Castle making it a suitable residence for someone of his status and periodically stayed there. When he succeeded to the throne in 1483, Penrith Castle became a Royal property but, following his death at the Battle of Bosworth Field (1485), it was not used again as a Royal residence. A report dated 1580 described the castle as ruinous.
Penrith Castle briefly saw action in 1648 during the Second Civil War when it was used as a headquarters by the Parliamentarian Commander General John Lambert. Thereafter it was allowed to drift into ruin. It was granted to Hans Willem Bentinck, Earl of Portland during the reign of William III but in the nineteenth century was sold. It narrowly avoided destruction when acquired by the Lancaster and Carlisle Railway Company.
Clare, T (1981). Guide to Archaeological Sites of the Lake District. Moorland Publishing.
Cope, J (1991). Castles in Cumbria. Cicerone Press.
Douglas, D.C and Myers, A.R (ed) (1975). English Historical Documents Vol 5 (1327-1485). Routledge, London.
Emery, A (1996). Greater Medieval Houses of England and Wales. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
Historic England (2016). Strickland's Pele Tower and Penrith Castle. List Number 1010690. Historic England, Swindon.
Jackson, M (1990). Castles of Cumbria. Carel Press & Cumbria County Library, Carlisle.
King, C.D.J (1983). Castellarium anglicanum: an index and bibliography of the castles in England, Wales and the Islands. Kraus International Publications.
Perriam, D and Robinson, J. (1998). The Medieval Fortified Buildings of Cumbria. Kendal.
Salter, M (1998). The Castles and Tower Houses of Cumbria. Folly Publications.
Thompson, M.W (1998). Medieval Bishops' Houses in England and Wales. Ashgate, Aldershot.
Penrith Castle is a relatively small fourteenth century castle that was heavily modified in the later Middle Ages to turn it into a comfortable residence. The site was surrounded by V-shaped ditches.