Notes: The castle is found on Whorlton Lane between Swainby and Whorlton. It is not sign-posted but visible from the road. On-road parking is possible in the immediate vicinity.
WHAT IS THERE TO SEE?
The remains of Whorlton Castle have been extensively quarried for stone and only the Gatehouse still stands largely because a (now vanished) lean-to dwelling house was built against it in the seventeenth century. The vaulted store-rooms of the fourteenth century Tower House and various earthworks are also visible.
NO OFFICIAL SITE
Whorlton Castle. Only the Gatehouse stands to any great height on the site today but originally this would have been dwarfed by a Tower House (the vaulted chambers are visible in the foreground). There was probably also a curtain wall that enclosed the site but all traces have vanished.
Whorlton Castle was raised as a motte-and-bailey fortification in the late eleventh century to dominate an area that was still recovering from the punitive attacks of the Norman ‘Harrying of the North’. It was substantially rebuilt in the fourteenth century in the form of a Tower House but today only the Gatehouse still stands.
HISTORY OF WHORLTON CASTLE
At the time of the Norman invasion, Whorlton was a small settlement owned by Gospatric, Earl of Northumbria. In early 1068 he was one of the leaders of a northern uprising against William I ultimately joining a combined resistance against the Normans under Edgar the Aetheling. William defeated this threat and, in what has become known as the 'Harrying of the North', launched a punitive campaign during the Winter of 1069/70 aimed at destroying all farms and settlements between York and Durham. Whorlton seems to have avoided destruction, it is presumed it was used a base by the Normans, but the value of the manor was decimated - the Domesday Book recorded its worth in 1066 as £24 but by 1086 it was valued at a mere £1.3.
Although Gospatric made terms with William, he was stripped of his earldom in 1072. Whorlton passed to Robert, Count of Mortain and then to the de Meynell family. It was probably Robert de Meynell (1070-1135) who founded the first castle on the site - an earth and timber motte-and-bailey fortification. The motte was surrounded by a ditch and was unusual in that it was broadly square in plan rather than oval as was the standard. The bailey was rectangular and was located on the eastern side of the motte. Outer earthwork defences, perhaps augmented by a timber palisade, probably protected a small settlement that grew up to serve the facility. The castle was sited on a spur of high ground enabling it to command the Leven valley and the associated road. A park was established in the surrounding area to serve the hunting requirements of the Lord.
In the mid fourteenth century the castle passed by marriage to John, Lord Darcy of Knaith. By this time the structure was in a poor state of repair - a report of 1343 had described it as ruinous - and therefore he demolished it. The motte was levelled and the site re-used for a new stone Tower House. A fortified gatehouse and, presumably, a curtain wall created an Inner Ward.
The castle passed by marriage to Sir James Strangways in 1418 and was held by his heirs until 1541 when the rights to the wider estates of that family were disputed by the Dacres of Greystock. Ultimately Henry VIII settled the dispute but kept control of Whorlton Castle himself and in 1544 granted it to Matthew, Earl of Lennox. His son - Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley - later married Mary, Queen of Scots.
By the early seventeenth century the castle was ruinous and a dwelling house was built within its grounds. This remained in use for over a hundred years - during which time the castle passed into the ownership of the Bruce family - but both castle and house were later robbed for their building materials. Further damage occurred in 1875 when large quantities of stone were removed for the construction of Swainby village church. Today only the gatehouse survives along with some earthworks and the vaults of the fourteenth century Tower House.