From powerhouse to ruin
A dominant structure
Beside the town, and dominating it, are the remains of a once-proud castle. Perched high on its defensive mound, the castle’s heavily fortified bailey and barbicans are still largely intact. Its four-storey East Tower is the tallest structure in Helmsley. Today the whole complex is cared for by English Heritage. “You really sense the depth of history as you come in through the South Barbican, just as visitors to Walter Espec’s estate would have done in the 12th century,” explains Adam Price, the site manager. He says he feels the centuries of history every morning when he arrives to “wake up the castle”. “This building was about one thing – domination. The town’s inhabitants were in no doubt about who held the power here. It is imposing and awe-inspiring.” Helmsley Castle was built by a Norman lord, Walter Espec. It transformed the small town, formerly known as Elmeslac, into a powerhouse of trade and military might. In 1120, Espec was granted almost unlimited power across northern England by the king, William II. Helmsley Castle was designed to underline his power and influence. Passed to the de Roos family following Espec’s death, it was strengthened through the 13th and 14th centuries. In the less turbulent 16th century, a Tudor manor house was added in the inner bailey. The castle’s only active combat came in 1644, at the height of the English Civil War. Its Royalist garrison was besieged for three months by Parliamentarian forces. Only the threat of starvation forced surrender. In recognition of their brave resistance, the 200 occupants were allowed to march out with honour, sporting their small arms weaponry. The victorious Parliamentarians blew up and dismantled parts of the castle. It was then left derelict until 1695 when it was bought by London banker Charles Duncombe. His descendants still own it. The family lived at the castle until 1711, when they built a new mansion in the adjoining parkland. The castle was kept a romantic ruin, visible from the long hillside driveway that connects the two buildings.
The East Tower of Helmsley Castle, built in the late 12th century, stands proudly on the mound. The buildings by the moat are Tudor, and were built as residential apartments (above). › The imposing entrance to Helmsley Castle. Adam Price, English...