Statement of Significance
Historic Building Recording (Level 3)
There has been a castle at Brancepeth since at least the late 12th century, although much of the current building dates to the 14th century. Despite this long pedigree, and it being a Grade I listed building, the complex has often been dismissed by architectural historians as a ‘sham’ castle. For example, author Nikolaus Pevsner termed it ‘largely operatic scenery’ due to extensive remodelling in the 19th century.
In 2018, Historic England commissioned Northern Archaeological Associates to reassess the significance of the medieval remains. A Level 3 Historic Building Survey was conducted, supported by documentary research, to establish the extent of surviving remains and investigate the original layout of the medieval complex, and how this may have influenced the later remodelling. This work will inform the future management of the castle, ensuring the protection of the site’s unique heritage significance and sense of place.
Brancepeth Castle is approximately 6km south-west of Durham City and, until the late 16th century, was the northern stronghold of the powerful Neville family, in addition to Raby Castle 19.3km to the south-west. The first documentary reference to a castle at the site dates to 1216, when it was held by King John as surety against the loyalty of the family during the First Barons’ War. In the latter half of the 14th century the complex was extended and largely rebuilt. It was one of a group of castles built or remodelled at that time across the north of England, including Raby (1378), Bolton (1379), Sheriff Hutton (c.1380), Lumley (1389), Hylton (c.1390) and Middleham (c.1410). The building remained in the hands of the Neville family until 1563 when the 6th Earl, Charles Neville, was banished for his involvement in the Rising of the North and his estates were forfeited to the Crown. The property then passed through a succession of families until, in the early 19th century, it was bought by banker and colliery owner William Russell who commissioned Scottish architect John Paterson to undertake an extensive programme of rebuilding.
Brancepeth is one of only 21 medieval castles and fortified manors recorded in County Durham, only 13 of which are now standing. Its development reflects key changes in castle design across the country and more specifically the north of England. In layout it is a good example of a 13th-century enclosure castle but it is the design of the 14th-century elements that are particularly significant. The work is attributed to the medieval mason John Lewyn who designed some of the most auspicious and complex buildings of the period. The south-west accommodation block is a prime example of this style, comprising three towers clustered together to create the impression of a single unit.
The history of Brancepeth is intrinsically linked with the fortunes of the Neville family and the Bulmers before them. The Nevilles and the Percys were two of the most powerful noble families in the country in the late 14th century, wielding considerable political power and attaining great wealth. Ralph de Neville, the 2nd Baron Raby (d.1367) together with Henry Percy most famously defeated the Scots at the Battle of Neville’s Cross in 1346, and his grandson, Ralph de Neville (d.1425) the 1st Earl of Westmorland, played an important role in royal machinations at the end of the 14th century.
Despite the later 19th-century developments – or because of them, depending on your opinion of Victorian architecture – the visual impact of the castle is impressive in its landscape. Largely hidden from view on the main approach, the gateway suddenly looms over the visitor. The building is seemingly impenetrable and, with its turrets, machicolations, crenelated towers, and curtain wall, Brancepeth encapsulates every child’s image of what a ‘proper castle’ should be. Evidence suggests that this show of strength and prestige was as important to the mason of the 14th century as it was to the architects responsible for the 19th-century modifications; therefore, rather than breaking with tradition, the later additions represent a degree of design continuity.
The Medieval Fabric of Brancepeth Castle has now been published as part of the Historic England Research Reports series. Hopefully, this thorough review of its history and revelations about the building’s architecture will help to re-establish Brancepeth’s reputation as one of the great medieval castles of the north east.
A copy is available to download for free from the Historic England website (click here for a link).
NAA wishes to thank all those involved with the project, especially the Dobson family who have made the property their home since 1978. The site it is open to visitors on a number of days each year and for public events (click here for a link to their website for details)