Beeston Castle (Cheshire, England)
Updated: Oct 24, 2019
Beeston Castle is an imposing presence built on an iron age hillfort on Beeston Crag, one of a chain of rocky sandstone hills in spanning the Cheshire Plains.
The original castle was constructed around the 1220s by Ranulf de Blondeville, 6th Earl of Chester, after his return from the crusades. An expansive and intimidating statement of strength and power, the outer bailey was designed around the existing remains of the Iron Age hillfort’s ramparts. It was known contemporarily as ‘Castellum de Rupe, ‘the Castle on the Rock’, and was one of three major castles built by Ranulf de Blondeville after his return from the Fifth Crusade (the other two were Bolingbroke and Chartley).
Unlike most castles of the period Beeston did not have a keep and instead relied on its formidable natural defensive features to maintain security. Sheer drops around the rectangular castle on the summit, massive defensive ditches, and an outer bailey protected by an imposing gatehouse all served as serious defences for any enemies to contend with. The outer bailey also had a number of D-shaped towers that allowed defenders to shoot across the walls as well as outwards, an innovative design in castles of the period.
Upon Ranulph’s death in 1232 the castle defenses were in place but there was little by the way of living quarters, something that was not improved during the possession of his successor and son John’s control of the castle. When John died without an heir in 1237 Henry III took over ownership of the castle and the Earldom of Chester. He subsequently enlarged Beeston Castle and used it as a holding place for captives during the Welsh Wars, although no attempt was made to make the castle an actual residence so no halls or chambers were built. The garrison were likely housed in wooden buildings within the outer bailey.
In 1254 Henry III gave Beeston Castle and the Earldom to his son Prince Edward. Edward was crowned King in 1271 and completed the conquest of Wales. Edward I was a prolific castle builder and conqueror, who brought Wales to its knees with warfare, and built many castles including Caernarfon, Harlech, Conwy, and Beaumaris.
In the 14th Century the castle was inhabited by various constables who were left in charge of this royal castle, living in or near the gatehouse. The castle was kept in good repair and improved during Edward I’s reign, however by the 16th century the castle’s significance had vastly diminished. No longer considered of any use to the Crown, in 1602 the castle was sold to Sir Hugh Beeston, of the local Beeston Hall.
During the English Civil War (1642 – 1651) Beeston was one of many neglected castles that was put back into service. The castle was seized in 1643 by Parliamentarian forces but was surrendered before the end of the year. Held by Royalists in 1644 until 1645, a lack of resources forced their surrender. The castle was then slighted.
Because of the geology of the area and the ruination of the castle itself quarrying was carried out in the castle grounds during the 18th century. The gatehouse leading to the outer bailey was demolished to make movement of the quarried rock easier. In 1840 the castle was purchased by John Tollemache, who at the time was the largest landowner in Cheshire. During the Victorian period tunnels were dug into the sandstone and in the present day these caves are still visible.
The castle is now owned by English Heritage and open to visitors. Much of the walls and towers are still in place. The current gatehouse and visitors centre was built by Tollemache in the 1800s as a lodge house, two stories high with two circular towers and a central archway. On a clear day it is possible to see 8 counties from the upper bailey.
There is a persistent myth that vast treasures of Richard II are buried somewhere within the castle grounds, possibly at the bottom of a very deep well…