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North Riding
Part of Middleham centre - geograph.org.uk - 818217.jpg
Grid reference: SE124878
Location: 54°17’9"N, 1°48’31"W
Population: 840
Post town: Leyburn
Postcode: DL8
Dialling code: 01969
Local Government
Council: Richmondshire
Richmond (Yorks)

Middleham is a small market town in the North Riding of Yorkshire, in Wensleydale, on the north-facing side of the valley just above the junction of the River Ure and River Cover. There has been a settlement there since Roman Britain. It is recorded in the Domesday Book as "Medelai".


Middleham Castle

The first known settlement at Middleham was during the Roman Era. A branch of the Roman road the route of which is honoured by the A1, passed through Middleham to Bainbridge. Near Middleham, the Romans built a guard station to control traffic on the River Ure.[1]

William's Hill

Before the Norman Conquest the lands in this area were controlled by Cospatrick. In 1069, the land around of Middleham was given to William the Conqueror's nephew, Alan Rufus, who built a wooden motte-and-bailey castle above the town, whose earthworks are still visible at "William's Hill". Rufus also built the castle at Richmond.

The castle which dominates the town, Middleham Castle, was started in 1190. The Nevilles, Earls of Westmoreland, acquired it through marriage in the 13th century. It was called the "Windsor of the North". The castle was in the possession of Richard Neville, 16th Earl of Warwick when his cousin Richard, Duke of Gloucester (the future King Richard III) came to learn the skills of knighthood in 1462. During the Wars of the Roses, both Edward IV and Henry VI were held prisoner here. Richard, Duke of Gloucester became master of the castle in 1471 after Warwick's death at the Battle of Barnet. Richard used the castle as his political base as he administered the North for his brother Edward IV. Richard married Warwick's daughter, Anne Neville, in 1472 and Middleham Castle is where their only son Edward was born (c. 1473) and where he died in April 1484.

At the time of Richard III, Middleham was a bustling market town and important political centre. As early as 1389 the lord of Middleham Manor received a grant from the crown to hold a weekly market in the town and a yearly fair on the feast of St Alkelda the Virgin.[2] The town is built around two market places, the larger, lower market is dominated by a mediæval cross which is topped by a modern iron cross in the Celtic style. The upper, or swine market, centers around the remains of a 15th-century market cross and a line of steps. At one end of the market cross is a worn effigy of an animal reclining and at the other may have had a moulded capital.

Most buildings in the old part of Middleham were built after 1600, though the old rectory has some mediæval elements incorporated into it.[3] In 1607 it is documented that Middleham was important enough to have a Royal Court, and all residents of the forest of Wensleydale fell under its jurisdiction.[4] From the ascension of Richard III until Charles I sold the manor to the City of London in about 1628, Middleham and surrounding lands were part of the Crown estates.[5] In 1661 the City of London sold Middleham Manor to Thomas Wood of Littleton, and it has remained in private hands until today.[6] In 1915 the yearly livestock market was one of the most important in the North, though the weekly market had fallen into disuse. Today the livestock market has moved to Leyburn.

Parish Church

Church of Saints Mary and Alkelda

The Church of Saints Mary and Alkelda was founded in 1291 and is mainly of 14th and 15th century architecture, though there are stones indicating the existence of a church on that site perhaps a century before.[3] The only remaining Norman artifact is a section of zig-zag moulding that was once around a door or window, and now above the north aisle. The church has a ten-foot-high Perpendicular font cover and a copy of the Middleham Jewel.

West of the church is St Alkelda's well, whose waters are reputed to restore strength to weak eyes. In 1478 King Edward IV gave permission for a leper hospital to be built on the east side of town in association with the church. Today, though the location is still known as Chapel Fields, it is given over to a horse training stables of the same name, and no trace of the hospital or chapel remain.[1]

Middleham today

Horses in training

Today the town is a centre of horse racing and home to the Middleham Trainers' Association. The first racehorse trainer at Middleham was Isaac Cape in 1765. Today there are several racehorse trainers including fanous names. Racing is the number one employer in the town and tourism is the second biggest. The castle is a ruin after having been dismantled in 1646. The keep, which was built by Robert Fitz Ralph in the 1170s survives along with the 13th-century chapel and the 14th-century gatehouse.

The Middleham Jewel

The front of the Middleham Jewel showing the Crucifixion

In 1985 the Middleham Jewel was found on a bridle path near Middleham Castle by Ted Seaton using a metal detector.[7] It has been acquired by the Yorkshire Museum in York for £2.5 million. It is a late 15th-century gold pendant of 2 oz with a 10 carat blue sapphire stone. The pendant is lozenge shaped, engraved on the obverse with a representation of the Trinity, bordered by an apotropaic Latin inscription imploring protection for the user from epilepsy.[8] The reverse face is a highly decorative engraving of the Nativity, bordered by the faces of thirteen saints.[9]

The back panel slides to reveal a hollow interior; originally containing three and a half tiny discs of silk embroidered with gold thread.[9] The textile contents identify the jewel as a reliquary, containing a fragment of holy cloth. It would have been worn by a high-status lady, as the centerpiece for a large necklace.[7] The sapphire may represent heaven,[10] and could have acted as aid to prayer.

Geography and geology

The town lies in the valley of the River Ure, Wensleydale. The parish of Middleham extends over 2,155 acres, which is mostly permanent pasture; only about 150 acres are arable. The topsoil is of mixed composition. The valley has modern alluvial terraces and gravel deposits, but the subsoil is mainly limestone, though it is intersected here and there by sandstone with plate. There is a known vein of lead in the northern part of the parish, and Braithwaite lead mine lies just outside the parish borders.[3]

Outside links


  1. 1.0 1.1 http://home.cogeco.ca/~richardiii/pilgrimage.html
  2. Chart. R. 11–13 Ric. II, m. 21; cf. Cal. Pat. 1436–41
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 A History of the County of York North Riding: Volume 1, William Page (ed.) 1914
  4. Exch. Dep. Mich. 5 Jas. I, no. 8. The earliest lords claimed the forest of Wensleydale by inheritance (Pipe R. 4 John [Yorks.]; Abbrev. Plac. [Rec. Com.], 74; Coram Rege R. Mich. 12 Hen. III)
  5. Pat. 4 Chas. I, pt. xxxiii, Roll B.; Cal. Com. for Comp. 2444; Exch. Dep. East. 13 Chas. II, no. 15.
  6. N. and Q. September 1884; Whitaker, Richmondshire
  7. 7.0 7.1 Cherry 1994, pp. 16–17.
  8. "Middleham Jewel". Art Fund. 11 June 2013. http://www.artfund.org/artwork/2633/the-middleham-jewel. 
  9. 9.0 9.1 Cherry 1994, pp. 24–26.
  10. Cherry, John. The Holy Thorn Reliquary, p. 7, 2010, British Museum Press (British Museum objects in focus), ISBN 0-7141-2820-1
  • Cherry, John (1994), The Middleham Jewel and Ring, Yorkshire Museum (York)