The first known settlement was during the Roman period. The IXth Legion of the Roman Army conquered York in 69 AD and moved north. A branch road from the Great North Road passed through Middleham to the Roman fort at Bainbridge. Near Middleham, the Romans built a guard station to control traffic on the River Ure.
Before the Norman Conquest, the lands in the area were controlled by Gilpatrick. In 1069, William the Conqueror granted the land around Middleham to his Breton cousin Alan Rufus, who built a wooden motte-and-bailey castle above the town. By the time of the Domesday Book in 1086, Alan had given the castle to his brother Ribald. Its earthworks are still visible at William's Hill. Alan also built the castle at Richmond.
Construction of the castle that currently dominates the town, Middleham Castle, began in 1190. The Nevilles, Earls of Westmorland, acquired it through marriage with a female descendant of Ribald in the 13th century. It was dubbed 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 Richard III) came there to learn the skills of knighthood in 1462. During the Wars of the Roses, both Edward IV and Henry VI were held prisoner there. Richard, Duke of Gloucester became master of the castle in 1471 after Warwick's death at the Battle of Barnet. He used it as his political base for administering the North on behalf of his brother Edward IV. Richard married Warwick's daughter, Anne Neville, in 1472. Middleham Castle is where their son Edward was born in about 1473 and died in April 1484. Richard III, who died in August 1485 at the Battle of Bosworth, was the last reigning King of England to perish in battle.
In the time of Richard III, Middleham was a bustling market town and political centre. As early as 1389, the Lord of Middleham Manor received a grant from the crown to hold a weekly market and a yearly fair on the feast of St Alkelda the Virgin. The town is built around two market places: the larger, lower one is dominated by a medieval cross, topped by a modern iron cross in Celtic style. The upper or swine market centres 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 there may have been a moulded capital.
Most buildings in the old part of Middleham predate 1600; the old rectory has some medieval features incorporated into it. In 1607 Middleham was important enough for a royal court, covering all residents of the forest of Wensleydale. Middleham and surrounding lands were part of the Crown estates from the accession of Richard III until Charles I sold the manor to the City of London in about 1628. In 1661 the City of London sold Middleham Manor on to Thomas Wood of Littleton, and it has remained in private hands to this day. In 1915 the annual livestock market was still regionally important, but the weekly market had been discontinued. Today the livestock market is in Leyburn.
The Church of Saints Mary and Alkelda was founded in 1291. Its mainly of 14th and 15th-century architecture includes some stones that indicate the existence of a church on the site perhaps a century before. The only remaining Norman artefact is a section of zig-zag moulding that once surrounded a door or window and now appears above the north aisle. The church has a three-metre Perpendicular font cover and a replica of the Middleham Jewel, found locally. West of the church is St Alkelda's well, whose waters were 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 the location is still known as Chapel Fields, but it is given over to a horse-training stables and no trace of the hospital or chapel remains.
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, including Mark Johnston, Jedd O'Keefe, James Bethell, and Ben Haslam. Racing is the number one employer in the town and tourism the second. The castle is a ruin, having been dismantled in 1646, but the keep, built by Robert Fitz Ralph in the 1170s, survives, as do the 13th-century chapel and the 14th-century gatehouse.
In 1985 the Middleham Jewel was found on a bridle path near Middleham Castle by Paul Kingston and Ted Seaton using a metal detector. It has since been acquired by the Yorkshire Museum in York for £2.5 million. It is a late 15th-century 68-gram gold pendant with a 10-carat blue sapphire stone. The pendant is lozenge shaped, engraved on the obverse with a representation of the Trinity, bordered by a Latin inscription warding off the evil of epilepsy. The reverse face has a decorative engraving of the Nativity, bordered by the faces of 13 saints.
The back panel slides to reveal a hollow interior, which originally contained three-and-a-half tiny discs of silk embroidered with gold thread. The textile contents identify the jewel as a reliquary, containing a fragment of holy cloth. It would have been worn by a lady of high social status as the centrepiece for a large necklace. The sapphire may represent Heaven, and have acted as aid to prayer.
Other notable finds from Middleham include:
- The Middleham Hoard – three pots containing 5,099 silver coins in total – was buried in the English Civil War and is the largest such hoard discovered.
- A livery badge for pinning to the chest or a hat, in gilded copper high relief, with Richard III's emblem of a white boar, is likely to have been worn by one of his household, when he was Duke of Gloucester.
- The Middleham ring (in the Yorkshire Museum) was found in 1990. It is a gold ring decorated with a low-relief inscription along the band, reading SOVEREYNLY.
- A circular, copper-alloy plaque (3-inch (70 mm) diameter) bearing the initials "R" and "A" surrounded by the French motto A Vo. Plaisir (For your pleasure) may be a casket mark given by Richard, Duke of Goucester to his wife Anne.
Geography and geology
The town lies between 400 and 500 feet (120 and 150 m) above ordnance datum. The valley of the River Ure just below the town is at an altitude of 325 feet (99 m) and the summit of the hill to the south-west of the town is 850 feet (260 m). The parish contains 2,155 acres (8.72 km2) of land, mostly permanent pasture – only about 150 acres (0.61 km2) is arable. The topsoil is mixed. The valley has modern alluvial terraces and gravel deposits, but the subsoil is mainly limestone, although intersected here and there by sandstone with plate. There is a known vein of lead in the northern part of the parish. Braithwaite lead mine lies just outside the parish borders.
In birth order:
- Anne Neville (1456–1485), consort of King Richard III of England, spent most of her childhood at the castle.
- Edward of Middleham, Prince of Wales (1473–1484) was born and died at the castle.
- Tobias Pullen, religious controversialist and Church of Ireland bishop, was born in the town in 1648.
- John Baynes, miscellanist and lawyer, was born in the town in 1758.
- Job Marson (1817–1857), the celebrated jockey, died at Middleham.
Middleham appeared three times in the UK television series All Creatures Great and Small. The episode "Against the Odds" had the Manor House as the home of the Barraclough family. In the episode "Where Sheep May Safely Graze", Middleham Antiques, in North Road, became Geoff Hatfield's confectionery shop. Ferndale became the home of the Darnley sisters in the episode "The Rough and the Smooth".
Middleham is twinned with:
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- "Ferndale, Middleham. N Yorks, UK – All Creatures Great & Small, The Rough & The Smooth (1989)". Waymarking.com. Retrieved 17 September 2013.
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- Cherry, John (1994), The Middleham Jewel and Ring, Yorkshire Museum (York)
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