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Beeston – The Castle on the Rock

Let’s get the elephant in the room out of the way… Beeston Castle, bless it, has always been the poor relative to its cousin Chester. However, the persistence of its existence still gives it clout in English history. And we’re big fans of the underdog. So we thought it worthy of our attention today.

Our ancestors had an eye for a good location…Beeston Castle

Beeston’s site had actually been occupied for thousands of years, even as far back as the Bronze Age, before the castle was built. Located on a 500 foot cliff, the views from its walls certainly make it clear why it was considered such a suitable place to build an impregnable base. Having begun as a simple earth bank to restrict access, it did later become a hill fort, and was probably a pretty significant one during the Iron Age.

The beast that is Beeston Castle as we know it, however, was started around 1220 by Ranulf, Earl of Chester, and then finished by his son after Ranulf died. Ranulf had stayed loyal to King John throughout his battles with the barons, and had been rewarded handsomely for his efforts after John died in 1216. However, when Ranulf joined the crusade brigade, his lands came under threat. The then King’s Justiciar, loyal to the young Henry III who had succeeded John, took it in his head to do what he could to recover remuneration that had been paid out in reward. Ranulf had no intention of giving up his riches without a fight, and it’s believed that the building of Beeston was, amongst other things, very much a defensive message to say, “Don’t come knocking at my door…”. It would appear it did its job.

However, when Ranulf’s son died without heir, Henry III took Beeston under his wing. It would be pushing it to say he concentrated on it as a key strategic position in any way, but he did extend it during his wars with Wales, and also set it to work as a prison for some of that time too. His son, Edward I, then also used it briefly as a base before heading to Chester to engage with his own battle plans for Wales. But for a while after that it seems to have fallen out of strategic favour.

Swinging to and fro during civil war…

This might just simply be because, as already mentioned, it was effectively the poor cousin to Chester, and really not required. But interest in the place did eventually pick up again in 1603, when it was bought by Sir Hugh Beeston.

By this time, and on in to the Civil War in 1642, it was in bad condition. But Beeston Castle being Beeston Castle had something up its sleeve. In 1643, Chester was held by royalists, whilst Nantwich was occupied by parliamentarians. Geographically, with Beeston sitting in between the two, it became a bit of a strategic prize to be won. It swiftly fell under Parliamentary control, but was then surrendered to the royalists. Various makeshift efforts to patch up the walls were made, but these only held fast for so long. An extended siege ended in November 1645 and saw Beeston revert back to the parliamentarians again.

In return for its efforts, along with many fortifications around the Welsh borders and the Midlands, it then found itself ignominiously slighted.

But Beeston remains a national treasure…

Poor Beeston, your heart has to go out to it. But its ability to hold our historical interest didn’t die at that point. A legend has stubbornly persisted over the centuries that Richard II hid a fortune somewhere within Beeston’s deep well. It was a significant amount that was supposedly stashed – hundreds and thousands of gold marks. And as he never recovered the treasure, because he was captured and eventually killed by Henry Bolingbroke, rumour has it it’s still there. For the sceptics amongst us, historical records apparently indicate that Henry IV took possession of the hoard sometime in the fifteenth century.  But don’t let that detract from your love of mystery if you have one. Nothing is for sure…

The castle today…

And so, despite its state of disrepair, even now if you visit Beeston you won’t be disappointed. The entrance gates at the bottom of the hill, though they may seem the real McCoy, are actually a Victorian embellishment; but don’t let that put you off. It’s a steep climb up from the base, but you are rewarded by being able to walk through the substantial (even for their time) stone walls that ring the site. And your next treat is the dry ditch that was cut into the solid rock centuries ago. Of course, in modern times, this has been bridged to enable visitors to get up to the castle. But it gives you an idea of just how impressive Beeston had been as a stronghold. And though the courtyard at the top is effectively a set of ruins, you can still take note of the impressively deep (370ft) well that’s cut straight down in to the rock. And if you’ve made the effort to get up there, it’s worth peering in for just a second longer than you normally would… for who knows what’s still hidden down there.