I often drive through Wharfedale from Bolton Abbey up to Grassington on my All Creatures Great & Small Tours. On the route we pass the ruins of Barden Tower and my guests often say “what’s that castle” as it comes into view.
As we get closer it becomes more obvious that the building isn’t quite a castle, but actually the remains of a fortified manor house just off the B6265, sitting above the banks of the River Wharfe.
What we see now was built in the 1400’s by Henry Clifford – “The Shepherd Lord” (more about him later) to replace an early hunting lodge, but the site also has an interesting heritage so it’s worth understanding the earlier history which proceeds the existing building.
Before the Norman Conquest, this area in Wharfedale including Barden Forest was a huge hunting forest full of deer and wild boar, with hunting a popular pastime for the rich and wealthy Saxon Lords. After the Norman Conquest, the Lands around Skipton were gifted by William the Conqueror to one of his Lords called Robert de Romille.
As well as building the first iteration of Skipton Castle, he built a hunting lodge at Barden for entertaining wealthy friend and managing the nearby forest.
Eventually the Honour of Skipton (the town and surrounding countryside) came under the ownership of The Clifford family and during the 1300’s the hunting lodge was used to hold forest courts and administering justice to poachers. It is also believed to have provided a place of protection for local during the regular raids by the Scottish during this time.
The Shepherd Lord
During the late 1400’s the Wars of the Roses raged in England. The battles between the House of York and the House of Lancaster who both had claims on the throne of England, split loyalties and defined the era.
Henry Clifford’s father John was a Lancastrian supporter and became known as “The Butcher” due to his violent nature in battle and lack of mercy during the wars. John Clifford was killed at The Battle of Towton when his son Henry was just 5 years old.
The story from here is difficult to trace but legend and folklore create a romantic version of the next phase of his life.
The story goes that the new Yorkist King Edward IV having confiscated the Clifford lands around Skipton, put a bounty out for the life of Henry Clifford in revenge for his father having showed no mercy to a surrendering Yorkist prince.
Upon hearing of this and to save her son from reprisals, Henry’s mother Margaret sent him into hiding under the care of a shepherd and his family. The five year old would have had a serious shock to his system to go from living as a young Lord in a castle to moving around, sleeping in barns barns or in the wilds to hide away from the Yorkists who never gave up trying to find him.
24 years after first going into hiding, having spent this time roaming the Dales and the Cumbrian Fells, the Lancastrians and Henry VII eventually gained the throne back after defeating the Yorkist Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth. Coming out of hiding and now a grown man with a gruff northern accent, Henry re-appeared and made a claim on his family lands.
At first he was not believed but with his provenance confirmed, his estates were restored to him. He became referred to locally as “The Shepherd Lord”.
Rejecting Court Life
Having lived a rural life for 24 years, Henry did not want to return to life at the castle. Instead he had the hunting lodge at Barden, rebuilt into Barden Tower to act as his home where he could be closer to nature as well as hunt.
Clifford built a curtain wall around the towers and also built a chapel and priest’s house which still exist now and are available for weddings and receptions.
A keen stargazer from his time as a shepherd, Clifford also designed the upper dining room as an astronomical observatory. He also built a close friendship with the priors at Bolton Priory a few miles down the valley.
Never a Castle
Barden Towers is definitely more of a fortified manor house than a castle. It was always built more for comfort as opposed to defence.
But the Tower did get captured by rebels during the ill-fated Pilgrimage of Grace in the 1500's where they tried to reverse Henry VIII’s reforms of the Catholic Church. Whist it was repaired it was no longer actively used and fell into disrepair.
The Tower never had an active roll in the English Civil War of the 1600’s but the outer wall was pulled down and part demolished so that it could not be used by the Royalists for military purposes.
Lady Anne Clifford
After her father died in 1605, Anne Clifford should have inherited Skipton Castle and its lands but was usurped by her uncle and spent the next 30 years at court trying to legally claim her birth right and reclaim the estates. She eventually succeeded and her lands included Barden Tower.
She restored Barden Tower and added an L-shaped tower to the original medieval building. She never lived permanently at Barden with her main residence being Appleby Castle in Westmoreland.
Sadly after Lady Anne’s ownership, Barden Towers fell into disrepair again with the local Devonshire family inheriting the lands then removing the lead roof and timbers for use on other building development on their estate.
What you can see today…
Whilst the building is fenced off as it is dangerous, you can still clearly see most of the three story rectangular building and Anne’s L shaped addition. Looking inside the ruined building you can make out the grand fireplaces as well as chimney stacks.
If you look carefully there is also a plaque above the doorway in recognition of Lady Anne’s refurbishment. It says…
This Barden Tower was repayrd by the Ladies Anne Clifford Countesse Dowager of Pembrookee Dorsett and Montgomery Baronesse Clifford Westmerland and Veseie Lady of the Honor of Skipton in Craven and High Sherifesse by inheritance of the Countie of Westmerland in the yeares 1658 and 1659 after it had layne ruinous ever since about 1589 when her mother then lay in itt and was greate with child with her till nowe it was repayred by the sayd Lady, Isa. Chapt. 58. Ver. 12. God's name be praised!
Barden Towers is well worth a visit and if I could make a recommendation, there is a wonderful children’s book about the life of Henry Clifford by my daughters former school netball coach’s husband George Peter Alsager – a rip roaring yarn entitled, you guessed it – The Shepherd Lord.