The Marmion Tower in West Tanfield
Updated: Nov 3
When you travel on the road between Ripon and Masham, you come to the town of West Tanfield. After crossing the bridge over the River Ure you see the old Church of St. Nicholas but right next to it a strange fortified tower rises up by the name of The Marmion Tower.
I often stop with guests to explore the Tower ruins so thought I would produce a short blog about the history of the building.
Before a bridge was built over the River Ure, the town evolved where the river could be easily crossed and a small ferry existed to transport people over. Tanfield Castle was built on the far bank as the riverside house of John Marmion a knight and the 15th Century gateway was the defensive entrance to the house.
Back in history after the Norman Conquest the lands around West Tanfield were given to Alan Rufus, who built both Richmond Castle and Middleham Castle. But later Alan Rufus’s descendants gave the lands around West Tanfield to the Marmion family who owned the lands for over 200 years.
In 1314 the knight John Marmion decided that he wanted a grander home with added defences to protect his interests. This led to him applying to King Edward II for a “Licence to Crenellate” – basically permission to fortify his house and add crenellations to make it look like a castle.
Tanfield Castle was built, but in effect it was more of a fortified manor house than a castle. Life was more violent in those times and not only were there constant feuds over land ownership, but in the 1300’s the Scots had started to raid in the North of England.
It is believed that whilst Tanfield Castle was built in the early 1300’s and sadly nothing exists of this former building, that the Marmian Towor was built the following century in the 1400’s.
By this time the castle had come under the ownership of the Fitzhugh family and it is believed that the gatehouse builder was Henry Fitzhugh the 3rd Baron Fitzhugh. His son William the 4th Baron inherited the Castle and potentially added a floor, but on his death the castle passed to the Parr family.
William Parr was the Marquess of Northampton and you may have heard this surname before? Catherine Parr was the 6th wife of Henry VIII (the one who survived!!) and William was her brothers.
The Parr’s only held the castle briefly before the land and castle was inherited by William Cecil who was Lord Burghley and one of Queen Elizabeth I’s key advisors. The Brudenell family from Leeds even owned the estate between 1747 and 1886.
The tower has been owned by the state since 1976 and is now managed by English Heritage and Grade I listed.
The tower is an interesting structure in its own right with its distinctive first floor oriel window.
It is essentially a three storey high building, built out of magnesium limestone blocks. By the slight change in colour of the limestone part way up, it is believed that the upper storey was added later after the initial structure was built.
The striking feature of the oriel window on the east face first floor, would have looked out over the village. Historic England cannot agree whether this was an original or additional feature, but its decorated gothic style upper tracery would tie in with the late 1300’s or early 1400’s. But some people including Pevsner argue the vertical mullion bars are perpendicular gothic which would suggest a later addition, even as late as Elizabethan times.
On the 3 storeys, the ground floor would have been a guard room or porters lodge. There is a vaulted ceiling, cupboard, latrine and fireplace, so would have been quite a cosy place for
a guard to hang out!
A wonderful spiral staircase leads to the first floor which would also had a latrine. This room with the wonderful bay window would have acted more of a medieval hall with a grander fireplace than the ground floor.
The 2nd floor which was the later addition also has a fireplace and latrine but has 3 windows for better look out opportunity. The roof has now been lost but the battlements and turrets can still be seen.
Whilst it is a shame that the castle no longer survives, looking back at notes made in 1540 by the antiquary John Leland it seems that the Tower was the more impressive structure even then.
"The castelle of Tanfeld, or rather as it is nowe, a meane manor Place, stondith hard on the ripe of Ure, wher I saw no notable building but a fair toured Gateway and a Haule of squarid stone”.
Below is an engraving of the Tower from the 1700's.
Well worth a stop.