Small but dramatic, Peveril Castle has dominated the popular village of Castleton for over 900 years and still makes a focal point for visitors using the village as a base whilst exploring the local area.
Brian Spencer recently browsed amongst its ancient stones.
The Hope Valley has attracted settlers since Bronze Age tribesmen built a fort on top of Mam Tor. Later on Roman legionaries were based at a small fort at Navio beyond Hope with the dual purpose of controlling traffic northwards across the wild inhospitable moors, but more important was their duty of guarding the slaves forced to mine lead from deep below the surrounding hills. This lead was an important product exploited later by Saxons then Normans and beyond right up to fairly recent times.
Soon after the Battle of Hastings in 1066, William Peveril, one of the Conqueror’s knights was given lands in the north Midlands in recompense for his support on the battlefield. Looking for somewhere to use as a secure base, he found the ideal site for his castle in the centre of the Peak District. A steep limestone ridge, sheer sided on two sides and with an easily defended slope to its north, it could not have been better; attackers coming from Cave Dale would be easily spotted as they laboured up the steep limestone crags and Peak Cavern Gorge was totally impassable. Furthermore it also commanded the only two ways in and out of the Hope Valley; west by way of Winnats Pass and south west along Cave Dale, both steep and difficult routes.
Neither road was easy, so any traffic was forced to pass close to the castle and its ever present toll barriers. It also became a base for controlling lead sales, but later on in more settled times, it was somewhere for the king to stay when hunting in the Royal Forest of the Peak. Such was the impregnability of Peveril Castle that it never featured in any of the civil wars that ravaged the country from medieval to Royalist versus Parliamentary times: the apparent damage to the north and east faces of the keep was caused by later builders using the dressed stone that faces it as a handy building material.
The first castle was probably a simple wooden palisade guarding a tented encampment, but gradually it began to take the triangular shape we can recognise today. This was mainly due to the efforts of King Henry II who around 1153 became owner of Peveril lands after William Peveril II backed the wrong side in a civil war, a war that led to the rise of the Plantagenet dynasty. He built the keep and most of the buildings inside the bailey, all within the safety of the existing curtain wall to its north. Clad with dressed limestone blocks over random rubble walls, the keep was built on two stories with a battlemented walk-way and a look-out tower on its southern corner. For its time the secure base was the last word in comfort and safety with a garderobe; an open toilet tucked away coyly at the end of a right angled passage. Flushing toilets were far into the future and waste products simply fell down the cliff into Peak Cavern Gorge. The keep would only have been used as a secure place if the castle came under attack, but mostly it was where administrative matters were dealt with and in later times, it was used as a prison. Wining and dining took place in the comfort of a purpose built grand hall at the bottom of the bailey, more or less in the north west corner of the curtain wall. It must have seen many a sumptuous banquet with food cooked in the adjoining kitchen which occupies about a third of the hall’s area. Along with things like stables and a small barracks, the castle had its own chapel built above the uppermost crags of Cave Dale. Although it has never been fully excavated, there was also an outer bailey connected to the castle by a bridge over the top of Peak Cavern Gorge and would have housed support workers and animals. Access to the castle was and still is by way of a steep zig-zagging path rising from the old market square in Castleton village which leads to the now ruined east gate, but in its day it was a well guarded entrance. Where there is now a grassy slope, terraces hint of somewhere to grow crops such as vegetables in order to augment supplies for the kitchen. At the top of the slope a flight of wooden steps where the modern metal staircase is now sited, led up to an entrance directly into the main chamber; spiral stone steps led down to the basement, making it easy to isolate anyone sheltering in the keep, something that never actually happened due to the castle’s militarily perfect site.
Peveril Castle became a royal stronghold after 1155 and with it came lands eventually named the Forest of the Peak, a royal hunting forest and as such protected by strict laws. By these laws only the king or his chosen friends and supporters could hunt game. Anyone disobeying this edict would be severely punished no matter if it was a poor miner or cottager attempting to feed his starving family: it is likely that any miscreants would be taken to Peveril Castle where summary justice would be carried out. Such was the size of herds of deer wandering over the then wooded limestone moors that it is recorded that in August 1250 over 100 stags were killed, salted and sent to a massive feast at Westminster. In 1495 hunting was temporarily banned so that there would be enough game left for Henry VII to hunt.
Despite the carefully controlled hunting in the royal forest, the numbers of deer had reduced drastically by 1564 and with the removal of the last few trees covering the moors for lead smelting, sheep farming gradually took over, setting the format of today’s landscape.
The main responsibility of the holder of Peveril Castle was to control lead mining activity in the region and it is likely that the local barmote court frequently sat there to adjudicate on mining matters such as the transfer of mining rights, or theft of lead when the court had the right to condemn anyone who stole lead more than once. The criminal suffered a long and painful death as he would be hung in a mine shaft from a dagger thrust through his hand. According to the Domesday Book, the lead miners working in the area covered by Castleton, Hope, Bakewell and Ashford had to supply the king with five wagon loads of lead each year. Used extensively to cover roofs, or as flashing, lead was an important building material that strove to keep up with the expansion of building in the 12th and 13th centuries. In 1250 50 ‘fothers’ (a fother was just under a ton), of Peakland lead were sent to Winchester to help roof the king’s new palace.
The ever popular village at the castle’s foot developed within the confines of a surrounding ditch – the best remains of it can be clearly seen to the side of Castleton’s main car park above the side channel of Peakshole Water draining as the name suggests, from Peak Cavern, but although the ditch suggests an outer defensive ring, it was probably designed to force travellers into the village in order to pay tolls to the lord of the manor. Castleton came into existence as a Norman borough where tradesmen whose work was in maintaining the castle lived. Even with today’s activity as a tourist attraction, it is easy to imagine the village as it was in the late Middle Ages. With St Edmund’s Church at its centre and the one time market square behind, it still has a large number of venerable buildings, some at least three hundred years old. With the traffic generated by the castle by the year 1215 Castleton had an annual trade fair and from 1223 there was a weekly market which by 1255 could boast 71 stalls. Like many Peakland villages, Castleton was ravaged by the series of plagues that raged throughout the Middle Ages and beyond, but it managed to survive and even though its castle fell into decline, by retaining such customs as the annual Garland Procession, a custom that is perhaps linked to more ancient times, the village has become the attractive place of today.
Peveril Castle is maintained by English Heritage and is open daily throughout most of the year. There is a small but comprehensive visitor centre where much of the castle’s history is explained. Public transport by way of Hathersage or Hope station is frequent.