The building that we see today is but a “Johnny come lately”. It dates from the late-18th and early-19th centuries.
In the mid-18th century, because of its dilapidated condition, it had become known as “Crazy Castle” amongst the circle of friends of its owner John Hall Stevenson. In about 1785, he decided that the best solution was to have it pulled down and a new home built for himself. He engaged the eminent London architect, Sir John Soane, who had designed the original Bank of England premises, to provide him with some design ideas. We must assume that none of the designs found total favour with John Hall Stevenson, because the end result is a building that has taken ideas from several different designs. The construction probably took about 30 years to complete.
It’s predecessor would have been a typical medieval castle, perhaps looking something like this artist’s impression:
But even this would have been a far cry from the original castle erected on this site. For that, we have to go back to the earliest years of the 12th century. It was here, at Skelton, that the Norman baron Robert de Brus established his home and base of operations. The first castle may have been nothing more than a man-made pile of earth, with a wooden tower on top and an small area all around it fenced with a wooden palisade. In other words, a typically Norman “motte and bailey” erection.
The sequence of owners of the castle has been traced and is presented in the text which follows.
The “de Brus” family connection
Robert de Brus I (died 1142) = Agnes
He accompanied Henry I from western Normandy (the Cotentin peninsula) when Henry came over to take the English throne. In 1119, he founded the Augustinian priory at Guisborough, where his brother William was the first Prior. His lordship of Annandale, in Scotland was confirmed by royal charter in 1124. Thus he owed allegiance to both the king of England and the king of Scotland. In 1138, at the Battle of the Standard on Cowton Moor, near Northallerton, Robert had to choose where his loyalties lay and decided to support the king of England. His second son, Robert II, sided with the Scots and was captured. Because he was still a minor, King Stephen returned him into the care of his mother. It is through Robert II that the descent can be traced (through five further generations) to Robert the Bruce, King of Scotland, who was crowned at Scone on 27th March 1306.
Adam de Brus I (died 1143) = Agnes d’Aumale
First son of Robert I, he fought alongside his father at the Battle of the Standard.
Adam de Brus II (died c.1190) = Juetta de Arches
Whilst still a minor, he was dispossessed of his castle at Danby by his guardian and uncle, William d’Aumale, Earl of York. His uncle also persuaded Adam to grant the churches of Skelton, Kirkleavington and Yarm away from Guisborough Priory and to William’s own foundation of Thornton abbey in Lincolnshire.
Peter de Brus I (died 1222) = Joan
In 1200, he succeeded in recovering the manor of Danby at a cost of £1000. In 1207 he purchased the wapentake of Langbaurgh, near Great Ayton. He became increasingly disillusioned of King John; and in February 1216, he had to flee Skelton Castle to avoid capture by the king. By 1219, the new king, Henry III, had restored his lands to him.
Peter de Brus II (died 1240) = Helewise, sister of William de Lancaster, Baron of Kendall
He served as a justice for Yorkshire, and also entered into litigation with the prior of Guisborough, the abbot of Byland and the bishop of Durham; this latter over rights of wrecks on the Hartness coast (present day Hartlepool). He died whilst on crusade.
Peter de Brus III (died 1272) = Hillaria, daughter of Peter de Mauley, Lord of Mulgrave
He died without issue.
The “Fauconberg” family connection
Following the death of Peter de Brus III in 1272, his four sisters became co-heiresses of the de Brus estates. Agnes, the eldest, married Walter de Fauconberg and took, as her share, the manors of Skelton, Marske, Upleatham and Kirkleatham. Lucia, the second sister, married Marmaduke de Thweng taking with her the manors of Yarm, Danby and Brotton. Margaret, the third sister, married Robert de Ross and had, as her share, the barony of Kendall; whilst Laderina, the youngest, married John de Bellew and had for her share the lordship of Carlton amongst other holdings. Thus the estate was split up and Skelton Castle passed into the hands of…
Walter de Fauconberg (died 1304) = Agnes de Brus
The estates now passed in direct line through the Fauconbergs.
Walter de Fauconberg (died 1318)
John de Fauconberg (died 1349)
Note that while the castle and estate was in the hands of John, in the 13th year of the reign of Edward II, John obtained a licence from the king to move the market from Sunday to Saturday.
Walter de Fauconberg (died 1361)
Sir Thomas de Fauconberg
He inherited two-thirds of the estate, whilst his mother, Isobel, received the other third. In 1403 the estate, by reason of Sir Thomas’s insanity, was put into the custody of King Henry IV who, later, placed it in the custody of Robert and John Conyers. In 1407 the estate was settled on…
Walter de Fauconberg (died 1407)
He was the son of Sir Roger de Fauconberg, who was a brother of Sir Thomas. William died in the same year that he inherited the estate, which then passed to his daughter, Joan.
Joan Fauconberg (died 1490) = Sir William Neville (died 1462)
She inherited the estate as an infant. She was described as an idiot from birth. The castle passed, via her marriage, to her husband who was honoured with the title Earl of Kent by Edward IV in 1461. They made alterations to the castle in 1428.
The “Conyers” family connection
Alicia Neville = Sir John Conyers (afterwards Lord Conyers)
Alicia was the daughter of Joan Fauconberg and Sir William Neville. She and her husband passed over the inheritance in favour of their son, William.
He inherited the castle in 1490.
John, Lord Conyers (died 1556)
On his death, the estate was shared between his three daughters. Ann married Anthony Kempe, Catherine married John Atherton and Elizabeth married Thomas D’Arcy.
There is record of disagreement between the three husbands. The story goes that each allowed their part of the castle to fall into disrepair so that the others wouldn’t have any benefit of it.
John Atherton, possibly in conjunction with his brother-in-law’s family, the D’Arcys, opened Springbank alum works at Slapewath c.1603-1604. This was probably the first alum works in north-east Yorkshire. See here for more about the alum industry.
The “Trotter” family connection
In 1577, Anthony Kempe sold his share in the estate, including the castle, to…
Robert Trotter (died 1611)
Henry Trotter (died 1623)
Edward Trotter (died 1708) = Mary Lowther
From 1668 to 1671 he was involved in opening Selby Hagg alum works, near present day Hagg Farm, and Saltburn Alum House, behind Cat Nab, on behalf of his father-in-law, Sir John Lowther.
He was a grandson of Edward and Mary and died without issue, the estate passing to his sister.
The “Hall Stevenson” family connection
Joseph Hall (died 1733) = Catherine Trotter
He came into possession of the castle and estates in 1727 by his marriage to Catherine, sister of Lawson Trotter, and by purchasing land, in 1730, from Lawson Trotter.
John Hall (died 1785) = Anne Stevenson
He added Stevenson as his surname after his marriage to Anne, the daughter of Ambrose Stevenson and Ann Wharton. John was an author and friend of Laurence Sterne, who wrote “The Life and Times of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman”. He had a reputation for throwing wild parties for his friends (including Lawrence Sterne, Zachary Moore and Panty Lascelles) who were known collectively as the “Demoniacs”.
He was something of a hypochondriac and wouldn’t get out of bed if there was an east wind blowing. The story goes that Sterne paid a youth to fix the weathervane so it never showed an east wind. The castle at this time was in a state of disrepair – earning for itself the nickname “Crazy Castle”.
Joseph William Hall Stevenson (died 1786) = Ann, daughter and heiress of James Foster, Drumgoom, Co. Fermanagh, Ireland
The “Wharton” family connection
John Hall Stevenson (died 1843) = Susan Mary Anne, second daughter of General Lambton of Lambton, Co. Durham
He was the son of Joseph William Hall Stevenson and changed his surname to Wharton in order to inherit his great-great-aunt Margaret Wharton’s estate at Gilling, near Richmond, Yorkshire. For 36 years he was MP for Beverley in the East Riding.
During his tenancy he rebuilt both the castle and the church at considerable expense. However, he ran up large debts and was, for a time, confined in Fleet Debtors Prison, London. His property at Skelton, excluding that which was entailed and the library, which was mortgaged, was auctioned to pay his debts. He died in 1843.
John Thomas Wharton (1809-1900) = Charlotte, eldest daughter of H W Yeoman
Thanks to the discovery of ironstone all across East Cleveland, and the royalties associated with its extraction from under his land, he was able build the estate back up.
William Henry Anthony Wharton (1859-1938) = Harriot Emily Yeoman
He was Commanding Officer of the 4th Battalion Yorkshire Regiment (a regiment better known as the Green Howards) prior to the outbreak of the Great War.
Margaret Winsome Wharton (1894-1991) = Captain Christopher Hilyard Ringrose
Mrs Ringrose Wharton was a very highly respected lady in the village. She took an active part in running the estate and supported many activities in the local community. There were no children from this marriage and so the estate passed to….
Anthony Charles Philip Wharton (1946- )
He is the son of Lawrence Humphrey Wharton, grandson of Philip Thomas Wharton, great-grandson of James Charles Wharton who was a brother of John Thomas Wharton and is the current owner of Skelton Castle.
- Ruth M Blakely: “The Brus Family in England and Scotland 1100-1295”, The Boydell Press, Woodbridge, 2005
- Tom Curnow: “Skelton and its history”, c.1983
- John Graves: “The History of Cleveland, …”, 1808
- Kenneth Laybourne: “Heraldic Monuments in Gilling West Parish Church, North Yorkshire”, privately published, Pickering, 1992
- John Walker Ord: “History of Cleveland”, 1846
- Robert Bell Turton: “The Alum Farm”, Horne & Son, Whitby, 1938
- Cumbria Archives: D/LONS/L1/1/ – Lowther Family papers
- (four letters to Sir John Lowther re Selby Hagg and Saltburn alum works)
- Web site: “Skelton-in-Cleveland in History”
- URL=http://skeltonincleveland.com/Index.html (accessed 23rd March 2020)
The author is deeply indebted to Anthony Wharton of Skelton Castle for his valuable input, including access to Laybourne’s work.