The much rebuilt and remodeled Middelham Castle seen today, was the second one to be built in the small market town of Middleham, the first being built in the mid 11th century on a site just south west of the current castle, which was begun in the late 12th century. With frequent changes of ownership, and a very chequered history, Middleham Castle underwent many periods of reconstruction and conversion right into the 16th century, although no records survive documenting the specific dates and alterations made.
Originally, entry was gained via an eastern gatehouse across a wooden bridge, or possibly even a drawbridge over a moat (now dry). However, the present entrance to Middleham Castle is through a three-storey, northern gatehouse with a passageway at ground level. Confronted by such an elaborate structure, with huge wooden gates and, at one time, a portcullis, it must have represented a splendid first impression of wealth and power.
Despite its ruinous state, the central Keep, towering to a height of some 66ft (20m), is still quite imposing. It is no longer possible to clamber up the original stone staircase as this was destroyed, but after climbing the modern steps in the south east corner of the Keep, marvellous views of the surrounding countryside can be appreciated from the battlements. Also visible from this vantage point is the site of the first motte-and-bailey castle, abandoned in the 12th century when the new one was built.
The Keep had two wells and two circular stone pits, possibly for storing live fish, and it appears that much of the ground floor was used as a kitchen area. The Keep, although not the tallest in England, was extremely large in area and provided exceptional living quarters along with the necessary security. The Great Hall was the heart of Middleham Castle, where entertaining and feasting took place regularly and, on other occasions, to settle disputes when it was utilised as the local courtroom. However, those wishing to gain access would have to pass through several defence barriers, including three heavily guarded gates, and an ante-room, before entry to the Hall was permitted.
Many 'royals' have been associated with Middleham Castle: it was the childhood home of Richard III, and his only son, Edward, was borne at Middleham Castle; Henry IV stayed there in 1410, enjoying the palatial surroundings and high quality accommodation it afforded; and several great Lords also resided there at various times. As for its darker side, Middleham Castle was used as a base during the Wars of the Roses, as well as during other skirmishes, and many prisoners were brought there for execution. It was a centre of defense, power and politics.