Commanding a strategic point overlooking the River Tees are the remains of Barnard Castle. The castle was the principle stronghold of the Baliol family who founded the town at its gates and turned the castle into one of the largest fortresses in northern England. The land on which the castle was built had been given to the Church in the ninth century but was forcibly taken by the Earls of Northumberland by the eleventh century. The land reverted back to the Crown at the end of the eleventh century after William II crushed a rebellion by the Earl. In 1095, the king granted the land to Guy de Baliol who was a loyal supporter from Picardy in north eastern France.
The foundations of Barnard Castle date from the twelfth century when Guy de Baliol built a timber castle here. The site was chosen specifically as it was naturally defended on two sides by steep cliffs and the River Tees and to the north of the site, there was a road and a ford laid out by the Romans. The castle includes an early twelfth century ringwork which was a medieval fortification comprising of a small defended area which was surrounded by a substantial ditch. Acting as strongholds for military operations, ringworks in some cases defended aristocratic or manorial settlements. Guy de Baliol held the lands around Barnard Castle for thirty years and was succeeded by his nephew Bernard de Baliol in 1125. Together with his son, Bernard turned the castle into a major fortress by rebuilding in stone and enlarging the site.
By the early thirteenth century the family fell into financial difficulties and in about 1190, Bishop Pudsey of Durham held the castle in security for a loan made to Eustace de Helicourt, a member of a local tenant family, who inherited the estate in 1199. The castle was returned to the family around 1212 when King John ordered the castle to be returned to Eustace’s son Hugh. The king granted the lordship to Guy de Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick, in 1307 but as the Beauchamps main interests were in the Midlands, the castle was used mostly as a source of revenue with the outer wards largely abandoned making the castle smaller and cheaper to run.
The bishops tried once again to recover possession of the castle in 1471 however, the lordship passed to Richard, the Duke of Gloucester. In 1483, Richard became king and although he made alterations and had plans for the castle, most were never realised because of his early death at Bosworth Field in 1485. The castle remained in royal hands until 1603 during which time the castle went into decline despite requests for money to pay for repairs.
In 1603 James I gave the castle to Robert Carr, Earl of Somerset. The estate was transferred to the Prince of Wales in 1615 following the disgrace of Somerset and was subsequently sold to the City of London in 1626. Sold to Sir Henry Vane in 1630, the castle was dismantled to provide materials for an extensive rebuilding programme at his main residence at Raby Castle. Lord Barnard of Raby became the eventual owner of the estate and in 1952, he placed the Inner, Middle and Town wards in the guardianship of the Ministry of Works.
The ruins of Barnard Castle are Grade I Listed and a Scheduled Ancient Monument.