I stumbled across this beauty on a walk in the gorgeous Mendips, in a village called East Harptree (known as Estharpetre, Harpestre. Arpetream, Harpetreu in historical documents). The name Richmont itself could be a reference to ‘rich mountain’ or ‘mound’ as this area was rich in lead and calamine mining and water coursing. The land spur the ruins sit on has not only been disturbed by severe mining over time but now has a canopy of overgrown foilage and trees. Thus the overall look of the ruins and original castle layout has vanished and all that is left is a segment of curtain wall which, for the uninitiated, you could be mistaken for walking straight past a heap of stones …
Thankfully, the site is a Scheduled Monument; It’s importance lays in the fact that this hidden, quiet and unassuming beauty spot was once a strategic military prize and played it’s part in English history. During the Anarchy of the mid-12th century, the castle and land were owned by a Sir William de Harptree (family later known as de Gourney, explained at the end) and a staunch supporter – due to his loyalty to Robert of Gloucester – of the Empress Matilda. In 1138, the castle was captured by King Stephen after his unsuccessful attempt to capture nearby Bristol. I have managed to find a reference from a primary source to the rather enigmatic Richmont Castle during this time:
So under their persuasion the king abandoned the siege of Bristol, and after laying waste and eating up, plundering and carrying off everything around it, advanced against two castles, Cary and Harptree, the one in the hands of Ralph, surnamed Luvel, the other in those of William fitz John. They were bound to the earl by ties of friendship, firmly united with him by pledge and oath, and so much his allies by compact and homage that as soon a they learnt he wished to rebel against the king’s power, they joined in his rebellion promptly and by agreement. Finally, hearing that the king had advanced against Bristol and thinking he would long continue the siege there, with one mind they fulfilled their promise to the earl and by grievously ravaging all the districts round them they committed everywhere all the hostile acts they could. But the king came very quickly and besieged Castle Cary with vigour and determination, and since his engine scattered fire and showers of stones among the besieged and the pressure went on until their rations ran short, he at last compelled them to surrender to him under an agreement for peace and harmony. Indeed they could not keep up their resistance any longer owing to weakness from lack of food, especially as the earl, their hope and refuge, had not arrived in England and the people of Bristol could not go to their aid on account of the greatly superior strength of the king’s forces. So he left Cary after a compact had been made and turned his army against Harptree, where he would have seen to the building of a castle in front of it, with an adequate garrison, had it not been suggested to him by the advice of wise men that this castle too he could most conveniently keep in check by the soldiers he had left at Bath, especially because there was a short and easy journey between the two strongholds and it seemed expensive and too burdensome that many should prepare for and engage in battle and siege in many places. At another time, when the king had passed that same castle with an innumerable force of armed men as though he were advancing with his army to besiege the people of Bristol, the garrison hastily came out, intending to attack his army, if a chance were offered, and were following him stealthily on a flank when he at once turned back and gave the horses free rein to the castle; finding it nearly empty he ordered some to set fire to the gates, others to put engines and scaling ladders against the walls, all to make eager and strenuous efforts to break in, until at last he took it, resistance being offered only by a few, and handed it over to the guardianship and care of his own men. (http://www.deremilitari.org/RESOURCES/SOURCES/gestastephani.htm, accessed 21.02.15)
In the picture on the left, I could walk through the gap between two walls by bending my 5ft4″ height a mere inch or so.
Robert of Gloucester, Matilda’s half-brother and most powerful ally, recaptured Richmont circa 1140. Unfortunately, history after this is rather sketchy. King John visited in 1205 and there is mention of a licence to crenellate Richmont in 1343 which was later revoked, probably for non-payment. It is noted that during 1509 – 1547, the owner was a Sir John Newton who destroyed the castle and used the stonework to rebuild a nearby manor house; this is further supported by the writings of the 16th century historian, John Leland, who noted ‘castle ruins’ circa 1540 – 1546.
Things get more interesting the further back in time we go. East Harptree and West Harptree are today quaint villages at the foot of the Mendips, occasionally busy with traffic during rush hour times. They were originally two manors within a much larger Anglo-Saxon estate pre-1066; in 1086 the Domesday book notes that ‘Ealdwine’ held East Harptree in 1066 and was now held by Robert, Son of Walter de Douai (Dowai), a Norman knight holding the land for Robert Count of Mortain, the conqueror’s half brother. ‘Aliwacre’ held West Harptree in 1066 and this was now held by Azelin Goueln de Percheval for another of the conqueror’s brothers, Bishop of Coutances. Azelin fought at the Battle of Hastings with his father.
It’s Azelin I’m interested in – it was either his son or grandson who was holding Richmont Castle for Empress Matilda. Azelin apparently had the surname Lupus, meaning wolf due to his violent and uncontrollable temper. In turn, his son, William, nicknamed Luppellus, young wolf. William de Harptree is also noted to be a ‘warlord’. I’m getting the feeling they were of a violent disposition! Notice the surname, Percheval and Lupus? Lupus was softened to Lovel via William and it was this Percheval, later Perceval family, that founded nearby Cary Castle, ancestral seat of the Lovells.
William de Harptree’s grandson, Robert de Gourney (his wife’s baronial name from Normandy; apparently, Harptree was too ‘saxon’ and the Norman nobility liked to keep their ancestral names), was deemed one of the most powerful and richest nobles of the Western counties during the reign of Henry III. He had 3 principal castles during this time – one of them being ‘Richemount’. See, I did get back to the original topic!
I cannot express how walking through a peaceful Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (ANOB) and coming across a harmless wall of stones opened up such a fascinating and addictive peek into the past. The whole area must have seen its’ fair share of horrendous violence – rape and pillage to name but two. And I hate to think what happened to poor old Aliwacre and Ealdwine in 1066 …
History on the doorstep, I love it. We have such a rich, honoured history and it isn’t always found in the glorious manor houses or superb castles we are lucky to still have standing. Sometimes, it’s just an old pile of rubble with a story waiting to be discovered.
A solid, recent source was:
which gives more recent and professional facts which I based further internet searching on. I have listed other sources below but only two are primary – the Record of the House of Gourney, thankfully digitalised by Google and the Gesta Stephani, a mid-12th century anonymous history of the Acts of King Stephen.
Forrester P, 2004, Pub Walks in the Mendips, p58
http://www.connectedbloodlines.com/getperson.php?personID=I10605&tree=lowell [accessed 22.02.15]
http://www.bafhs.org.uk/bafhs-parishes/other-bafhs-parishes/304-west-harptree [accessed 22.02.15]
http://www.1066.co.nz/library/battle_abbey_roll2/subchap124.htm [accessed 21.02.15]
http://www.gatehouse-gazetteer.info/English%20sites/16.html [accessed 22.02.15]
https://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/som/vol1/pp433-478#h3-0002 [accessed 22.02.15]
http://www.pase.ac.uk/jsp/persons/CreatePersonFrames.jsp?personKey=27636 [accessed 22.02.15]
And of course, for basic links, Wikipedia!