The History of Penrith
Sites like the henge at Mayburgh on the southern edge of modern Penrith and on the other side of the A6 the smaller version known as King Arthur’s Round Table , both of which date back perhaps 4,500 years, demonstrate the ancient settlement of the area. Further proof is the name, which is Celtic in origin, and probably denoted ‘red hill’, though another suggestion is ‘chief ford’.
On the natural western route north to Scotland the Romans chose to build a fort, named Brocavum by them, where Brougham Castle now stands. This also guarded the road east across the Pennines to York .
Penrith’s strategic location saw it become capital of the Kingdom of Cumbria before the Norman Conquest , looking less to England than Scotland whose King was its overlord until William I seized it in 1070. The Normans were not the first ‘foreign’ invaders – a Norse Cross believed to date from 920 can be seen in the parish church yard, attesting to earlier incomers.
For centuries the region and its capital were fought over and raided by forces from both north and south, struggles that left an architectural legacy in the form of pele towers where people and their animals would shelter from marauders. Penrith Castle is a case in point. It grew from such a refuge, a great wall extending the fortress in 1399 probably at the behest of the first Earl of Westmoreland, Ralph Neville, who had become Lord of the Manor there three years earlier.
Another pele tower can be seen at Clifton a mile or so southeast of Penrith, and it is likely that the 13th century tower of St Andrew’s Church , the rest of which is Georgian , was also designed for such use.
Henry III granted Penrith its first charter in 1223, a period of growth for the place – its oldest streets Burrowgate and Sandgate date from that time, and Brougham Castle was built to dominate the River Eamont. Conflict continued, however: in 1295 Edward I gained control of Penrith, but in spite of his general success against the Scots the town proved a tempting target for attacks by them over the last 12 years of his reign and into the early years of Edward II ’s when Penrith was plundered and burned several times.
Another Edward , the fourth of that name, granted Penrith to his brother Richard Duke of Gloucester, the future Richard III . Richard improved the stronghold with new kitchens and a banqueting hall.
In the 15th century, and possibly earlier, the 939ft high Beacon Hill on the north side of the town served as a place to watch for raiders and alert townsfolk of such dangers by means of signal fires, with similar posts at Carlisle , Orton and Kirkoswald forming an early-warning network.
The Civil War saw Penrith Castle ‘slighted’ by Parliament to prevent its use in any potential uprising. Its ruins are now cared for by English Heritage. In 1649 Lady Anne Clifford, more often associated with rebuilding Skipton Castle , also inherited Brougham Castle in disrepair. She devoted some of her considerable energies to its restoration, though that proved temporary: again English Heritage looks after its ruins.
At the end of the 18th century Penrith was home to William Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy , both of them receiving their early education at Dame Anne Birkett School, which can still be seen.
In 1846 Penrith joined the railway network, on the line between Lancaster and Carlisle as it had been on the road between those places for millennia. That convenient location has been key to Penrith’s importance as a market centre for the region for probably just as long, a status it enjoys to this day.
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