In about 1214, Robert de Vieuxpont, one of King Johns most important agents of the north of England acquired the site on which Brougham castle was later built, in order to defend against his royal master’s northern enemies and their Scottish allies. It was a good site for a castle. Protected on its north and west sides by the rivers Eamont and Lowther, it commands the crossing of the Eamont just to the east, and controls nearby roads running north to south and east to west. The Romans had built here for the same reason, and the ruins of the fort of Brocavum provided stone for the building as well as earthworks which could be adapted for medieval purposes.
Vieuxpont’s castle consisted of a stone keep and service buildings, surrounded by a timber palisade, which was replaced by a stone curtain wall in around 1300. By then the castle was in the hands of Robert Clifford, whose father Roger had become lord of Brougham when he married Robert de Vieuxpont’s great-granddaughter in 1268. Robert Clifford was an important figure in the Scottish wars which started in 1296. The works which he carried out at Brougham – the gatehouse complex, the top story of the keep, the Tower of League at the south-west corner of the castle bailey, and the stone curtain walls – both proclaimed his standing and strengthened the defences against attack by the Scots.
The Anglo-Scottish wars which began under Edward I lasted for centuries. Further works became necessary under Roberts grandson, Roger Clifford, in the 1380’s. He was responsible for a number of buildings along the south curtain wall, including a new hall which had over its door the stone carved ‘Thys Made Roger’, now to be seen over the out gatehouse. But these could not prevent a damaging Scottish raid in 1388, when the castle was captured and sacked. It is not known to have been back in use until 1421, when a man was accused of forging coins inside its walls.
Brougham Castle was important in the wars of the roses, as Lancastrian Cliffords and Yorkist Nevilles competed for dominance in north-west England. It occupied a strategic position, and for that reason was granted to the Nevilles by Edward IV after John Clifford was killed fighting for Henry VI in 1461. But John’s son Henry (sometimes called ‘the shepherd lord’ in the ill-founded belief that he was out of harm’s way after his father’s death), recovered Brougham and the rest of the family’s estates from Henry VII, and under the Tudors he and his family prospered. Henrys son, another Henry Clifford, was made earl of Cumberland in 1525, and his son, yet another Henry, spent much time at Brougham, where his son and heir, George, the third earl, was born in 1558.
In George’s time, however, the castle was increasingly neglected, as its lord spent more and more time at court, where he acted as Queen Elizabeth I’s champion. An inventory of 1595, which covers the castle in detail, reveals a sorry state of affairs, with room after room either sparsely fitted out with old and decaying furniture, or piled with ancient armour, decaying pots and pans, and junk. But when George died in 1605, the castle came back to life again for a while, as the dower-house of his widow, Countess Margaret. In 1617, the year after her death, James I and his court were received at Brougham, spending two nights in the castle. The expense to George’s brother Francis, the fourth earl, was vast. He had to lay on exotic food like Peachicks and quails, and also an elaborate masque, in which singers, dancers and musicians united to entertain and praise the king.
Brougham castle was then neglected again, and though it was manned by the Royalists, it played little part in the Civil wars of the 1640s. But it enjoyed and Indian summer after 1650 thanks to George’s daughter Lady Ann Clifford, who restored the fabric of the castle, added a new bakehouse and brewhouse, and laid out a substantial garden for fruit and vegetables and the south side of the castle. She paid repeated and extended visits to Brougham, with a large household, and finally died in the castle on 22 March 1676. Brougham castle was maintained for a while after her death, and a man was paid to clean the roofs and rooms up to the beginning of 1714. But by then the earl of Thanet had decided that he did not need all his ancestral castles, and that Appleby Castle was enough. That year he sold all the castles furnishings and fittings, apart from those of the Tower of League, for £570. Nine years later, in 1723, the Tower of League was similarly disposed of, fetching a further £40 5s.
Reduced to an empty and roofless shell, the castle quickly fell into ruin. In the late 1840s the last earl of Thanet carried out substantial works to preserve what was left of its fabric. But his successors, the Lords Hothfield, soon found the burden of maintenance too heavy.
Brougham castle is now looked after by English heritage and is open to visits. Please check the website as times vary through the year.