Muncaster Castle is a privately owned castle overlooking the Esk river, about a mile east of the west-coastal town of Ravenglass in Cumbria, England. It is recorded in the National Heritage List for England as a designated Grade I listed building. The lands have been owned by the Pennington family for more than 800 years.
The place is now corruptly known as “Muncaster”, which first appeared in a Cumberland church register in 1577, the original name according to all old evidence and records being “Mulcaster”, registered in the pipe rolls of Cumberland circa 1150 (also as Molecaster and Mulecaster in 1190 and 1236 respectively).
The placename “Muncaster” contains the Latin word castra, meaning “encampment”, or “fort”. It is suspected that the site of the castle lies on foundations dating to the Roman era, which, if they exist, may represent a castellum for the nearby Roman fort of Glannoventa at Ravenglass.
The Muncaster estate was granted to Alan de Penitone in 1208. The oldest parts of the castle include the Great Hall and the 14th century pele tower, a type of watch-tower fortification unique to the English-Scottish border region.
Between 1860 and 1866 Anthony Salvin extensively remodelled Muncaster Castle for the Barons Muncaster. Sir John Frecheville Ramsden, 6th Baronet discussed proposed modifications to the castle with Edwin Lutyens from 1916, but nothing came of these; Lutyens did design the Muncaster War Memorial, constructed in 1922, on a commission from Ramsden.
Muncaster’s gardens include features designed to take advantage of views of the Esk Valley and the mountains. There is an owl sanctuary, and a maze.
Muncaster Castle is still owned by the Pennington family, who have lived at Muncaster for at least 800 years, and a family residence. Until her death in 2011, Phyllida Gordon-Duff-Pennington worked for three decades to restore the castle from a “crumbling relic” and establish it as a place for tourism and events. It now has more than 90,000 visitors a year.
After the Battle of Towton in 1461, according to tradition, Henry VI fled to Muncaster Castle where Sir John Pennington sheltered him. Henry gave Sir John a glass drinking bowl, in the hope that they should prosper so long as it remained unbroken. The glass, which is still intact, and still at the castle, is now known as ‘The Luck of Muncaster’.
Like many of England’s castles and stately homes, Muncaster is supposedly haunted by more than its fair share of ghosts—among them, that of an infamous and murderous court jester named Thomas Skelton.
Skelton was hired by Sir Alan Pennington, possibly as a personal steward and teacher to the real Lord of Muncaster Castle, William Pennington, who was 14 when his father died in the mid-16th century. Precisely how the Penningtons came to know Skelton is unclear, but nevertheless he soon made a name for himself not only as a brilliant entertainer but—if local legend is to be believed—as a lethally dangerous practical joker.
According to one story, Skelton had a habit of sitting beneath a chestnut tree (which still stands today) on the castle grounds, where he would chat with and offer directions to travellers and passers-by on the road that ran by the castle. Anyone he took a dislike to, however, would not be helped on their way but instead be intentionally directed toward a perilous and all but undetectable patch of quicksand by the nearby cliffs, from which there was little chance of escape. How many people Skelton supposedly sent to their deaths this way is unknown—but whether true or not, even this grim story isn’t the worst thing attributed to him.
Skelton was known as Tom Fool. At Muncaster Castle hangs a full-length portrait of Tom Skelton, dressed in fool’s motley and holding a staff, with a document, in the form of a will, hanging beside him.
His last will and Testament:
Be it known to ye, oh grave and wise men all,
That I Thom Fool am Sheriff of ye Hall,
I mean the Hall of Haigh, where I command
What neither I nor you do understand.
My Under Sheriff is Ralph Wayte you know,
As wise as I am and as witty too.
Of Egremond I have Burrow Serjeant beene,
Of Wiggan Bailiff too, as may be seen
By my white staff of office in my hand,
being carried straight as the badge of my command:
A low high constable too was once my calling,
Which I enjoyed under kind Henry Rawling;
And when the Fates a new Sheriff send,
I’m Under Sheriff prick’d World without end.
He who doth question my authority
May see the seal and patten here ly by.
The dish with luggs which I do carry here
Shews all my living is in good strong beer.
If scurvy lads to me abuses do,
I’ll call ’em scurvy rogues and rascals too.
Fair Dolly Copeland in my cap is placed;
Monstrous fair is she, and as good as all the rest.
Honest Nich. Pennington, honest Ths. Turner, both
Will bury me when I this world go forth.
But let me not be carry’d o’er the brigg,
Lest falling I in Duggas River ligg;
Nor let my body by old Charnock lye,
But by Will. Caddy, for he’ll lye quietly
And when I’m bury’d then my friends may drink,
But each man pay for himself, that’s best I think.
This is my Will, and this I know will be
Perform’d by them as they have promised me.
Sign’d, Seal’d, Publish’d, and Declared in the presence of
THS. SKELTON, X his Mark