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Yorkshire's Castles

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Yorkshire's Castles
Bolton | Conisbrough | Helmsley | Knaresborough | Middleham | Pickering | Pontefract | Richmond | Ripley | Sandal | Scarborough | Skipton | Spofforth | York

Far from the heart of England and dangerously close to Scotland, Yorkshire has always been a troubled territory. From the start of the castle-building period, when William the Bastard conquered England in 1066, Yorkshire has remained a troubled area.

It was shortly after the 1066 conquest that the Normans built castles in Yorkshire, as their rule was challenged not only by the inhabitants of Yorkshire, but also by the Danes, who in 1069 sailed up the Humber to attack York Castle itself. For the immediate period after that, when William I laid waste to the region between York and Durham in the so-called Harrying of the North1, the Norman rulers were forced to take refuge in a vast number of motte-and-bailey castles, now abandoned.

Yorkshire's Castle Types

Most of the different fashions and stages of architecture that developed in England in this period can be found in Yorkshire's castles. There are traditional motte-and-bailey castles, such as Skipsea, shell-keep castles, such as Pickering,, tower-keep castles, such as Scarborough, hall-keep castles, such as Middleham, tower-house castles, such as Ripley, and courtyard castles such as Bolton. There are also unique castles built which do not conform to any popular plan. Although Yorkshire does not have any concentric or coastal castles, it houses a wide range of different castles, and is therefore an excellent place to visit if you wish to see how English castles developed.

In the decades and centuries of the medieval period, castles and fortified manor houses, known as tower-houses, were vital for protection - not only from the Scots, but also during the chaos of the civil wars between King Stephen and Empress Matilda and the later Wars of the Roses. The Civil War itself led to the destruction of many of the area's finest castles, which remained Royalist and were either damaged and destroyed in the sieges themselves - such as Scarborough. Others were slighted to prevent their further use as Royalist strongholds, such as Pontefract.

Other Castles in Yorkshire

This Entry is not exhaustive, and does not cover every castle in Yorkshire. However, these castles are all open to the public and have remains worth seeing.

Some of Yorkshire's castles are sadly not open to the public - these include Sheriff Hutton, Ravensworth and Tickhill. Another, Hazelwood Castle, has been converted into a posh hotel.

In September 2003 another castle, Snape Castle in North Yorkshire, was up for sale, although only half of the castle was sold. Described as a 'semi-detached castle,' the Grade I listed building had an asking price of only £325,000 although the exact figure it was sold for is not known. It was home of Katherine Parr, the sixth wife of Henry VIII, King Richard III's wife Anne Neville and his mother Cecily.

Yorkshire also contains remains of earthwork castles which never had stone walls or fortifications in materials other than wood or earth - perhaps the best example of this is Skipsea Castle in East Yorkshire. However, these have little to distinguish them from fields and hills, and are not as dramatic as the stone ruins of walls on which battles were fought or halls in which great kings held court.

The Shared History of Yorkshire's Castles

Although Yorkshire's castles mainly belonged to local lords, it was often national events that shaped their construction and they have shared histories.

Many castles began shortly after the Norman Conquest. The chaos in the period of civil war between King Stephen and Empress Matilda also influenced the construction of castles. Many Yorkshire castles were involved in the civil war and rebellion during the reign of King John. During the reign of King Edward II, his favourite Piers Gaveston was imprisoned in Scarborough Castle while the lord of Pickering and Pontefract Castles held a private feud and besieged the lord of Conisbrough and Sandal Castles. Richard II disinherited Henry Bolingbroke, lord of Pickering, Knaresborough and Pontefract castles and as a result was murdered at Pontefract Castle in Yorkshire.

The Wars Of The Roses, too, held important events in Yorkshire. Not only was the Battle of Towton in Yorkshire, but forces from Pontefract Castle besieged Sandal Castle, killing Richard, Duke of York in the Battle of Wakefield. Many of the castles also shared the same fate. Most of the castles in Yorkshire declared for the King in the Civil War. This led to 14 of Yorkshire's castles being destroyed by Parliament. Some, such as Sheffield Castle, have no remaining ruins at all.

The Castle Families

The castles in Yorkshire have not existed in isolation from one another, but the families behind their construction knew the families responsible and in command of the other castles in Yorkshire. The families behind the castles would sometimes intermarry, often creating a more powerful family commanding several castles and vast areas. Sometimes family feuds would develop - for example, between the House of York which owned Conisbrough, Sandal and later Middleham castles, and the House of Lancaster and the Cliffords of Skipton Castle.

To look at the history of the castles of Yorkshire is to look at the history of the people behind them, and to investigate the lives of the lords of the castles is to see the same historic events that took place in Yorkshire from different perspectives. Thus, the history of the grand remains of the castles of Yorkshire is, in effect, the history not only of the people of Yorkshire, but the history of the north of England itself.

1The Domesday Book records that of the 1900 villages in the area 850 were completely abandoned, the land around them uncultivated.

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