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Yorkshire's Castles: Conisbrough Castle

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Conisbrough Castle.

Conisbrough Castle in South Yorkshire contains one of the finest keeps in the North of England, and certainly one of the most unique. The castle is D-shaped, with the straight line of the D running east-west on the castle's north side, and a the tall, circular, six-buttressed keep near the north-east corner.

The Outer Ward

The castle originally consisted of two wards, the outer ward lying to the main castle's west and was protected by an earth ditch and bank with a wooden palisade, the ditch also separated the outer and inner wards. The outer ward would have contained many of the castle's ancillary buildings such as stables, blacksmiths etc. It is in this area that the futuristic, octagonal castle shop and ticket office is now located.

The Barbican And Gatehouse

Entry to the Inner Ward, the castle itself, was originally through the castle's barbican. This was a protected passage on the castle's south side that led from the Outer Ward on the west, along the side of the south wall to the gatehouse at the centre of the south wall. This passage zig-zagged along the outside castle wall and was three metres wide, protected by tall walls. Much of the 13th-Century Barbican has since fallen in disrepair.

The gatehouse which the barbican defended was the only entrance to the castle, which had no postern gates or sallyports. Although the gatehouse building itself no longer exists, as the wall to the east side of the gatehouse has subsided and collapsed. The gatehouse was originally protected by a portcullis and two ashlar-faced towers complete with arch above, yet these towers have collapsed. Next to the gatehouse the remains of the guardhouse can be seen. This contained a prison cell below ground as well as the Constable's personal chamber.

The Inner Ward

The Inner Ward of the castle is a D-shaped court 70 metres long by 45 metres wide. The castle's wall is 2.5 metres thick and up to 10 metres high. It remains fairly complete apart from on the south-east side, where the wall fell in a landslip. Other than the keep the north wall was not protected by towers or turrets although it was buttressed.

The south side, though, did have eight towers, three on the east, two in the centre as part of the gatehouse, and three on the west. Of these, only three survive, the most impressive being the two on the south-west side which greet the visitor on the approach to the castle's barbican. The towers were originally of different sizes and shapes.

Domestic Buildings

Although none of the domestic buildings have survived, their foundations have. They all lay against the curtain wall on the north wall and the west side of the castle. The exception to this was what is believed to have been the castle's chapel to the east of the gatehouse. west of the gatehouse was the guardhouse with Constable's lodge above. Next to this in the west range were various chambers, with a large garderobe pit between them which had several latrines emptying into it. On the first floor of the West Range was the Great Chamber, the apartments used by the Earls of Surrey, owners of Conisbrough Castle, during their stays at the castle.

The North Range of buildings consisted of the Great Hall which originally stretched to the west wall, but was later shortened to create private rooms to the west. The Great Hall, used as a typical medieval Great Hall, took up the centre of the north wall. Although it was originally equipped with a central hearth this was later replaced by a fireplace built into the outer curtain wall. Next to this lay the kitchen and other service rooms, including one with a stone trough which has baffled historians trying to discover its purpose. Many feel it was a waste sluice from the kitchen, or possibly a urinal.

The Keep

The castle's finest structure is without doubt its unique keep, which is also the oldest part of the castle. It is one of the finest medieval ashlar-faced structures in Britain having been built with the finest limestone. Its design, circular with six evenly spaced full height buttresses rising 90 feet into the air, is unique in Britain. It is believed that this was an attempt to create a Norman Tower keep without the square keep's traditional weakness; the corners.

The keep is splayed at the bottom for extra strength in the event of its being besieged, and its entrance lay on the first floor over 20 feet above the court. The keep was entered up a wooden staircase near the castle. The staircase would end near the entry to the castle, level with the keep's single door, but it would be quite a distance from it. Entry to the keep itself would then be over a drawbridge. The staircase's foundations remain but has been replaced by a modern concrete staircase. The keep's wall at the door level is 15 feet thick, and is thicker below at ground level.

The ground floor of the keep was a vaulted basement and well, accessible only from a hatch in the vault's crown from the first floor. This hatch was used in order to lower buckets into the well. The first floor, where the keep would have been entered from, consists of a windowless, round room which would have been used primarily for storage and as a workroom. The second floor, accessed through stairs built into the curve of the keep's wall, was the Lord's Hall. This was the lord of the castle's public area, and comes complete with wash basin on its north-west side, latrine on the north-east, a fine window-seat as well as a fine fireplace. The third floor was the Lord's Chamber and also houses a latrine, basin and fireplace. Also on the third floor, built into the eastern buttress, is a small private chapel. This had a round-headed window, sacristy and retains other Norman decorations.

Above this level lies the keep's battlements. Here the buttresses are used as a dovecote, shelter for guards, bread oven and two are used as cisterns. The buttresses also served as turrets above the battlements rising one floor higher.

The keep of the castle was a hollow shell from the 16th Century until the mid 1990s. Then the Ivanhoe Trust, along with English Heritage, began a programme of restoring the keep's roof and floor. The keep was finally opened to the public in spring 1995.


Pre-Norman Conquest

Conisbrough Castle is set on a fairly important strategic site, guarding one of the few crossings of the River Don. Although little is known for certain of the history of Conisbrough before the Norman Conquest it is believed that there was some form of defensive structure on or near the site before 1066. One theory suggests that Conisbrough was originally a basic iron-aged hill fort, although there is no conclusive evidence for this.

In the 12th Century, Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote about Conisbrough, describing how the knight Conan 'began a berg. In all the world there was not such a Berg so fair.' He also wrote how Conan fought in the Battle of Miesbele in 494 AD against the Picts, however Geoffrey of Monmouth was more a writer than historian, and although some of his writings are based on historical fact, much is fiction, and whether that is how Conisbrough gained its name is debatable. A burgh is a Saxon word for a fortification, normally describing a fortified village, normally defended by a ditch and wooden walls.

It is almost certain that Conisbrough was a fortified village by 600 AD, when according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles it is recorded that its overlord was Edwin, who married Coenberg, daughter of Cearl, King of Mercia. However what truth exists in this is also unknown, it may just be another story to explain how the castle derived its name. A more likely explanation is that the name derives from 'King's burgh', indeed it is known in early records as 'Cyningesburh', meaning 'The Defended Burgh of the King'.

The earliest reliable mention of Conisbrough dates from 1000 AD in the will of Wulfric Spott, minister to Æthelred II the Unready, who had possessions in both Doncaster and 'Conningesburg'. Conisbrough was passed to Spott's nephew Elhelm, and later passed into the possession of Earl Goodwin of Wessex. On Earl Goodwin's death, the castle passed to his son Harold Godwinson, King of England in 1066. One local legend states that Harold's mistress, Edith Swan Neck, lived at Conisbrough and was often visited by Harold, who was married to Ealdygarth, widow of the Welsh King. The truth behind this is unknown.

The Normans

After the Norman Conquest the land of Conisbrough was granted to William de Warenne, a knight who had fought well at the Battle of Hastings. William de Warenne was made Earl of Surrey and was also granted land in Wakefield1, Norfolk and Lewes, and it is believed that he began to construct a wooden motte-and-bailey castle on the site at Conisbrough. William de Warenne was also the son-in-law of William The Bastard having married his daughter Gundreda.

William de Warenne died in 1088 from wounds received in battle and was succeeded by his son, also William de Warenne who held the castle from 1088-1138. On his death his son, another William, inherited the castle. In 1146 he suffered disgrace by fleeing from the Battle of Lincoln during the chaos of the Civil War between King Stephen and Empress Matilda2 when Stephen was captured by Robert, Earl of Gloucester. William left England to join the Second Crusade to the Holy Land and never returned, dying in 1148.

Isabel de Warenne and Hameline Plantagenet

His estates were inherited by his daughter Isabel, who in 1149 was married to the son of King Stephen, Prince William de Blois, Count of Mortain and Boulogne, Earl of Surrey. At the time of his marriage to Isabel William was only 9 years old, and was 19 on his death in 1159, when he died without heir.

On the death of William de Blois both his estates in Normandy and the estates belonging to the Earls of Sussex were now the possessions of Isabel. As these estates were quite extensive, Isabel became a ward of King Henry II, son of Empress Matilda. As Isabel's lands were very extensive and not wishing to enhance the power of any of England's powerful families, Henry married Isabel to his half-brother Hamelin Plantagenet, a bastard son of Geoffrey Plantagenet, in 1165. Hameline adopted Isabel's coat-of-arms and it is believed that he was responsible for the construction of the fine keep at Conisbrough as he had also built a round keep at his castle in Mortemer in Normandy.

Hameline outlived his brother Henry II and was present at Richard The Lionheart's coronation. He also contributed generously to the fund for his ransom. In 1201 King John came and stayed at Conisbrough to visit his uncle just before Hameline died in 1201.

William de Warennes

In 1201 Hameline's son, William de Warenne, inherited the castle and it is believed that he was responsible for the construction of the curtain walls.

William died in 1239, and his son, John, inherited the castle at the age of 5. The castle was lived in and looked after by his mother, Maud. When he was 12 he married Alice de Lusignan, Henry III's half-sister. He fought at the Battle of Lewes in May 1264 where Henry was captured by Simon de Montfort3. John fled to France after the defeat, but returned to fight in the Battle of Evesham, after which his estates were restored. John's son predeceased him, dying in a tournament in Croydon, and on John's death in 1304 the castle was inherited by his grandson, John.

John de Warenne

John de Warenne was a warlike man who had fought well in Scotland. However, his arranged marriage to Joan of Bar, the 10 year old granddaughter to the King was not a success and his attempts at a divorce were thwarted by Thomas, Earl of Lancaster. In 1317 one of his squires abducted Alice de Lacy, the wife of Thomas, Earl of Lancaster4, from Canford Manor in 1317 and fled with her to Reigate Castle in Surrey. Thomas, Earl of Lancaster, was one of the most powerful men in the country and was grandson of Henry III and King Edward II's cousin.

Thomas, Earl of Lancaster had even opposed King Edward II and was one of those responsible for the death of the King's favourite, Piers Gaveston in 1312, besieging him in Scarborough Castle. Thomas, Earl of Lancaster in revenge divorced Alice and then besieged John's castles at Sandal and Conisbrough.

Although Edward II ordered Thomas to end this private war he captured and retained Conisbrough and Sandal Castle until his death in 13225. Conisbrough Castle was damaged during the siege as records show how in 1319 Thomas of Lancaster ordered repair work to be made to the castle's chapel and south-east side. As it was this side of the curtain wall which later collapsed it is possible that the damage was more extensive then Thomas of Lancaster realised.

After Thomas Earl of Lancaster's death, Edward II stayed at Conisbrough Castle and also ordered further repairs. In 1326 John de Warrenne regained his castles at Conisbrough and Sandal. Although John had two illegitimate sons on his death in June 1347 the castle reverted to a Royal possession.

The House of York

When Edward III gained Conisbrough Castle he gave the castle and much of the other Earl of Surrey estates, including nearby Sandal Castle, to his fifth son, Edmund of Langley, who was 6 at the time. The castle was at first administered by Queen Philippa, who was often in residence at her castle at Knaresborough nearby. In 1362, on the death of his uncle, Edmund inherited the title Earl of Cambridge and under Richard II, son of Edward III's first son, he was made Duke of York. Edmund married Isabella, heiress of Castile and Leon and three times ruled as Regent while Richard II, his nephew, was abroad.

Edmund also supported Henry Bolingbroke, son of John of Gaunt, Edward III's fourth son's claim to the throne. Henry became Henry IV, first King of the House of Lancaster.6 Edmund died in 1402.

Edmund's son Edward, Duke of Albemarle, Second Duke of York inherited the title and castle. He spent much time campaigning in both Ireland and France, and was given the title Constable of England. Although he had married Maud he died at Agincourt without issue. His younger brother, Richard Earl of Cambridge, had been executed by Henry V for conspiracy before the fleet set sail from Southampton to France. These events are described in Shakespeare's Henry V Act 2 Scene 2:

King Henry:

My lord of Cambridge here,
You know how apt our love was to accord
To furnish him, with all appurtenants
Belonging to his honour; and this vile man
Hath for a few light crowns lightly conspired
And sworn unto the practices of France
To kill us here in Southampton.

The castle therefore remained in the hands of Maud, who lived at Conisbrough until her death in 1446.

Richard, Earl of Cambridge had married well to Anne Mortimer. Anne Mortimer was the daughter of Roger Mortimer, Earl of March, who was the son of Philippa, who had married Edmund Mortimer, Earl of March. Philippa had been the sole heir of Lionel, Duke of Clarence who was the second son of Edward III.

Richard, Earl of Cambridge was Edward III's grandson by his fifth son. Richard, Earl of Cambridge and Anne Mortimer's son, Richard, Duke of York therefore was descended from both Edward III's fifth and second sons, whereas King Henry VI was descended from Edward III's third son John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster. It was this which led to the Wars of the Roses, the dynastic quarrel between the Houses of York and Lancaster.

Richard, 3rd Duke Of York did not often stay at Conisbrough, preferring his castle at Sandal nearby. Although Richard was the richest man in the country after the King, he spent much of his life nearly bankrupt trying to raise funds to fight the war in France, for which he had no support from Henry VI. Henry VI was an incompetent king who bankrupted the nation, gave away much of the lands in France that Richard Duke of York had fought to keep as a dowry to his wife, Margaret. Richard Duke of York finally rebelled against Henry VI in 1459 and in July 1460 had captured Henry VI at Northampton. Richard made himself Lord Protector in the king's name as well as Henry VI's heir.

In December 1460 whilst residing at Sandal Castle in Wakefield he was besieged by Lancastrian forces from Pontefract Castle. Richard Duke of York led his army to battle outside the castle and was defeated and killed, along with his second son Edmund, Earl of Rutland. They were executed by John 'Bloody' Clifford of Skipton Castle, and their heads were displayed above Micklegate Bar in York.

On Richard 3rd Duke of York's death the castle was inherited by his eldest son, Edward Duke of York, who later became Edward IV. Although Conisbrough was a Yorkist castle throughout the war, it did not see any action, although Edward IV did stay at Conisbrough Castle, the last king to do so, and ordered repairs to be made in 1482. On the death of Edward IV the castle was inherited by his younger brother Richard III, who when in Yorkshire preferred to live at the more modern castle at Middleham. After his defeat at the Battle of Bosworth Field Conisbrough Castle was inherited by Henry VII.


After the death of Richard III Parliament declared that Conisbrough Castle was the property of Henry Tudor. Although records show that in 1522 Sir Henry Wyatt and John Melton were bailiff and steward of 'The Lordship of Conysborowe', by the time of Henry VIII's Commission to examine the remains of the castles in England in 1538 Conisbrough Castle was in ruins, describing how the gatehouse and wall had collapsed and one of the keep's floors was missing. Under Elizabeth I's instruction, Conisbrough was given to the Queen's cousin, Henry Carey, Baron Hunsdon.

By the time of the Civil War Conisbrough Castle's outer wall had collapsed on the south-east side, and it was considered to be undefendable. Because of this it was not slighted by Parliamentary troops, unlike many of the castles in Yorkshire which had been in Royalist hands.

Mary Carey, who held the castle during the Civil War, married a Mr Coke, and the castle was held by the Coke family until it was sold to the Duke of Leeds in 1737. During this time the castle was used as a source for stone for those in the village of Conisbrough to get building material for their houses. In 1859 the Duke of Leeds sold the castle to Sackville George Lane Fox, Baron Conyers. It remained in his family until 1920 when it was bought buy Conisbrough Urban District Council, and since 1949 has been owned by the Ministry of Works, now English Heritage. In 1995 the keep was re-roofed with its internal floors restored, and is now looked after by the Ivanhoe Trust.


In 1820 Sir Walter Scott published his world-famous novel Ivanhoe, the story of Ivanhoe, son of Cedric, his forbidden love for Cedric's ward Rowena set against the battle of the throne between Richard the Lionheart and Prince John, assisted by Robin Hood and the Jewess Rebecca.

In the novel, Conisbrough Castle is owned by Athelstane, a Saxon Prince, and Sir Walter Scott describes Conisbrough's great keep as being a Saxon castle. Although this was in accordance with the historical thought of the time, it is now known that the keep was Norman and had just been finished being built by the Norman Hameline Plantagenet at the time the novel was set.

Conisbrough Castle was one of Sir Walter Scott's favourite castles7 and first saw it in 1801 whilst passing Conisbrough in a mail coach. Ten year's later he described this view in a letter as 'I once flew past it in a mail coach when its round tower and flying buttresses had a most romantic effect in the morning dawn.' The castle features in Volume 3 Chapters 11 and 128 and is described thus:

There are few more beautiful or striking scenes in England, than are presented by the vicinity of this ancient Saxon fortress. The soft and gentle river Don sweeps through an ampitheatre, in which cultivation is richly blended with woddland, and on a mount, ascending from the river, well defended by walls and ditches, rises this ancient edifice, which, as its Saxon name implies, was, previous to the Conquest, a royal residence of the kings of England. The outer walls have probably been added by the Normans, but the inner keep bears token of very great antiquity. It is situated on a mount at one angle of the inner court, and forms a complete circle of perhaps twenty-five feet in diameter. The wall is of immense thickness, and is propped or defended by six huge external buttresses which project from the circle, and rise up against the sides of the castle as if to strengthen or support it. These massive buttresses are hollowed out towards the top, and terminate in a sort of turrets communicating with the interior of the keep itself. The distant appearance of this huge building, with these singular accompaniments, is as interesting to the lovers of the picturesque, as the interior of the castle is to the eager antiquary...
The mode of entering the great tower of Conisbrough Castle is very Pculiar, and partakes of the rude simplicity of the early times in which it was erected. A flight of stairs, so deep and narrow as to be almost precipitous, leads up to a low portal on the south side of the tower, by which the adventurous antiquary may still.. gain access to a small stair within the thickness of the main wall of the tower, which leads up to the third storey of the building, - the two lower being dungeons of vaults, which receive neither light nor air, save by a square hole in the third storey, with which they seem to have communicated by a ladder. The access to the upper apartments in the tower, which consists in all of five stories, is given by stairs which are carried up through the external buttresses.

Despite the castle being managed by the Ivanhoe trust, the castle's shop does not sell copies of Sir Walter Scott's classic novel. Nor does it sell videos, DVDs, Laserdiscs, or Super-8 copies of the movie versions9 of Ivanhoe that have been filmed, nor any 'talking books' on CD, record or audio cassette.

1Centred on Sandal Castle.2On the death of Henry I both Matilda, his daughter, and Stephen, his nephew, claimed the throne. Although Henry I had nominated Matilda as his heir, on his death Matilda, who had married Emperor Henry V of Germany when eight years old, was in Rouen preparing for her new marriage to Geoffrey Plantagenet, Count of Anjou and founder of the House of Plantagenet. Stephen was in England and seized the crown, supported by English barons who preferred Stephen as he was Norman whereas Matilda had been raised in Germany. A compromise was finally settled after 20 years of Civil War whereby Stephen was to remain king for life, after which Matilda's son, Henry Plantagenet, was to inherit the throne.3Simon de Monfort, Earl of Leicester had secretly married Eleanor Henry III's sister in 1238. He led the Civil War against Henry III in 1264 and captured him at Lewes Priory, as well as his son Edward. Edward, however, escaped and raised an army. Edward defeated Simon de Montfort's son Henry at the Battle of Kenilworth and then defeated Simon de Montfort at the Battle of Evesham in August 1265, where Simon was killed. Henry III was restored to the throne under the guidance of his son, who was to become Edward I.4Lord of Pontefract and Pickering Castles in Yorkshire.5In 1321 Thomas, Earl of Lancaster rose in open opposition to Edward II at the beginning of a five-year period of Civil War. Thomas, Earl of Lancaster was defeated in March 1322 at the Battle of Boroughbridge, imprisoned at his castle of Pontefract and executed.6These events are portrayed in Shakespeare's play Henry IV which features Edmund Duke of York, his wife and son Albermarle.7Sir Walter Scott was a strong believer of preserving castles and other medieval structures, many of his favourites featured in his novels and fictionalised History of Scotland. He was also key in preventing the demolition of York's city walls.8Chapters 41 and 42 in versions where the book is not split into volumes.9Ivanhoe was filmed twice in 1913, in 1952 in a very cheesy version starring Robert Taylor and Elizabeth Taylor and was nominated for three Oscars - Best Picture, Music and Photography. It was also filmed in 1958 for ITV, starring Roger Moore in his first starring role and has been filmed by the BBC in the 1970s when Ivanhoe was played by Eric Flynn and in 1997 when he was played by Steven Waddington. The best version of Ivanhoe to have been adapted so far is the superb, faultless 1982 TV Movie, undoubtedly one of the finest TV Movies of all time. It also had an all-star cast, starring James Mason, Anthony Andrews, Sam Neill, Julian Glover and John Rhys-Davies.

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