Yorkshire's Castles: Pickering Castle Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Yorkshire's Castles: Pickering Castle

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Yorkshire's Castles
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Pickering Castle is a motte-and-bailey castle north of the town of Pickering near the royal forest of Pickering. It is east of the steep Pickering Beck river and is now on the edge of the north Yorkshire moors, near the North Yorkshire Moors Steam Railway station in Pickering.

The castle itself is a very rough circle with the ruins of the shell keep on the motte in the very centre of the castle. Below the keep the castle is divided into two roughly equal halves, with the inner ward on the north and the outer ward to the south nearer the market town.

The Inner Ward

Along with the keep the inner ward is the oldest part of the castle - indeed it was the entire castle until the outer ward was built in the 1320s. The inner ward is an elliptical courtyard which housed the castle's main domestic buildings. The western wall of the inner ward is ruined and crumbling in places, yet the rest of it has survived in fairly good condition.

Inside the ruins of the chapel are the old and new halls and the constable's lodging which contained a hall, kitchens and a store room. The castle's well, originally over 20 metres deep, is also located inside the inner ward.

Domestic Buildings

The only surviving intact building is the chapel. The chapel was begun in 1226 and from 1238 there was a royal appointed chaplain. In 1374 John of Gaunt, son of Edward III, granted the chaplain the revenue of the Hospital of St Nicholas and in 1460 Edward IV established a chantry dedicated to Mary within the castle. The last chaplain left in 1547 when Henry VIII closed all the chantry chapels. After this, the chapel was used as a courtroom. The chapel was then restored in the 19th Century and re-roofed in the late 20th Century.

The earliest stone structure in the castle is the remains of the old hall, built when the walls of the inner ward were still made of wood. After the building of the new hall the old hall was used as guest chambers or servants quarters, depending on demand.

In 1314 the New Hall was built for Countess Alice de Lacy, Thomas Earl of Lancaster's wife, at a cost of £341. It was originally a two-storeyed hall and had private chambers for the countess. By Tudor times it was known as the king's hall and was used as a mote hall (or meeting hall) and courthouse. By 1651 it had been abandoned and it collapsed soon after.

In the north-east corner of the inner ward lie the remains of the constable's lodging, a collection of half-stone, half-timber buildings. These included a hall, buttery, pantry and kitchen and two chambers used as storerooms and houses of office. These would have been used by the castle's constable, who was in command of the castle in the king's absence.

The Coleman Tower

The only tower on the inner ward wall of the castle was the Coleman Tower, which is now ruined. This originally guarded the entrance to the inner ward near the bridge across the moat that surrounds the outside of the inner ward. The Coleman Tower was a square tower which also guarded the main stairway up to the keep. The ground floor level was used as a prison, with the upper floor used as a guardroom for those guarding the entrance to the tower and the stairway. The upper floor also housed a staircase to the tower's roof as well as to the room over the ward's gatehouse entrance. This, known as the Grays Chamber, housed the drawbridge and portcullis mechanisms and was later used as a records room. Sadly it no longer exists.

The Outer Ward

The outer ward occupies the south half of the castle near the town of Pickering. Originally known as the castle's barbican - as it guarded the original castle consisting of the keep and inner ward - it is the newest part of the castle's defences. The outer ward was built between 1323 - 1326 on the orders of Edward II and contains four towers. Where the ward's wall joined the inner ward, a turret was constructed to aid defence and control access to the innermost ward.

The courtyard also housed other domestic buildings, most noticeably a two-storey stableblock. Most of the outer ward's wall survives at its original height, with the exception of the stretch on the western side north of the mill tower towards the inner ward wall.

Rosamund's Tower

The northernmost tower, next to where the outer ward wall joins the inner ward, lies Rosamund's Tower. This lies astride the moat that ran around the castle's inner ward. The bottom of the tower, in the moat, contains a postern gate which leads outside the castle. This was defended by a drawbridge and was used as a sallyport.

Over the postern gate lay the ground floor which was reached from a door to the east of the tower at the top of the moat. A corridor built into the wall led into the tower from here. The upper floor was reached from the curtain wall and was linked by a corridor to the turret defending the junction with the inner ward. The upper floor also contained a latrine. The battlemented roof is no longer accessible, and the tower's floors no longer remain.

The origins of the name Rosamund Tower are no longer known, although it is possible that it was named after Henry II's mistress - though she had been dead for almost a century before the tower was built.

Diate Hill Tower

On the castle's south-east 'corner' lies Diate Hill Tower, originally known as Dyet Tower. The Diate Hill Tower is the best preserved of the castle's towers - it is six metres square and has a recently-restored roof. The ground floor contains a single window. The first floor can be reached by a wooden staircase outside the tower, and contained two windows as well as a latrine. From the first floor a newel winding staircase led to the second floor. The second floor had thinner walls than the floors below and was therefore slightly larger. It contains three windows and housed the castle's captain of the guard, containing a fireplace complete with mantel, latrine and cupboards built into the wall.


Two-thirds of the way west of the south side of the castle is the castle's gatehouse. This was a two storey tower over the gateway, which was protected by a drawbridge, thick doors and a portcullis. Between the drawbridge and the doors, attackers would find themselves in a corridor defended by wall-walks, similar to those found at Walmgate Bar in York, where they would be vulnerable to the defenders above.

Mill Tower

The eight-metre-square Mill Tower lies at the south-west corner of the castle, near where a water mill stood, powered by the stream of Pickering Beck below.

The ground floor of the tower was used as a prison, with its door locked from outside. It contained two doors, one on the outside opening out and one on the inside opening inwards, for extra security. Only a small arrow slit gives the room some light.

The first floor, entered from steps from the western wall, also contained a double doorway. It was used to house the jailer and contained a fireplace and latrine. North-east of the first floor room lies a door leading to a newel staircase leading to the tower roof. The staircase is housed in a circular turret on the tower's corner.

The Keep

This is the centre, both defensively and geographically, of the castle's keep. It lay on top of the motte and was originally a circular shell keep on top of the 20-metre wide platform at the top of the motte. There were originally two entrances to the keep along the inner ward's wall-walks, one on the western side by the Coleman Tower, and one on the east which headed to the turret next to where Rosamund's Tower would later be built.

The shell keep wall itself does survive in parts, and on the north side stands to the height of the keep's wall-walk. Two of the nine arrow-holes survive here, and this is the only known example of a shell keep in England where the arrow loops were below the keep's wall-walk. The keep contained various timber domestic buildings, now ruined, as well as a latrine built into the thickness of the eastern wall.


Pickering Castle was founded by William The Bastard during his 'Harrying of the North' campaign of 1069 - 1070 in order to control the remains of the local population as well as defend his territory from both the Scots and the Danes, who had landed at both Scarborough and York in the last five years. Pickering Castle began life as a simple wooden motte-and-bailey castle. It was a royal castle, and in 1108 Henry I, William The Bastard's second son, stayed at Pickering Castle.

Much of the castle's early history is unknown. There is evidence that the castle was under siege during King Stephen's reign (1135 - 1154). Over the valley of Pickering Beck to the west of the castle at nearby Beacon Hill lie the remains of a four-metre high ringwork 30 metres across. It is believed that this was a seigework where a besieging force would plan their campaign against the castle.

The castle's inner ward and shell keep were probably converted to stone under Henry II in the 1180s. There are records of work on the drawbridge taking place during the reign of King John, from 1207 - 1210.

Henry III

Between 1218 and 1236 the inner ward was extensively rebuilt and strengthened. The early years of Henry III's minority were a chaotic time with the threat of the Dauphin Louis who claimed the English throne, supported by many powerful barons in the north of England near Pickering Castle. Although Louis was defeated in 1217 at Lincoln, during this period Pickering Castle was besieged and badly damaged.

In 1220 a jury was formed to investigate how much of the castle had been destroyed. Geoffrey de Nevill, Sheriff of Yorkshire was ordered to maintain both the royal castles at Pickering and Scarborough. Between 1218 and 1236 over 1,200 marks were spent on the two castles repairing the walls. The chapel was also constructed at this time. In 1255 Pickering Castle was placed under the control of Justiciar Hugh Bigod. Bigod held the castle until his death in 1266.

Edward II

In 1267 Henry III granted the castle to his second son Edmund Crouchback, who held it as part of his Earldom of Lancaster. On his death in 1296 Pickering was considered to be old-fashioned, and was inherited by his son Thomas, Earl of Lancaster who - through the Lancastrian inheritance and marriage to Alice de Lacy of Pontefract - Castle was a very powerful man. Although initially advisor to King Edward II, he lost favour to the King's favourite Piers Gaveston, and later led the revolt against Edward II. In 1312 Thomas Lancaster besieged Piers Gaveston in Scarborough Castle, who was executed.

Edward II was a very weak king, leading the English army to defeat against the Scots at the battle of Bannockburn in 1314. In 1321 Thomas, Earl of Lancaster, rose in open opposition to Edward II at the beginning of a five-year period of Civil War, ended only on Edward II's death. Thomas, Earl of Lancaster was defeated in March 1322 at the Battle of Boroughbridge and was imprisoned at his castle of Pontefract and executed outside the castle soon after. Edward II then reclaimed all lands of the House of Lancaster.

Having defeated Thomas, Earl of Lancaster, Edward II began another campaign into Scotland. This, like his 1314 attempt, failed and led to Scottish raids into England including into Yorkshire. Pickering Castle itself was threatened by the Scots, surviving only by buying the marauders off and giving them three hostages, including the castle's constable, while nearby Ripon was burnt.

In 1323, after the Scots had withdrawn, Edward II visited Pickering Castle to ascertain how to improve its defences. Under the new constable, John de Kilvington, the castle and its buildings were repaired. Edward II also ordered the construction of a stone wall, without towers, around what would become the outer ward, as well as construction of a postern near the keep. However, before work began on these improvements Edward II was imprisoned in Kenilworth in November 1326 and executed on 21 September, 1327.

The House of Lancaster

On Edward II's death Pickering Castle was inherited by Thomas, Earl of Lancaster's younger brother Henry. On his death in 1345 he was succeeded by his son Henry, who was created Duke of Lancaster in 1351. On Henry's death in 1361 the Honour of Pickering and House of Lancaster passed to John of Gaunt, Edward III's fourth son, who had married Henry Duke of Lancaster's daughter and heiress Blanche. On the death of Blanche's sister Maud, John of Gaunt gained the entire Lancastrian inheritance and thus founded the House of Lancaster that later fought the House of York for the throne during the Wars Of The Roses.

John of Gaunt's son Henry Bolingbroke was banished in 1398 by his cousin King Richard II. Richard claimed Henry's inheritance; yet in July 1399 Henry Bolingbroke returned, landing at Ravenspur at the mouth of the River Humber and came to Pickering to claim his ducal inheritance. Henry succeeded in forcing the abdication of Richard II and claimed the throne as Henry IV1. Since then the castle has belonged to the crown as part of the Duchy of Lancaster estate.

Pickering Castle: 1400-2000

In the 15th Century Pickering Castle was kept in a state of repair. By Tudor times although Stewards were appointed to look after Pickering Castle and surveys were regularly carried out, it was allowed to fall into decline. Indeed in 1565 it was found that the constable, Sir Richard Cholmley, had taken the fine stones from the New Hall, Keep and other parts of the castle to build his house at Roxby, two miles east of the castle.

The castle played no part in the Civil War, and in 1651 only the chapel remained roofed and useable. The castle was allowed to continue to decline until it was placed in the care of the Office of Works in 1926, now English Heritage.

1These events are described in Shakespeare's Richard II.

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