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Yorkshire's Castles: Scarborough Castle

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Yorkshire's Castles
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The ruins of Scarborough castle.

Standing on a diamond-shaped plateau all but surrounded by high, steep cliffs and the sea, Scarborough Castle commands the town of Scarborough. Despite its proximity to a busy seaside resort, the castle itself remains tranquil and restful. Although it is far from being the most complete castle in Yorkshire, it remains one of the most stunning.

The Headland

Scarborough Castle is, in essence, a long wall along the south-west side of the diamond-shaped headland, which is in itself a natural stronghold. On the east, the headland is protected by the steep cliffs from the sea, and half of the north-west side abuts into the sea, all of it is protected by the cliff. Only the south-west side does not have a cliff, but instead a steep hill makes access to the castle difficult. It is a vast area, 16 acres in total, and measures 500 metres from north to south by 250 metres wide.

As the cliffs offer more-than-adequate protection, the castle does not have a castle wall enclosing the whole area. Most of the wall runs down the entire south-west side, curving to guard approximately 75 metres of the north-west side, before allowing the cliffs to do this job. A wall runs from the north-west side to join with the south-west wall 50 metres from its corner, forming an enclosed inner bailey 100m north to south by 45 metres wide. Outside this small area, less than a tenth the size of the entire headland, the plateau remains undefended by wall except on the south-west side.

The Inner Bailey

The wall surrounding the inner bailey is older than the rest of the wall on the south-west side, with the towers being solid instead of hollow as the rest of the towers on the curtain wall are. The inner bailey is protected from the outer bailey by a wall and ditch built by Henry II in the 1160s. There are two entrances to the inner bailey from the outer bailey, one near the south-west wall, and one by the north east hall, near what is now the Master Gunner's house. There was also an entrance from the barbican.

Although there were originally various buildings inside the inner bailey, they were demolished when King John began rebuildin Scarborough Castle in 1202. Only a viewing platform beside one of the towers and the keep remain.

The Keep

By far the dominant feature of Scarborough Castle - despite its ruined state - is its mighty tower-keep, built in Henry II's reign between 1165 and 1169. Although only half of it remains, it was originally a vast three-storeyed tower, 90 feet tall with 12-feet-thick walls. The entrance to the tower was up a flight of steps to a small forebuilding tower that guarded the entrance. The forebuilding itself had three floors, a basement below the entrance and a chapel above.

The tower itself was square, with thick buttresses halfway along each side. Each corner at the top of the tower had its own tower above the roof, with a fifth tower on the centre of the western side above the spiral staircase, which was the access above each side. Only the north-east side survives, with the tower open to the elements.

Visitors are able to stand on the first floor in the keep, seeing the keep from inside. This area, though, is still inhabited; by Scarborough's strangely disturbing seagulls.

The Barbican

The other highlight of Scarborough Castle is its barbican, an independent castle in its own right protecting the entrance to Scarborough Castle.

The barbican's gatehouse protects the only entrance to the castle. In order to enter the castle, after walking through the strong gatehouse, those continuing to the castle would walk up a narrow road with walls 18 feet tall either side, with the castle's garrison able to protect the entrance from the wall walk above. There were originally two drawbridges to negotiate from the barbican - one from the barbican to a strong gatetower containing its own portcullis, the other immediately after the tower. Only after travelling over the second drawbridge would the visitor be able to enter the castle through the castle's own gatehouse, complete with its own portcullis.

Early History

Although Beaker people pottery has been found on Scarborough Castle's headland dating from around 2100 BC, the first major use of it as a defensive site was by the Romans. In the 4th century AD, a Roman signal station was built on the site, remains of which can still be viewed. The Roman tower was built either immediately after the 367 AD 'Barbarian Conspiracy' invasion of the Empire, or in 383 AD by Magnus Maximus who attempted to usurp the crown.

After the collapse of the Roman Empire, the headland was not used for the purposes of defence until 1066. Harald Hardrada and Tostig Godwinson, brother of Harold II, invaded Yorkshire near Scarborough. The invading Vikings, after a vicious battle, captured the headland, built a large fire, and set fire to the houses below, killing most of the inhabitants. On 25 September, the Viking invaders were defeated at the battle of Stamford Bridge, where Harald Hardrada and Tostig Godwinson died, before Harold himself died during the Battle of Hastings three weeks later. Scarborough lay in ruins, and was not even mentioned in the Domesday Book in 1086.

The Medieval Castle

The castle was begun in the mid 1130s under William le Gros, Count of Aumale. This was between 1135 - 1154, a time of chaos which was essentially a Civil War between Empress Matilda, daughter of Henry I and heir to the throne, and King Stephen, who had claimed the throne on Henry I's death.

Stephen dubbed William le Gros, one of his loyal followers, Earl of York, but on King Stephen's death in 1154, Matilda's son Henry II became king and marched to York, where William le Gros surrendered Scarborough Castle.

One of Henry II's main policies was to destroy many of the castles built without royal permission during the chaos, so-called Adulterine Castles, and Scarborough was no exception. However, after 1159, Henry ordered that Scarborough Castle be rebuilt, and work on the keep continued until 1169. Henry spent £650 on rebuilding and strengthening the castle, a vast sum at the time. The castle was further enhanced during the reign of King John, who added to it between 1202 and 1212, spending £2,291 on Scarborough Castle, more than on any other castle in his reign, creating the wall that separated the inner and outer baileys, a hall in the inner bailey and a great hall and chamber block in the outer bailey. During the Civil War of 1215-1217, Scarborough Castle's garrison consisted of 10 knights, 72 sergeants and 13 crossbowmen.

King John's son, Henry III, also improved Scarborough Castle, the barbican in particular. After this time, although it was used as a Royal Hunting Lodge and court by Edward I, its importance gradually declined. The most important event that occurred was in 1312 when it was besieged.

The Siege Of 1312

In 1307 Edward II became king. He was considered to be a weak king, and his action in elevating a close friend, Piers Gaveston, as a favourite above the barons was an unpopular act. The barons forced Piers to be sent into exile in 1308, yet Piers returned in 1309. The barons increased their opposition to Edward II, who was forced to flee north to Newcastle, which was attacked, and most of the Royal Household was captured.

Edward and Piers managed to escape, with Piers Gaveston fleeing to Scarborough. There he was besieged, and was forced to surrender after a fortnight when the castle had run out of food. Although Piers had been promised safe conduct, he was beheaded by the Earl of Warwick.

Before The Civil War

The last king to stay in Scarborough Castle was King Richard III of the House of York. He awaited the invasion of Henry Tudor from Scarborough in 1484, and began to muster a fleet.

The Pilgrimage Of Grace And The Revolting North

In 1536 Scarborough Castle was besieged by the rebels in the 'Pilgrimage of Grace', a revolt in the north against Henry VIII's break with Catholicism. Although the rebel's cannons badly damaged the castle, the garrison under Sir Ralph Eure held stedfast. Many of those involved in the Pilgrimage of Grace were later hanged, including John Wyvill, one of its leaders, who was hung in chains outside the town. As a reward for his loyalty, Sir Ralph Eure was granted the castle's guardianship for life.

During the reign of the Catholic Queen Mary, on 25 April, 1557 Scarborough Castle was seized by Thomas Stafford. He proclaimed himself Protector of the Realm, and attempted to incite a revolt against the unpopular queen. This failed, and in six days the Earls of Westmorland and Shrewsbury had taken the castle and captured Thomas Stafford. He was taken to London and executed at Tybern while his supporters were killed, boiled and tanned in public at Scarborough. In order to prevent this from recurring, the governor of Scarborough was ordered to live in the castle and ensure that it was fully garrisoned.

This continued throughout the Northern Rising of 1569, when the Catholics of the North attempted to replace Elizabeth I with Mary Queen Of Scots, who was held prisoner in England1, until 1603 when James VI of Scotland became James I of England. Many castles in the north that had originally been built to help defend England from the Scots now seemed redundant, and were sold.

The Civil War

The major event that shaped Scarborough Castle's story was the Civil War. Parliament had, in September 1642, sent Sir Hugh Cholmley to Scarborough Castle to hold it, the town and its vital port, for Parliament. However, by 1643 he had become disillusioned and declared for the King. Scarborough became the prime Royalist port in the North, and of the 600 infantry, 100 cavalry and 100 dragoons that had accompanied him to Scarborough, only 20 chose to leave to be true to the Parliamentary cause.

Shortly after Scarborough's change of allegiance, the castle was captured by Parliament in a surprise night attack by 40 seamen lead by Captain Browne Bushell, Cholmley's cousin, when he was away visiting the King in York. On Cholmley's return to Scarborough he managed to persuade Bushall to give the castle back to him. Until the battle of Marston Moor, Scarborough remained a strong Royalist base, with the port acting as a base from which to intercept ships in the North Sea, which helped cause a serious coal shortage in London.

In August 1644, after the Battle of Marston Moor where the Royalists under Prince Rupert had been defeated, Parliamentary forces under Lord Fairfax closed in on the castle. Cholmley began to negotiate a surrender to buy time, as he lacked the provisions to withstand a prolonged siege. Scarborough came finally under attack in January 1645 by forces under the command of Sir John Meldrum, and on 18 February, 1645, were forced to abandon the town and port and retreat into the castle.

Meldrum called for the Royalist force to surrender, and on their refusal organised larger siege guns to be positioned near the castle, including a massive 64-pounder. During the process of setting up the cannons to attack the castle, Meldrum fell off a cliff when his hat was blown off by a breeze. He survived the fall, but was unable to command the attackers for six weeks. On his recovery, the castle's bombardment began. After only three days his gigantic cannon had destroyed the western half of the mighty stone keep, which without warning suddenly shattered, collapsing to the ground.

Miraculously, of the twenty men on top of the keep, only two fell to their deaths.

The siege continued, with Meldrum dying after being shot in the stomach. The castle was bombarded both by sea and land, with those inside running out of gunpowder and food, and plagued by illness. Those inside resisted all assaults for as long as they could, but their task was impossible. When the castle surrendered on 25 July, 1645, only 25 men inside the castle were fit for duty.

Parliament knew that Scarborough was a vital port which needed protection, and so hastily repaired the castle, if not the keep. It was placed in the command of Colonel Boynton who led a force of 100 men and 60 gunners, as the castle's battery defended the port.

Parliament, though, failed to pay them and when Civil War broke out again, on 27 July, 1648, Boynton and his men declared for the king. The castle was again besieged, and this final siege proved a short one, as Parliament forced Boynton to surrender in December.

Parliament at first declared that Scarborough Castle be slighted - that it be destroyed and made undefendable - yet the people of Scarborough protested. The castle was needed to protect the vulnerable town from seaborne forces.

From The Dutch To The Deutsch

Immediately after the Civil War, the fact that Scarborough needed the castle's batteries was demonstrated in the First Anglo-Dutch War of 1652 - 1654. Provoked by the 1651 Navigation Act, the war between the era's two naval superpowers lasted until the English blockade of Holland forced the Dutch to surrender. In 1653, however, the Dutch Admiral De Witt attacked a convoy of ships in Scarborough harbour.

From the 1650s, like many castles whose medieval defences had been made redundant by the ever-increasing power of cannons, Scarborough was used as a prison. The most famous prisoner was George Fox, founder of the Society of Friends, known as Quakers, who was kept in the Cockhyll Tower from April 1665 until September 1666. The Quakers were considered a dangerous cult as they believed that the conscience, or inner-light, was the voice of God and should be obeyed at all times. This belief was considered too close to that of the Ranters which held the view that anything your conscience allowed you to do should be legal, even murder.

After the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745 King John's chamber was converted into a barracks. Although in 1779 the American privateer engaged two men-of-war in Scarborough Bay beneath the castle, the last main event in the castle's life occurred shortly after the start of the Great War.

On 16 December, 1914, three German vessels came to Scarborough Bay. One was a mine-layer, the other two were German battlecruisers, the Derrflinger and Von der Tann. Just after eight o'clock the ships fired at Scarborough Castle and town, before leaving whilst continuing to fire. Over 500 shells were fired, killing 17 and injuring 80. At the castle, the barracks built in 1745 was completely destroyed.

1Including stays at both Bolton and Skipton castles in Yorkshire.

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