Updated: Dec 10, 2022
Conisbrough Castle is one of the most substantial castles in Yorkshire, it also has a remarkable Royal History
Conisbrough Castle is a stunning medieval fortification situated in Conisbrough, South Yorkshire. Known for its colossal, and architecturally unique Great Keep, Conisbrough has captured the imagination of locals and castle enthusiasts for centuries. Immortalized by Sir Walter Scott in his immensely popular novel Ivanhoe, Conisbrough is one of my personal favorite castles.
Keen to learn more about the history of Conisbrough Castle, and the story behind its imposing and intriguing design, on a typically grey and uninspiring day I decided to make a visit with my daughter Oaklie. Our day was far from dull however, with this impressive heritage site offering a fascinating insight into the lives of some of England’s most powerful Lords.
History of Conisbrough Castle
Early history of Conisbrough Castle
Like with many English Castles, if you dig deep enough you will find a history that pre-dates the Norman Invasion by quite some considerable time. Whilst little is known about Conisbrough’s earlier years, the settlement is easily identifiable with the Anglo Saxons. The word ‘Conisbrough’ comes from an Anglo-Saxon word for King, and the castle we see today sits within what was once one of Harold Godwinson’s great Yorkshire estates. The church of St Peter which sits in the shadows of the medieval castle, is pretty much all that remains of Anglo Saxon settlement. This quaint little church also serves as the oldest building in South Yorkshire.
The de Warenne’s and the honour of Conisbrough
It’s not exactly clear who ordered the construction of the first castle at Conisbrough, or when this was. What we can be sure of however, is that the first substantial fortress on this site was built by the powerful de Warenne family. William I de Warenne was the first of his family to come to England with William the Conquerer, and fought beside him at the Battle of Hastings. He was fiercely loyal to William, and having been rewarded with vast swathes of land in England, required a power base at the heart of his Yorkshire estate (Honour of Consibrough). As with many Norman castles, this would have largely comprised an earthwork enclosure with timber palisade and internal service buildings.
Isabel and Hamelin of Anjou
The Consibrough Castle we know and love today was largely the work of Isabel de Warenne and her second husband Hamelin of Anjou. With Isabel inheriting her father’s huge estates, King Henry II took advantage of this and married her to his illegitimate half brother. Hamelin had not been a major player in English politics, but he was fiercely loyal to his half brother, and this clearly put him in the King’s favor. With his marriage to one of England’s great heiresses, Hamelin became one of the richest Lords in the country. The massive tower he built at his castle at Conisbrough, was thus symbolic of his new status and Royal connections.
A castle rebuilt in stone
Although principally based out of Lewes, Hamelin and Isabel will have visited Conisbrough often, and in all likelihood it was they who began rebuilding the castle in stone. According the the English Heritage guide book, there is no documentary evidence concerning the castles construction, but similar architectural features contained within York Minster suggest the great tower was constructed in the 1170’s or 1180’s. Hamelin and Isabel were also likely responsible for the massive wall encircling the inner bailey, although this likely came a little later.
The last Earl de Warenne
The de Warenne’s ownership of Conisbrough came to an end in 1347 with the death of the last Earl, John de Warenne. The controversial eighth Earl was an interesting fellow and for reasons unknown, had decided to kidnap the wife of one of England’s most powerful lords – Thomas of Lancaster. Thomas of Lancaster responded by taking Conisbrough Castle by force, but having subsequently rebelled against King Edward II, was captured in battle and executed. Earl John was handed back the honour of Conisbrough by Edward III in 1328, but when in 1347 he died without children, his estates reverted to the Crown.
Conisbrough and the Wars of the Roses
Edmund Langley was King Edward III’s fourth surviving son and founding father of the House of York. From 1347 onwards he and his family occupied Conisbrough Castle. Conisbrough was an important Yorkist stronghold, and although it served largely as a second residence, it was occupied far more by the Yorks, than it had been by the de Warennes. In 1385 Edmund was made Duke of York by his nephew Richard II. When his other nephew Henry Bolingbroke returned from exile in 1399, Edmund reluctantly facilitated Richard’s usurpation, and Bolingbroke ascended the throne as the first Lancastrian King – Henry IV. This sudden shift in power at the heart of government, helped pave the way for the civil war we know today as the Wars of the Roses.
Richard of Conisbrough and the rise of York
Edmund went on to found the House of York, with his first son Edward becoming Duke of York, and his second (less fortunate) son Richard inheriting nothing. Richard was however created Earl of Cambridge and became his brothers tenant at Conisbrough Castle. Richard of Conisbrough may have been the less fortunate younger brother, but he certainly had ambitious plans. Following a political marriage to Ann Mortimer (a direct descendant of Edward III), Richard became involved in a plan to overthrow Henry V. For this he lost his head. When his brother Edward subsequently died at Agincourt, Richard’s son (another Richard) became one of the Richest and most powerful magnates in the land. The new Duke of York, Richard Plantagenet, was a direct descendant of two of Edward III’s sons, and his claim to the throne was perhaps stronger than that of the King.
A Royal castle in decline
Image taken from page 140 of ‘Yorkshire Scenery; or, Excursions in Yorkshire, with delineations of the most interesting objects engraved by G. Cooke and other eminent artists, from drawings … by T. C. Hofland, W. Cowen, R. Thompson, &c., &c’
Following the civil war that enveloped England, Richard Plantagenet was declared a traitor and his estates confiscated by the Crown. He did however manage to retain his castles at Conisbrough and Sandal. For reasons still largely unknown, on 31 December 1460 Richard emerged from the safety of Sandal castle, was captured, and later executed by the Lancastrians. His son, Edward Earl of March, went on to destroy the Lancastrian army at the battle of Towton and ascended the throne as Edward IV. Conisbrough thus became a royal castle, but sadly this led to its decline. Conisbrough was now just one of many royal castles and it fell into disrepair.
Over the years Conisbrough became largely forgotten. The once mighty encircling walls crumbled, and the gatehouse almost completely collapsed. The castle however received a new fame in the Nineteenth Century, when the picturesque ruins became a popular tourist destination. Its main claim to fame came in 1819 when it featured as the seat of Saxon Lord Athelstane, in Sir Walter Scott’s popular novel Ivanhoe. In 1946 the castle ruins were sold to Conisbrough Council, and in 1950 was taken over by the Ministry of Works. It was during the Ministries guardianship that considerable repairs were made, and research was conducted into how it once must have looked. In 1984 English Heritage took over the reigns, and today the castle remains in their care.
What to see at Conisbrough Castle
Conisbrough Castle Parking and visitors centre
When I visited with my daughter in February 2020, my Sat Nav took me straight into a small car park situated right next to the visitors Centre. I noted that this was just for blue badge holders, but having contacted reception to inquire about where I could park, I was pleased to learn that on this particular occasion the car park had been opened for all visitors to use. This is only a tiny car park with about 6 spaces, but there is a private car park at the bottom of the hill if you need to use it. English Heritage actually recommends parking on Calvert Way which is just opposite, or utilizing the free on-street parking in town.
When you enter the complex you are absolutely taken aback by the size and scale of the castle ruins. You approach the castle from the South West and are immediately struck by the substantial remains of the barbican and the West facing curtain wall. Its clear to see why Walter Scott chose to feature the castle in his book – the ruins would not be out of place in a fairytale. Situated within the footprint of what was once the outer bailey, is the relatively modern visitor’s centre. This serves as a small museum, shop and activity room. We popped in briefly to flash our membership cards, before making our way outside and back towards the main castle.
Elaborate barbican and gatehouse
As you approach the inner bailey you are first greeted by the ruins of the gatehouse and barbican. Back in the castle’s heyday, would-be attackers would have had to cross a draw bridge, which spanned a large ditch between the inner and outer bailey. Today this ditch is filled in but you can imagine how it would have once looked. Like at Scarborough Castle, the barbican is very elaborately designed.
The passage up to the castle is squeezed between two high stone walls, and spirals upwards towards the gatehouse. Built originally in around 1200 with the main perimeter wall, the gatehouse was substantially redesigned in the fourteenth century, but sadly collapsed with the South wall in the early Sixteenth Century.
Exploring the inner bailey
Although little of the internal buildings exist today, substantial sections of the enclosing wall are still present and a quick walk around the enclosure reveals hints of the structures that once occupied it. In fact, all but a short section of the Southern wall still stands, with ancient fireplace set within. You can walk around the inner bailey and explore the lines of bricks and drainage channels which mark out where the Great Hall, apartments and service buildings once stood.
The mighty curtain wall
The walls are actually quite interesting. Whilst these still stand as one of the castles most prominent features, these massive defensive structures were actually fairly cheaply constructed. Consisting of a rubble core, enclosed within rough brick veneer, the walls likely served a practical purpose and were not designed with aesthetics in mind. I still find them to be quite impressive however, with imposing solid stone towers adding to the overall drama of the castle.
Ruins of the Great Hall
One of the major internal structures would have been the Great Hall. Easily the largest structure situated within the bailey, this massive stone building would have been used to entertain important guests, and also where the Earl would have eaten with his family and household. This would have originally been a wooden structure, but would have been upgraded to stone in around 1200 when the walls were also constructed.
Hamelin’s colossal Great Tower
Visitors to Conisbrough Castle will absolutely want to visit the Great Tower. This is the most magnificent feature of the castle and has been beautifully preserved. This has to be one of the finest castle Keeps in all of England and can be seen from miles around. Its difficult to describe just how impressive this tower is without visiting the site yourself. Pictures just do not do it justice and the tower really has to be seen to be believed.
Built by Hamelin of Anjou in 1170’s or 1180’s, the design of the great tower is absolutely unique in the UK and nothing else like this exists. Clearly Hamelin was on a mission to showcase his wealth and status, and this magnificent tower is symbolic of his Royal connections. Cleverly designed to look taller than it is, the buttresses that surround it are wider at the back than the front, and unlike the perimeter walls is constructed out of top quality limestone.
Entry via the first floor
This incredible tower would have been accessed by a free standing staircase, with entry being made unusually via the first floor. It is suggested that this floor was used primarily for storage, and there are there are no windows to light up the space. Another unusual feature of the tower is the lack of a typical floor to ceiling spiral staircase. In Conisbrough’s case, visitors would have had to cross an entire floor to locate the stairs to the next level.
The Great Chamber
Incredibly, every one of the tower’s floors are intact and fully accessible by visitors. The second floor would have served as the de Warenne’s Great Chamber. This would have been richly furbished and would have been a space used to conduct business. The large fireplace is testament to this being a fairly comfortable room, and with views across the deer park it would have been a luxurious and popular living space.
Family bedroom and private Chapel
The third floor would have been another luxuriously decorated room, and served as the family bedchamber. This floor also features a private chapel which is situated within one of the buttresses. This is a rarity, with all the other buttresses being solid inside.
Fantastic views from the top
Today the top floor consists of an open roof space. According to the guidebook this is very different to how it would have looked in Hamelin’s time. Back then, the buttresses would have come much higher and and an internal roof space would have been situated where the roof is today. Atop of this would have then been an open roof space whereby soldiers could view the grounds and town below. The views from the tower are absolutely incredible with visitors able to admire the nearby aqueduct and the Saxon Church in Town.
Conisbrough Castle is a spectacular sight to behold, and serves as one of the finest historical landmarks in all of Yorkshire. With a stunning and totally unique design, the castle’s Great Tower serves as one of the best preserved castle keeps in the UK, and is absolutely one of the most impressive. Conisbrough is easily one of my favorite castles, and its easy to see why it has fascinated the population for so long.
Conisbrough Castle features in my article of top castles in Yorkshire, and if you haven’t already, you can check this out here. If you haven’t been before then you absolutely have to visit this colossal medieval fortress. You wont be disappointed.
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