Conisbrough Castle

LOOKING FOR: Historical, Heritage
ADDRESS: Conisbrough Castle, Castle Hill, Conisbrough,
Doncaster. South Yorkshire.
TELEPHONE: +44 (0)1709 863329
Conisbrough Castle
The Settlement of Conisbrough
The name of the town of Conisbrough is older than the establishment of the present castle. It is derived from the Anglo-Saxon Cyningesburh  - ‘the defended burh of the King’- and suggests that the area belonged to one or other of the Anglo-Saxon kings, before the Norman Conquest. At the time of the conquest the manor of Conisbrough was held by King Harold who was defeated in the Battle of Hastings.
In the Domesday survey the Honour of Conisbrough was a large estate, centred on the burh, and twenty eight vills (small townships) then belonged to it. Most of these places are in the Doncaster district. The Honour, once Harold’s, was then in the possession of William de Warenne, whose family were to remain the owners for a considerable time.

The first Norman Castle
William, the first Earl Warenne, was the son-in-law of William I. He had been one of the King’s original followers from Normandy in 1066, and one of the chief knights in the campaign of conquest. He was given property by King William in many different areas of England, his other two chief estates were based on Castle Acre in Norfolk and on Lewes in Sussex. William’s principal English holding appears to have been his Yorkshire estate, at the head of which was Conisbrough. Very little is known of Earl William’s first castle at Conisbrough, although it is thought to have been of the common motte and bailey design and probably built at some time around 1070 on the site of the present stone castle.

In May 1088, William de Warenne was made Earl of Surrey. Unfortunately, in June of the same year William died from wounds received in battle, he was succeeded by his son, another William, who was earl from 1088 until 1138. There is little documentary evidence for the history of the castle in the late eleventh and twelfth centuries, but the second earl gave the living and income from the church at Conisbrough to his father’s priory at Lewes. This gift, and the gift of other churches besides, was confirmed by the third earl, another William, who succeeded in 1138 and died on crusade in 1147.

These direct descendants from the first earl and his wife were close relations of the Kings of England: the second earl was the grandson of William I and nephew of Henry I and William Rufus. He married Isabel, daughter of Hugh, third son of Henry I of France. The family was thus closely linked to the royal nobility of France and England.

Hamelin Plantagenet and the Stone Castle
The third earl who died in 1147 left no male heir, having only one daughter, Isabel. She married the son of King Stephen, William de Blois, who became the fourth Earl Warenne. He died without issue in 1159, and in 1163 Henry II arranged another marriage for the widowed Isabel. The fifth earl was Hamelin Plantagenet, Henry’s illegitimate half-brother, son of Geoffrey of Anjou. Hamelin seems to have spent more time at his Yorkshire castle than any of the previous earls; he held the earldom for close on forty years, from 1163 until his death in 1202. It was this period that saw the construction of the great stone keep of the castle and its development as a place suitable for royalty - King John, nephew of Hamelin, did actually stay here in 1201.

The cylindrical keep probably dates from around 1180, Hamelin seems to have ordered its construction to his own design, there being no other example of this type of keep anywhere in the country. The closest parallel to the Conisbrough keep is found at Mortemer, near Dieppe in France, a castle also held by the Warenne family. Evidence suggests that the keep at Mortemer is also the work of Hamelin Plantagenet. It is generally now assumed that the construction of the stone curtain walls of Conisbrough followed not long after the keep, but the layout and the planning of the stone buildings within the bailey may not have been begun until the thirteenth century and may be the work of Hamelin’s son William, earl from 1202 until 1239.

After the death of William in 1239, the castle passed to John, his son by his second marriage to Maud, the widow of Hugh Bigod, Earl of Norfolk. She took custody of the castle during the minority of her son, who held the manor from 1239 until 1304. John married Alice, the sister of Henry III. From the Hundred Rolls (records of the local court assizes) of the period of the seventh earl’s tenure, there come tales of men and women imprisoned at Conisbrough, and of the colourful if rather unlawful dealings of the seneschal and constables of the castle, one of whom, Richard de Heydon, was charged with ‘devilish and innumerable oppressions’.

The Last Earl Warenne
John died in 1304 and, since his own son William had been killed at a tournament in Guildford in 1286, he was succeeded by his eighteen-year-old grandson John. A marriage was arranged for him to Joan de Barr, granddaughter of King Edward I. This was not a happy marriage and there were no children; John was thus the eighth and last Earl Warenne. By 1313 Earl John was separated from his wife. Then began a series of efforts to obtain a divorce which were repeatedly unsuccessful. At last it seemed in 1316 that the divorce would be allowed, but once again judgement went against Earl John and, rightly or wrongly, he held Thomas, Earl of Lancaster, responsible for the failure of his case. Intending insult rather than romance, therefore, Earl John abducted Lancaster’s wife Alice. Lancaster retaliated by promptly divorcing her and seizing the Warenne castles of Sandal and Conisbrough from his seat at Pontefract in November 1317. At this point King Edward II intervened and an uneasy agreement was reached, under which Earl Thomas retained the Yorkshire castles.

Lancaster did not hold Conisbrough for long , for in 1322 he led a rebellion against the King which ended with the battle of Boroughbridge. Thomas was captured and tried for treason, found guilty then executed outside the walls of his own castle at Pontefract. Subsequently Conisbrough was then held by Edward II until 1326, the king stayed briefly at Conisbrough in November 1322, in 1324 he ordered the expenditure of up to 40 marks on repairing the towers and walls of the castles at Pontefract and Conisbrough.

The castle was delivered back to John de Warenne in 1326. He seems to have regained security of tenure during the early years of the reign of Edward III, and certainly by 1331-32. Though unable to divorce his wife, John had two sons by Maud de Nerford who had been the wife of Sir Simon de Derby. By a conveyance ratified by the king, John attempted to secure the tenure of the manor and castle of Conisbrough for his two sons and for Maud after his death; but the careful plan went awry, for John outlived all three and died heirless in 1347.

The later Middle Ages
Conisbrough reverted to the Crown and Edward III conferred the estate on his youngest son, Edmund Langley, whose mother, Queen Philippa, administered the estate for him while he was still a child. His tenure lasted until 1402, and the majority of the improvements to the accommodation of the inner ward most probably date to this time. Of Edmunds two sons, Edward, Duke of Albemarle, succeeded in 1402 and died in 1415 at Agincourt. His brother, Richard, Earl of Cambridge, had been beheaded for treason earlier in the same year, but the castle now passed to his widow, Maud, who lived at Conisbrough until her death in 1446. The castle then passed to her stepson, Richard Duke of York, who died at the battle of Wakefield in 1460; his son succeeded him and in 1461 became Edward IV. Thus Conisbrough once again became a royal castle and the estate passed to the Crown, a settlement which was fixed in perpetuity in 1495.

By then, however, the castle was probably suffering from neglect. A survey carried out in 1537-38 by commissioners of Henry VIII, records that the gates of the castle, both timber and stonework, the bridge, and about 55m (60 yd) of walling between the tower (keep) and the gate had all fallen. In addition, one floor of the keep had fallen in, so that by this date the castle had already reached something like its present state of ruin.

It is because of this early ruination, and because of sympathetic ownership thereafter, that the castle still survives with its keep largely intact. During the Civil War of the seventeenth century, many castles were severely damaged either by bombardment during a siege or deliberate destruction afterwards, to prevent their further defensive use. However, because the collapse of the gate and a stretch of its defences had already made Conisbrough indefensible, it escaped further destruction at this time.

The remains of the castle were granted by Henry VIII to the Carey family, who held it for a long period. It was bought by Conisbrough local council in the 1940s, and has been in the guardianship of the nation since 1949. It is now in the care of English Heritage.

The fame of Conisbrough
The fame of the castle, spread by Sir Walter Scott’s novel Ivanhoe, is world-wide. Scott, who must have seen the castle and been deeply impressed by it, was relaying local tradition when he called it a ‘Saxon’ fortress. The picture he portrays of events and people at Conisbrough in the reign of Richard I is of course fictitious. By then the keep would just have been built, but the castle would not yet have had enclosing stone walls.

Conisbrough Castle and The Ivanhoe Trust
The Ivanhoe Trust was founded in 1986 as a joint venture between Doncaster Council and The Dartington Trust of North Devon. The aim was to create a Trust based on the Dartington model to assist in the economic, social and environmental regeneration of the Dearne Valley Communities.

In 1988 the Trust reached agreement with English Heritage to participate in, what was then, a unique joint venture. A Management Agreement handed the day-to-day operation of the castle to the Ivanhoe Trust. This proved to be the forerunner of the English Heritage policy of devolving control of some of the properties it operates to local groups.

Since the Ivanhoe Trust took over the management of the castle, a new Visitor Centre has been constructed, floodlighting has been installed around the castle and a new car park has been provided. In 1992 the Trust and English Heritage embarked upon a project to restore the roof and floors to the castle keep which had been missing since the sixteenth century. On the 1st April 1995 the keep of Conisbrough Castle was re-opened to the public. Today, Conisbrough Castle is regarded as having one of the finest Norman keep towers anywhere in England.