A Visit to Conisbrough Castle

As with many of my recent posts about interesting places we’ve visited, our trip to Conisbrough was last year. It was my second visit to the site, the previous one being in 1969, when the castle wasn’t managed the way it is today. Being a local-born lad, my husband had been many times as a child and teen in the 50s and early 60s, but was happy to go and see what changes had been made now that it was managed by English Heritage.

English Heritage flag atop the keep 3

Conisbrough Castle is located on the north-eastern edge of the town of Conisbrough in South Yorkshire, UK. It is  approximately 6 miles south-west of Doncaster and 7 miles north-east of Rotherham:

Location of Conisbrough Castle in South Yorkshire
Base map of South Yorkshire, UK from Wikipedia. Source: Ordnance Survey OpenData. Author: Nilfanion. Creative Commons

The name Conisbrough comes from the Anglo-Saxon word Cyningesburh, which means ‘the king’s borough’. Although Conisbrough was already an important town before 1066, little is known about the actual site of the castle before that time. In 1066 the ‘Honour’ (or Lordship) of Conisbrough was given to William Warenne, a trusted supporter of William 1 – also known as William the Conqueror.  Warenne acquired land over thirteen counties  and became known as the Earl of Surrey.

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Coat of arms of the Warenne Earls of Surrey. Author: Madboy 74  Creative Commons

It was probably Warenne who built the first fortress at Conisbrough, which is thought to have comprised an earthwork enclosure with a wooden palisade along the top, with timber buildings inside. There could also have been an outer bailey. It occupied a strategic position on a large knoll (hill) along a ridge of magnesian limestone.

On the death of the third earl in 1147, having no sons as heirs, the castle passed to his daughter, Isabel de Warenne, William Warenne’s great granddaughter. The stone castle, the ruins of which we see today, was built by her husband, Hamelin Plantagenet, the legitimate half-brother of Henry II.

Aerial_view_of_Conisbrough_Castle_-_geograph.org.uk_-_639358
Aerial view of Conisbrough Castle in 2007 geograh.org.uk  Author :Richard Bird Creative Commons

The stone castle consisted of an outer and inner bailey.

The outer bailey would have protected the inner bailey and contained structures needed for the management of the castle and the supply of those living there. Domestic buildings included quarters for servants, maids and farmworkers, workshops, stables and and other livestock stalls, and storage areas like barns and sheds. The barbican shown on the diagram below (which is from an information board at the site) wasn’t added until the middle of the 13th century:

Bird's eye view of the 15th century castle+

The inner bailey would have contained a number of domestic buildings behind a stone curtain wall. At Conisbrough these included:  A: solar block B: great hall C: kitchens and pantry D: keep and stairs  E: barbican and gatehouse F: chapel – as shown on the diagram below:

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The inner bailey at Conisbrough Castle, early 13th century.  Author:User.Hchsc2009. Creative Commons

Today, only the foundations of these buildings can be seen.

The inner bailey with its magnificent great tower/keep is reached by crossing the outer bailey from the visitor centre to what remains of the barbican (a fortified entrance) and gatehouse through the inner curtain wall.

Approaching the barbican through the outer bailey

Built around 1210, the inner curtain wall would have provided effective defence against attackers, especially once the barbican was constructed. The wall would originally have been topped with battlements, from which lookouts and archers ensured that no attackers sneaked up unseen. Five small, solid towers were positioned on the wall’s exterior on the east, south and western sides. To the north the steep drop provided ample defence. The wall itself was not as well built as the keep, consisting of roughly dressed coarse stone with a rubble core.

The outside of the inner bailey wall

These are a few photos of the inner bailey, showing more of the crumbling curtain wall and the remnants of some of the buildings listed above:

The great tower was  built of high-quality, local magnesian limestone and is one of the best examples of an ashar-faced structure in the UK. (Ashar facing means sawed or dressed square stone used in facing masonry walls.) The tower is over 78 feet high with a circular core and flanked by six wedge-shaped buttresses of 90 feet in height that extend beyond the rooftop.

Conisbrough Keep 1
Inside the tower are five levels (the rooftop being the fifth). This rather unclear photo of a diagram at the castle may give some idea of that:

Plan of keep +

The lowest level is the ground floor or basement, with a well used to bring water into the rest of the building. The basement has no windows or doors and is accessed only via a ladder through the hole in its vaulted ceiling. It was probably used for storage.

The entrance to the tower is on the first floor, twenty feet above the court, and was originally reached by an exposed external timber staircase with a timber drawbridge leading into the tower that could be dismantled for defence. Nowadays a concrete staircase has been erected.

Stone steps up th keep entrance
This first floor had no natural light and, like the basement, was probably used for storage. These photos show the well cover and modern safety grid and railing:

A wide, well-lit stone staircase takes us up to the great chamber on the second floor:

Steep stone steps in the keep

The room would have been used by the de Warenne lords when they were staying in Conisbrough. It looks cold and bare today, but it would once have contained a number of fine objects and silverware, painted furniture, beds with feather mattresses with colourful rugs on the floor and tapestries on the walls to keep out the cold. A long trestle would have been used for meals, feasts and banquets and so on.  A wide fireplace, with a joggled lintel and possibly a colourful hood, would have thrown heat into the room. A door leads into a latrine and there is an alcove with a window overlooking the entrance to the tower:

The stairs leading to the third floor are narrower than the lower ones. This floor consists of the bedchamber, where the lord and his family could rest and sleep. It would have been beautifully decorated and have a comfortable bed, cushions, a large basin for washing and a latrine. A window alcove faced towards the town, with stone benches that would have been cushioned so people cut sit and rest or chat. A fireplace provided heat. It was the Lady de Warenne who told us all about this room:


A chapel within one of the buttresses on the east of the tower opened from the bedchamber. The de Warenne family would have attended Mass here in private, and the priest, who would have lived at the castle, would pray for their souls. The chapel’s most noticeable feature was the beautiful vaulted ceiling. The two wash basins (piscinas) are on opposite walls – which is unusual, as in most chapels from the 12th century onward the two were side-by-side.

The rooftop forms the fifth floor. Originally it looked quite different to how it looks today. It is thought that at some time there was a room surrounded by an enclosed wall passage, as part of the wall and a door jamb survive. Of the six buttresses that extended above the battlements as turrets, two of them were solid. The other four seem to have functioned as two water tanks, a bread oven and a dovecote.

Rooftop buttresse 1
Views of the surrounding countryside are excellent from the rooftop, especially as the castle is on hill on an already raised ridge. These are a few of the photos we took:

Conisbrough Castle has had an interesting history over the centuries and had a variety of owners. I won’t go into detail here, but a short word will be useful to bring the castle up to the 21st century.

After the death of the last Earl Warenne in 1347, the castle reverted to the Crown.  Edward III settled the Warenne northern estates on his fourth son, Edmund Langley, who later became the Duke of York. The castle became embroiled in the Wars of the Roses (1455-85) after which it was abandoned and fell into ruin. By 1538 the keep had lost its floors and the gatehouse and part of the curtain wall had collapsed. At the end of the Civil War (1642-51) there was no need for it to be further slighted (cannoned down) by Cromwell – as so many other Royalist-held castles were – since it was already in a ruined and unusable condition.

The castle remained a popular tourist attraction until the early 20th century and in the 1950s its management was taken over by the Ministry of Works, who made a number of major repairs. But by the 1980s visitor facilities were declared unsuitable and in 1984 the castle passed into the care of English Heritage.

Together with Doncaster Metropolitan Borough Council and a local charitable trust, the great tower was re-roofed and floored to protect it from the weather and improve public access. A new exhibition centre was built. In 2007, Conisbrough Castle became totally under the management of English Heritage, which does an excellent job in the castle’s upkeep and makes it a wonderful place to visit. Some visitors come with the sole intent of seeing for themselves the place that, in 1819, Sir Walter Scott chose to set parts of his famous novel, ‘Ivanhoe’.

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Refs:

Conisbrough Castle Guide Book (from English Heritage)

Information boards around the site

Various online sites including:

English Heritage

Conibisbrough Castle:A Comprehensive Guide of the Castle

Wikipedia

Visit Doncaster

Welcome to Yorkshire Yorkshire.com

Wikipedia

Medieval Siege Warfare

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This post and the flash fiction post that accompanies it (which can be found here) are the first posts I’ve done for almost two weeks. I was away from home for eight days, and since being back we’ve been invaded by family and had several outings. So I must apologise to all those people whose posts I’ve missed. I hope to catch up on at least some of them.

So, this is a brief summary of some of the methods of besieging a castle.

By the 12th and 13th centuries, castles had evolved into powerful fortresses, able to withstand great assaults. Once the portcullis was down, the gates closed and drawbridge raised, they were very difficult to attack:

Bodiam Castle throughthe trees (Sussex UK) Author Pilgrimsoldier. Wikimedia Commons
Bodiam Castle throughthe trees (Sussex UK) Author Pilgrimsoldier. Wikimedia Commons

Medieval soldiers used a variety of methods to breach the castle defences and sieges were common. Siege tactics became very complex and did not just involve attackers rushing at the castle – which would risk the loss of too many men.

To begin with, leaders would search the realm in order to employ the best archers, carpenters, blacksmiths, sappers and engineers … and once they were all in place at the castle, the procedure followed a general pattern:

First, the castle would be surrounded, thus cutting off any means of escape and all supplies to the inhabitants. At the same time, besiegers would ensure that their own encampment was fortified, sometimes even constructing an earthen embankment around it and organising a constant night watch. Then they would simply wait for the lord of the castle to surrender – which could take many months. If the lord still refused to surrender, assault on the castle would commence.

By this time, attackers would have located the castles weakest points, such as the weakest doorways and lowest curtain walls – preferably with no outer river or moat, which entailed using barges to cross them.

The River Avon acts as a natural moat along the curtain wall of Warwick Castle
The River Avon acts as a natural moat along the curtain wall at the eastern side of Warwick Castle.

It stands to reason that gateways are likely to be the weakest points, and they would be attacked first. To do this, a battering ram came in useful (of which there were many sizes and designs):

Medieval battering ram at Chateau des Baux, France. Photo: ChrisO. Commons
Medieval battering ram at Chateau des Baux, France. Photo: ChrisO. Commons

Many castle gateways, particularly the main ones, were heavily fortified by a series of structures and mechanisms (like drawbridges, portcullises and thick wooden doors, as well as ‘murder holes’ above the inner passageway, should attackers get that far). A fortified outpost or gateway, like this one at Warwick, was called a barbican:

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At the same time as the gateways were being attacked, ladders would be carried up to scale the walls, often to be met by defenders who simply pushed the ladders away, or greeted rising besiegers with boiling oil. For scaling the walls, lofty siege towers (or belfries) were wheeled up. At the top of these was a drawbridge which would be lowered to allow men to stream out and attack defending guards. Sometimes, belfries were used from a distance to fire arrows down into the castle.

Medieval English siege tower. Author: Grose-Francis. Public Domain
Medieval English siege tower. Author: Grose-Francis. Public Domain

Other machines (effectively different versions of catapults) were designed to breach the castle walls and towers by hurling large rocks and missiles at them. Dead animals were also hurled over the walls in the hope of spreading disease amongst the inhabitants.

Trebuchets were built in all shapes and sizes, some with wheels so they could be moved around the castle. They were massive, gravity-powered catapults, consisting of a lever and sling and capable of hurling rocks of up to 200lbs for 300 yards. They could also be disassembled in order to transport them from place to place. This is one we saw at Warwick Castle:

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The mangonel also hurled boulders, and had a throwing arm like the trebuchet, but it was less accurate than the trebuchet, with a shorter throwing range, and aimed directly at the castle walls rather than over the top of them.It worked by torsion:

English mangonel. Author: Rpanjwani. Commons
English mangonel. Author: Rpanjwani. Commons
Medieval Mangonel. From "Dictionary of French Architecture fron 11th-16th Century" by Eugene Viollet in 1856. Public Domain,
Medieval Mangonel. From “Dictionary of French Architecture fron 11th-16th Century” by Eugene Viollet in 1856. Public
Domain,
Mangonel shot used in the siege of Bedford Castle in 1284. Author Simon Speed. Public Domain
Mangonel shot used in the siege of Bedford Castle in 1224. Author Simon Speed. Public Domain.

A ballista was built like a huge crossbow and designed to shoot bolts (huge,metal-covered arrows) into the castle. It was manoeuvrable and played an important part in sieges for over a thousand years, originating in ancient Greece. This weapon utilized two torsion springs and two throwing arms to launch its load along a central track.

Some ballistas also hurled rocks, like this one we saw at Warwick Castle:

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While all this was going on at the top of the castle, miners/sappers would be busy tunnelling up to the castle and tower walls in order to collapse them. To do this they would remove the foundation stones and replace them with wooden props. A fire would then be lit and the miners got out quick! Once the props burnt through, there would be nothing to hold up the wall, so it simply collapsed. The corners of square castles were the weakest parts and miners would often aim for those. Inside the castle, guards would place pots of water near the towers and walls. When the water rippled, they would know that enemy miners were at work.

Needless to say, a great variety of hand weapons were used during attacks, amongst others a variety of swords, knives, axes, spears, clubs, maces, flails, halberds, crossbows and longbows. And all soldiers would be heavily weighted down with necessary armour. It’s always mind-boggling to think of the enormous weight medieval soldiers had to carry whilst fighting for their lives.

Naturally, defenders had many techniques for countering attacks on their castles, a few of which I’ve mentioned above, and not every siege was successful …

 

Castles of North Wales: Conwy

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Conwy Castle and car park from the Town walls, viewed from the south west. Source: geograph.org.uk. Author: David Dixon. Creative Commons

The castles of King Edward I (1272-1307) in North Wales are amongst the finest medieval buildings in Britain. They were all built from scratch, often concurrently, in the unsettled aftermath of war. During my trip to Wales last week I’ve been to see just three of these castles. The simple map below shows their locations. Beaumaris is on the Island of Anglesey, across the Menai Straits:

North Wales Castles
Map showing three North Wales castles. Base map from Image:uk map,svg. Author: Paul at wts.wikivoyage. Wikimedia Commons.

Conwy Castle was built on a new site in the spring of 1283 as part of a ring of fortresses encircling the Welsh heartland of Snowdonia in Gwynedd. It followed Edward’s victory of his second campaign to subdue the Prince of Wales, Llwelyn ap Gruffudd. There had been conflicts in this region for many years between the Plantagenet kings of England (John 1199-1210 and Henry III 1216-72) and the princes of Gwynedd – notably Llwelyn ab Iorwerth, also known as Llwelyn the Great. (ab/ap are derived from the Welsh word mab, which means ‘son of”.)

Neither John nor Henry challenged the Prince of Gwynedd successfully, and on Edward’s succession in 1272 the prince’s refusal to do homage to the English king resulted in the war of 1276 -77. Edward’s victory was rapid – if, ultimately, inconclusive – but his second war (1282-3) proved more decisive.

The castle was built as part of a wider project to create the walled town of Conwy in order to control an important crossing point over the River Conwy. The whole project cost £15,000 – equivalent to £45 million today. The castle was intended as a centre for the administration for the area, but Caernarfon became the shire town and assumed that role. Edward only stayed at Conwy once.

Here are a couple of pictures of a model on display inside the castle. They show the castle and part of the walled town as they would have originally looked. Note the direct access to the River Conwy:140

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The plan below shows the castle from the same (south) side as the last picture. The plan is roughly rectangular, with four towers spaced regularly along each side. The bulging outer (south) wall can be seen clearly on each, probably the result of the builders following the contours of the rocky outcrop. The great hall and chapel in the outer ward curves in line with this wall. The four towers closest to the river have small, round turrets overlooking the inner ward, where the royal apartments were located.

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Conwy Castle plan. Source: Cadw. Open Government Licence. Wikimedia Commons.

The castle is noted for its high towers and curtain walls, and its excellent state of preservation:

Inside the imposing outer shell the castle contains the most intact set of residential buildings left by medieval English monarchs in Wales or England. The outer ward – 2/3 of the main castle area – contains the great hall and chapel, as well as the chambers, stables and kitchen that served the garrison.

This is the outer ward. The two photos, bottom left are of the great hall and chapel. The chapel is at the far end, where the arched window can be seen.

The inner ward has the private chambers (top left photo below) and the royal chapel. A water gate, leading to the east barbican (gateway) provided private access for the king and queen. Here are some photos taken mostly from around the battlements, with an odd one or two inside the towers. Most look down into the inner and outer wards, or show views out across the River Conwy:

The suspension bridge ascross the R. Conwy (middle bottom) was designed by Thomas Telford and completed in 1826.

I’ve missed out so much detail about Conwy Castle, as well as many of the photos we took, otherwise this post would become a marathon.