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.

349px-Coa_England_Family_Warren_of_Surrey.svg
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:

Plan_of_Conisbrough_Castle,_early_13th_century.svg
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