Castles in Yorkshire

After the Norman conquest of 1066 the new invaders built several castles in Yorkshire. There were three main reasons why these massive structures in the middle of Anglo-Saxon settlements were constructed.

After their establishment in the becalmed South around London they had to also bring the rebellious North under control including Yorkshire. Uprisings against their rule from Anglo-Saxons, aided by The Vikings, who wanted the county for themselves, were common in places such as York, Northallerton and Wakefield. The Normans soon crushed this resistance by paying off the Vikings to sail back to Scandinavia and as punishment to the natives carried out a sustained campaign of violence and destruction of crops known collectively as “The Harrying of The North,” during the winter of 1069-70.

To prevent further trouble and as a reward for their bravery during the many battles to conquer Britain William I gave lands to his fellow invaders, who built these grand castles, not only for somewhere to live, but also to maintain authority over the area. They also acted as a central point for the community, where taxes could be collected, law and order kept and most importantly to defend the towns in which they were located from invasion, either from the Scots or The Vikings should they return.


Powerful families emerged in different communities across Yorkshire and areas can be attributed to each. One powerful family was the De Lacy’s, who were based around the Pontefract area, another were the De Rumily’s, who built and controlled Skipton castle and the surrounding area.

There were several styles of castles built in Yorkshire. The first fortifications to be constructed were called “motte and bailey castles.” These were usually made of wood with the castle’s keep on top. The keep was a tower where the residents would go to if they were under attack. The motte was so steep that it would be impossible to run up in one go. The bailey was at the bottom of the mound and surrounded by fencing called a palisade. It would house the castle workers and have several buildings including stables, kitchen, storehouses and living accommodation for soldiers. Examples of these types of castles in Yorkshire are at Skipsea and York, where famously the motte is still present with Clifford’s Tower (or keep) on top. The advantage of these castles were that they could be built in only two weeks, something which the Normans needed to do to restore order in their new land quickly.

York Castle, Photo credit, Conor Ives, (IFY Community)
York Castle, Photo credit, Conor Ives, (IFY Community)

After 1100 castles were made of stone due to the fire hazard and weaker defences of wooden structures. Tall towers, and rectangular keeps, surrounded by high stone walls became the norm. Others such as Bolton Castle in North Yorkshire were built around courtyards. The keeps in these later castles would vary in size and scale depending on the wealth of their owner. Whatever its design each castle would contain a Great Hall, used for banqueting and lavish living quarters for the rich families who lived there.

Other buildings for servants and soldiers were built close by. As the threat of attack increased through the Middle Ages plus the invention of gunpowder, more sophisticated defences had to be installed to withstand these weapons. Concentric castles, such as Pontefract were the most impenetrable because of their design which consisted of thick wall defences around the main castle, built slightly lower so that defending soldiers could fire over the heads of the ones on the outside walls. This “castle within a castle” structure meant that any soldier which fell between its two walls faced almost certain death. Portcullises, a lattice metal grille, were installed on the entrance to further increase security and protection for its owners. Moats surrounding entire castles were common defences right from the early medieval structures. One of the best preserved moats in Yorkshire is at Helmsley Castle.

The “castle age” in Yorkshire lasted until the 17th Century when many were destroyed or went into severe decline after the English Civil War, the last major conflict in which castle sieges took place. Modern warfare such as the invention of cannons inflicted more damage to them during conflict, and they became too expensive to repair and upkeep. Moreover the nature of war was changing with many battles taking place in open fields, rather than at the castles themselves.

As time wore on the threat of invasion had lessened somewhat especially with the Act of Union signed with Scotland in 1707. Some of the structures, like in the case of Pontefract were destroyed by the will of the local people, who saw their castle as being of huge detriment to their town and the trouble it had brought them over the centuries. Good riddance! The site was used afterwards to grow their famous liquorice plants in the Victorian period, with only a few parts of the castle still remaining.

Others, like Skipton were lovingly maintained by their owners and became impressive residencies for local noble families passed down the generations. Some like York Castle became town prisons and held criminals right into the 20th Century. Many, such as Middleham Castle, a favourite with royalty in the 15th Century fell into a state of disrepair by the 17th, laying abandoned and at the mercy of the Yorkshire weather.

Many of the castle ruins in Yorkshire became tourist attractions during the 20th Century, bought by conservation charities such as English Heritage while others, such as Hazlewood Castle near Tadcaster went into private ownership and eventually became a hotel in 1997.

One of the best kept fortifications in Yorkshire is Skipton Castle. It was built around 1090 by Norman, Robert Romille and re-enforced to keep out attacks from the Scots. It passed into the hands of the Clifford family during the 14th century and endured a three year siege in the English Civil war. After this conflict the castle was preserved by descendant Lady Anne Clifford, which has made it one of the most complete fortifications in the county. She died in 1676, the last remaining family descendant.

Nowadays it is a popular tourist attraction with plenty of history for visitors to discover. The roof and layout of the castle are still largely intact with many rooms to explore including the banqueting hall, drawing room, kitchen, and watch tower amongst others. There are also shops, fun trails for children and conference facilities.

Don’t let the name mislead you. Bolton castle actually dominates the skyline of Wensleydale and not Bolton as you might expect!

Castle Bolton in Wensleydale is also a well preserved medieval castle. One of the latter fortifications, completed in 1399 it became the home of Richard le Scrope, who was the local baron. In 1536 the castle was at the centre of “The Pilgrimage of Grace,” an uprising in Yorkshire against the “Dissolution of Monastries,” instigated by Henry VIII, where all priories and abbeys were looted and destroyed. This resulted in Castle Bolton itself being torched by government forces, but unlike the monasteries managed to be repaired.

During the Civil War the castle was besieged by Parliamentarian forces. Upon surrender by the castle’s owner, John le Scrope in November 1645 part of it was pulled down as punishment, but the rest still remains intact, bearing the scars of its turbulent past.

Nowadays the castle is a popular tourist attraction with guided tours and many different rooms, such as the Great Chamber, kitchens, and dungeons to explore. The extensive grounds host daily falconry displays and archery demonstrations, where visitors are encouraged to have a go.

Helmsley Castle in North Yorkshire was built in 1120 by French noble, Walter L’espec, first of all in wood, and then in stone. The main action this castle saw was during the Civil War when it was besieged by Parliamentarian forces led by Sir Thomas Fairfax in 1642. The site was then passed through a few hands until 1711 when its new owner, Robert Brown decided to build Duncombe Park estate next door, leaving the aging castle to ruin. It is now in the care of English heritage and has become a tourist attraction with picnic area, shop and gardens.

The picturesque Scarborough Castle has by far the largest moat in Yorkshire, in the shape of The North Sea, which surrounds it on three sides. Built in the 11th Century and standing proudly on top of the cliffs it has performed important defensive duties for the County as a deterrent to overseas invaders. Its main involvement came, like many, during the English Civil war where fierce fighting saw the castle taken by the Royalists and then by the Parliamentarians during a siege in 1645. During the Glorious Revolution in 1688 William of Orange, took Scarborough castle in his successful bid to take the English throne, during his “Glorious Revolution.” The Victorian era saw the site become a tourist attraction as railways brought the workers from other parts of Yorkshire for their annual holiday. In 1914 Scarborough the castle ruins were bombed by German U Boats at the start of the First World War. Nowadays the castle ruins are still visited by tourists, along with a museum, which displays artefacts from the site throughout its long history.

Scarborough Castle, Photo credit Stephen Montgomery, Wikimedia, Creative Commons
Scarborough Castle, Photo credit Stephen Montgomery, Wikimedia, Creative Commons

Pontefract Castle in West Yorkshire was one of the most fearsome and loathed fortifications in the county with a bloody history. It is significant that despite being located in our great county, it had the misfortune to be part of the Duchy of Lancaster, which led to much trouble within its walls. In 1311 its owner The Earl of Lancaster was beheaded by King Edward II’s forces in front of his own townsfolk after protesting against the monarch’s weak rule and defeats in Scotland. Even darker still, King Richard II was imprisoned and murdered here in 1399. Furthermore the castle was at the centre of The War of The Roses, where many soldiers were killed or taken prisoner. In the English Civil War Pontefract Castle was the last fortification to surrender to the Parliamentarians in March 1649, two months after the execution of Charles I. An angry Oliver Cromwell, along with the help of the local townsfolk, who were tired of all the battles and trouble the castle had brought to the town, demolished it just three days after its surrender.

The remains were left to rot, with only small parts of it remaining. The site was used for liquorice growing during the Victorian era and then the site fell into general disrepair throughout the last century.

More recently the site has become a free tourist attraction with guided tours of the ruins and dungeons, picnic area and visitor centre. The castle has just received a £3m lottery grant to expand its facilities in order to reflect the true importance of this once magnificent castle.

Sandal Castle in Wakefield was built in 1110 by Norman, William de Warrenne. The latterly stone fortification was at the forefront of conflict during the War of The Roses in the Battle of Wakefield 1460. This battle is also claimed to be the origins of the nursery rhyme, The Grand Old Duke of York in reference to Richard, Duke of York, who died in the conflict. The structure was also besieged by the Parliamentarians during the Civil War in 1642. After this conflict it was largely abandoned and stripped of its defences, with some of the masonry not seen again until the 1960s when extensive excavations were carried out. Their finds are on display at the castle’s museum.

Nowadays the ruin is run by Wakefield council and access to the site is free with tours and visitors centre available.

Richmond Castle is an imposing structure overlooking one of its natural defences, the River Swale. It was built to maintain order over the rebellious North of England in 1071, one of the first to be constructed and an important point in the defence against Scottish invasion. Although the fortress did not see any action during the Civil War or Roses conflicts it remained an important strategic point in the North of England until its demise in the 16th Century where it fell into decline. Its ruins are famously the subject of several paintings by landscape artist JMW Turner. More recently it was used as a prison for conscientious objectors, soldiers who refused to fight, during the First World War. Nowadays it is a popular tourist attraction run by English Heritage.

Middleham Castle was built in 1190 by Robert Fitzrandolph on the site of a previous motte and bailey one built after the invasion. The most significant owner of the castle was King Richard III, who married into the Neville family who had owned it since 1270. The ill-fated monarch died at Bosworth Field in 1485 and spent little time there. The castle was sold by the crown but like many others fell into disrepair in the 17th century before being taken on by English Heritage three hundred years later.

Dotted around Yorkshire are many more castles which once stood as proud centres of their communities with their near-impenetrable defences and imposing presence to ward off invasive forces. As time went on their original purposes waned due to more sophisticated warfare, advances in society which moved away from a feudalist system and the reduced threat of invasion from foreign powers. Whether they were left at the mercy of the Northern weather or became five-star hotels they are well and truly part of Yorkshire’s history and heritage.

Pontefract Castle. Photo credit Bill Henderson, Geograph, Creative Commons
Pontefract Castle. Photo credit Bill Henderson, Geograph, Creative Commons