In the Keep

In The Keep




Sir Walter Scott used this location for his 1819 novel Ivanhoe. Conisbrough Castle was founded by William de Warenne, the first Earl of Surrey, who had taken part in the Norman conquest of England in 1066 and was rewarded by his father-in-law, William the Conqueror, with extensive estates in Yorkshire, Norfolk and Sussex. As part of these, Earl William was given the manor of Conisbrough, which had previously been owned by the late Harold Godwinson. The manor took its name from the Anglo-Saxon name for the settlement, Cyningesburh, meaning "the king's fortress", and formed a large estate comprising 28 townships, centred on an Anglo-Saxon fortified burh at Conisbrough itself. William built his castle on a rocky Magnesian Limestone spur surrounded by steep banks, and the fortification included a motte, an inner bailey protected by an earth bank and palisades, an outer bailey, and possibly a timber keep. The castle was located around 175 feet (53 m) above the river and would have dominated this part of the Don Valley. It was positioned directly opposite the village, which had probably contained the old Anglo-Saxon burh. The castle was held by William's son, also called William, from 1088 to 1138, and then by his son, another William, until his death in 1147. Conisbrough and the earldom then passed through Isabel, William's daughter, to her first husband, William de Blois, and then onto her second husband, Hamelin Plantagenet, whom she married in 1163. Hamelin was the illegitimate half-brother of King Henry II, who had arranged the marriage, and the union brought him great wealth. Hamelin extensively rebuilt the castle around 1180 to 1190, including constructing the stone keep; given his parvenu status, he probably hoped to reinforce perceptions of his new elevated rank.


The castle continued in the ownership of Hamelin Plantagenet's family, passing to his son William de Warenne in 1202. William was probably responsible for the construction of new stone curtain walls around the inner bailey, destroying the former earthwork defences in the process. The inner bailey was levelled and William built a hall and service buildings inside the castle, again in stone. Conisbrough was inherited by William's young son John de Warenne in 1239, but he was still a minor and the castle was initially managed by his mother, Maud. Under John, Conisbrough's constables carried out a range of what the historian Stephen Johnson terms "colourful if rather unlawful dealings"; one was ultimately charged with having conducted "devilish and innumerable oppressions". Further work was carried out in the castle during John's ownership, including modernising the castle hall and solar. The castle passed to John's grandson, also called John, in 1304, who married Joan de Barr. The marriage broke down but John's attempts to gain a divorce in 1316 failed in the law courts. John blamed Thomas, the Earl of Lancaster, for this and in response he kidnapped Thomas's wife; Thomas then retaliated by seizing Conisbrough Castle. Edward II intervened in the dispute and confirmed Thomas as the new owner of the castle. In 1322, however, Thomas rebelled against the King and was executed, resulting in Edward taking control of Conisbrough himself.


King Edward II was overthrown by his wife Isabella in 1326 and the castle was returned to John. John had hoped to pass the property to his mistress and two illegitimate sons, but he outlived them and on his death in 1347 it reverted to the control of the Crown. Edward III gave the castle to his own son, Edmund of Langley, the Duke of York, who controlled it until 1402. Edmund's eldest son, Edward, owned it until 1415, when it passed to Maud Clifford, the widow of Edmund's younger son Richard, who lived there until 1446. Richard of York then inherited the castle, and on his death in 1460 during the Wars of the Roses it passed to his son Edward, who seized the throne in 1461, bringing Conisbrough back into Crown ownership once again.


By the 16th century Conisbrough Castle was in a poor state of repair, and a royal survey carried out in 1537 and 1538 showed that the gates, bridge and parts of the walls had collapsed in a spectacular land slippage, and that one floor of the keep had also fallen in. The collapse of the walls was a consequence of the instability of the top soil on top of the limestone spur, which was a mixture of clay and sandstone; once the clay was washed away over time, the remaining sandstone proved extremely unstable and liable to crack. Henry VIII gave the ruins to the Carey family, who retained it until it passed by marriage into first the Heviningham and then the Coke families. The castle was not involved in the events of the English Civil War in the 17th century, and escaped the slighting that affected many similar properties, probably because the collapse of the outer walls had already made it indefensible and of little military value. In 1737, after the death of Edward Coke, the castle and the surrounding manor were bought by Thomas Osborne, the Duke of Leeds, for £22,500.


In 1811 the novelist Sir Walter Scott passed by the castle and later used it as the location for his novel Ivanhoe, published in 1819. Scott only had a partial view of the property from the road and the events portrayed in the novel, set at the end of the 12th century, are fictitious; Scott believed the castle to have been Saxon in origin, a view shared by many 19th century commentators. Although the writer John Wainwright was still able to praise the "picturesque view" around the castle in 1826, the antiquarian Ecroyd Smith commented with concern in 1887 on the changing character of the location, in particular the factories that were growing up around the new railway line and the "murky atmosphere" the industrial works created. Assistance Dogs are welcome. Wheelchair access is restricted in the keep as the upper floors are only accessible by stairs. Some objects may be handled.


Location : Castle Hill, Conisbrough, Doncaster, South Yorkshire, DN12 3BU

Transport: Conisbrough (National Rail) 1/2 mile. Bus Routes : Stagecoach services 220, 221 & 222; First X78 stop nearby.

Opening Times : Daily 10:00 - 18:00

Tickets : Adults £5.70; Concessions £5.10; Children £3.40.

Tel: 01709 863329