History of Scarborough Castle
Scarborough Castle stands on a massive promontory of rock that rises above the North Sea. Its 12th-century great tower is the centrepiece of a royal castle begun by Henry II. It became one of the greatest royal fortresses in England and figured prominently in national events during the Middle Ages. Its buildings are mostly relatively recent additions to a site which, as a natural fortress, has been intermittently inhabited and fortified for nearly 3,000 years.
Before the Castle
With its own anchorage, Scarborough has long been an important gateway to north-east England. Fragments of pottery dating to between about 2100 and 1600 BC are the earliest evidence of human activity on the headland.
But it is only in the first millennium BC that there is clear evidence of a settlement there. Excavations suggest two distinct periods of habitation, the first about 800 BC and the second about 500 BC, but it is not clear how extensive either settlement was.
In the late 4th century AD a fortified tower was erected on the headland. Finds of coins and pottery, and architectural similarity to other sites, suggest that it was one of a set of signal stations built along the north-eastern coast of Britain at this time. Exactly when and why these were built is much debated, but whatever their purpose, they seem to have been abandoned in the early 5th century.
It has long been supposed that the name Scarborough derives from Old Norse. However, the whole idea of a Viking settlement at Scarborough has recently been questioned and an alternative Anglo-Saxon derivation for the name Scarborough as ‘the hill with the fort’ has been suggested.
Nonetheless, it is clear from the discovery of a chapel within the foundations of the Roman signal station as well as a small cemetery that there was human activity on the headland by 1000.
A Royal Castle
In 1159 Henry II began to rebuild the castle, planting a new town beneath its walls at the same time. About £650 was spent on the castle over the next ten years, an enormous sum. The principal object of expenditure was the great tower, built 1159–69, most probably as architectural confirmation that the castle had changed hands.
King John is known to have visited Scarborough several times and seems to have developed it, along with Knaresborough, as a major royal castle to control Yorkshire. He spent £2,291 on Scarborough, more than on any other castle in the kingdom, in two phases: first, the creation of an outer wall to the inner bailey in 1202–6, and second, the extension of that wall down to the cliff in 1207–12. During the second stage he also constructed a hall in the inner bailey as well as a new royal chamber block and a separate aisled hall in the outer bailey.
The Castle under the Tudors
Though dilapidated, Scarborough Castle continued to play an important role in times of crisis. When the popular rebellion against Henry VIII known as the Pilgrimage of Grace broke out in October 1536, the constable, Sir Ralph Eure, declared his support for the king and was besieged in the castle. Although damaged by gunfire, the castle was held successfully.
Twenty years later the castle was involved in another doomed plot, when in 1557 Thomas Stafford seized the castle and held it for three days, believing he could incite a popular revolt against Queen Mary. The castle was easily captured, and Stafford and his accomplices were executed.
Prison and Barrack
From the 1650s the castle also served as a prison – among those held there was George Fox, founder of the Society of Friends (the Quakers). In response to the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745–6 a barracks block was constructed within the walls of King John’s chamber block, and this remained in use into the mid-19th century.