History of Conisbrough Castle

The magnificent keep at Conisbrough Castle is one of South Yorkshire’s most striking landmarks. The castle was the centre of a great Norman lordship, given by William the Conqueror to William de Warenne. The keep was probably built in the 1170s or 1180s. Escaping damage in the Civil War, it became a picturesque ruin in the 18th and 19th centuries, and inspired Sir Walter Scott's most famous novel, Ivanhoe, published in 1819.

Conisbrough Church
The Church of St Peter in the centre of Conisbrough began as a Saxon building of the seventh or eighth century. Despite many later alterations, the church is the oldest building in South Yorkshire
© Roger Cornfoot

Early History

‘Conisbrough’ comes from the Anglo-Saxon word ‘Cyningesburh’, meaning ‘the king’s borough’. Little is known of the site before the Norman Conquest, but Conisbrough town was certainly important long before then: a major Anglian church, now the church of St Peter, stood here, probably as early as the 8th century, and is the oldest standing building in South Yorkshire.[1]

Conisbrough may have been a royal estate and minster of the Anglian kings of Northumbria: throughout the Anglo-Saxon and Viking periods, it seems to have been the most important place in South Yorkshire.[2]

In 1086 Domesday Book recorded that the estate included 28 townships, stretching east to the Lincolnshire border and south to Harthill, and so covering most of the south-east corner of the West Riding. Before the Norman Conquest the estates were in the hands of King Harold.[3]

Download a plan of Conisbrough Castle
The arms of the Warenne family, from a manuscript of about 1250–54
The arms of the Warenne family, from a manuscript of about 1250–54
© British Library Board (Cotton Nero D I fol 171v)

The Warennes

After the Norman Conquest, the honour of Conisbrough was given to William de Warenne, who took his name from his ancestral estates in the valley of the Varenne in Normandy, south of Dieppe.[4] Warenne acquired land across 13 counties and was raised to the Earldom of Surrey.[5]

The main Warenne estates were centred on Conisbrough in Yorkshire, Castle Acre in Norfolk and Lewes in Sussex, the family's principal English seat.[6] Their castle at Conisbrough probably comprised an earthwork enclosure or ringwork crowned with a timber palisade and with timber buildings within it, on the site of the present inner bailey. There was probably also an outer bailey.

The Warennes gave the church at Conisbrough, with all its properties and dependencies, to the priory which they founded at Lewes, and it is the priory records that form the principal documentary source for Conisbrough in the 11th and 12th centuries.[7]

William was succeeded in 1088 by his son William (d.1138), 2nd Earl Warenne and Earl of Surrey. In 1121 this William was given the great manor of Wakefield in west Yorkshire, and established a secondary seat at Sandal Castle.[8] His son and successor, also William, was killed on crusade at Laodicea in Turkey in 1148.[9]

A cutaway reconstruction drawing of the keep of Conisbrough Castlein about 1180, showing the tower’s three principal chambers
A cutaway reconstruction drawing of the keep in about 1180, showing the tower’s three principal chambers
© Historic England (illustration by Peter Urmston)

The Building of the Stone Castle

The 3rd Earl had only one child, a daughter, Isabel (d.1203). Her first marriage, to King Stephen’s youngest surviving son, William of Blois (who became the 4th Earl), was childless. On William's death in 1159, Henry II married Isabel – the greatest heiress in England – to his half-brother Hamelin (d.1202).[10]

Hamelin and Isabel visited Conisbrough regularly – probably annually, a pattern which may have been established by previous generations of the family.[11] It was almost certainly Hamelin who built the stone keep at Conisbrough, which has been dated on stylistic grounds to the 1170s or 1180s.[12] In 1189 Hamelin and Isabel established a chaplain at the castle.[13]

The curtain wall and the buildings which lined it – including the great hall, kitchen and a chamber block – are thought to have been built soon after the keep,[14] or possibly after Hamelin’s death by his son, William (d.1240).

In 1201 Hamelin’s nephew, later King John (r.1199–1216), stayed at Conisbrough,[15] and throughout that century and the next the castle remained one of the principal seats of the Warennes.

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The seal of John de Warenne. The shield in the centre bears the chequer pattern of the de Warenne arms
The seal of John de Warenne. The shield in the centre bears the chequer pattern of the de Warenne arms

The Last Earl Warenne

The 8th and last earl, John, married Joan of Bar, Edward I’s granddaughter. The marriage was unhappy and childless, and in 1313 Joan, living apart from her husband at Conisbrough, went to London to live under Edward II's protection.

Shortly afterwards, in 1317, Conisbrough became embroiled in Earl John’s political rivalry with Thomas, Earl of Lancaster, who besieged and captured Conisbrough and seized John’s Yorkshire estates. But in 1322 Thomas rebelled against Edward II, and was defeated and executed. John’s estates were returned to him in 1326.[16]

When Earl John died without heirs in 1347, however, the Warennes’ northern estates, including Conisbrough, reverted again to the Crown, and were settled by Edward III on his fourth son, Edmund Langley (1341–1402), later Duke of York, who had been John de Warenne’s godson.[17]

A reconstruction drawing of Conisbrough Castle’s great hall in the 14th century
A reconstruction drawing of Conisbrough Castle’s great hall in the 14th century
© Historic England (illustration by Richard Lea)

The House of York

Edmund Langley and his descendants – the House of York – played a major role in the turbulent history of England in the later 14th and 15th centuries.

Langley’s main seat was at Fotheringhay in Northamptonshire, but Conisbrough was his secondary residence. As such, it was more often used by the House of York than it had been by the de Warennes. Major alterations carried out to the domestic buildings in the castle sometime in the 14th century may have been carried out under Langley rather than under the last Warenne earl.

On Langley’s death in 1402 the estates and dukedom were inherited by his elder son, Edward. To his younger son, Richard of Conisbrough, Earl of Cambridge, Edmund left nothing (possibly because Richard’s paternity was in doubt). Richard was born at Conisbrough Castle in 1385, and with no land of his own he lived on there as his brother’s tenant.[18]

Manuscript illustration of Henry V
A manuscript illustration showing the coronation of Henry V in 1413
© British Library Board (Arundel MS 38 fol 37)

The Southampton Plot

It was at Conisbrough that Richard and a number of other Yorkshire notables conspired to assassinate Henry V at Southampton on the eve of Henry’s departure for France in 1415. But the plot was discovered, and Richard was executed.[19]

His brother, Edward, died at the Battle of Agincourt less than three months later, leaving Conisbrough to be occupied by Richard’s widow, Maud, until her death in 1446.[20] This was probably the only period when the castle was the main residence of a great magnate.

Aerial view of Conisbrough Castle, looking east
Aerial view of Conisbrough Castle, looking east

Conisbrough and the Wars of the Roses

Richard of Conisbrough’s son, also Richard, by his first wife, Anne Mortimer, became the 3rd Duke of York and inherited Conisbrough, with many other estates.

When royal authority broke down in the 1450s under the incompetent regime of Henry VI, Richard became the leader of the Yorkist cause and claimant to the throne as the rivalry between Lancastrian and Yorkist factions culminated in open warfare.[21] In 1460 he was declared a traitor and his estates were seized, but Conisbrough was garrisoned for him.

Richard was subsequently defeated and killed at the Battle of Wakefield in December 1460.[22] His head was stuck on a spike over Micklegate Bar in York, wearing a crown of paper and straw. But three months later his 18-year-old son Edward defeated the Lancastrian army at the Battle of Towton, and ascended the throne as Edward IV.

The collapsed remains of the gatehouse at Conisbrough Castle, in the castle’s ditch
The collapsed remains of the gatehouse in the castle’s ditch. On the left are the standing remains of the eastern gatehouse tower

Abandonment and Ruin

Despite its royal status the castle seems to have been abandoned some time in the late 15th century. By 1538, when the castles of Conisbrough and Tickhill were surveyed for Henry VIII, the keep had lost its roof and floors, and the gatehouse and greater part of the south curtain wall had collapsed into the ditch.[23]

When the antiquary John Leland visited at about this time he

saw no notable thing but the Castle standing on a rock of stone and ditched. The walls of it hath been strong and full of towers.[24]

In 1559 the castle was given by Elizabeth I to her cousin Henry Carey, Lord Hunsdon. It passed by the end of the 17th century to the Coke family, to the Dukes of Leeds in 1737 and in 1839 to the Conyers family and Earls of Yarborough.[25]

Landscaping work was carried out in the 18th and 19th centuries, probably by the owners of the castle, to enhance its picturesque qualities,[26] and the castle certainly achieved some fame as a romantic ruin. It was depicted by numerous artists.

While at Doncaster on his way north Sir Walter Scott saw Conisbrough, which he thought to be an Anglo-Saxon ruin, and recreated it as Coningsburgh Castle in his celebrated novel Ivanhoe (1819).

A May Day celebration at Conisbrough Castle in the early 20th century
A May Day celebration at Conisbrough in the early 20th century

Recent History

The castle was taken into state guardianship in 1950, and in the 1960s the Ministry of Works carried out extensive masonry repairs.[27] The castle was also the scene of important excavations in 1967–9 and 1973–7, and new stairs were built to the keep.[28]

During the 1990s the castle was managed by the Ivanhoe Trust, which re-roofed and floored the keep,[29] and built a starkly modern exhibition building in the outer bailey. In 2007 the castle reverted to direct management by English Heritage. 

By Steven Brindle, Senior Properties Historian, English Heritage

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The keep or great tower of Conisbrough Castle, seen from the south
The keep or great tower of Conisbrough Castle, seen from the south


    PF Ryder, Saxon Churches in South Yorkshire, South Yorkshire County Council Archaeology Monograph 2 (Barnsley, 1982), 45–61.
    D Hey, Medieval South Yorkshire (Ashbourne, 2003), 42–7.
    Domesday Survey.
    CT Clay and W Farrer, Early Yorkshire Charters, vol 8: The Honour of Warenne, Yorkshire Archaeological Society Record Series (Leeds, 1949), 1.
    Ibid, 4–5.
    C Brent, Pre-Georgian Lewes c.890–1714: The Emergence of a County Town (Lewes, 2004), chapters 3 and 4.
    The Lewes Cartulary, British Library, MS Cotton Vespasian F xv. See Clay and Farrer, op cit, vii; LF Salzman, The Cartulary of the Priory of St Pancras of Lewes, Sussex Record Society 38 (1932).
    Clay and Farrer, op cit, 7–10.
    Ibid, 12–13.
    Ibid, 18–20; T Keeffe, 'Warenne, Hamelin de, earl of Surrey (Earl Warenne) (d. 1202)', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford, 2004) (subscription required; accessed 21 Oct 2014).
    Clay and Farrer, op cit, no. 62, 109. This is a charter releasing the 'men of the Well Stream', that is, the communities living close to the River Wellstream in the fens south of the Wash should be released from their carrying service for the Earl and Countess on their journeys north 'beyond Well Stream toward Conisbrough or Wakefield', but were still to provide on the journeys south as far as Castle Acre or Methwold, the Warenne seats in East Anglia.
    JAA Goodall, The English Castle (London and New Haven, 2011), 149–51. Stuart Harrison has confirmed the observation that architectural mouldings in the castle from the keep and the bailey buildings are both datable to the late 12th century: S Harrison, 'Conisbrough Castle – an initial brief review of the architectural problems and the evidence of the architectural fragments', Ryedale Archaeology Services, unpublished report for English Heritage (2010).
    Clay and Farrer, op cit, no. 74, 116.
    No positive dating evidence for the curtain wall or the buildings has been found. Thompson dated the curtain wall and hall to c. 1200. Johnson thought it was 'shortly after the construction of the keep c. 1180–90': MW Thompson, 'A single-aisled hall at Conisbrough Castle, Yorkshire', Medieval Archaeology, 12 (1968), 153 (accessed 23 Aug 2014); JS Johnson, 'Excavations at Conisbrough Castle, 1973–1977', Yorkshire Archaeological Journal, 52 (1980), 59–88.
    Clay and Farrer, op cit, 19, citing TD Hardy (ed), Rotuli Chartarum in Turri Londinensi, vol 1, part 1 (1837), 89b and 102a (accessed 18 Nov 2014).
    R Fairbank, 'The last Earl of Warenne and Surrey', Yorkshire Archaeological Journal, 19 (1906–7), 209–16, 219–20 (accessed 23 Aug 2014).
    Ibid, 193–264; A Tuck, 'Edmund (Edmund of Langley, first duke of York (1341–1402)', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford, 2004) (subscription required; accessed 21 Oct 2014). The greater part of the Warenne estates in the south of England went to Richard FitzAlan, 3rd Earl of Arundel.
    It has been speculated that Richard of Conisbrough was the illegitimate son of Edmund of Langley's wife, Isabella of Castile, and John Holland, Earl of Huntingdon: GL Harriss, 'Richard of Conisbrough, earl of Cambridge (1385–1415)', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford, 2004) (subscription required; accessed 21 Oct 2014).
    Ibid; TB Pugh, Henry V and the Southampton Plot of 1415, Southampton Records Series, 30 (Southampton, 1988).
    J Raine (ed), Testamenta Eboracensia, part 2, Publications of the Surtees Society 30 (Durham, 1855), 118–24 (accessed 18 Nov 2014).
    PA Johnson, Duke Richard of York, 1411–1460 (Oxford, 1988); J Watts, 'Richard of York, third duke of York (1411–1460)', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford, 2004) (subscription required; accessed 21 Oct 2014).
    PA Johnson, op cit; Watts, op cit.
    The National Archives, SC 12/17/63.
    J Leland, The Itinerary of John Leland in or about the years 1535–43, vol 1, ed L Toulmin-Smith (London, 1907), 6 (accessed 23 Aug 2014).
    WF Hoyle, 'The descent of the manor of Conisbrough', Yorkshire Archaeological Journal, 9 (1886), 216–20 (accessed 23 Aug 2014); Doncaster Archives, Doncaster, DD/YAR/C, manorial records of the manor of Doncaster.
    PG Johnson and C Ambrey, 'Conisbrough Castle, South Yorkshire: analytical earthwork survey report', Northern Archaeological Associates unpublished report for English Heritage (2009), 28.
    Sheffield Telegraph (13 Jan 1964), press cuttings, Doncaster Library.
    South Yorkshire Times (17 May 1975), press cuttings, Doncaster Library.
    Doncaster Courier (31 March 1995), press cuttings, Doncaster Library.