Conisbrough is a castle that really captures the imagination.
The famous six-sided keep, built over 840 years ago still looms large over the town, standing almost 100 feet high from its base with dramatic views stretching over 20 miles.
It is a quintessential medieval castle with all the enigmatic romanticism and knightly connotations duly attached.
The name Conisbrough is derived from the Anglo-Saxon Cyningesburh, meaning ‘the king’s borough’.
Conisbrough Castle is believed to have originally begun as a motte and bailey design around 1070 by William de Warenne who was the son-in-law of William the Conqueror.
In the late twelfth century the castle passed into the hands of Hamelin Plantagenet (an illegitimate half-brother of King Henry II), who held the Warenne lands through his wife.
The life of a medieval nobleman was peripatetic, but Hamelin did spend a considerable amount of time at Conisbrough.
He set about making the castle a splendid residence fit for royalty – and his nephew King John did indeed stay here in 1201.
Edward Hamelin was responsible for the building of the imposing stone keep in 1180. His successors continued to make improvements to the castle, completing its construction in stone.
In the early 14th Century the castle passed to John de Warenne who, in 1304, 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’ wife, Alice de Lacey.
Thomas subsequently retaliated by seizing Conisbrough Castle. Edward II himself 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.
The King visited the castle in 1322 and spent 40 marks repairing both Conisbrough and the neighbouring castle of Pontefract. Edward 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 here 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 IV, who seized the throne in 1461, bringing Conisbrough back into Crown ownership once again
It is astonishing that this keep has stood here against the elements and retains it’s remarkable hold over the local town and the imaginations of visitors. The keep was built to an unusual design, one that has no exact parallel anywhere else in Britain.
Historians Oliver Creighton and Stephen Johnson consider it an “architectural gem” and “one of the finest examples of late Norman defensive architecture”
Even today it conveys an extraordinary impression of power and strength which would have been remarkable when it was built almost eight and a half centuries ago.
The walls where certainly built to last, measuring in some places almost 15 feet thick in places. There is a flash of delicate beauty, in the tiny chapel, which offers testimony to the accomplished skills of a medieval mason.
This seemingly austere building would once have been regarded as a comfortable and even luxurious place; its elite residents would have enjoyed large fireplaces, private privies and fresh running water (supplied by a rainwater cistern on the roof).
Most of the castle would have been very dark due to the lack of natural light but you can imagine these cavernous spaces being well lit by candlelight and this being a place of great comfort and safety.
By the time of Henry VIII, records from 1538 show that the gates of the castle, the bridge, and about 55m of wall between the tower and the gate had collapsed, and one floor of the keep had fallen in.
The remains of the castle were granted by Henry VIII to the Carey family.
During the Civil War of the seventeenth century (1642-1651) when many other English castles were destroyed or damaged, Conisbrough Castle was left untouched because the gate and walls had already partly collapsed.
Sir Walter Scott used this place for the setting of his 1819 novel Ivanhoe, increasing the castle’s fame and presence in the popular imagination.
It is fascinating to wander the remains of this place and consider all that these walls have witnessed over the past eight centuries. The floors are smooth with centuries of feet passing over the stones.
They have seen great lords as well as Kings and Queens through their doors, it was once a place that was feared and revered as well as a home quite literally fit for a king.
As you sit in the now deserted keep, the small battlement rooms and corridors deadly silent, it is easy to imagine the great conversations that happened here, the great feasts and times of immense struggle and brutality.
One thing is for certain, these walls and the ghosts and memories within will continue to dominate the skyline of Conisbrough for centuries to come.