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Yorkshire's Castles: Knaresborough Castle

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Knaresborough Castle

The remains of Knaresborough Castle lie to the west of the town of Knaresborough on the cliffs above the River Nidd. Although comparatively little of it remains, it is still well worth a visit. Now used as a public park complete with both a bowling green and a putting green, its remains give a glimpse on one of Yorkshire's finest castles.

Knaresborough Castle was on a protected roughly D-shaped platform of earth 110 metres by 70 metres. It was defended not only by the rocky cliffs by the Nidd on the west but also a deep moat, although the moat on the north and east has now been filled in and is taken up by the castle's car park.

The Outer Ward

Like many castles in Yorkshire, Knaresborough was originally divided into an outer and inner ward, with the outer ward containing the castle's stables, workshops, kitchens and other industrial buildings.

The finest surviving parts of the outer ward are the twin solid ashlar D Towers that defended the East Gate. These are five metres in diameter and 10 metres high and date from the 1290s. The remains of the gateway's portcullis is still visible. The arch between these two towers survived the Civil War and slighting, only to collapse in 1847.

Also in the outer ward is the remains of the White Lady Tower. Although it was one of the castle's main towers, little of these remains now survive, following an incident in 1940 when the highest parts of its 25-foot tall structure collapsed under its unsupported weight into the moat.


Also in the outer ward are two sallyports. These are hidden underground tunnels used to gain secret access to and from the castle into the bottom of the castle's moat. These tunnels are seven feet high and six feet wide - large enough for a large number of soldiers to traverse - and were hewn through the solid rock that lies below the castle.

Although the one leading north is no longer passable as the moat on the north side of the castle has been filled in, the sallyport that heads south-east is still accessible. Indeed one of the most memorable parts of a visit to Knaresborough Castle is traversing this tunnel on one of the regular tours available in the summer. The sallyports were originally protected by a portcullis housed in towers built above their exits.

The Inner Ward

The inner ward was the centre of the castle, containing not only the keep, but also the domestic buildings including the well, kitchens and great hall. The boundary of the inner ward from the outer ward can be traced from the courthouse to the keep, known as the King's Tower. Although fractures of the castle's wall survive, as well as fragments from two turrets that protected the castle's south side, by far the dominant features of the inner ward are the courthouse building and the King's Tower and porch.

The Courthouse

The courthouse occupied the southern half of the divide between the wards. The courthouse's undercroft is the oldest surviving part of the castle, dating from the early 13th Century, although it is possibly late 12th Century. The courthouse building would originally been used as a chapel and lodging chambers for the castle's officials, as well as housing important documents.

The courthouse above was built around the 1590s and still contains the original Tudor court furniture. The eastern side of the building was built in the 18th Century to house a prison on the site of the original medieval chapel, with the western portion of the courthouse dating from the 1800s.

The courtyard now houses the castle's museum on the history of both the castle and the town of Knaresborough itself.

The King's Tower

Knaresborough Castle

Built on the site of an earlier tower stands the still-impressive King's Tower built in 1307-1312 on the orders of King Edward II. The tower itself is D-shaped, 18 metres long by 15 metres wide with 4.5 metre thick walls.

Below ground level, accessible down a flight of steps outside the tower, is the cellar. This was used originally as a cellar but was later converted into a dungeon, especially after the Civil War when the keep was retained as a prison. The cellar is architecturally unique in Britain, with a central column branch into twelve ribs supporting the floors above.

The ground floor is accessible through three doors into the keep, with one large central room in the middle, an L-shaped room on the west and two connecting rooms on the east. The L-shaped room is believed to have been used as a strong room to store valuable items. The two rooms to the east are believed to have been used as the chambers for the keep's porter. The main room in the middle was probably used as the steward's chamber, and had four smaller chambers leading off of it as well as access to the store and a spiral staircase to the first floor. Only two of the smaller chambers have survived the castle's slighting, one of which contains a garderobe shaft and may well have been used as a bathroom.

Adjoining the keep's ground floor to the south west was a small out-building that was the keep's ante-chamber. This, the porch, was the main gateway to the keep's main rooms. Visitors coming to the castle would enter the ante-chamber through double doors and then sit at the stone bench before being summoned.

From the ante-chamber, under a portcullis, the visitor would be led upstairs to the keep's first floor. Here they would wait in another chamber similar to the one in the porch below. From here the visitor would pass through a strong gateway consisting of an outward and inward opening door with a portcullis between into the King's Chamber. Here the King would hold court, with a throne likely to have been set at a raised dais by a decorative arch at the far end of the chamber. This chamber contained two fireplaces as well as the private staircase to the ground and second floors. It is believed that King Richard II was imprisoned in this chamber before being taken to Pontefract Castle, where he was murdered.

The floor on the second floor no longer exists as the castle's north east wall above the first floor was destroyed after the Civil War. It is believed that the destroyed chambers on the second floor would have been the keep's private chapel, as well as the Lord and Lady's private chamber.


Knaresborough Castle

Although Knaresborough castle is Norman in construction it is possible that there was a primitive fortification on the sight in Saxon times. The first mention of Knaresborough is in the Domesday Book of 1086, when it was called 'Chednaresburg'. A burg is a Saxon word for a defensive enclose, normally protecting a town or other settlement. The Doomsday Book does not mention whether there was a castle at Knaresborough or not, and merely mentions that the town was in the possession of William The Bastard. The first definite mention of Knaresborough Castle was in 1129 when Henry I records £11 having been spent on it by custodian Eustace Fitz-John.

The Murder of Thomas Beckett

The castle's first involvement in national affairs was in 1170 when the castle was under the control of Hugh de Morville. He was one of the knights who murdered Archbishop Thomas Beckett in Canterbury Cathedral.

Henry II had been close friends with Thomas Beckett in the early years of his reign, making him Archbishop of Canterbury. Thomas Beckett then began to champion church privileges, bringing him into conflict with Henry. When in 1163 Henry II called a council at Westminster acknowledging royal supremacy over Church and State, Thomas Beckett stated that these excluded the rights of the church.

After this, with many considering Beckett's actions treason, Thomas fled into temporary exile. Henry II then had his eldest surviving son, Henry, married to Margaret, daughter of Louis VII the king of France, and had him crowned King of England during his life on 14 June, 11701. This was considered an insult to Thomas Beckett as it was traditionally the Archbishop of Canterbury's duty to crown royalty. Beckett reacted badly to this, and Henry II was threatened with excommunication. Henry is alleged to have said 'Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?' where upon Hugh de Morville of Knaresborough, among others, travelled to Canterbury and murdered him. After this act, learning of Henry's disapproval Hugh de Moreville fled to Knaresborough for refuge.

King John

Knaresborough Castle was one of the favourite castles of King John. Knaresborough Castle was near Knaresborough Royal Forest, one of his favourite hunting grounds. It was John who ordered the construction of the moat that runs around the castle and it was probably during John's reign that work began on the conversion of the castle to stone.

John is believed to have spent £1,290 on the castle, and spent more money on his castles at Knaresborough and Scarborough than on any others. During the Baron's Revolt civil war of 1215-1216 - one of the causes of which had been John's refusal to adhere to the Magna Carta signed in June 1215 - Knaresborough Castle remained strongly loyal to King John.

Edward I

After Edward I's successful Welsh campaign, it was natural for him to consider his border with Scotland. Although not on the actual frontier, Knaresborough Castle was one of the castles that he repaired and modernised. It was Edward I who was responsible for the construction of the twin-towered East Gate.

Edward II

Under the weak king Edward II the improvements to Knaresborough Castle continued, although in 1307, shortly after inheriting the throne, Edward II granted Knaresborough Castle to his favourite, Piers Gaveston. Edward II's English Barons felt that Piers had undue influence over Edward, and forced the king to exile Piers in 1308. This exile did not last long, as Piers Gaveston returned in 1309.

His return proved unpopular with the increasingly powerful barons, and eventually Piers Gaveston fled. He went to Scarborough Castle, where he was besieged, and was forced to surrender after a fortnight when the castle had run out of food. Although Piers had been promised safe conduct, he was beheaded by the Earl of Warwick in 1312. During this time Edward II was in Knaresborough Castle to be near his favourite.

Edward II's reign continued to descend into chaos after his disastrous defeat at the Battle of Bannockburn. This led to Scottish raids into England and rebellion. In 1317 Knaresborough Castle was seized by John de Lilburn for Thomas, Earl of Lancaster.2 Knaresborough Castle was then besieged. The castle's constable spent £55 on besieging his own castle and constructing siege engines. Knaresborough Castle was finally recaptured for Edward II after three months when the wall was breached.

In 1318 the Scots raided Yorkshire and burnt much of Knaresborough, including the church and priory. Knaresborough Castle, though, was not taken. By 1327 the barons, led by Edward II's wife Queen Isabella, rebelled against Edward II, capturing him at Kenilworth. He was imprisoned in Berkeley Castle in Gloucestershire where he was murdered on 21 September, 1327.

The House of Lancaster

After the death of Edward II, his son Edward III became King. In 1331, Edward III gave Knaresborough Castle to his wife Queen Philippa as part of their marriage settlement, whereon Knaresborough Castle became a frequently used royal residence. Queen Philippa often spent the summer months at Knaresborough, along with her children.

Queen Philippa died in 1369. In 1372, John of Gaunt (Edward III and Queen Philippa's fourth son) exchanged his property at Richmond Castle for Knaresborough Castle. John of Gaunt was the founder of the House of Lancaster, and Knaresborough remained a Lancastrian Castle, although it played no part in the Wars of the Roses.

When John of Gaunt died, his heir Henry Bolingbroke was banished and disinherited, with his properties claimed by Richard II. Henry returned to England, landing at Ravenspur, and travelled to his castles at Pickering, Knaresborough and Pontefract to raise support. Henry raised enough support to defeat Richard II, and declare himself King Henry IV.

Richard II was then imprisoned, and spent a night as a prisoner in the King's Tower at Knaresborough Castle. This was on his journey to Pontefract Castle, where he was murdered.

Before The Civil War

After the imprisonment of Richard II, Knaresborough Castle's importance declined. It remained in the possession of the House of Lancaster, passing to Henry IV's son Henry V on his death, and on the death of Henry V in 1422, Knaresborough Castle was given as dowry to Queen Catherine, his widow. On her death in 1437, the castle was inherited by Henry VI.

Knaresborough Castle played no part in the Wars of the Roses, and the survey of Castles that Henry VIII ordered in 1538 and 1561 listed the repairs that the castle needed. In the Tudor Period, the castle was becoming more of a focus for administrating the Honour and Forest of Knaresborough and surrounding areas, with the courthouse rebuilt in the 1590s by Sir Henry Slingsby.

The Civil War

During the Civil War, Knaresborough Castle - like most of the castles in Yorkshire - was held for the King. After the Royalist Army under Prince Rupert lost the Battle of Marston Moor six miles outside York on 2 July, 1644, Knaresborough Castle was besieged by the advancing Parliamentarian Army. After a four month siege the castle finally surrendered on 20 December, 1644 when the Parliamentarian cannon breached a hole in the wall's weakest point - above the exit to the south-east sallyport, which was thinner in order to hide an internal portcullis protecting the sallyport itself.

In 1646, Parliament ordered that Knaresborough Castle be demolished. Almost all of the curtain wall and all the castle's buildings other than the courthouse were destroyed. The King's Tower itself was in the process of being demolished when the people of Knaresborough petitioned that the keep be spared in order to be used as a prison.

After the Civil War

Knaresborough Castle

After the Civil War the castle remains continued to be used as a court and prison. In 1888 Knaresborough District Council leased the site, which is still Crown Property, from Queen Victoria in order to create a public park. In the early 20th Century the park was given a bowling green and tennis courts, and although the tennis courts have been replaced by a putting green, the last century has seen little change other than the construction of Knaresborough's war memorial. The courthouse is now used as Knaresborough's museum.

1Henry never became king of England as he died in 1183. Henry II died in 1189, whereupon his third son Richard The Lionheart ruled 1189-1199, followed by his fifth son John 1199-1216.2Thomas, Earl of Lancaster was the grandson of Henry III, and was one of those who had executed Piers Gaveston in Scarborough Castle. He rebelled against Edward II, but was defeated in March 1322 at the Battle of Boroughbridge, imprisoned at his castle of Pontefract and executed outside the castle soon after.

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