Yorkshire's Castles: Skipton Castle Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Yorkshire's Castles: Skipton Castle

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Yorkshire's Castles
Bolton | Conisbrough | Helmsley | Knaresborough | Middleham | Pickering | Pontefract | Richmond | Ripley | Sandal | Scarborough | Skipton | Spofforth | York

Skipton Castle is the smallest in Yorkshire, yet it is the best preserved. Its unique, compact design gives it a deceptively quaint appearance, yet it withstood siege by Parliamentary forces for three years.

The castle lies just south of Eller Beck, a tall steep cliff above a river. On top of this cliff, running parallel to it, lies the castle's Great Hall, a two-storey building with many rooms. Protecting this hall on the landward side, arranged in a semi-circle, are six thick, round drum-towers - four on the west side and two on the east. Those on the west side interlock with those on the east, connected by internal rooms. The effect is to make Skipton Castle a solid castle, which is interconnected and easily accessible from the conduit court, a small open area around which the castle is centred. The court is named after the cistern which supplied the castle's water.

The Outer Ward

Despite the castle's small and snug design it retains an outer ward. This rectangular area is 200 metres long east to west, by 75 metres wide, with the castle heart in the centre of its northern edge. It contains the remains of a chapel and stable block, with a small wall enclosing it.

The Tudor gatehouse dominates the outer ward, and is made of four round corner towers protecting the entrance. Above the entrance through the gatehouse on either side is the word Desormais, meaning Henceforth, the Clifford family motto. Inside the gatehouse east tower lies the Shell Room, a room decorated by exotic shells, volcanic rock and Jamaican coral that was built between 1626 - 1629 for Henry Clifford, 5th Earl of Cumberland, and is one of only two surviving shell grottos of the period in England.

A chapel of Saint John has existed on the site since the 12th Century, although the current chapel dates from the 14th Century and is still roofed, but otherwise open to the elements. The east window was recently restored after a modern adjoining building was demolished. It is the same size as the other windows, and can be seen above the altar. The original font has also been restored to the chapel after spending 300 years in the conduit court. The last recorded uses of the Chapel were in 1635 when Elizabeth Clifford married Lord Dungarvan there, and two years later when her daughter Katherine was baptised.

The Castle

The heart of the castle consists of six towers and their interlocking rooms, and a great hall arranged around a small open court in the centre. To the east of this lies a more modern range of buildings called the Long Gallery, built in 1536, which remains a private residence. This, though, does not detract from the castle itself, which is entered up a small flight of steps near the Watchtower - the tower nearest the gatehouse - to a small porch area before passing between two more round towers which were the original entrance towers in Norman times, and are the oldest part of the castle. Before the porch and stairs were built, to enter the castle it was necessary to cross a drawbridge over a now-gone moat and pass under a portcullis and through gates between these towers. The portcullis grooves are still visible.

After entering the castle, the conduit court is immediately in front with several doorways visible on both the ground floor and stairs to the first floor and above. The ground floor contains many of the rooms normally associated with castle life - the wine and beer cellars, new kitchen1, curing room2 as well as the tower rooms, guard rooms and fighting chambers expected. Of particular interest is the small underground dungeon beneath the entranceway bridge. This can be reached via a small, steep stone stairway and was where prisoners were held by leg irons. Torture was never carried out here. In fact at a trial in York one man said that he had never been as well-fed as when imprisoned by Lord Clifford.

The first floor contains more rooms associated with castle life - the medieval kitchen, garderobe, Great Banqueting Hall, Lord's dayroom and bedchamber, watchtower and withdrawing room. It is said that Mary Queen of Scots was imprisoned for a time at Skipton Castle and often looked out of the withdrawing room to the north towards Scotland.

All in all, Skipton Castle is remarkably well-preserved and gives a detailed insight into the daily life of a castle.

The History

It is believed that William the Conqueror granted the land around Skipton to Robert de Romille, who built the first wooden castle on this site. The first mention of a castle at Skipton is in 1130, when Skipton was part of the estate of William Meschin, who had married Robert de Romille's daughter, at Bolton.

His daughter Alice married William Fitz-Duncan, who was made Lord of Skipton in the chaos of the 1150s. Their daughter Cicely married William le Gros, Earl of Aumale, who had built the adulterine castle of Scarborough before its confiscation by Henry II. Their great-grandson William, Lord of Skipton 1194 - 1241 rebuilt the castle in stone. By 1274, though, the family had died out and the castle became the property of the king.

Skipton Castle Under Edward II

Skipton was kept as a royal castle until the accession of the weak King Edward II in 1307, who granted it to his unpopular favourite Piers Gaveston. Piers did not enjoy the castle for long as he was forced into exile in 1308. After his return to England in 1309 his popularity had not improved and he was later besieged in Scarborough Castle and beheaded by the Earl of Warwick in 1312.

The castle had, in the meantime, been transferred to Robert de Clifford, who was descended from the Cliffords of Clifford Castle in Herefordshire, in 1310. He began work on strengthening the castle but died at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314 as work had barely begun. Roger de Clifford inherited the castle. In 1318 the town of Skipton was attacked by the Scots, but the castle was ignored.

During the Civil War between rival factions in Edward II's reign, Roger supported Thomas of Lancaster's failed rebellion and lost the castle as forfeit. However, Edward II's wife Isabella avenged Thomas of Lancaster's death and had Edward II killed in Gloucester, and under Edward III, Roger's son Robert de Clifford had Skipton Castle returned to him.

The Wars Of The Roses

The eighth Lord Clifford was Thomas Clifford, who died in the Battle of St Albans in 1455. This was a battle fought between Henry VI's queen Margaret and Richard Duke of York3 to gain control over the 'imbecile' King Henry VI. His death is described in the Quarto edition of William Shakespeare's Henry VI: Part II thus:


Clifford, since we are singled here alone,
Be this the day of doom to one of us.
For know my heart hath sworn immortal hate
To thee and all the house of Lancaster.
And here I stand and pitch my foot to thine,
Vowing not to stir till thou or I be slain.
For never shall my heart be safe at rest
Till I have spoiled the hateful house of York.
(Alarums. They fight. York kills Clifford)

The castle was then held by his son John, 'Bloody Clifford'4, the ninth Lord, who was a strong Lancastrian supporter. He was nicknamed 'The Butcher' for his savagery in battle. He is most famous for hacking the head off Richard Duke of York5 and his son Edmund6 at the Battle of Wakefield outside Sandal Castle on 31 December, 1460 to avenge his father's death. He had their heads stuck on a pole over Micklegate Bar, York. He was killed at the battle of Towton in 1461 when Richard Duke of York's eldest son avenged his death and became Edward IV. Bloody Clifford's death is described in Henry VI: Part III Act 2 Scene 6 thus:

Here burns my candle out - ay, here it dies,
Which, while it lasted, gave King Henry light...
Come York and Richard, Warwick and the rest -
I stabbed your fathers' bosoms; split my breast.

On Edward IV's accession, John's son Henry was sent to Cumberland where he was disguised as a shepherd while the Skipton estate was confiscated by Edward IV. After Richard III, the last of the House of York, was defeated at the Battle of Bosworth he came out of hiding.

The Tudors

Henry Clifford was allowed to reclaim his lands under Henry VII in 1485. He was nicknamed 'The Shepherd Lord', married Anne St John, the King's cousin, and modernised the Conduit Court. In September 1513 he held a command at the Battle of Flodden Field where James IV of Scotland was defeated in battle by Henry VIII when he was 60, and brought many captured Scottish cannon back to the castle.

His son, Henry Clifford, inherited the castle and built the Long Gallery to its east. In 1536, when under the control of Henry's son Henry, the castle was besieged, and nearly captured, by rebels during the 'Pilgrimage of Grace'. This was a revolt in the north against Henry VIII's break with Catholicism. One of whose leaders, Robert Aske, was related to the Cliffords. Many of Henry Clifford's men joined the failed rebellion.

George Clifford, the thirteenth Lord of Skipton and Henry's grandson, was one of Queen Elizabeth's champions. He commanded the Elizabeth Bonaventure during the engagement against the Spanish Armada and fought in Puerto Rico in 1598, as well as engaging in several skirmishes against Spanish ships.

The Civil War

Like many of the castles in Yorkshire, during the Civil War the castle declared for the King. The castle was besieged on and off for three years, with the last siege lasting for several months. The castle was surrendered by Sir John Mallory in December 1645 with honour, allowed to march out with colours flying to rejoin the King's forces. When Civil War flared up again in 1648, the castle was once again occupied by Royalists. They were soon forced to surrender, but Parliament decreed that Skipton Castle be demolished.

Although this work was begun, Lady Anne Clifford, the last in the line of Cliffords to own the castle, petitioned against the decision. Cromwell allowed her to rebuild and repair the castle, provided the castle's roof was no longer strong enough to bear cannon. The castle's walls on top are therefore thinner than the original width at the bottom.

1Converted into a kitchen in the 1580s after the Long Gallery was constructed as it was conveniently located.2Where the pickling, smoking and salting of meat was done in order to preserve it in the days before refrigeration.3Father of Edward IV and Richard III.4John Clifford is mentioned by Shakespeare in Henry VI parts II and III.5See Henry VI: Part III Act 2 Scene 1.6See Henry VI: Part III Act 1 Scene 3.

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