The magnificent limestone circular keep that is Conisbrough Castle has dominated the skyline for 850 years, creating one of South Yorkshire’s most striking landscapes.
But while the exterior can be seen for miles, how many people know of its historical importance to not only our region, but also the country?
It was once owned by royalty, survived the War of the Roses, inspired the Saxon fortress in Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, and was brought back to life by English Heritage and the Ivanhoe Trust. Today it remains a landmark for its community and education status, and a symbol of the power, wealth and ambition of the dynasty that once called it home.
Conisbrough Castle is unique in that it is the only circular keep in the country. The remarkably well-preserved keep is one of the best surviving examples of defensive architecture in South Yorkshire.
Its refined design, enclosed with buttresses 97-feet high, is French by nature, brought to England by the de Warenne family who were pivotal in the building of the current structure in the 12th century.
The town’s old English name is Cyningesburh, meaning king’s borough, evidencing the importance of Conisbrough as a royal estate throughout the Anglo-Saxon and Viking periods. Before his defeat at the Battle of Hastings in 1066, the area of Conisbrough had belonged to Harold Godwinson, or Harold II, the last Anglo-Saxon king of England. It was then given to William de Warenne by William the Conqueror as a reward for his role in the Norman Conquest.
The keep we’ve come to know was commissioned around the 1170-1180s by King Henry II’s illegitimate brother, Hamlin Plantagenet, who married wealthy heiress Isabel de Warenne and subsequently became the Earl of Surrey. The site became the centre of a great Norman lordship until the 8th Earl, John de Warenne, lost the castle to its only siege, that of Thomas of Lancaster in 1316 following the kidnapping of his wife, the countess of Lancaster Alice de Lacy, by John.
As the last earl died without heir, the castle then passed into the ownership of the crown to King Edward III’s son, Edmund of Langley and his descendants of the House of York. Edmund’s firstborn son Edward succeeded him as the Duke of York, while his second (possibly illegitimate) son, Richard of Conisbrough, was left landless and resided at Conisbrough as a tenant.
In 1415 Richard of Conisbrough was executed for treason following a failed plot with Sir Thomas Grey and Lord Scrope of Masham to overthrow Henry V. After Edward, Duke of York’s death in 1415, Conisbrough Castle passed to Richard’s infant son, also named Richard, who succeeded his uncle as the Duke of York.
Richard III is best remembered as the instigator of the War of the Roses when his Yorkist rebels tried to overthrow the Lancastrian supporters of King Henry VI to claim the throne. During this civil war, Conisbrough was held against the Crown by Edmund Talbot who mounted canon taken from Sheffield Castle on the walls.
Following the death of Richard of York in the Battle of Wakefield, near to Sandal Castle, his son Edward, Earl of March, took ownership of his lands and avenged his death with a stunning victory over the Lancastrians at the battle of Towton in 1461.
The castle became crown property in the 15th century when Edward of March ascended the throne as Edward IV in 1461. Its importance lessened as it became just one of many royal castles and was no longer used as a residence. Despite its royal status, it seems to have been abandoned in the late 15th century and quickly fell into a ruinous state.
Under Henry VIII’s rule, the site was surveyed by three commissioners but was found to be in a general state of disrepair. The gates and bridges had collapsed along with the southern curtain wall. One floor of the keep had collapsed, the roof was damaged, and the well was full of gravel.
But it is perhaps this state of decay that saved Conisbrough from further destruction during the English Civil War as it was seen as an indefensible ruin.
While it changed hands several times after that, it seems to have never been occupied again.
Some years later, the fame of this mysterious castle was spread by Sir Walter Scott’s novel, Ivanhoe, which is said to have impressed Scott so much he based his Saxon fortress on the keep at Conisbrough.
The state took over its management in 1950, from which time Conisbrough Castle underwent repair work overseen by the Ministry of Works. English Heritage then began to care for Conisbrough Castle in 1984 and the site became a place where the public could learn about its history, as well as being a visitor attraction for Conisbrough.
Thanks to a partnership between English Heritage, the Ivanhoe Trust, and Doncaster Council, the castle was restored to some of its former glory by repairing the roof and floor. English Heritage took over sole management in 2008 and the castle was closed five years later for a £1.1 million programme of renovations funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, which included the construction of a new visitors’ centre and visitor facilities. This has enabled visitors to fully immerse themselves in the historical intrigue of the site.
What can you experience onsite?
Since its occupation by the Normans, the site has had multiple building and repair phases from the 12th century to the medieval era as it developed as a defensive structure. Stone structures replaced the earlier wooden buildings and the remnants of several periods of construction can be seen in the inner bailey.
The large D-shaped court, or the Inner Ward, is surrounded by a 30-foot-high wall which was vital for defences. Troops gathered in the court but it was also used for chopping wood or keeping animals. While the domestic buildings are long gone, you can still see the foundations of the chapel, the great hall and chambers, and the kitchen and service rooms.
An earth bank once enclosed the inner bailey. This was later replaced by the curtain wall which became an impenetrable barrier. See the remains of the barbican which was added in the mid-13th century to control access to the inner bailey. Any enemies looking to enter would be trapped by a portcullis gate. The barbican and gatehouse partly collapsed before 1538.
Climb the staircase which would have once provided access to the keep via a drawbridge. Step inside the crumbling castle walls and be amazed by the unusually well-preserved keep. The reinstated floors allow you to fully explore the private chambers and steep curving staircases of this impressive castle.
Stare down into the basement, then climb right up to the roof top and drink in dramatic views of the surrounding town and countryside. On the second floor is the Lord’s Hall where guests would enjoy banquets and festivities, while the third floor would have been the private chambers and chapel.
The visitor centre has a small museum where visitors can explore the history and artefacts from the castle. Inside, via three multimedia presentations, you can meet three of the characters that would have been around in the 12th Century as well as others via the storyboard information panels dotted around the grounds.
There is a gift shop which sells guidebooks, light refreshments, souvenirs and mead. At weekends there is a community space available with games and craft activities. Guided tours and group visits can be booked in advance.
Object displays, a digital model and illustrated panels all help to bring the castle’s history to life. With new stories to tell there’s no better time to visit.
Winter Opening Times:
Saturday and Sunday 10am until 4pm – last entrance 3:30pm
Closed 24-26th Dec and 1st Jan
February Half Term (19th– 27th) open daily 10am-4pm
Further visitor information can be found at www.english-heritage.org.uk
Community events take place throughout the year so check out their Facebook page for details of upcoming events.
Conisbrough Castle, Castle Hill, Conisbrough, Doncaster DN12 3BU