I grew up in Doncaster: perhaps not the most obvious place to inspire a budding medieval historian. Yet in fact the town has a rich history, and in the wider Doncaster area there are still quite a number of medieval buildings. These include a castle at Tickhill and several wonderful churches. (My personal favourite is quirky little St Oswald’s in Kirk Sandall.) However Doncaster’s most significant medieval building is surely Conisbrough Castle, which dominates the skyline for miles around. It is probably best known for its connection with Sir Walter Scott, whose famous novel Ivanhoe was apparently inspired by the castle, although of course it does have a much longer story.
The name Conisbrough is derived from the Anglo-Saxon Cyningesburh, meaning ‘the king’s borough’. Very little is known about the early history of Conisbrough, but it appears to have been an important place; parts of the church there can be dated back to the eight century. In 1066 the lordship of Conisbrough was held by the last of the Anglo-Saxon kings, Harold II. After the Norman Conquest it was granted to William de Warenne, who was one of William I’s most trusted supporters. Warenne was responsible for the building of the first castle at Conisbrough: a rapidly built structure of timber and earth.
The Norman Conquest changed life for the people of Conisbrough, as it did throughout England. Conisbrough appears to have escaped the effects of the ‘Harrying of the North’ – King William’s devastating punishment for a later northern rebellion – but the local people did suffer in other ways. The evidence from Domesday Book suggests that many people in the area were reduced to serfdom (which was not previously the case). Norman castles like Conisbrough were not only built for defence. They were also statements of authority, reminding an oppressed people of their conquered status.
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 indeed his nephew King John stayed here in 1201. Hamelin was responsible for the building of the imposing stone keep. His successors continued to make improvements to the castle, completing its construction in stone.
In the late fourteenth century the castle was granted to Edmund of Langley, Edward III’s fourth son. Edmund’s children included Richard of Conisbrough, Earl of Cambridge, who was born at the castle in 1385. He continued to spend much of his time at Conisbrough as an adult, although his life was not a happy one. He was eventually executed as a traitor, in 1415, after he became embroiled in a conspiracy against Henry V. His son would enjoy a more illustrious career – albeit one that also ended in failure. This boy, also called Richard, would eventually go on to become Duke of York and a major figure in the Wars of the Roses.
The Duke of York’s heir was Edward IV, who took the throne in 1461, so the castle became the property of the crown. Some repairs were carried out towards the end of Edward’s reign, but the castle seems to have been neglected thereafter. During the reign of Henry VIII it was reported that much of the stonework had started to collapse, and that one floor of the keep had already fallen in. Elizabeth I granted the castle to the Carey family – although it cannot have been much of a prize! The castle remained in private hands until 1949, when it was purchased by Conisbrough’s local council. It is now in the care of English Heritage.
Much of the castle is ruined today, but its most important feature – the cylindrical keep, which is supported by six semi-hexagonal buttresses – is still remarkably intact. The keep was built to an unusual design, one that has no exact parallel anywhere else in Britain. Rising almost 100 feet from its substantial base, it conveys an extraordinary impression of power and strength. There is a flash of delicate beauty, though, in the tiny chapel, which offers testimony to the accomplished skills of a medieval mason.
Other features remind us that 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). It is also worth making the steep climb to the top of the keep. On a clear day the battlements offer spectacular views of the surrounding landscape.
I first visited the castle with my primary school class. This outing inspired one of my own first efforts at historical writing: a ‘time-travel’ story which saw me and several of my friends transported to medieval Conisbrough. Naturally I assumed we would all adapt well to the life of a medieval knight (having diligently practiced with plastic swords in each other’s back gardens), and in my story we successfully defeated a tough force of rebels on behalf of the king. These days I feel rather less convinced about my aptitude for medieval combat, but my interest in medieval history has endured.
When I visited as a child the keep was still a shell, but its roof and floors were restored in the late 1990s. It now houses an interpretative exhibition, which is focused on Hamelin Plantagenet and his world, and other steps have been taken to improve the visitor experience. School trips are still very much encouraged – hopefully some children will feel the same spark that I did – although I would recommend a visit to people of all ages. More information about the castle is available here.