Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Conisbrough - The Ups and Downs of a Medieval Castle

By F.G. Dannatt

Conisbrough Castle, the Grade 1 listed building, is an unbelievably beautiful place to visit, sitting on a prominent, steep hilltop that overlooks the picturesque village of Conisbrough in South Yorkshire; a village that itself has a long history and like a lot of the villages in South Yorkshire can be dated back to Doomsday Book. But, it’s the castle itself that really catches the eye and the imagination from people around the world - from being the inspiration to one of the greatest novels, Ivanhoe, to the legend of a ghostly lady wondering the keep, this Medieval Castle has it all and is one of Britain’s treasures.

photo by Rob Bendall via CC Licence

Dating back to the 11th century, the land and surrounding area was originally called ‘Cyningsburh’ which was the Anglo-Saxon word for ‘The King’s Borough’ and was first owned by a Saxon nobleman named Elheim. It was granted to him by Wulfric Spott who was a minister to Edward the Confessor. It then went on to be owned by King Harold II and Harold Godwinson, Earl of Wessex, after King Harold fell at the Battle of Hastings. The area was granted to William the Conqueror’s greatest supporter, William de Warenne – who was to become the 1st Earl of Surrey - along with estates in Sussex and Norfolk

By all accounts William didn’t really do that much with Conisbrough, seeming to prefer his property at Castle Acre in Norfolk and so all that was achieved with Conisbrough was little more than a very basic castle, a wooden motte and bailey which would have been surrounded by palisades made of wood and earthen-works. The castle did stay pretty much untouched for the next three generations, as it passed from father to son and so on, and it wasn’t really until Isabelle de Warenne inherited the castle that changes really started to happen, and after that it stayed within the de Warenne family right up until the 14th century where the last Earl of Surrey, John de Warenne, died without heirs and all de Warenne land, including Conisbrough Castle reverted back to the crown.

During the civil war between King Stephen and his cousin Empress Matilda over who controlled England, the Countess of Conisborough Castle was Lady Isabelle de Warenne, the daughter of the 3rd Earl of Surrey - who had died during his foray into the Crusades.

De Warenne Coat of Arms - image supplied by author
via English Heritage

Isabelle was by far one of the most sought-after women in England at the time; she was ridiculously wealthy with a title that dated back to William the Conqueror with some of the most sought-after properties in the country. Every man in England would have wanted her, but it was King Stephen that managed to align his house with the de Warenne estates. Stephen married Isabelle off to his son William, who most likely thought he had an advantageous arrangement – that is until his father made a deal with Empress Matilda that on Stephen’s death the crown would go to Matilda’s son, Henry of Anjou. William and Isabel seemed to accept what would happen and when Henry succeeded Stephen, William served King Henry II loyally until his own death.

On the death of her husband, and without a child to pass on the title to, Isabelle was once again the powerful and much sought-after heiress and yet again regarded by England and the nobility as a great prize. King Henry II, by all accounts, was desperate to unite his house with the Countess and in 1162 Henry’s youngest brother William was seeking a marriage with her, but his request was refused by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket, and William died shortly after – legend has it that he died of a broken heart after losing Isabelle.

King Henry though was not put off by this and he was determined to get the de Warenne estates into royal hands, so he pushed for a marriage between Isabelle and his illegitimate half-brother Hamelin Plantagenet, and in 1164 they were married. It was through Hamelin that Conisbrough Castle became the magnificent castle that it is today.

Hamelin, I think, was a man who was decades ahead of his time - on his marriage to Isabelle he took the very unusual decision to take her name of de Warenne. Even though he would have been the Earl of Surrey on their marriage, he took on her family name as well. For me that speaks a lot about his character, it appears that he could have had a genuine fondness for his wife and in taking her name he was showing her the ultimate respect by honoring her family.

Not just him honoring her family but the marriage by all accounts seems to have been a success, as they went on to have four surviving children: only son and heir William and three daughters Ela, Isabel and Matilda – even though it was rumored that Matilda was Hamelin’s daughter from a previous relationship and one of their daughters – it is believed to be Isabel - was reported to have birthed the illegitimate son, Richard Fitzroy, of her cousin and future King, John. Both Hamelin and Isabelle were very loyal to his brother Henry II.

photo by Rob Bendall via CC Licence

As well as his political work at court, Hamelin was busy having the castle renovated and brought right up to date. During the 1170s/1180s Hamelin had the mighty hexagonal stone keep built which is 28 metres (92 feet) high, the stairs to the keep used to be accessed across a drawbridge. The curtain wall (as it has been called) and the out buildings that lined the wall, which included the great hall and a chamber block which could have been reserved for servants – these were either built along the same time as the keep or added by William after his father’s death - and in 1189 Hamelin and Isabelle founded a chapel lain to be established at the castle. Once Hamelin’s nephew John became king, it is widely known that King John liked to stay at Conisbrough Castle for long periods of time, and cementing it as the de Warennes’ most principal seat.

Over the next few generations life at Conisbrough Castle went along peacefully enough, passing from father to son, that is until the 8th and last Earl of Surrey, John de Warenne - who by all accounts was a bit of a character and John’s exploits changed Conisbrough’s future forever. John married Joan of Bar who was Edward I’s granddaughter, their marriage wasn’t happy – or even amicable. John tried and failed to be granted a divorce, and after this failure Joan decided to leave Conisbrough to live in London under the protection of Edward II, leaving John at Conisbrough to carry on living with his mistress. It was after Joan had left, that Conisbrough was center stage of political rivalry, sieges and a legendary kidnapping. At one point the castle was besieged by Thomas, Earl of Lancaster and taken from John, only for Thomas to rebel against the King and who was defeated and executed.

Conisbrough Castle was then again returned to John in 1326. Unfortunately, John died 20 years later without any heirs and all of the de Warenne lands and estates were reverted to the crown. But in a way the castle was still connected to the de Warenne family, as Edward II handed his fourth son Edmund Langley - who was the godson of John de Warenne - the castle.

When Edmund Langley died in 1402, the castle and the Dukedom were inherited by his elder son, Edward. His second son, Richard of Conisbrough, Earl of Cambridge, was left with nothing as his paternity was constantly in doubt, so with nothing to his name Richard had no choice but to lease a portion of the land from his brother. It was said that he was by far the poorest Earl in the country at the time. It was while living there that Richard was caught in a conspiracy plot to assassinate Henry V, for which he was tried and executed. Only three months later, Edward died at the Battle of Agincourt, and as Edward died without an heir, the castle and all estates were inherited by Richard’s son from his first marriage - Richard, the third Duke of York. After Cambridge’s death his widow and 2nd wife, Maud Clifford, decided to take up permanent residence at Conisbrough up until her death.

Sometime in the 15th century Conisbrough Castle seems to have been abandoned; even with its lofty aristocratic and royal connections it was left to ruin. In 1538 when Henry VIII had his various surveys of castles done around the country, it was noted that Conisbrough had lost its roof, floors and gatehouse and a good potion of the south curtain had collapsed into a ditch (that part of the castle can still be seen today.)

In 1559 the castle was gifted to Elizabeth I, who didn’t seem to want to be burdened with it and passed it to her cousin Henry Carey, Lord Hunsdon.

During the next couple of hundred years the castle passed from one family to another, no one seeming to want to bring it back to its former glory and all the while the castle was getting more and more ruined and dilapidated.

Aerial View - see here for attribution

It wasn’t really until the early 19th century that Conisbrough Castle got the attention that is so deserved. After a trip to Doncaster Sir Walter Scott visited the ruins and he used the location in his best-selling novel Ivanhoe. In the book it called ‘Coningsburgh Castle’. Obviously, this got a lot of people’s attention and people were visiting the castle as a tourist attraction.

In 1950 the castle was taken into state guardianship and in the 1960s The Ministry of Works began extensive repairs on the castle and during 1967-69 the castle underwent important excavations and later in the 1970s brand new stairs were built into the keep.

It wasn’t until the 1990’s that The Ivanhoe Trust took over management of the castle and they re-roofed and re-floored the keep and finally in 2007 this historic building was under direct management by English Heritage.


F.G. Dannatt owns a blog site called Walking in History, which can be found at


  1. Very enjoyable post! It's amazing the depth of history here.

    1. Thank you Cryssa, I am so pleased that people like my article.

  2. An incredibly long history here... I'd love to see it in person, with history notes in hand!

  3. Celia, I hope you get the opportunity to visit this fabulous castle n person, seeing a picture really doesn't do it justice. It is a magnificent place just to sit there beside it on the hill is a very special experience. FG Dannatt xx

  4. Wow! What incredible timing. Just 1/2 hour ago I finished a novel whose main characters come from this castle. Novel was Brothers Blood by CB Hanley.

    Thanks for the article - very interesting.

    1. That is brilliant timing! Thank you Louisa, I'm pleased you liked the article. I'll have a look out for that book, Thanks! FG Dannatt xx

  5. Great history of the castle. It was a very impressive fortification in its day.


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