Conisbrough Castle – its Life and History

ConisbroughCastle

Growing up near Conisbrough Castle, South Yorkshire, I did not know much about its history. It was rather underrated. We always thought it was just a bland old place – it was great for exploring and rolling down the hills and playing hide and seek in the inner bailey. However, being so far from London, the centre of power,  it didn’t seem to have much history or national importance. The most famous thing about it was that it was used as the Saxon castle in Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe.

The castle’s early history

English Heritage have spent a lot of money on it in recent years. When I worked there in the early 1990s there was no roof, it was open to the elements, with green moss on the walls and erosion caused by acid rain. And there was just a very narrow walkway around the inside of the keep. It was just a shell. Now it has a roof, floors on every level, sensitive lighting, information videos on each floor and a fantastic little visitor centre with a small museum. It looks so much better (although I still wouldn’t want to stand on the battlements on a windy day like today).

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Conisbrough’s hexagonal keep

When I joined the castle team as a volunteer tour guide, I started looking into the actual history of the Castle, seeing it more for what it has been, than for the visitor attraction it is now. Instead of being a forgotten, unimportant little castle in the middle of nowhere, Conisbrough Castle comes to life through the history it has been a part of, and the people who have called it home.

According to Geoffrey of Monmouth, in his Historia Regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain), Conisbrough was founded as ‘Conan’s Burg’ by a British leader called Conan. It was said to have later belonged to Ambrosius Aurelianus, a candidate for the legendary King Arthur. As Geoffrey of Monmouth says, Ambrosius captured the Saxon leader Hengist, once a mercenary for Vortigern, at the battle of ‘Maisbeli.’ And brought him to his stronghold at Conisbrough. Hengist was then beheaded on Ambrosius’ orders and buried at the entrance to the castle of ‘Cunengeburg’, that is Conisbrough. A small hill, locally called Hengist’s Mound, is in the grounds of the outer bailey.

What we know, for certain, is that by 1066 the Honour of Conisbrough belonged to Harold Godwinson, Earl of Wessex and later King Harold II of England, though there is no evidence that he ever visited. On a prominent, steep hill, the castle guards the main road between Sheffield and Doncaster to the east, and the navigable River Don to the north.

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The kitchen range in the inner bailey

Following Harold’s defeat and death at the Battle of Hastings, and shortly after the Harrying of the North of 1068 Conisbrough was given to one of William the Conqueror’s greatest supporters, William de Warenne. Warenne was a cousin of Duke William of Normandy and fought alongside him at the Battle of Hastings. He was given land in various counties, including Lewes in Sussex and Conisbrough in Yorkshire; and although he developed his property at Castle Acre in Norfolk, little was done at Conisbrough. In those days the castle itself was little more than a wooden motte and bailey construction, surrounded by wooden palisades and earthworks.

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A thoroughly modern Castle

It was not until the reign of Henry II that the Castle began to take on the majestic appearance we know today. Conisbrough came into the hands of Hamelin Plantagenet, illegitimate half-brother of King Henry II; Hamelin had married the de Warenne heiress, Isabel, 4th Countess of Warenne and Surrey, and became 4th Earl of Warenne and Surrey by right of his wife.

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Fireplace in the bedchamber in the keep

It was Hamelin who built the spectacular hexagonal keep that we can see today. The stairs to the keep were originally accessed across a drawbridge, which could be raised in times of attack. The ground floor was used for storage, with a basement storeroom below, housing the keep’s well,  and accessed by ladder.

The first floor holds the great chamber, or solar, with a magnificent fireplace and seating in the glass-less window. This is where the Lord would have conducted business, or entertained important guests. Henry II, King John and King Edward II are known to have visited Conisbrough: King John even issued a charter from Conisbrough Castle in March 1201.

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The chapel’s vaulted ceiling

The second floor would have been sleeping quarters for the lord and lady. Both the solar and the bedchamber have impressive fireplaces, garderobes and a stone basin, which would have had running water delivered from a rainwater cistern on the roof.

On this floor, also, built into one of the keep’s buttresses is the family’s private chapel. This may well have been the chapel endowed by Hamelin and Isabel in 1189-90, and dedicated to St Philip and St James (although there was a, now lost, second chapel in the inner bailey to which the endowment could refer). The chapel is well-decorated, with quatrefoil windows, elaborate carving on the columns and a wonderful vaulted ceiling.

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Chapel carvings

There is a small sacristy for the priest, just to the left of the door, with another basin for the priest’s personal use, and cavities for storing the vestments and altar vessels.

The winding stairs, built within the keep’s thick walls, give access to each successive level and, eventually, to the battlements, with a panoramic view of the surrounding area.

These battlements also had cisterns to hold rainwater, a bread oven and weapons storage; and wooden hoardings stretching out over the bailey to aid in defence. The keep and curtain walls – which were built slightly later – were of a state-of-the art design in their day. The barbican, leading into the inner bailey, had 2 gatehouses and  a steep passageway guarded by high walls on both sides; an attacking force would have been defenceless against missiles from above, with nowhere to run in the cramped corridor.

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View from the battlements

Although the encircling moat is dry (the keep is built high on a hill), all the detritus from the toilets and kitchens drained into it; another little aid to defence – imagine having to attack through that kind of waste?

None of the buildings in the inner bailey have survived, although you can see their stone foundations in the ground. Along one wall there were kitchens and service rooms leading into a great hall, with a raised dais at the far end, and a solar and living quarters above. Another range of buildings attached to the western wall also held living quarters, possibly for the garrison and any guests. There’s even a small jail cell just to the side of the barbican.

Although Conisbrough is not a large castle, the extensive range of buildings, the magnificent decorations of the fireplaces and chapel, suggest it would have been impressive in its day; and reflects the importance of the castle’s owners and occupants.

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The Castle’s Residents

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The inner bailey

The Warenne Earls of Surrey were close to the crown, and the centre of government, for the best part 3 centuries. The daughter of the 2nd Earl, Ada, had married the heir to the Scots throne and was mother to 2 Scottish kings; Malcolm the Maiden and William the Lion.

Hamelin’s son and heir, William, 5th Earl of Warenne and Surrey, married Maud Marshal, daughter of the Greatest knight, William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke and Regent during Henry III’s  infancy. A cousin of King John, William was deeply involved in the Magna Carta crisis, though not always in support of his cousin. Their son John, the 6th Earl, was Edward I’s lieutenant in Scotland and beat the Scots at the Battle of Dunbar in 1296, though he had been defeated by William Wallace at Stirling Bridge the following year. John’s daughter, Isabella, married John Balliol, King of Scots, and was mother to Edward Balliol, another Scottish king. John’s sister, Isabel, married Hugh d’Aubigny, 5th Earl of Arundel, and is remembered as the countess who stood up to Henry III, invoking Magna Carta, when he appropriated land that was rightfully hers.

The 7th – and last – Warenne earl, John, was a colourful character who lived through some of the most dramatic events of English history; the reign of Edweard II. John was the grandson of the 6th earl; his father, William de Warenne, had diedbeen killed in a tournament at Croydon, in December 1286, when John was just 6 months old. Although he was married to Joan of Bar, a granddaughter of Edward I, John lived openly with his mistress and made several unsuccessful attempts to obtain a divorce from his wife. A private feud with Thomas Earl of Lancaster saw John arrange the kidnapping of Earl Tomas’ wife, Alice de Lacey, possibly in retaliation for Lancaster standing in the way of Surrey’s longed-for divorce. The result was the 1st – and only – siege of Conisbrough Castle.

Lancaster sent forces to seize the Warenne castles at Sandal and Conisbrough. His men found the gates of Conisbrough closed to them. The castle was defended by only six men, including the town miller and three brothers, Thomas, Henry and William Greathead, who were men-at-arms. The siege lasted less than two hours and the defenders appear to have relinquished the castle after apparently putting up a token resistance; the three brothers were fined for drawing blood. The chapel in the castle’s inner bailey may have been damaged in the brief altercation, as the following year, Lancaster sent orders to his castellan at Conisbrough, John de Lassell, to ‘repailler la couverture de la chapele de Conynggesburgh.’1

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The bedchamber in the keep, with wash basin and stairway leading to the garderobe and battlements

The last Earl of Surrey died without heirs in 1347 and Conisbrough passed to John de Warenne’s godson, Edmund of Langley, fourth son of Edward III. Edmund’s wife Isabella of Castile gave birth to her 3rd child, Richard Earl of Cambridge (also known as Richard of Conisbrough) at Conisbrough, possibly in the lavish bedchamber within the keep itself. Cambridge had the dubious reputation of being England’s poorest Earl and was executed following his involvement in the Southampton plot against Henry V; however, he is remembered to history as the grandfather of the Yorkist kings, Edward IV and Richard III.

Following Cambridge’s execution for treason in 1415 his 2nd wife, Maud Clifford, made Conisbrough her principal residence until her death in 1446. Maud entertained her Clifford family here and her great-nephew and godson John Clifford, known to Yorkists as the Butcher of Skipton was born there in 1435. In a strange twist of fate, John Clifford is the one accused of murdering the Earl of Cambridge’s 17-year-old grandson Edmund, Earl of Rutland, following the Lancastrian’s defeat of the Yorksists at the Battle of Wakefield on 30 December 1460. Maud died at the castle in August 1446 and is buried in Roche Abbey, about 10 miles from her home.

The castle underwent repairs during the reigns of Edward IV and Richard III, in 1482-3, but by 1538 a survey revealed the it had fallen into neglect and decay, with parts of the curtain wall having slipped down the embankment.

From then on, although it has had successive owners until it came under the protection of English Heritage, Conisbrough Castle has been a picturesque ruin, a wonderful venue for picnics and exploring its many hidden treasures.

Conisbrough Castle from the outer bailey

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All photographs are copyright to Sharon Bennett Connolly, 2015.

Footnote:

1 Hunter’s South Yorkshire ii; Deanery of Doncaster ii quoted in F. Royston Fairbank, The Last Earl of Warenne and Surrey, and the Distribution of His Possessions, Yorkshire Archaeological Journal, p. 213

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Sources:

Further reading: East Yorkshire Charters Volume 8: The Honour of Warenne, edited by William Farrer & Charles Travis Clay; English Heritage Guidebook for Conisbrough Castle by Steven Brindle and Agnieszka Sadrei; English Tourist Board’s English Castles Almanac; http://www.kristiedean.com/butcher-skipton; On the Trail of the Yorks by Kristie Dean; F. Royston Fairbank, The Last Earl of Warenne and Surrey, and the Distribution of His Possessions, Yorkshire Archaeological Journal.

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My Books

Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England  looks into the relationships of the various noble families of the 13th century, and how they were affected by the Barons’ Wars, Magna Carta and its aftermath; the bonds that were formed and those that were broken. It is now available from Pen & SwordAmazon and from Book Depository worldwide.

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest traces the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066.  Available now from Amazon,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository.

Heroines of the Medieval World tells the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Julian of Norwich. Available now from Amberley Publishing and Amazon and Book Depository.

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©2020 Sharon Bennett Connolly

The Mother of the House of York

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Arms of Philippa of Clarence

Princess Philippa of Clarence was born at Eltham Palace in Kent on the 16th August 1355.  She was named after her grandmother, Philippa of Hainault, queen of Edward III, who was one of her Godparents.

The first grandchild of Edward III she was the only child of Lionel of Antwerp, Duke of Clarence, and his 1st wife, Elizabeth de Burgh. Lionel was the 1st of Edward and Philippa’s children to marry.

Lionel was the 3rd son of Edward and Philippa, but the 2nd to survive childhood. Born in 1338, he was married to Elizabeth de Burgh in the Tower of London on the 9th September 1342. Lionel was almost 4 years old and his bride was 6 years older, born in 1332. Elizabeth was the daughter and heiress of William de Burgh, 3rd Earl of Ulster, who had died the year after her birth. It seems the couple lived together as husband and wife from 1352, when Lionel was 14 and Elizabeth 20. Lionel became Earl of Ulster by right of his wife and took possession of vast estates in Ireland and the Honour of Clare, in Suffolk; from which he was created Duke of Clarence by Parliament on 13th November 1362.

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Lionel Duke of Clarence

Philippa lost her mother when she was just 8 years old. Elizabeth died in Dublin in December 1363, she was buried  at Clare Priory in Suffolk. Lionel was married again in May 1368, in Milan, to Violante Visconti, daughter of the Lord of Milan. He died at Alba just 5 months after the wedding, in October 1368, and was buried at Pavia; his body was later reinterred to lie beside Elizabeth at Clare Priory in Suffolk.

The dukedom of Clarence became extinct on Lionel’s death, but the earldom of Ulster and Honour of Clare passed to Philippa, his only daughter and heiress.

Although an orphan at the tender age of 13, Philippa’s future had been settled even by the time of her mother’s death in 1363. When only in her 4th year she was married, at the Queen’s Chapel in Reading, in February 1359, to 7-year-old Edmund Mortimer. Edmund was the great-grandson of Roger Mortimer, 1st Earl of March and lover of Edward II’s queen, and Edward III’s mother, Isabella of France.

Mortimer had been executed on Edward III’s orders in 1330 and the marriage was viewed as a reconciliation with the Mortimer family, powerful lords on the Welsh Marches. The children’s wedding was also the 1st in a string of royal marriages. Philippa was married before any of her aunts and uncles; but weddings for her uncle John of Gaunt to Blanche of Lancaster  and her aunt Margaret to John Hastings, 2nd Earl of Pembroke followed in May the same year.

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Arms of the House of Mortimer

The marriage alliances were all part of Edward III’s policy to provide for his large brood of children and tie the great baronial families of the kingdom to the crown, by bringing them into the Royal family.

Edmund Mortimer succeeded to his father’s earldom as the 3rd Earl of March in the year after the marriage and the couple spent their time between properties in England, Wales and Ireland.

Their 1st child was born when Philippa was 15; she gave birth to a daughter, Elizabeth, at Usk in Monmouthshire, on 12th February 1371. 3 more children followed; Roger born at Usk on 11th April 1374, Philippa, born at Ludlow in Shropshire on 21st November 1375 and finally Edmund, who was born at Ludlow on 9th November 1377.

Marriage to Philippa had brought her husband power and influence. Through his steward, Peter de la Mare, he was instrumental in the Good Parliament of 1376, which argued against the influence of Edward III’s lover, Alice Perrers, and her friends, on the government of the kingdom. He spoke up for royal legitimacy and, using similar language to that used against his grandfather, Roger Mortimer, decried the influence an adulterous affair was having  on the dignity of the crown.

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Ludlow Castle, Shropshire

Following Edward III’s death in 1377, until her own death 6 months later, Philippa was, technically, heiress presumptive to the crown of her cousin, Richard II. However, in a supplementary document to his will, Edward III had practically disinherited his eldest granddaughter. He settled the inheritance of the throne on his grandson, Richard, son of his eldest son, the Black Prince and then, in turn, starting with John of Gaunt, on his surviving sons and their sons.

Edward had thus attempted to destroy any claim Philippa might have had to the throne whilst at the same time, revoking the royal status of the Mortimer earls of March.

Although there appear to be several death dates for Philippa, the most likely is that she died as a result of complications following Edmund’s birth, as she had made a will in November 1377, suggesting she was preparing for death. She passed away on, or shortly before, 7th January 1378 and was buried at Wigmore, Herefordshire, the burial-place of the Mortimers.

Edmund’s star, however, continued to rise and he was appointed Lieutenant of Ireland by Richard II on 22nd October 1380.  He died at Cork on 26th or 27th December 1381 and his body was brought back to Wigmore for burial. He was succeeded as 4th Earl of March by his eldest son, Roger; who had succeeded Philippa as Earl of Ulster on her death.

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Sir Henry “Hotspur” Percy and Elizabeth Mortimer

Roger spent many years in wardship following his father’s death. He was courageous, but had a reputation for religious and moral laxity. He was killed in Ireland in 1398, while acting as the king’s Lieutenant. It is possible that, at some point, he was named heir to the throne by Richard II, although there is considerable doubt in this.

Of Philippa and Edmund’s other children Elizabeth married Sir Henry “Hotspur” Percy sometime before May 1380. They had 2 children, but he was killed at the Battle of Shrewsbury in 1403. Elizabeth then married Thomas, 1st Baron Camoys, with whom she had a son who died young. Elizabeth died on 20th April 1417 and was buried at Trotton in Sussex, with her 2nd husband.

Philippa’s daughter and namesake, Philippa, married John Hastings, 3rd Earl of Pembroke, son of the Earl of Pembroke who had married Edward III’s daughter, Margaret. Following his death in 1389, she married Richard FitzAlan, 11th Earl of Arundel, who was executed in 1397. Her 3rd marriage was to Thomas Poynings, 5th Baron St John of Basing, around November 1399. She died in 1400 or 1401 and was buried at Boxgrove Priory in Sussex.

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Richard, Duke of York

Edmund’s namesake, Philippa and Edmund’s youngest son was married in about 1402 to Katherine, the daughter of Owen Glendower. They had several children, but all died young. Edmund himself died sometime between 1409 and 1411.

Philippa’s grandson, Roger’s son, Edmund, succeeded his father as Earl of March and Ulster; he became the king’s ward following his father’s death and, following the usurpation he was kept in Henry IV’s family circle.

Edmund seems to have suffered from a lack of ambition and when some barons tried to place him on the throne in 1415, it was Edmund himself who revealed the Southampton Plot to Henry V.

Edmund died of plague in Ireland in January 1425, but it is his sister, Anne Mortimer, who had been married to Richard of Conisbrough, that Philippa’s claim to the throne was passed to Anne and Richard’s son, Richard, Duke of York; thus laying the foundations for the Wars of the Roses and the accession of Edward IV and, later, his brother, Richard III.

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Pictures taken from Wikipedia.

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Sources: The Perfect King, the Life of Edward III by Ian Mortimer; The Life and Time of Edward III by Paul Johnson; The Reign of Edward III  by WM Ormrod; The Mammoth Book of British kings & Queens by Mike Ashley; Britain’s’ Royal Families, the Complete Genealogy by Alison Weir; Brewer’s British Royalty by David Williamson; The Plantagenets, the Kings Who Made Britain by Dan Jones; mortimerhistorysociety.org.uk.

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My books

Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest

From Emma of Normandy, wife of both King Cnut and Æthelred II to Saint Margaret, a descendant of Alfred the Great himself, Silk and the Sword: the Women of the Norman Conquest traces the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066.  Available now from Amazon UK,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository and Amazon US.

Heroines of the Medieval World

Telling the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Julian of Norwich, Heroines of the Medieval World,  is available now on kindle and in paperback in the UK from from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon, in the US from Amazon and worldwide from Book Depository.

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©2015 Sharon Bennett Connolly