The East Gate of the Castle
© Alyson Jackson 2001
of English Monarchs
1066 NORMAN CONQUEST
1066 Knaresborough in possession of King Edward
1086 Domesday Survey. Knaresborough in possession
of the Conqueror.
1130 First historical reference to the castle.
1190 RICHARD I GOES ON CRUSADE
1204 King John begins major programme of works
at the castle.
1207 Moat excavated, or substantially widened.
1210 King John distributed gifts to the poor
in Knaresborough during Holy Week.
1215 MAGNA CARTA SIGNED AT RUNNYMEDE
1215-16 Castle held for King John during the
1300-07 Edward I's rebuilding and repairs to
the castle take place.
1307 Edward II grants castle to Piers Gaveston
and orders rebuilding of King's Tower.
1314 BATTLE OF BANNOCKBURN, EDWARD II DEFEATED
BY SCOTS .
1317 Castle captured by John de Lilburn, for
Thomas of Lancaster.
1318 Castle recaptured for Crown. Scots raids
destroy much of Knaresborough.
1331 Queen Phillipa receives castle as part
of marriage settlement.
1348 BLACK DEATH
1372 John of Gaunt adds Knaresborough to Lancastrian
1399 Richard II imprisoned for one night in
1399 ABDICATION OF RICHARD II, HENRY IV ACCEDES
1422 Castle formed part of Queen Catherine's
1476 Duchy Council ordered repairs to the castle.
1485 BATTLE OF BOSWORTH, HENRY VII DEFEATS RICHARD
1538 Survey of castle, by Henry Earl of Cumberland.
1561 Slingsby survey of the castle.
1600 New courthouse complete.
1642 CIVIL WAR BEGINS
1644 Castle held for crown during Civil War
but finally surrendered.
1646 Parliament orders demolition of castle.
1648 Demolition proceeds.
click to close
||Masonry support built against a wall.
Enclosing wall of a castle; length of wall
Privy or latrine.
Solid tower built to reinforce the angles
of a curtain wall.
Deep wide defensive ditch surrounding a house
Small room built into the thickness of a wall.
Iron-clad wooden grill, suspended over a gateway,
and lowered to ground level as a means of defence.
Passageway from a fortification used to make
An arched roof or ceiling.
Walled enclosure or courtyard in a castle.
click to close
click to close
|Atkinson, W.A. (1934)
||'Some remarks on Knaresborough Castle'.
Yorkshire Archaeological Journal Vol. xxxi, 114ff.
|Barber, S.C. (1931)
||'Excavations at Knaresborough Castle 1925-1928'.
Yorkshire Archaeological Journal Vol. xxx, 200ff.
|Colvin, H.M. ed., (1963)
||A History of the King's Works.
|LePatourel, J. (1966)
Yorkshire Archaeological Journal XLI, 591ff.
|Jennings, B.ed., (1970)
||A History of Harrogate and Knaresborough.
Advertiser Press Ltd., Huddersfield.
Knaresborough Castle is situated
at the top of a large cliff, with a commanding
view of the River Nidd and the Forest of Knaresborough.
The castle ruins do not convey its important role
in the development of the English nation. For most
of its history, Knaresborough Castle has been in
royal control, and it has retained this long tradition
to the present day. It is now in the possession
of the Crown, as part of the Queen's inheritance
of the Duchy of Lancaster.
Like all castles, Knaresborough served as
a focus for the surrounding community: a refuge in times
of danger and a centre for government and judicial administration.
Long after the castle's military significance had diminished,
it continued to function as a centre for justice, administering
the Honour of
Knaresborough. Even after the castle was ordered to be
dismantled by the Parliamentarians, the townspeople of Knaresborough
managed to successfully petition the government to allow
them to preserve the King's Tower and to use it as a prison.
Very little is known about the early history
of Knaresborough, and the origins of the castle are equally
obscure. The first reference to the town is from 1086 in
the Domesday Book, and although we know that much of 'Chednaresburg'
was in the possession of the King, there is no mention of
the castle. The name Chednaresburg [sic - see History
of the Town Name of Knaresborough] implies a fortification,
and is the only tantalising glimpse of a predecessor to the
medieval castle. 'Burg' is an Anglo-Saxon word for a defended
enclosure, and suggests that Knaresborough may have had some
form of early defensive structure. This would most likely
have taken the form of a bank and ditch surrounding the town,
and would not refer to the presence of a castle.
The earliest castle at Knaresborough was
established after the Norman conquest, predating the standing
fourteenth century remains by nearly 200 years. Throughout
its long history, the castle has been in royal control or
held directly from the Crown. Its fortunes have risen and
fallen with the history of the English Monarchy. The first
documented reference to a castle at Knaresborough is from
the Pipe Rolls of 1129-1130, which make reference to £11
spent by Eustace fitz John for the King's works at Knaresborough.
In 1170, when Hugh de Moreville held the castle, he and his
followers took refuge there after they had murdered Thomas
a Beckett in Canterbury (Murder
in the Cathedral).
King John took a particular interest in
Knaresborough and he spent, £1290 on works at the castle,
including the excavation or enlargement of the moat. The
remains of this great dry ditch can still be seen around
the southern and northern halves of the castle, and this
is the earliest remaining visible construction. King John
visited often during his reign, residing here while hunting
in the Forest
of Knaresborough. The vast area covered by the medieval
Forest of Knaresborough would have provided excellent grounds
for this pastime, and the royal privileges in the Forest
were carefully guarded.
King John maintained Knaresborough Castle
as one of his administrative strongholds in the North. He
is reputed to have spent more money on the castles at Knaresborough
and Scarborough than on any others in the country. Knaresborough
repaid his patronage, and was held for the Crown during the
Baron's Revolt in 1215-16. The lack of visible remains from
this period, apart from the moat, and possibly the lowest
storey in the Old Courthouse, presents a misleading picture
of its importance at this time. The money spent on the castle
and the people who spent time there are clear signs of its
important status in the affairs of the country.
In the early 14th century King Edward I
turned his attention from his successful Welsh campaigns
and looked toward the North. He began a programme of modernisation
at Knaresborough Castle, and made repairs to buildings referred
to in court records as the 'White tower, the great hall,
the great chamber, the great chapel, the chapel of St. Thomas
and the great gate'. These historical references are the
only record we have which can give us a picture of the castle
at this period. From the brief glimpse they give us, we know
that Knaresborough Castle consisted of a substantial range
of buildings by the 14th century. All that survives from
that period now are the twin towers of the East Gate and
fragments of the curtain wall.
When Edward of Caernarvon succeeded his
father Edward I to become King of England, the country lost
a strong ruler to a weaker man, who was influenced by unpopular
favourites. Piers Gaveston was the first of these men to
gain Edward's favour, and in 1307, Edward II granted the
Honour and Castle of Knaresborough to Gaveston. In reality
the estate remained in the King's control, and a substantial
amount of money from the royal purse was spent on the Castle.
Piers Gaveston was extremely unpopular amongst the powerful
barons, who felt he exercised undue influence over the King.
In 1311, under pressure from the barons, he was banished,
but was later re-admitted into the country and the King's
favour. In 1312, Gaveston was besieged at Scarborough Castle.
During the siege, Edward remained at Knaresborough Castle,
to be close at hand. Gaveston surrendered and was eventually
Edward II's reign was marked by continuing
internal friction amongst powerful factions, and ever increasing
raids by the Scots into northern England. This general unrest
led to rebellion and on 5 October in 1317, Knaresborough
Castle was seized by supporters of the Earl of Lancaster,
and held against the King. The Constable spent ,£55
to mount an attack to retake his own castle, and used a siege
engine to breach the curtain wall and recapture it three
months later. In 1318 the raiding Scots penetrated as far
south as Knaresborough. Much of the town including the church
and priory were devastated by these raids, with the castle
as the only point of refuge in the town.
The powerful aristocracy were soon in a
state of complete rebellion, led by the King's own wife,
Queen Isabella. In 1327 they deposed Edward II and accepted
his son as King Edward III. It was an age when the monarch
needed to be strong and forceful in order to reign successfully.
Edward I had been a strong, determined man who ruled with
great control. His son could not have been more unlike in
character. Where his father had subdued Wales, Edward II
suffered humiliating defeats at the hands of the Scots. After
losing the throne, Edward II was imprisoned and eventually
In 1331, Edward III's wife Queen Philippa
received the Honour and Castle of Knaresborough as part of
her marriage settlement. It was while in her possession that
Knaresborough Castle became firmly established not only as
a royal possession, but as a royal residence in the truest
sense. Previous monarchs had used the castle to consolidate
their power in the North, but Queen Philippa spent many summers
in residence at Knaresborough Castle, her young family with
her. During this period, up until her death in 1369, much
of the summer court season would have revolved around Knaresborough
Castle, and the elegant King's Tower and dramatic view from
the cliff would have been familiar scenes to members of the
It may have been memories from his childhood
spent in Knaresborough that encouraged John of Gaunt, in
1372, to give up his properties in Richmond for the Honour
and Castle of Knaresborough and the Honour of Tickhill. As
Duke of Lancaster, John of Gaunt had a large inheritance
including many castles of great importance. Knaresborough
from that time onwards was joined to these estates and belonged
to the Duchy of Lancaster.
Upon John of Gaunt's death in 1399, King
Richard II confiscated the Lancastrian estates as the property
of the Crown, disinheriting Henry Bolingbroke, John of Gaunt's
son and heir. Henry returned to claim his inheritance, landing
at Ravenspur, and travelling to receive support from his
Castles at Pickering, Knaresborough and Pontefract This confrontation
eventually led to the downfall of King Richard II, who was
deposed and imprisoned. He spent a night as prisoner in Knaresborough
Castle, most likely in the King's Tower, before he was taken
to Pontefract, where he was murdered. Henry Bolingbroke's
ascendance to the throne as King Henry IV brought the lands
of the Duchy of Lancaster directly under the control of the
Crown, and Knaresborough was a royal castle once again.
LATE MEDIEVAL CASTLE
Although the accession of Henry IV brought
the Lancastrian inheritance under control of the Crown, Knaresborough
Castle no longer played an important role in national affairs.
The castle continued to serve a crucial function in regional
administration, and the manor courts were still held here.
The history of the castle during this time until the Civil
War is fairly obscure, illuminated only by occasional references
which show it was kept in good repair. It remained directly
in control of the Crown throughout this period, except from
1422 to 1437 when it formed part of Queen Catherine's dower,
when her husband King Henry V died.
Castles had largely lost their defensive
significance by the Tudor period, and new tastes were leading
to the construction of fortified stately homes rather than
old-fashioned and less comfortable castles. However, many
castles were maintained and modernised, and in both 1538
and 1561 surveys were undertaken which showed Knaresborough
Castle to be in a state of disrepair, but not decay. The
timber and leadwork throughout the castle needed to be replaced,
and most of the timber buildings were beyond repair. The
stonework was essentially in sound condition, and was considered
to be easily made defensible again. By 1600 the upper storey
of the Courthouse was built, and court cases from the Forest
and Liberty of Knaresborough were tried here. Whether the
repairs identified in the earlier surveys were undertaken
is not known for certain, but by the Civil War, the castle
was still able to be defended.
WAR TO MODERN DAY
Knaresborough Castle supported the Royalist
Cause during the Civil War, but in 1644 the Parliamentarians
were gaining control in Yorkshire. After the battle of Marston
Moor in July 1644, the castle was besieged, and finally surrendered
when cannon breached the wall on December 20. In 1646 Parliament
ordered the castle to be rendered untenable, and by 1648
demolition had commenced. Nearly the entire circuit of the
curtain wall was destroyed, as were all the buildings in
the grounds, except the Courthouse. The King's Tower was
in the process of demolition when the townspeople petitioned
Parliament to allow them to maintain it as a prison. Demolition
was halted and the Tower was left standing. The King's Tower
and Courthouse continued to serve as prison and courthouse
for some time.
THE MODERN CASTLE
In the early 20th century, a bowling
green and tennis courts transformed the role of
the castle in the town, creating a leisure area
for local residents, and relegating the structures
of the castle to a secondary, almost superfluous
role. The putting green now occupies the area where
the tennis courts used to be. A war
memorial commemorates the many local residents
who gave their lives in the defence of their country
in the First and Second World Wars. The Courthouse
is now a museum which provides an explanation and
interpretation of the history of the town, and
which still contains furniture from the original
Knaresborough Castle Site Layout
The castle now stands as a monument to Knaresborough's
history, and as a centre for interpretation and understanding
of that past. The 20th century has seen a renewal of interest
in our historic monuments; in their preservation and interpretation,
and in their value as integral elements in our modern landscape.
The standing buildings and fragments of wall within the castle
grounds provide a glimpse not only into the activities of
the past which led to their construction and use, but also
to the late activities of disuse and destruction. In their
own unique way they stand as a permanent reflection of the
changing values and attitudes of our society, from Medieval
times to present day.
The castle was, and still is to an extent,
divided into two areas, known as the inner and outer wards.
Originally a stone wall would have separated the two wards,
running from the King's Tower across to the north-eastern
side of the Courthouse range of buildings.
The entire castle was surrounded by a massive
dry ditch, referred to as the moat, which was the first line
of defence. This is the earliest surviving feature of the
castle, dating from the first decade of the 13th century
or earlier, and originally extending from the edges of the
cliff to form a complete circuit around the castle grounds.
The north-eastern side of the ditch, separating the castle
from the town, has been filled in and is now under the car
park. A walk along the moat provides the best impression
one can gain of the impressive defensiveness of the situation
and construction of the castle. Looking up to the massy towers
along the curtain wall gives an idea of how impregnable the
complete castle would have been.
looking down on the river
Surveys conducted in the 16th century give
indications of the types of structures which would have been
found in the outer ward, and this area would have been teeming
with the activities needed to support life in the castle.
Milling, brewing, baking and smelting would have taken place
here, and horses would have been stabled here. The outer
ward would have served most of the 'industrial' needs of
GATE AND CURTAIN WALL
The two solid half round towers
on the eastern side of the outer ward are the remains
of one of the two medieval gates into the castle.
These towers buttressed the curtain wall as well
as providing entry into the castle grounds. The
remains of portcullis slots are still visible in
the sides of these towers, where a heavy wooden
portcullis would have defended the entrance. Until
the 19th century, a masonry arch spanned the entrance
between these two towers, a remnant of the original
gatehouse. This collapsed some time in the 1840's.
Following the line of the curtain
wall from the gate around toward the rear of the
courthouse, there is a wide but short piece of wall.
This is the remnant of a large tower, and as late
as 1940 this stood up to 7.5 metres (25 feet) in
height. Unfortunately, the weight of the upper portion
was too great, and the upper courses of the tower
collapsed into the moat.
Remains of the East Gate, rebuilt by Edward I
between 1300 and 1307.
Inside one of the secret underground sallyports,
built in the late 13th or mid 14th century.
Hidden within the outer ward are two sallyports,
underground tunnels which were used for secret entry
and exit from the castle. These tunnels are nearly
2.5 metres (8 feet) high and 2 metres (6 feet) wide
in places, and are constructed of rough mortared
rubble immediately below the ground, and then are
hewn through the solid rock. They are easily large
enough for a small party of armed men to have secretly
left the castle and harass besieging troops. These
sallyports slope steeply down to the level of the
bottom of the moat, where the soldiers would have
emerged secretly under cover of darkness. The exit
from the northern sallyport has been completely blocked.
by the infill of the moat. The eastern sallyport
is now open and accessible by guided tours during
the summer season.
It was within the inner ward of the castle
that the royal living quarters were situated and where domestic
and administrative activities took place. The Courthouse
range of buildings mark the south eastern side of this ward.
The King's Tower dominates the northern side. A dividing
wall would originally have extended from the Tower around
to meet the Courthouse, and would have clearly separated
the inner and outer wards. Passage from one ward to the other
would have been through an additional gate, which has since
disappeared. This gate appears to have been located approximately
midway between the Courthouse and the King's Tower.
The undercroft of the Courthouse is the
earliest surviving structure on the site. Although a 14th
century doorway has been inserted into this building, the
masonry appears to be late 12th/13th century in style. The
upper storey which now houses the Museum was added by 1600,
and still contains the furniture from the original Tudor
Court, a rare survival. The eastern end of this building
was added as a prison in the 18th century, built on the site
of a chapel, and the western end was added in the 1800's.
In the medieval period this range of buildings would have
provided lodgings, a chapel and a depository for administrative
Proceeding from the Courthouse toward the
war memorial, the half-round 14th century buttress towers
on the edge of the cliff reveal more of the structure of
the castle than is apparent at first glance. Like most other
structures in the castle from this period, their external
face was built of fine dressed stone, while the inside was
filled with rubble. These towers were built against the exterior
of the curtain wall. During the lifetime of the castle, the
view from this point would have been completely obscured
by the height of the curtain wall.
When looked at from the side, these towers
reveal the profile of the wall against which they were built,
which appears to have been buckling at the time of their
construction. The towers may have been built to support a
wall which was too close to the edge of the cliff; or they
could be later additions to a much earlier wall which was
showing the effects of age. They give an insight into an
earlier castle if the rubble within their core is examined
closely. There are pieces of carved stone within this rubble
which may date from the Early English period, and are from
earlier buildings which were replaced in the reign of Edward
I or Edward II.
Between the War Memorial and the King's
Tower are few traces of the medieval castle, but this is
the area where the complex of living quarters would have
been located. The Great Hall was built against the curtain
wall here, and the kitchen and larder were also within this
area. Traces of such buildings were revealed in limited excavations
carried out in the 1920's. The well which served the inner
ward is at the end of this area and is marked by a round
paving stone to the southwest of the King's Tower.
The King's Tower was the height of fashion when
it was built in 1307-1312.
The area around the King's Tower serves as the
focal point for the castle today, much as it would
have in the castle's lifetime as a residence. The
tower itself is a magnificent and complicated structure,
and marks a change in the style of castle building,
a period when comfort and elegance were playing an
important part within a defensive structure. The
building was not simply a utilitarian, uncomfortable
stronghold to be retreated into in times of peril;
it was a self-contained residence, strongly fortified,
but very comfortable.
We know from detailed accounts for its construction
that the present tower was built from 1307-1312
complete to the lead on its roof and the glazing
of its windows. The accounts indicate that Edward
II took a direct interest in the progress of the
project, which may account for the elaborate architectural
detail and quality of craftsmanship throughout.
The foundations of an earlier tower below the 14th
century building were revealed in 1990 excavations
on the site.
showing the Porch and King's Tower
This little structure to the south-east of the
King's Tower had previously been the subject
of much debate, and had been thought to be a
gate passage from the outer to the inner wards.
Its ruined state conceals that this little structure
was an antechamber (or waiting room) for access
to the main hall above in the King's Tower. The
general entrance was through double doors within
the (now) open arch on its western side, facing
the inner ward. Inside this antechamber, a stone
wall bench extended around three sides, and thick
limestone floor flags paved the floor These match
the interior of the first floor of the King's
Tower exactly. A stair led upstairs into another,
similar waiting chamber. The carved stone handrail
for this stair is still visible on the side of
the King's Tower.
The King's Chamber
The first floor level is popularly known as 'The
King's Chamber', and it is believed that it was
here that Richard II was imprisoned before being
taken to Pontefract Castle. Private access to this
chamber was via a spiral stairway from the floor
below. The carved stone handrail in this round
stairwell is an unusual feature. General access
to the first floor was from the eastern end of
the building, via the 'porch' or ground floor antechamber.
Original entrance into the 'porch', showing
remains of stone wall bench.
At the extreme eastern end of the first floor is a small
chamber, reached via the stair from the waiting room below
in the 'porch'. Persons waiting for an audience with the
Lord of the Manor would wait here before being admitted.
From this chamber, one would pass through a gateway consisting
of double wooden doors on either side of a portcullis.
The slot for this portcullis is still visible in the wall.
Passing through this entrance, one would step down into
a single large chamber. At the far end is a raised dais
area, with a decorative arched recess built into the wall
behind. This extravagant arrangement would form an impressive
backdrop, which would elevate the King or Lord seated on
the dais, and was designed to instill a sense of awe. Around
the perimeter of this chamber, extending into the antechamber
and serving as window seats, are the remains of a carved
wall bench, where courtiers would be seated during official
reception times. This elaborate construction adds to the
impression of importance, elegance and comfort which were
built into the design of the King's Tower.
There is a fireplace at one end of the dais, and at the
other end, overlooking the courtyard, is a large decorative
window, with a carved hood moulding and ball flower ornament.
This ball flower ornament also occurs over the inside of
the western doorway at York Minster, and is probably from
the influence of Hugh of Bouden, master mason of York Minster
who oversaw works at Knaresborough Castle temporarily when
mason Hugh of Titchmarsh was called away.
The lowest level of the King's Tower consists primarily
of a cellar, the construction of which is believed to be
architecturally unique in this country. The arrangement
of twelve rib vaults springing from a central column supports
the floors above, and is unknown elsewhere. The external
walls are 4.5 metres (15 feet) thick. Air arid light are
provided by a bent channel in the northwestern wall which
leads to the outside. There are numerous examples of graffiti
on the dungeon walls, especially in the passage leading
down the stairs. This room was a secure storage area for
supplies. One of the most important aspects of surviving
a prolonged siege in a castle was the provision of adequate
food and water for the garrison inside. Access to the cellar
was down a ramp which came out at right angles to the building.
The current stair access is a much later alteration.
The Ground Floor
The ground floor of the King's Tower probably
served as chambers for the Constable of the castle
with private access to the main presence chamber
on the first floor. This level consists of one
large chamber which originally had four mural
chambers leading off from it, although the Civil
War demolition has obscured this arrangement.
The first mural chamber (A) is located at the
eastern side of the room. The small alcove cut
into the wall in this chamber looks to be a later
addition, end may date from the later period
when the King's Tower was used as a prison. A
small window in the wall of this chamber overlooks
the main room.
At the furthest side of the room is an entrance to another
mural chamber (B), which served as a garderobe. This garderobe
still retains its original privy shaft which would have
carried the waste out of the King's Tower into the moat.
These shafts were one of the most vulnerable parts of a
castle, as besieging troops could send a small man or boy
to climb up the shaft to enter the castle, and open the
gates once inside. The two windows in this chamber are
an unusual feature, particularly on a wall which faces
the exterior of the castle. These windows, combined with
the unusually large size of the room, have led to the suggestion
that this may be a very early example of a bathroom in
a domestic English building.
There are three other chambers at this level of the Tower
with entrances from the inner ward, separate from the main
chamber. On the western side is a door leading to a small
L-shaped room (C) which may have been used as a strong
room or a secure store. On the eastern side are two barrel
vaulted connecting rooms (D) which may have served as watchman's
quarters. The function of most of the rooms in the castle
would probably have changed according to requirements.
The Second Floor
It is difficult to know what specific -arrangement the
rooms on the upper floor would have taken. The second floor
covered a slightly smaller area than the first floor, and
would have contained the lord or lady's private chambers,
and probably a private chapel. The floors were made of
wood, and access to this level was via a spiral stairway
TO THE CASTLE 1986-90
Excavation on the site of the northern sallyport,
The first floor of the King's
Tower had been covered in asphalt until a programme
of repairs to the castle was begun in 1986. The asphalt
was removed, and below it was up to 1 metre (3 feet)
of debris from the demolition of the castle after
the Civil War. The black line of the level of the
asphalt is still visible around the walls, and gives
an indication of how much of the detail at this level
was hidden for centuries.
Excavations around the King's
Tower took place from 1988 to 1990, and revealed
a wealth of information about its development and
layout. These works demonstrated the accuracy of
a drawing of the castle from 1538 which shows a
gate on the eastern side of the tower. This gate
gave access to the outer ward of the castle from
The ground level of the castle has changed
dramatically over the centuries, with thick deposits built
up over time through building projects, demolition and through
ordinary living debris throughout the medieval period. The
original ground surface of the earliest castle appears to
have been approximately 2 - 3 metres below the present level.
Acknowledgements from the
Research into the history and development of Knaresborough
Castle is a continuing process to which many people have
contributed over the years. This current guidebook is indebted
to the archaeological work done at the castle by Stephen
Barber in the 1920's and by Jean le Patourel in 1961. The
support and guidance of English Heritage has been instrumental
in developing an understanding of the castle. More recent
work has been greatly assisted by the efforts of the KNAG's
(Knaresborough Archaeological Group), and in particular Tony
Law, whose great affection for, and knowledge of, Knaresborough
Castle has been an irreplaceable resource. I am also indebted
to John Symington for his work on the history of the castle,
and his enthusiasm for the people who have created that history.
Mary J Kershaw
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