The particular siting of Knaresborough may well be due to
the easily defended location - the castle remains stand on
a rocky outcrop 120 feet above the river. Ancient Britons gave
the Nidd its name over 2000 years ago, although very little
evidence of iron age or subsequent Roman occupation remains.
The origin of the name of Knaresborough is not altogether
clear, although one of two sources seems most probable. The
origin of "borough" is not in dispute, being derived
from "burgh", an Anglo-Saxon word for fortress or
fortified settlement. "Knare" may come either from
the name of a chieftain, such that the whole means something
like "Cenheard's fortress"; or it may derive from "knar" -
a rocky outcrop - thus giving Knaresborough the appellation
of "the fortress on the rock", which would fit the
location very well. The development of the name of the town
is explored in From Chenaresburg
Several ancient name derivations survive around the town - "gate" is
a Scandinavian word for street and survives in "Briggate" -
the street leading to the bridge, "Kirkgate" - the
street leading to the church, "Tentergate" - the
place where cloth is stretched for drying on "tenterhooks"; "ing" means
meadow, "Gracious" as in Gracious Street, probably
derives from Anglo-Saxon "gracht-huys" - the houses
on the ditch.
The very first mention of Knaresborough is in the Domesday
book, begun in 1086 only twenty years after the conquest by
order of William, as "the Manor of Chenaresburg",
there being no mention of a castle at this time. Thus it is
the time of William the Conqueror and the Norman invasion which
sees the beginnings of the town of Knaresborough when Serlo
de Burgh was granted the Manor of Knaresborough as a reward
for his part in the invasion.
In 1158 Knaresborough was granted to Hugh de Morevill, possibly
as compensation for lands given to the King of Scotland. Morevill
forfeited the lands in 1173, according to Early
Yorkshire Charters: "... not apparently for his participation
in the death of Becket, but for complicity
in the rebellion of the young Henry.". Knaresborough,
together with Aldborough, were granted to William
de Stuteville in the same year.
The totality of the Manor was known as the Honour of Knaresborough
and comprised three parts - the Forest, the Borough or Town,
and the Forest Liberty. In medieval times a Forest was not
simply an extensive expanse of wooded area but included clearings
and settlements and was associated with hunting. The Forest
of Knaresborough was located west and south-west of the town
and covered about 100,000 acres, stretching twenty miles from
east to west. The inhabitants of its settlements were occupied
in farming, fishing, charcoal burning, and iron smelting. The
Forest Liberty was an area of farmland to the north of the
town where its dozen villages occupied a fairly flat and easily
We now begin to see the town developing. The earliest recording
for the parish church is in 1114 in the Coucher Book of Nostell
Priory as "the Church of Cnaresburgh" and we can
today see remains from this time, particularly in St John's
which has outlines of Norman windows and a typical chevron
patterned string course. The first documentary evidence for
the castle occurs in 1130 in an account of works carried out
by Henry I, when Knaresborough is again described as "Chenardesburg".
When the direct line of descent of the Stuteville lords
of the manor was interrupted, King John contrived to take over
the Honour for himself (1204/1205) by the levy of a fine. The
king was then able to collect various revenues associated with
rents, harvests, court proceedings etc. In 1211 the revenue
came to £318, 19s 3d (Early Yorkshire
Charters). In the same year his outgoings included "work
on the castle of "Cnarreburc" and on the ditch and
houses thereof for 2 years £119, 18s. 8d."; also "in
work on a new mill, improvement
of fulling mills and repair of the mill-pools of Knaresborough and
Boroughbridge £15, 8s. 2d" (Early
Yorkshire Charters). He was one of several royal visitors
who enjoyed hunting in the forest.
Dr. Arnold Kellett's research (4) has
revealed that the first recorded instance of a Royal Maundy
(Royal gifts) took place at Knaresborough on April 15th, 1210.
King John gave the traditional gifts to each of thirteen paupers
- thirteen pence, one belt, one knife, clothing, and a pair
of shoes. The tradition, of course, is still maintained to
this day, although the reigning monarch now gives a second
purse in lieu of clothing. Dr. Kellett's evidence for the historic
claim for Knaresborough comes from the king's personal account
of his expenses - the Rotulus Misae.
Hugh de Morville was Constable of the Castle of Knaresborough
and leader of the unfortunate group of four knights who took
King Henry II at his word when he said "will nobody rid
me of this turbulent priest". On December 29th, 1170 they
murdered Thomas Beckett, Archbishop of Canterbury, on the steps
of the altar of his cathedral. The four knights first fled
to Knaresborough, where legend has it that they were reviled
even by the dogs of the town, although Hugh is also said to
have built Hampsthwaite Church and dedicated it to the canonised
priest as an act of penance.
Robert Floure was born in York around 1160 and became a hermit
in a riverside cave at Knaresborough. Attributed with miracles
of healing and powers over wild animals, when he died in 1218
a cult grew up and the waters of St. Robert's Well were said
to have healing powers. His land was given to the Trinitarian
Friars and a frairy was built. Nothing of the riverside friary
remains today. See also The
Will of Thomas Hill and St
Robert's Cave and Friary
and Lancastrian Links
The Market Cross.
© Alyson Jackson
The market is first mentioned in 1206 and the fair in 1304
but the earliest known charter was
granted by Edward II in 1310, confirming Wednesday as Market
Day and the fair to be held between July 18th and July 20th.
During this time the castle continued to expand. Under Edward
II it gained twelve towers and a keep.
Rebels occupied the castle during Edward's reign and the curtain
wall was breached with a siege engine during its recapture.
Later, Scots invaders burned
much of the town, including the parish church. The church was
restored by Queen Philippa, wife of Edward III, who had been
granted "the Castle, Town, Forest and Honour of Knaresborough" as
part of her marriage settlement in 1328. After her death the
Honour was granted in 1372 by Edward to their youngest son,
John of Gaunt (born in Ghent). He had already inherited the
estates of his wife, Blanche of Lancaster, and was Duke of
Lancaster and thus linked the Honour of Knaresborough with
the Duchy of Lancashire and hence to the Lancastrian cause
in the Wars of the Roses.
King Richard II spent
a night in Knaresborough Castle on his way to Pontefract Castle
in 1399 where he was murdered.
Chapel of Our
Lady of the Crag
This wayside shrine was carved out of the rock face near Low
Bridge in 1408 by John the Mason. The entrance is guarded by
a carved medieval knight, possibly a Knight Templar, whose
face has been "restored" in later times! Services
occasionally take place but must be held outside as the chapel
measures only 12 feet by 8 feet. See also The
Will of Thomas Hill
Civil War, Education and Spas
The various religious upheavals of the first half of the sixteenth
century, during the reigns of Henry VIII, Mary and Elizabeth,
affected the people of Knaresborough who were generally loyal
to the Catholic faith. They were conservative in their religion
and slow to accept new ideas, especially if imposed from above
by a distant monarch. In addition, most of the local landowners
and lords were of the Catholic faith. After the unsuccessful
Rising of the North in 1569 services were still being secretly
held but the Protestant religion gradually became established.
In 1580 a great effort was made to suppress recusancy (the
refusal to conform) and an Act of Parliament the following
year made this a crime punishable by a fine of £5 a week.
At this time the parish church became firmly established as
the church of St John
the Baptist (Virtual Tour Interior, Virtual Tour Exterior),
having previously sometimes been known as St. Mary's (a more
Catholic name)and the Parish Register was begun in 1561 with
the recording of 41 baptisms, 12 marriages, and 21 burials
in its first year. Thatched Manor Cottage at the bottom of
Water Bag Bank (up which ponies carried bags of water from
the river to the town) dates from this period. Effigies of
the Slingsby family in the parish church are worthy of note
and include the recumbent Francis Slingsby who died in 1600,
cavalry officer to Henry VIII, with his wife lying on his right
hand side as she was from a higher born status of the Percy
family. Other notable tombs are those of Sir Henry Slingsby,
executed under Cromwell in 1658, and Sir Charles Slingsby who
drowned in 1869. The church also contains a fine late Jacobean
As restored in 1590 by order of Queen Elizabeth.
Image from an old postcard kindly lent by Pat Wood
During the civil war Knaresborough
was a Royalist stronghold. The castle remained loyal to King
Charles but was taken by Cromwell's soldiers, after a short
siege, on December 20th, 1644. A popular story tells (see e.g. The
Knaresborough Story) how a Mrs
Whincup successfully led a group of people to plead with
the commander for the life of a boy found taking food to his
beseiged father. The castle suffered little damage at this
time but in 1648 was a victim of an Act of Parliament ordering
the demolition, or "slighting", of several Royalist
Sir Henry Slingsby,
MP for Knaresborough, who had been expelled from the House
of Commons for his Royalist tendencies in 1642, remained determined
to restore the monarchy. He was arrested in 1654 and charged
with high treason. Being found guilty, he was beheaded on Tower
Hill on June 8th, 1658 and his headless body returned to Knaresborough
The early 17th century saw
the establishment of King
James's School in the town, its charter being granted in
1616, beginning a long tradition in the town emphasising the
importance of education. Originally this was an all-boys school,
endowed with £20 per year by Rev. Dr. Robert Challoner,
who was born in Goldsborough,
and boys from Knaresborough and Goldsborough were to be admitted
free, with fee-paying scholars admitted at the discretion of
the governors. By 1820, however, there had been no free scholars
for over twenty years. In 1971 it became a large mixed comprehensive
school, still bearing the name of King James.
The Charity School was established at the bottom of the High
Street by Thomas Richardson in 1765. It was to accommodate "thirty
boys and girls of the township of Knaresborough, and for putting
them out to apprenticeship". Several Sunday Schools provided
elementary education for all denominations.
It was in the latter half of the sixteenth century that Knaresborough's
reputation as a spa town began with its recommendation as a
base for taking the newly discovered waters of Tewit Well.
Many eminent travellers of the day, including Celia Fiennes
(1697) and Daniel Defoe (1717) visited Knaresborough at a time
when Harrogate was still only two small hamlets - Low and High
Harrogate. Inns and hotels were being built in High Harrogate
but the tradition at this time was to stay in Knaresborough
and travel to the Harrogate area to take the waters.
Shipton and the Dropping Well
From an 1891 publication courtesy of David Oswald
Legend has it that Mother Shipton was born in 1488 in the now famous cave near to the Dropping Well on the banks of the River Nidd. The earliest reference
appears in a book of 1641, associating her with York. A
later pamphlet of 1667 states that she was born at "Naseborough
near the Dropping Well in Yorkshire". She is famed as
a prophetess, though there is a good deal of mystery surrounding prophesies attributed to her, many seeming to have been created or embellished in later times. John Leland, Henry VIII's
official antiquary, makes no mention of Mother Shipton in his
account of his visit to Knaresborough in 1558, although he
visited, and was impressed by, the Dropping Well. Samuel Pepys recorded in his famous diaries, at the time of the Great Fire of London, that when Prince Rupert was at sea he heard about the Great Fire and said 'now Shipton's prophecy was out'. She herself was surely not a myth, the fascination of her prophecies enduring to this day.
The Dropping Well has appealed to visitors for centuries,
attracted by the curious sight of objects, suspended in the
cascade of water, apparently turning to stone. In reality,
the objects are calcified by a deposit from the waters.
Although the origins of Mother Shipton and her prophecies
may still be debated today, the Mother Shipton Cave and the
Dropping Well remain very popular attractions in Knaresborough,
delighting thousands of visitors every year.
Cave and the Petrifying Well - Visitor Information
Probably the most famous of Knaresborough natives, John Metcalf
lost his sight at the age of six through smallpox. Determined
not to let this misfortune hamper his progress in life he became
an accomplished musician, guide, and, most famously, road maker.
His road building activities began when he was over fifty but
he still managed to build hundreds of miles of roads in the
North of England as well as bridges. Special tools helped him
in his road-making activities, including a specially adapted "viameter" which
measured distances and which he was able to "read" by
touch. The viameter is kept in the local museum. He died in
1810 at the age of 92 in Spofforth, where an evocative stone
marks his grave.
John Metcalf's gravestone in Spofforth churchyard.
Here lies John Metcalf one whose
Felt the dark pressure of an endless
Yet such the fervour of his dauntless
His limbs full strung, his spirit
That long ere yet life's bolder
His sightless efforts mark'd th'aspiring
Nor mark'd in vain High deeds his
And commerce, travel both his ardour
Twas his a guide's unerring aid
O'er trackless wastes to bid new
And when Rebellion rear'd her giant
Twas his to burn with patriot enterprize,
For parting wife and babes one
pang to feel,
Then welcome danger for his country's
Reader! like him exert thy utmost talent giv'n;
Reader! like him adore the bounteous hand of Heav'n.
He died on the 26th of April 1810
in the 93rd year of his age.
A more detailed account can be found at The
Life and Times of John Metcalf
The Linen Industry
The textile industry has been associated with Knaresborough for centuries
- records of 1211 mention mills. While the
woollen market expanded in the sixteenth century to satisfy an increasing population
and the quality of its cloth improved, interruptions to export caused a depression
in the latter half of the century and competition among producers must have
been intense. Knaresborough was at a disadvantage because of its poor access
to the major marketing centres - in the case of textiles these were Leeds and
York. By specialising in a higher quality linen Knaresborough was able to take
advantage of the increase in living standards and fund its higher transport
expenses. An industry which began in cottages and small workshops gradually
transferred to mills. In 1791 a cotton mill was built on the site of a paper
mill on the banks of the River Nidd at Knaresborough, and this was in turn
converted to flax spinning in 1811. This was the famous Castle Mill, taken
over in 1847 by Walton and Company for both yarn spinning and power-loom weaving.
At the beginning of the nineteenth century Knaresborough became famous for
its linen. In 1838 Walton and Co., had been appointed linen manufacturers to
the Royal Household and in 1851 were awarded the Prince Albert Medal for the
completely seamless shirt woven by George Hemshell on a hand loom. Castle Mill
has now been converted to private residences.
Old linen mill and weir
Image from an old postcard kindly lent by Pat Wood
Industrial development was still hampered by the lack of an efficient transport
system to bring raw materials and supplies to the town, and to take manufactured
goods out to the major trading centres, particularly to the linen market at
York. A canal system was proposed around 1818 but deemed to be too expensive
due to the large number of locks which would be required. A railway system
was costed and proposed in 1820 but did not gain sufficient support and the
situation was left unresolved until the middle of the century.
Now the fabric of the town began to receive necessary attention, to relieve
the squalor of the streets and improve the living conditions of many of the
town's inhabitants. Chapels and schools were built throughout the century and
the Improvement Commissioners were charged with the "paving, lighting,
watching and improving of Knaresborough". The first half of the century
saw the beginnings of street gas lighting (1824) and sewerage installations(1850).
The impressive railway viaduct was completed in 1851, finally ushering in the
railway age to Knaresborough - three years after the first viaduct had collapsed
into the river as it neared completion. The viaduct was vital in establishing
efficient communications with the town. The Railway Station can be seen in
one of our Virtual Tours
Looking down over the River Nidd and Railway Viaduct from the Castle precincts.
The Water Carnival, now discontinued, also saw its origins in Victorian times.
It was a great spectacle of the day and was staged on the river. An illuminated
Fairy Castle on the river bank and Chinese lanterns in the trees created a
magical scene after dark. Illuminated carnival boats were accompanied by a
band on the top deck of the houseboat "Marigold". The day culminated
in a fantastic firework display which included a waterfall of fire from the
viaduct, in imitation of Niagara Falls.
The Twentieth Century - Knaresborough
The relatively carefree times were
halted by the Great War in which 156 Knaresborough men were killed.
Killed in WW1
Killed in WW1
Killed in WW1
Killed in WW2.
The names of the dead of two
world wars inscribed on the War Memorial in the Castle precincts - more
information for these names can be found at Roll
All photographs © Alyson Jackson
After the war Knaresborough remained popular with visitors, now able to come
from farther afield on the train. Boating and riverside walks were popular,
as well as visits to the Castle and Dropping Well, with riverside tea rooms
to provide refreshment.
The Second World War took its toll, and 55 names were added to the War Memorial
in the Castle precincts.
In the post-war period, although new housing has increased the size of the
town threefold, Knaresborough retains its charm. Traditions continue in an
Edwardian Fair, Market Square carol service and the Boxing Day tug-of-war,
and are joined by newer events such as the Bed Race, begun in 1966 by the Round
Table and feva - the festival of entertainment and visual arts. In 1988 the
ancient office of Town Crier was revived. Since 1969 Knaresborough
has been twinned with the German town of Bebra,
and many successful exchange visits and new friendships have followed.
Knaresborough has been touched by many of the pivotal events of English history,
and remains today, as for centuries past, beautifully fascinating in its
proud setting on the River Nidd.
References and Further Reading
- A History of Harrogate and Knaresborough; The Harrogate W.E.A. Local
History Group; Editor Bernard Jennings; The Advertiser Press Limited, Huddersfield;
- A History of Nidderdale; Pately Bridge Tutorial Class; Editor Bernard
Jennings; Advertiser Press Limited, Huddersfield; 1983.
- Early Yorkshire Charters Vol.I and Vol IX (The Stuteville Fee) based
on manuscripts of the late William Farrer and edited by Charles Travis Clay
C.B., F.B.A. Printed for the Yorkshire Archaelogical Society Record Series
1952. Consulted at Public Record Office, Kew, UK.
- Historic Knaresborough; Arnold Kellett; Smith Settle Limited, Otley;
- The Knaresborough Story; Arnold Kellett; Lofthouse Publications,
- Knaresborough in Old Picture Postcards; Arnold Kellett; European
Library - Zaltbommel/The Netherlands; 1996.
- Knaresborough (Archive Photographs); Arnold Kellett; Chalford Publishing