A History of Knaresborough

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Knaresborough has a fascinating and varied history. Its roots go back centuries and throughout it's long history it has been peopled by a wealth of characters, from Hugh de Morville, murderer of Thomas Beckett on the steps of his cathedral at Canterbury, to Blind Jack, the world renowned road builder.

Author's Note
I relied heavily on the cited references and am indebted to Dr Arnold Kellett, local historian and former Mayor of Knaresborough, who read and commented on the original manuscript. As is the nature of websites, the article has been altered and added to since it first appeared and any errors are entirely my own (or in the consulted texts!).
Alyson Jackson

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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 to Knaresborough

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 Honour of Knaresborough

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 cultivated landscape.

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.

Royal Maundy

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.

Murder in the Cathedral

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.

Saint Robert

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

Fourteenth Century and Lancastrian Links

Market Cross 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

Religion, 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 font-cover.


Knaresborough Castle
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 castles.

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 for burial.

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.

Mother Shipton and the Dropping Well
The Dropping Well 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.

Mother Shipton's Cave and the Petrifying Well - Visitor Information

Blind Jack

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

John Metcalf's gravestone in Spofforth churchyard.
© Alyson Jackson


   Here lies John Metcalf one whose infant sight
   Felt the dark pressure of an endless night:
   Yet such the fervour of his dauntless mind,
   His limbs full strung, his spirit unconfin'd,
   That long ere yet life's bolder years began,
   His sightless efforts mark'd th'aspiring man.
   Nor mark'd in vain High deeds his manhood dar'd,
   And commerce, travel both his ardour shar'd:
   Twas his a guide's unerring aid to lend;
   O'er trackless wastes to bid new roads extend;
   And when Rebellion rear'd her giant size,
   Twas his to burn with patriot enterprize,
   For parting wife and babes one pang to feel,
   Then welcome danger for his country's weal.
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

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.

Victorian Knaresborough

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

Knaresborough Railway Viaduct

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 Today

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 WW1

Killed in WW1
Killed in WW1
Killed in WW2
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 of Honour
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
  1. A History of Harrogate and Knaresborough; The Harrogate W.E.A. Local History Group; Editor Bernard Jennings; The Advertiser Press Limited, Huddersfield; 1970.
  2. A History of Nidderdale; Pately Bridge Tutorial Class; Editor Bernard Jennings; Advertiser Press Limited, Huddersfield; 1983.
  3. 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.
  4. Historic Knaresborough; Arnold Kellett; Smith Settle Limited, Otley; 1991.
  5. The Knaresborough Story; Arnold Kellett; Lofthouse Publications, Pontefract; 1990.
  6. Knaresborough in Old Picture Postcards; Arnold Kellett; European Library - Zaltbommel/The Netherlands; 1996.
  7. Knaresborough (Archive Photographs); Arnold Kellett; Chalford Publishing Co.; 1995.