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There has been a castle in Knaresborough for over 900 years. Over the centuries there have been significant periods of building and repair work as the castle was adapted to meet changing military requirements, fashions and historic events.
The Early Castle
We know very little about the castle’s origins but there may have been an Anglo-Saxon fortification in ‘Chednaresburg’. Burg is an Old English word for a defended enclosure, and could refer to a bank and ditch surrounding a settlement here.
The earliest castle was built by the Normans who recognised the superb natural defences of this rocky promontory high above the river Nidd. We find the first written evidence of a castle in Knaresborough in financial records called the Pipe Rolls dating from the reign of Henry I (1100-1135). These show that £11 was spent in 1129-1130 on strengthening the ‘King’s Works at Knaresborough’ by custodian Eustace Fitz-John.
Some years later, the castle played a part in one of the more infamous stories of the medieval period. In 1170 the Constable of Knaresborough Castle Hugh de Morville and his followers took refuge there after they had murdered Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury.
Strengthening the Northern Fortress
In 1204 King John (1199-1216) took possession of the Castle and the Forest of Knaresborough, gaining a base for his favourite sport of hunting, and also a well-placed stronghold from which to control the rebellious barons in the north of England.
Between 1204 and 1216 King John spent £1,290 to turn Knaresborough Castle into a military fortress. The castle also developed as a munitions centre, its forges were one of the country’s most important manufacturers of ‘quarrels’ or crossbow bolts.
Very little of the 13th century castle survives so it is difficult to imagine its status as one of the main military and administrative centres in the North at this time.
The Great Rebuilding
The main parts of the castle that we can see today date from the early 14th century. Knaresborough had become strategically important to Edward I (1272-1307) in his campaign against the Scots. His modernisation of the castle brought high levels of comfort and fashionable elegance, as well as an awesome display of prestige and power.
There are no pictures of the castle from this time but we get a tantalising glimpse of its vast scale from court documents that describe building works to the “White tower, the great hall, the great chamber, the great chapel, the chapel of St. Thomas and the great gate”.
Following the death of Edward I in 1307, the rebuilding work was completed under his son, King Edward II (1307-1327). He oversaw the construction of a magnificent new keep – known ever since as the King’s Tower – as a luxury residence for his controversial favourite, the nobleman Piers Gaveston (c 1284-1312).
Rebellion in the North
Edward II’s troubled reign saw friction between powerful factions and ever- increasing raids by the Scots into northern England, leading to rebellion against the King. In 1317 Knaresborough Castle saw military action when it was seized by supporters of the rebel Earl of Lancaster. Records show that the King’s Constable spent £55 to lay siege and eventually recaptured the castle three months later.
In 1318 raiding Scots penetrated as far south as Knaresborough and burnt much of the town, including the parish church and priory. Knaresborough Castle, though, was not taken and remained the only point of refuge in the town.
A Royal Residence
Queen Philippa, wife of King Edward III (1327-1377) received the Honour and Castle of Knaresborough as part of her marriage settlement. She made Knaresborough Castle into a royal residence in the truest sense of the word. Whereas previous monarchs had used the castle to consolidate their power in the North, Queen Philippa spent most of her summers in Knaresborough with her young family, transforming the castle into a comfortable and lavish court residence.
The Duchy of Lancaster
In 1372, Knaresborough Castle came into the possession of Queen Philippa’s youngest son John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster. From that time onwards, Knaresborough belonged to the Duchy of Lancaster.
When John of Gaunt died in 1399, King Richard II (1377-1399) confiscated the Lancaster estates, including Knaresborough Castle. John of Gaunt’s son and heir Henry Bolingbroke was disinherited and banished.
Henry returned to England to claim his inheritance, a confrontation that eventually led to the downfall of King Richard II who was deposed and imprisoned. Richard spent a night as a prisoner in Knaresborough Castle, most likely in the King’s Tower, before he was taken to Pontefract, where he died under mysterious circumstances.
When Henry Bolingbroke was crowned King Henry IV (1399-1413), the lands of the Duchy of Lancaster were brought under the control of the Crown and Knaresborough was a Royal Castle once again.
The Tudor Castle
Surveys in 1538 and 1561 revealed that Knaresborough Castle had fallen into a state of disrepair, but the stonework was sound and the castle could readily be made defensible again, if necessary. The final building work on the castle site was completed by 1600 when Sir Henry Slingsby added the upper storey to the Courthouse building where local court cases were tried. The castle had become a purely administrative and judicial centre for the Honour and Forest of Knaresborough and its use as a royal residence or for military defence was minimal.
Knaresborough Castle in the Civil War
Knaresborough Castle supported the Royalist cause during the Civil War. When hostilities began in August 1642, Sir Henry Slingsby moved quickly by putting in his own garrison to secure Knaresborough Castle for King Charles I (1625-1649).
Following the Battle of Marston Moor on 2 July 1644 and the defeat of Royalist forces in the North, Knaresborough Castle came under siege. From November to December 1644 a Parliamentarian force of up to four hundred men aimed to starve the castle into submission. The castle finally surrendered on 20 December when their cannon breached the castle walls.
The castle was not destroyed during the siege, but in 1646 Parliament ordered the destruction of many castles to prevent any future use by Royalist forces. By 1648, demolition had commenced and Knaresborough Castle was blown up, or sleighted.
Most of the curtain wall and buildings were destroyed. But the Courthouse had been established here since Tudor times and the Keep was often used to hold prisoners, so the townspeople petitioned Parliament and complete demolition was halted. All usable stone, lead and timber from the roofs and windows were sold off to raise money for the Treasury. Many town centre buildings were built of ‘castle stone’.
The Castle’s Later History
After the Civil War period the castle served the surrounding community as a centre for government and justice. The King’s Tower was used as a prison and the Courthouse building housed the court for the Honour of Knaresborough for many years.
From the 18th century, the castle’s dramatic setting and picturesque ruins were popular with tourists and artists seeking the fashionable ideal of a romantic landscape. Amongst these was one of Britain’s most famous landscape painters J.M.W. Turner who visited Knaresborough on his sketching tour of the north of England in 1797 and again in 1816.
At the end of the 19th century the castle grounds were landscaped to form pleasure gardens to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee. A few years later, the bowling green and tennis courts (now the putting green) were created.
During the 20th century, archaeologists surveyed and excavated the castle site to reveal a wealth of information about its development. The Courthouse was converted into a local museum showing aspects of the town’s history and the colourful characters who have contributed to it.