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Conisbrough castle, Yorkshire, West Riding

(53°29′3″N, 1°13′36″W)
Conisbrough castle
SK 514 989
pre-1974 traditional (England and Wales) Yorkshire, West Riding
now South Yorkshire
medieval York
now Sheffield
  • Barbara English
  • Rita Wood
06 May 2010

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Conisbrough Castle stands above the River Don on a natural limestone and clay hill. The remains consist of an outer bailey bounded by earthworks, an inner bailey of c.1200, and a stone keep, which is the earliest and most significant building remaining on the site. Extensive damage to the gates, bridge, and walls of the castle was recorded in 1537-8; in addition one floor of the keep had by that time probably fallen in. (Renn 1973,155-7; Toy 1966, 105-7.) Conisbrough and its chapel was used by Sir Walter Scott as the setting for his novel Ivanhoe. The keep, built of fine limestone ashlar c.1180-1202 (see below, History, chapel, for the dates) is cylindrical with six trapezoidal projecting buttresses, the whole keep on a splayed base. The sides of the buttresses have alternate courses of plinth and chamfered stone. The diameter of the base is 19 m; the thickness of the walls above the splayed base 4.6 m and the highest point of the surviving keep is 28 m above ground. There is a single main room at all four levels: a vaulted storage chamber and well in the basement, a work and storage area at the entrance (first) level, the hall on the second floor, the chamber on the third floor with a chapel and sacristy lying off it, and the roof level with a wall walk. Each of the second and third floors has a window, fireplace, stone lavabo basin and latrine. The internal floors and roof were rebuilt in the mid 1990s, until then the sculpture on the fireplaces was open to the rain. The Lord’s apartment has a private chapel. This opens off the main chamber, and is contrived in the thickness of the wall and the SE buttress. The chapel is an approximate elongated hexagon, and is vaulted in two bays. A small L-shaped vestry opens off it on the N wall in the first bay. The stonework in the chapel appears to be damp in the vaulting. There is sculpture on the fireplaces on the second and third floors, and in the chapel on the third floor. The N and S walls of the chapel have circular windows in the buttress, these are quatrefoil on the outside.


Harold Godwinson (King Harold) owned the manor of Conisbrough before 1066. By 1086 it had come to the Warenne family, who built a motte and bailey castle here (Clay 1949). Architectural historians ascribe the stone castle to Hamelin Plantagenet (bastard brother of Henry II who married Isabella the Warenne heiress in 1164 and died in 1202) on the grounds that the only close analogy to the circular keep with its trapezoidal towers is Hamelin’s castle of Mortemer (Seine Maritime). The keep has been dated c.1180-1190 on the basis of the chapel decorations (Johnson 1989); but we believe for the reasons set out in the following paragraph that it must be dated c.1180-1202. The date of the chapel within the keep is of interest as the chapel serves to date the whole stone castle and the curtain wall probably followed the building of the keep after only a very short interval (Thompson 1977, 5). The chapel within Conisbrough castle, dedicated to SS Philip and James, was granted rents by Hamelin earl of Warenne and Isabella, countess of Warenne, with the assent of William their son and heir, in an undated grant only known from 17thc. copies. Hunter believed that the grant (50s in rents from the local mill) marked the chapel’s foundation. This grant was tentatively dated 1180-1189 by Clay (Clay 1949, no.74, 100). 1180 is the earliest date that the heir would be old enough to consent (his parents were married in 1164) and seems secure. The grant uses the phrases pro salute, or pro salute animae (for the safety of the soul/s) of various people, both dead and alive, one being King Henry II (d. 1189). Clay chose 1189 on the assumption that Henry was still alive when the grant was made, but that is an unsafe assumption: in which case the latest date of the chapel grant would be 1202, the death of Hamelin earl of Warenne; the date that Hunter uses (Hunter 1828, I, 107). Stylistically a date before 1180 seems unlikely. See the Comments section for the dating of the sculpture.


Exterior Features



Interior Features

Vaulting/Roof Supports

Interior Decoration



According to Margaret Wood (1965, 262, pl XLI) the two fireplaces are the two earliest known examples of hooded fireplaces, created because the circular plan of the room made an arched fireplace difficult to construct. Wood 1974, 81-2, says the wall fireplace became almost essential once living quarters left the ground floor.


The single dogtooth star in a rib vault of the chapel resembles those used round the arch of the S doorway at the parish church. Of several sculptural details used in the castle, it is the one that looks forward to the arrival of Gothic taste, and it supports the date of 1180-1202 suggested above; similarly the trefoil-headed niches to laver, credence and piscinas, and the quatrefoil window frames, all in the upper floor, are architectural motifs of the very latest fashion. Otherwise, novelties such as the undercut capitals on the fireplace might have been attributed to skilled immigrant workmen working in a purely Romanesque environment.


G. T. Clark, 'Conisbrough Castle', Yorkshire Archaeological Journal , 8 (1883), pp. 123-57.

C. T. Clay, Early Yorkshire Charters 8: the Honour of Warenne , Yorkshire Archaeological Society Record Series Extra Series 6. Wakefield 1949.

Joseph Hunter, South Yorkshire: the history and topography of the Deanery of Doncaster, in the diocese and county of York, J. B. Nichols & Son, London 1828-31.

J. L. Illingworth, Yorkshire's Ruined Castles, London 1938, republished Wakefield 1970.

C. F. Innocent, 'Conisborough[sic] and its castle', Transactions of Hunterian Archaeological Society , I (1914-18), pp. 391-8.

S. Johnson, 'Excavations at Conisbrough Castle 1973-1977', Yorks. Archaeol. J., 52 (1980) pp. 59-88.

S. Johnson, Conisbrough Castle, South Yorkshire, English Heritage, 2nd edn. London 1989.

D. J. C. King, The Castle in England and Wales: an interpretative history., Croom Helm, London 1991.

John Murray, Handbook for Travellers in Yorkshire, Murray, London 1867.

N. Pevsner, revised by E. Radcliffe, The Buildings of England, Yorkshire, The West Riding, Harmondsworth, 1967.

D. Renn, Norman Castles in Britain, 2nd edn. Baker, London 1973.

L. A. Shuffrey, The English Fireplace, Batsford, London 1912, Fig. 15.

M. W. Thompson, 'Conisbrough Castle', Archaeological Journal, 137 (1980), p. 416.

M. W. Thompson, 'Excavations at Conisbrough Castle', Medieval Archaeology, 12 (1968), 13 (1969) and 20 (1976).

M. W. Thompson, Conisbrough Castle, Yorkshire, HMSO, London 1971, 2nd ed. 1977.

S. Toy, The Castles of Great Britain, 4th edn. Heinemann, London 1966.

M. Wood, The English Medieval House, Dent, London 1965, 1974.