One of the most distinct castle ruins in the north of England, Conisbrough Castle played a major role to play in the Wars of the Roses, was once owned by Richard of York and was even featured in Sir Walter Scott’s literary classic ‘Ivanhoe’.
The name ‘Conisbrough’ likely derives from the Anglo-Saxon word ‘Cyningesburh’, meaning ‘the king’s borough’. Little is known of the area before the Norman Conquest, but the nascent town was certainly important as a settlement long before their arrival in the 11th century. An Anglian church, now known as the parish church of St Peter, has been based in the town as early as the 8th century, and is thought to be the oldest standing building in South Yorkshire.
English Heritage now care for the ruins of the magnificent castle, giving the 12th century structure some of the latest in 21st century presentations and interactive displays. The keep’s three floors are now inhabited by wall-projected, larger than life characters who guide visitors through the halls, with a variety of audio visual equipment and display panels in a graphic novel style filling out the story of these iconic walls.
It was at the castle that Richard of Conisbrough and a number of other Yorkshire nobles plotted to kill King Henry V at Southampton as he prepared to depart for France in 1415. The plot was uncovered, and Richard was executed. Nicknamed the ‘Southampton Plot’, the affair appeared in Shakespeare’s play Henry V, depicted as being a French-backed plan to stop the king’s planned invasion as part of the Hundred Years’ War.
One of the key castles in the north, Conisbrough was part of a network of Norman era fortifications that were designed to keep Yorkshire in the hands of the new Royal lineage. After being held by a French lord, William de Warenne, the castle eventually came into the hands of the Dukes of York, and then into Royal ownership when Edward IV ascended to throne in 1461.
By the time of the Tudors the castle was already in a ruinous state, and it is thought that this aided its survival. When Civil War broke out, many fortifications were slighted by Parliamentarian troops. As Conisbrough was regarded to be too ruinous, it wasn’t garrisoned and so not seen as a threat to be further destroyed in the aftermath of the war.
Some landscaping was carried out on the castle during the 18th and 19th centuries, partly to enhance its picturesque qualities, and also to make it a safer structure for visitors although the ruins were not officially opened to the public.
The castle certainly achieved some fame as a romantic ruin, and in 1811 Sir Walter Scott passed through the Doncaster area, seeing the ruins of Conisborough, and using it as a location for his upcoming novel ‘Ivanhoe’, the historical saga that included some of the tales about Robin of Locksley, the skilled archer and nobleman better known as Robin Hood.
In the mid-20th century, the castle was taken under the protectorate of the state, and during the 1960s the Ministry of Works carried out extensive masonry repairs to ensure it was safe to be used as a visitor attraction for many years to come. In the late 60s, the castle also received a number of excavations, discovering a range of artefacts, and building new stairs for the keep, so it could be explored more fully.
The keep of the castle was re-roofed and floored in the 1990s by the Ivanhoe Trust, which also added a modern exhibition building in the outer bailey, directly in contrast with the romantic ruins. In 2007 the castle went under direct management by English Heritage.
The castle maintains stunning views over the town of Conisbrough and still fires the imagination today. With floors and roof now fully restored, you can fully appreciate the magnificence of the original 12th century building. Exhibitions provide more insight into the medieval lives of Lord and Lady de Warenne, and the grassy areas around the castle walls are popular for games and picnics.