Knaresborough Castle

The Museums & Arts section of Harrogate Borough Council provided the detailed information on Knaresborough Castle. It is reproduced almost completely verbatim from the guidebook to the castle (1998) and the acknowledgements are included below. We would like to thank Mary Kershaw, at the time of the article’s preparation the Curator of Harrogate Museums & Arts, for her enthusiastic support and guidance.


Knaresborough Castle is situated at the top of a large cliff, with a commanding view of the River Nidd and the Forest of Knaresborough. The castle ruins do not convey its important role in the development of the English nation. For most of its history, Knaresborough Castle has been in royal control, and it has retained this long tradition to the present day. It is now in the possession of the Crown, as part of the Queen’s inheritance of the Duchy of Lancaster.


The Early Castle


Like all castles, Knaresborough served as a focus for the surrounding community: a refuge in times of danger and a centre for government and judicial administration. Long after the castle’s military significance had diminished, it continued to function as a centre for justice, administering the Honour of Knaresborough. Even after the castle was ordered to be dismantled by the Parliamentarians, the townspeople of Knaresborough managed to successfully petition the government to allow them to preserve the King’s Tower and to use it as a prison.

Very little is known about the early history of Knaresborough, and the origins of the castle are equally obscure. The first reference to the town is from 1086 in the Domesday Book, and although we know that much of ‘Chednaresburg’ was in the possession of the King, there is no mention of the castle. The name Chednaresburg implies a fortification, and is the only tantalising glimpse of a predecessor to the medieval castle. ‘Burg’ is an Anglo-Saxon word for a defended enclosure, and suggests that Knaresborough may have had some form of early defensive structure. This would most likely have taken the form of a bank and ditch surrounding the town, and would not refer to the presence of a castle.

The earliest castle at Knaresborough was established after the Norman conquest, predating the standing fourteenth century remains by nearly 200 years. Throughout its long history, the castle has been in royal control or held directly from the Crown. Its fortunes have risen and fallen with the history of the English Monarchy. The first documented reference to a castle at Knaresborough is from the Pipe Rolls of 1129-1130, which make reference to £11 spent by Eustace fitz John for the King’s works at Knaresborough. In 1170, when Hugh de Moreville held the castle, he and his followers took refuge there after they had murdered Thomas a Beckett in Canterbury.

King John

King John took a particular interest in Knaresborough and he spent £1,290 on works at the castle, including the excavation or enlargement of the moat. The remains of this great dry ditch can still be seen around the southern and northern halves of the castle, and this is the earliest remaining visible construction. King John visited often during his reign, residing here while hunting in the Forest of Knaresborough. The vast area covered by the medieval Forest of Knaresborough would have provided excellent grounds for this pastime, and the royal privileges in the Forest were carefully guarded.

King John maintained Knaresborough Castle as one of his administrative strongholds in the North. He is reputed to have spent more money on the castles at Knaresborough and Scarborough than on any others in the country. Knaresborough repaid his patronage, and was held for the Crown during the Baron’s Revolt in 1215-16. The lack of visible remains from this period, apart from the moat, and possibly the lowest storey in the Old Courthouse, presents a misleading picture of its importance at this time. The money spent on the castle and the people who spent time there are clear signs of its important status in the affairs of the country.

The Edwardian Castle

Edward I

In the early 14th century King Edward I turned his attention from his successful Welsh campaigns and looked toward the North. He began a programme of modernisation at Knaresborough Castle, and made repairs to buildings referred to in court records as the ‘White tower, the great hall, the great chamber, the great chapel, the chapel of St. Thomas and the great gate’. These historical references are the only record we have which can give us a picture of the castle at this period. From the brief glimpse they give us, we know that Knaresborough Castle consisted of a substantial range of buildings by the 14th century. All that survives from that period now are the twin towers of the East Gate and fragments of the curtain wall.

Edward II

When Edward of Caernarvon succeeded his father Edward I to become King of England, the country lost a strong ruler to a weaker man, who was influenced by unpopular favourites. Piers Gaveston was the first of these men to gain Edward’s favour, and in 1307, Edward II granted the Honour and Castle of Knaresborough to Gaveston. In reality the estate remained in the King’s control, and a substantial amount of money from the royal purse was spent on the Castle. Piers Gaveston was extremely unpopular amongst the powerful barons, who felt he exercised undue influence over the King. In 1311, under pressure from the barons, he was banished, but was later re-admitted into the country and the King’s favour. In 1312, Gaveston was besieged at Scarborough Castle. During the siege, Edward remained at Knaresborough Castle, to be close at hand. Gaveston surrendered and was eventually beheaded.

Edward II’s reign was marked by continuing internal friction amongst powerful factions, and ever increasing raids by the Scots into northern England. This general unrest led to rebellion and on 5 October in 1317, Knaresborough Castle was seized by supporters of the Earl of Lancaster, and held against the King. The Constable spent ,£55 to mount an attack to retake his own castle, and used a siege engine to breach the curtain wall and recapture it three months later. In 1318 the raiding Scots penetrated as far south as Knaresborough. Much of the town including the church and priory were devastated by these raids, with the castle as the only point of refuge in the town.

The powerful aristocracy were soon in a state of complete rebellion, led by the King’s own wife, Queen Isabella. In 1327 they deposed Edward II and accepted his son as King Edward III. It was an age when the monarch needed to be strong and forceful in order to reign successfully. Edward I had been a strong, determined man who ruled with great control. His son could not have been more unlike in character. Where his father had subdued Wales, Edward II suffered humiliating defeats at the hands of the Scots. After losing the throne, Edward II was imprisoned and eventually barbarously murdered.

Edward III

In 1331, Edward III’s wife Queen Philippa received the Honour and Castle of Knaresborough as part of her marriage settlement. It was while in her possession that Knaresborough Castle became firmly established not only as a royal possession, but as a royal residence in the truest sense. Previous monarchs had used the castle to consolidate their power in the North, but Queen Philippa spent many summers in residence at Knaresborough Castle, her young family with her. During this period, up until her death in 1369, much of the summer court season would have revolved around Knaresborough Castle, and the elegant King’s Tower and dramatic view from the cliff would have been familiar scenes to members of the Royal Court.

Lancastrians & Tudors

Duchy of Lancaster

It may have been memories from his childhood spent in Knaresborough that encouraged John of Gaunt, in 1372, to give up his properties in Richmond for the Honour and Castle of Knaresborough and the Honour of Tickhill. As Duke of Lancaster, John of Gaunt had a large inheritance including many castles of great importance. Knaresborough from that time onwards was joined to these estates and belonged to the Duchy of Lancaster.

Upon John of Gaunt’s death in 1399, King Richard II confiscated the Lancastrian estates as the property of the Crown, disinheriting Henry Bolingbroke, John of Gaunt’s son and heir. Henry returned to claim his inheritance, landing at Ravenspur, and travelling to receive support from his Castles at Pickering, Knaresborough and Pontefract This confrontation eventually led to the downfall of King Richard II, who was deposed and imprisoned. He spent a night as prisoner in Knaresborough Castle, most likely in the King’s Tower, before he was taken to Pontefract, where he was murdered. Henry Bolingbroke’s ascendance to the throne as King Henry IV brought the lands of the Duchy of Lancaster directly under the control of the Crown, and Knaresborough was a royal castle once again.

The Late Medieval Castle

Although the accession of Henry IV brought the Lancastrian inheritance under control of the Crown, Knaresborough Castle no longer played an important role in national affairs. The castle continued to serve a crucial function in regional administration, and the manor courts were still held here. The history of the castle during this time until the Civil War is fairly obscure, illuminated only by occasional references which show it was kept in good repair. It remained directly in control of the Crown throughout this period, except from 1422 to 1437 when it formed part of Queen Catherine’s dower, when her husband King Henry V died.

The Tudor Castle

Castles had largely lost their defensive significance by the Tudor period, and new tastes were leading to the construction of fortified stately homes rather than old-fashioned and less comfortable castles. However, many castles were maintained and modernised, and in both 1538 and 1561 surveys were undertaken which showed Knaresborough Castle to be in a state of disrepair, but not decay. The timber and leadwork throughout the castle needed to be replaced, and most of the timber buildings were beyond repair. The stonework was essentially in sound condition, and was considered to be easily made defensible again. By 1600 the upper storey of the Courthouse was built, and court cases from the Forest and Liberty of Knaresborough were tried here. Whether the repairs identified in the earlier surveys were undertaken is not known for certain, but by the Civil War, the castle was still able to be defended.

Civil War to Modern Day

The Civil War

Knaresborough Castle supported the Royalist Cause during the Civil War, but in 1644 the Parliamentarians were gaining control in Yorkshire. After the battle of Marston Moor in July 1644, the castle was besieged, and finally surrendered when cannon breached the wall on December 20. In 1646 Parliament ordered the castle to be rendered untenable, and by 1648 demolition had commenced. Nearly the entire circuit of the curtain wall was destroyed, as were all the buildings in the grounds, except the Courthouse. The King’s Tower was in the process of demolition when the townspeople petitioned Parliament to allow them to maintain it as a prison. Demolition was halted and the Tower was left standing. The King’s Tower and Courthouse continued to serve as prison and courthouse for some time.

The Modern Castle


In the early 20th century, a bowling green and tennis courts transformed the role of the castle in the town, creating a leisure area for local residents, and relegating the structures of the castle to a secondary, almost superfluous role. The putting green now occupies the area where the tennis courts used to be. A war memorial commemorates the many local residents who gave their lives in the defence of their country in the First and Second World Wars. The Courthouse is now a museum which provides an explanation and interpretation of the history of the town, and which still contains furniture from the original Tudor courtroom.

The castle now stands as a monument to Knaresborough’s history, and as a centre for interpretation and understanding of that past. The 20th century has seen a renewal of interest in our historic monuments; in their preservation and interpretation, and in their value as integral elements in our modern landscape. The standing buildings and fragments of wall within the castle grounds provide a glimpse not only into the activities of the past which led to their construction and use, but also to the late activities of disuse and destruction. In their own unique way they stand as a permanent reflection of the changing values and attitudes of our society, from Medieval times to present day.

The Buildings

The Moat

The castle was, and still is to an extent, divided into two areas, known as the inner and outer wards. Originally a stone wall would have separated the two wards, running from the King’s Tower across to the north-eastern side of the Courthouse range of buildings.

The entire castle was surrounded by a massive dry ditch, referred to as the moat, which was the first line of defence. This is the earliest surviving feature of the castle, dating from the first decade of the 13th century or earlier, and originally extending from the edges of the cliff to form a complete circuit around the castle grounds. The north-eastern side of the ditch, separating the castle from the town, has been filled in and is now under the car park. A walk along the moat provides the best impression one can gain of the impressive defensiveness of the situation and construction of the castle. Looking up to the massy towers along the curtain wall gives an idea of how impregnable the complete castle would have been.

The Outer Ward

Surveys conducted in the 16th century give indications of the types of structures which would have been found in the outer ward, and this area would have been teeming with the activities needed to support life in the castle. Milling, brewing, baking and smelting would have taken place here, and horses would have been stabled here. The outer ward would have served most of the ‘industrial’ needs of the castle.


East Gate & Curtain Wall

The two solid half round towers on the eastern side of the outer ward are the remains of one of the two medieval gates into the castle. These towers buttressed the curtain wall as well as providing entry into the castle grounds. The remains of portcullis slots are still visible in the sides of these towers, where a heavy wooden portcullis would have defended the entrance. Until the 19th century, a masonry arch spanned the entrance between these two towers, a remnant of the original gatehouse. This collapsed some time in the 1840’s.

Following the line of the curtain wall from the gate around toward the rear of the courthouse, there is a wide but short piece of wall. This is the remnant of a large tower, and as late as 1940 this stood up to 7.5 metres (25 feet) in height. Unfortunately, the weight of the upper portion was too great, and the upper courses of the tower collapsed into the moat.

The Sallyports

Hidden within the outer ward are two sallyports, underground tunnels which were used for secret entry and exit from the castle. These tunnels are nearly 2.5 metres (8 feet) high and 2 metres (6 feet) wide in places, and are constructed of rough mortared rubble immediately below the ground, and then are hewn through the solid rock. They are easily large enough for a small party of armed men to have secretly left the castle and harass besieging troops. These sallyports slope steeply down to the level of the bottom of the moat, where the soldiers would have emerged secretly under cover of darkness. The exit from the northern sallyport has been completely blocked. by the infill of the moat. The eastern sallyport is now open and accessible by guided tours during the summer season.


The Inner Ward

It was within the inner ward of the castle that the royal living quarters were situated and where domestic and administrative activities took place. The Courthouse range of buildings mark the south eastern side of this ward. The King’s Tower dominates the northern side. A dividing wall would originally have extended from the Tower around to meet the Courthouse, and would have clearly separated the inner and outer wards. Passage from one ward to the other would have been through an additional gate, which has since disappeared. This gate appears to have been located approximately midway between the Courthouse and the King’s Tower.

The Courthouse

The undercroft of the Courthouse is the earliest surviving structure on the site. Although a 14th century doorway has been inserted into this building, the masonry appears to be late 12th/13th century in style. The upper storey which now houses the Museum was added by 1600, and still contains the furniture from the original Tudor Court, a rare survival. The eastern end of this building was added as a prison in the 18th century, built on the site of a chapel, and the western end was added in the 1800’s. In the medieval period this range of buildings would have provided lodgings, a chapel and a depository for administrative records.

The Curtain Wall

Proceeding from the Courthouse toward the war memorial, the half-round 14th century buttress towers on the edge of the cliff reveal more of the structure of the castle than is apparent at first glance. Like most other structures in the castle from this period, their external face was built of fine dressed stone, while the inside was filled with rubble. These towers were built against the exterior of the curtain wall. During the lifetime of the castle, the view from this point would have been completely obscured by the height of the curtain wall.

When looked at from the side, these towers reveal the profile of the wall against which they were built, which appears to have been buckling at the time of their construction. The towers may have been built to support a wall which was too close to the edge of the cliff; or they could be later additions to a much earlier wall which was showing the effects of age. They give an insight into an earlier castle if the rubble within their core is examined closely. There are pieces of carved stone within this rubble which may date from the Early English period, and are from earlier buildings which were replaced in the reign of Edward I or Edward II.

Between the War Memorial and the King’s Tower are few traces of the medieval castle, but this is the area where the complex of living quarters would have been located. The Great Hall was built against the curtain wall here, and the kitchen and larder were also within this area. Traces of such buildings were revealed in limited excavations carried out in the 1920’s. The well which served the inner ward is at the end of this area and is marked by a round paving stone to the southwest of the King’s Tower.


The King’s Tower

The area around the King’s Tower serves as the focal point for the castle today, much as it would have in the castle’s lifetime as a residence. The tower itself is a magnificent and complicated structure, and marks a change in the style of castle building, a period when comfort and elegance were playing an important part within a defensive structure. The building was not simply a utilitarian, uncomfortable stronghold to be retreated into in times of peril; it was a self-contained residence, strongly fortified, but very comfortable.We know from detailed accounts for its construction that the present tower was built from 1307-1312 complete to the lead on its roof and the glazing of its windows. The accounts indicate that Edward II took a direct interest in the progress of the project, which may account for the elaborate architectural detail and quality of craftsmanship throughout. The foundations of an earlier tower below the 14th century building were revealed in 1990 excavations on the site.

The ‘Porch’

This little structure to the south-east of the King’s Tower had previously been the subject of much debate, and had been thought to be a gate passage from the outer to the inner wards. Its ruined state conceals that this little structure was an antechamber (or waiting room) for access to the main hall above in the King’s Tower. The general entrance was through double doors within the (now) open arch on its western side, facing the inner ward. Inside this antechamber, a stone wall bench extended around three sides, and thick limestone floor flags paved the floor.

The King’s Chamber

The first floor level is popularly known as ‘The King’s Chamber’, and it is believed that it was here that Richard II was imprisoned before being taken to Pontefract Castle. Private access to this chamber was via a spiral stairway from the floor below. The carved stone handrail in this round stairwell is an unusual feature. General access to the first floor was from the eastern end of the building, via the ‘porch’ or ground floor antechamber.

There is a fireplace at one end of the dais, and at the other end, overlooking the courtyard, is a large decorative window, with a carved hood moulding and ball flower ornament. This ball flower ornament also occurs over the inside of the western doorway at York Minster, and is probably from the influence of Hugh of Bouden, master mason of York Minster who oversaw works at Knaresborough Castle temporarily when mason Hugh of Titchmarsh was called away.At the extreme eastern end of the first floor is a small chamber, reached via the stair from the waiting room below in the ‘porch’. Persons waiting for an audience with the Lord of the Manor would wait here before being admitted. From this chamber, one would pass through a gateway consisting of double wooden doors on either side of a portcullis. The slot for this portcullis is still visible in the wall. Passing through this entrance, one would step down into a single large chamber. At the far end is a raised dais area, with a decorative arched recess built into the wall behind. This extravagant arrangement would form an impressive backdrop, which would elevate the King or Lord seated on the dais, and was designed to instill a sense of awe. Around the perimeter of this chamber, extending into the antechamber and serving as window seats, are the remains of a carved wall bench, where courtiers would be seated during official reception times. This elaborate construction adds to the impression of importance, elegance and comfort which were built into the design of the King’s Tower.

The Dungeon

The lowest level of the King’s Tower consists primarily of a cellar, the construction of which is believed to be architecturally unique in this country. The arrangement of twelve rib vaults springing from a central column supports the floors above, and is unknown elsewhere. The external walls are 4.5 metres (15 feet) thick. Air arid light are provided by a bent channel in the northwestern wall which leads to the outside. There are numerous examples of graffiti on the dungeon walls, especially in the passage leading down the stairs. This room was a secure storage area for supplies. One of the most important aspects of surviving a prolonged siege in a castle was the provision of adequate food and water for the garrison inside. Access to the cellar was down a ramp which came out at right angles to the building. The current stair access is a much later alteration.


The Ground Floor

The ground floor of the King’s Tower probably served as chambers for the Constable of the castle with private access to the main presence chamber on the first floor. This level consists of one large chamber which originally had four mural chambers leading off from it, although the Civil War demolition has obscured this arrangement. The first mural chamber (A) is located at the eastern side of the room. The small alcove cut into the wall in this chamber looks to be a later addition, end may date from the later period when the King’s Tower was used as a prison. A small window in the wall of this chamber overlooks the main room.

At the furthest side of the room is an entrance to another mural chamber (B), which served as a garderobe. This garderobe still retains its original privy shaft which would have carried the waste out of the King’s Tower into the moat. These shafts were one of the most vulnerable parts of a castle, as besieging troops could send a small man or boy to climb up the shaft to enter the castle, and open the gates once inside. The two windows in this chamber are an unusual feature, particularly on a wall which faces the exterior of the castle. These windows, combined with the unusually large size of the room, have led to the suggestion that this may be a very early example of a bathroom in a domestic English building.

There are three other chambers at this level of the Tower with entrances from the inner ward, separate from the main chamber. On the western side is a door leading to a small L-shaped room (C) which may have been used as a strong room or a secure store. On the eastern side are two barrel vaulted connecting rooms (D) which may have served as watchman’s quarters. The function of most of the rooms in the castle would probably have changed according to requirements.

The Second Floor

It is difficult to know what specific -arrangement the rooms on the upper floor would have taken. The second floor covered a slightly smaller area than the first floor, and would have contained the lord or lady’s private chambers, and probably a private chapel. The floors were made of wood, and access to this level was via a spiral stairway from below.


Works to the Castle 1986-90

The first floor of the King’s Tower had been covered in asphalt until a programme of repairs to the castle was begun in 1986. The asphalt was removed, and below it was up to 1 metre (3 feet) of debris from the demolition of the castle after the Civil War. The black line of the level of the asphalt is still visible around the walls, and gives an indication of how much of the detail at this level was hidden for centuries.Excavations around the King’s Tower took place from 1988 to 1990, and revealed a wealth of information about its development and layout. These works demonstrated the accuracy of a drawing of the castle from 1538 which shows a gate on the eastern side of the tower. This gate gave access to the outer ward of the castle from Kirkgate.

The ground level of the castle has changed dramatically over the centuries, with thick deposits built up over time through building projects, demolition and through ordinary living debris throughout the medieval period. The original ground surface of the earliest castle appears to have been approximately 2 – 3 metres below the present level.



Research into the history and development of Knaresborough Castle is a continuing process to which many people have contributed over the years. This current guidebook is indebted to the archaeological work done at the castle by Stephen Barber in the 1920’s and by Jean le Patourel in 1961. The support and guidance of English Heritage has been instrumental in developing an understanding of the castle. More recent work has been greatly assisted by the efforts of the KNAG’s (Knaresborough Archaeological Group), and in particular Tony Law, whose great affection for, and knowledge of, Knaresborough Castle has been an irreplaceable resource. I am also indebted to John Symington for his work on the history of the castle, and his enthusiasm for the people who have created that history.

Mary J Kershaw