Scarborough Castle

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Scarborough Castle's keep viewed towards the town's North Bay. The inner bailey includes a well, and is surrounded by a curtain wall (left) and another stone wall which defended the outer bailey (right).

The ruins of Scarborough Castle stand on a cliff top overlooking the town of Scarborough, North Yorkshire, in England. The castle was founded in the 1130s, but the existing stone ruins date from the 1150s. Over the centuries, several other structures were added, with mediaeval monarchs investing heavily in what was then an important fortress that guarded the Yorkshire coastline, Scarborough's port trade, and the north of England from Scottish or continental invasion. It was also fortified and defended for various civil wars, sieges and conflicts, as kings fought with rival barons, faced rebellion and clashed with republican forces, though peace with Scotland and the conclusion of civil and continental wars in the seventeenth century led to its decline in importance. Once occupied by garrisons and governors who often menaced the town, the castle has been a ruin since the sieges of the English Civil War, but still attracts many visitors to climb the battlements, take in the views and enjoy the accompanying interactive exhibition and special events run by English Heritage.


(CC) Image: Dongyi Liu
The barbican (main gateway, left) today, close to a stone bridge. Unusually for a castle of this kind, the inner bailey is reached from the entrance first, via the bridge, with the outer bailey beyond. The view is towards Scarborough's North Bay.

Because the castle sits atop a sheer cliff 300 feet (92 metres) high, only the south-western slopes leading up to the entrance needed to be defended; the outer thirteenth-to-fourteenth-century curtain wall, 230 yards (210 metres) long, with its (originally twelve) hollow towers for archers[1] therefore do not completely surround the inner buildings of the castle. The entrance consists of a barbican, or fortifications to protect the gateway, completed in the fourteenth century and flanked by two half-circular towers atop high ground.[2] Modifications to the barbican have removed evidence of the old portcullis and its grooves[3] - some of many examples of changes to the castle over the centuries, which is itself a replacement for a twelfth-century fortification[4] built at the site of the remains of an eleventh-century Anglo-Saxon chapel.[5]

Beyond the main gateway, a stone bridge leads to the baileys (enclosed areas). This bridge replaced the two original drawbridges, and was rebuilt in 1337-1338.[6] It leads first to the inner bailey, which would have been used for workshops, offices, a kitchen, and a storage area. Unusually, the outer bailey is reached beyond these, separated from the inner bailey by a ditch and stone wall. This contrasts with the reverse arrangement of baileys found in other castles of this time.[7]

The 86-feet-tall (26 metres) twelfth-century keep and the castle's 150-feet-deep (46 metres) well[8] occupy the inner bailey. The keep, with its entrance on the first floor (i.e. the second level from the ground), survives to this day only as a shell, with the west wall, interior floors and roof missing thanks to a seventeenth-century bombardment. With its sloping plinth to aid defence, flat roof and four turrets[9] this square three-storey building would have been over 100 feet tall (31 metres). The walls range from 11 to 15 feet (3.5 to 4.6 metres) in thickness, the west wall being strongest, and there are several windows, some blocked up. The corners feature decorative rounded mouldings. There are the remains of a hearth in the west wall on the first floor, which comprised a single Great Hall where the occupants ate and often slept. The second and third floors were each divided into two rooms for the most important visitors or the governor, and the basement would have been a storage area.[10]

The baileys are separated by a wall, ditch and bank, with two defended gateways. This larger bailey would have seen entertaining events staged, vegetables grown and animals kept; there was also a graveyard and St. Mary's Chapel, which has completely disappeared, though the remains of the old Anglo-Saxon chapel on the site of an old Roman signal station can still be seen (see early history of the site, below). A twelfth-century mediaeval building, 100 feet (47 metres) in length and excavated in 1888, also stood in the outer bailey to accommodate royal visitors, with a long hall and private chamber for the monarch (the only one with a fireplace, as well as rooms for preparing and storing food. This building was demolished sometime before a survey of 1538, which makes no mention of it, and only the foundations remain.[11]

The 'King's Chambers' in the outer bailey, also known as Mosdale Hall after a fourteenth-century governor of the castle who was responsible for upgrading it, are a striking example of how the castle has been much-altered over the years. Originally built in the thirteenth century and upgraded by Mosdale after 1397, the two-storey building at the curtain wall was converted to red-brick barracks in the eighteenth century, probably also using stone from the castle walls. The red brickwork is clearly visible next to the much earlier outer stone wall, as viewed from Scarborough's South Bay. The thirteenth-century Queen's Tower in the wall nearby was initially luxurious accommodation with private latrines, a porch added in 1320[12] and large windows with bay views, but two of these windows were later blocked up, and one was changed to a cupboard with a rubbish chute. The Master Gunner's House, built in 1748, served as accommodation until the early twentieth century (see events and attractions, below).[13]

Events and attractions

(CC) Image: James Stringer
The eighteenth-century Master Gunner's House now hosts a museum and café.

See also development of the castle as a tourist attraction

The castle site, managed by English Heritage since 1984, is host to various events, usually in summertime, such as pirate and Robin Hood-themed activities.[14] Needless to say, the castle grounds are also reputed to be haunted - by three ghosts, among them a Roman soldier at the signal station site.[15] The eighteenth-century Master Gunner's House now serves as a museum including an interactive exhibition whose centrepiece is a Bronze Age sword. This was discovered in 1980 at the castle and forms the centrepiece of English Heritage's £250,000 investment in making the site a strong tourist attraction.[16] The building also houses a café.[17]


See also a timeline of Scarborough Castle

The castle's ten centuries of history have seen it move from a major fortification in the Middle Ages to a well-loved ruin today. It played an important role in several important English events, and survived a series of major sieges as its ownership passed between rival forces. The site itself was far from barren before the establishment of the castle, with activity dating back more than a thousand years before the first stones of the mediaeval castle were laid.

Early history of the site

Archaeological evidence of Iron Age and later settlements from around 900-500 BCE[18] possibly suggest something as extensive as a full hill fort on the headland, though this is yet to be found.[19] Among various finds possibly dating back as far as 3,000 years, a Bronze Age sword is on display in the castle exhibition; this is thought to have been a ritual offering.[20]

(CC) Image: David Friel
Roman soldiers were stationed on the site of the castle centuries before the first stone foundations were laid. Today, occasional Roman infantry re-enactments take place in the castle grounds, such as this one in 2007.

Prior to the establishment of the castle in the twelfth century, a fourth-century Roman signal station stood on the site at the cliff edge. The station was built to warn of approaching hostile vessels, and took advantage of a natural source of fresh water that later became known as the 'Well of Our Lady'.[21] However, there is very little to show that the Roman presence at the headland was anything other than a small company; some pottery has been discovered, but nothing to suggest extensive fortification prior to the mediaeval castle.[22]

The Anglo-Saxons built a chapel on the station site around the year 1000, the remains of which are still visible.[23] This is said to have been destroyed by William the Conqueror's ally Harald Hardrada in 1066[24] - a much later Icelandic poem[25] claims that an early Viking settlement around the harbour was burnt down in 1066 by Hardrada's forces, who reputedly built a large bonfire on the headland to supply burning brands to hurl at the villagers below.[26] This fate of the settlement, if it existed at all, is supported by the fact that Scarborough is not mentioned in the Domesday Book (a survey or census of eleventh-century England). However, there is no archaeological evidence of such an inferno, nor any of the Viking presence; the first clear evidence of the earliest town coincides with the establishment of the surviving stone castle a century later, around 1157-1164. This followed the development of a small settlement around a wooden fortress which the stone castle replaced.[27]

The original wooden castle, 1138-1157

The current ruins of Scarborough Castle were not the first attempt to establish a fortification on the headland. First to indisputably do so was William le Gros, Count of Aumale ('the Fat', died 1179), grand-nephew of William the Conqueror (reigned 1066-1087). A powerful Anglo-Norman baron, William le Gros built a castle following his receipt of the Earldom of York from King Stephen (reigned 1135-1154) in 1138. This was for his victory at the 'Battle of the Standard' that year, when he led a force of Yorkshiremen that repulsed a Scottish invasion.[28] He may also have re-founded the town of 'Scardeburg' itself, though there is little evidence of this. As with other castles, however, there would have been at least a small settlement nearby.[29]

Some information on the establishment of the first castle has survived in the chronicle of William of Newburgh, a monk who in the 1190s wrote about the foundation of the castle. According to him, William le Gros built his fortress of wood, with a palisade wall (i.e. of wooden stakes) on the landward side, and a gate tower at the entrance. This motte and bailey castle subsequently disappeared, with only a small, raised mound (the motte) visible today, in the inner bailey.[30]

The fate of these original fortifications is unclear. Henry II (reigned 1154-1189) ordered all royal castles returned to the Crown,[31] and also had a policy of destroying most of the castles built without royal permission - the so-called 'Adulterine Castles' - that had appeared during Stephen's chaotic reign. Initially, William resisted the call to hand over Scarborough, which he had built on a royal manor, until Henry's forces arrived at York. The wooden castle soon vanished - William of Newburgh, writing near the time, claimed that the structure had decayed through age and the elements, battered beyond repair on the windswept headland.[32] Later interpretations view this as implausible and argue that Henry wanted to stamp his mark on Scarborough, demolishing William's fort and creating a much stronger stone complex.[33]

Building of the stone castle, c.1157-1216

From about 1157,[34] Henry II completely rebuilt the castle, using stone to establish the three-storey keep which survives to this day, and a ditch and palisade wall to protect the inner bailey. Much construction occurred between 1159 and 1169, when the keep was built and a stone wall replaced the palisade division.[35] By the end of Henry's reign in 1189, the grand total of £682, 15 shillings and threepence had been spent on the castle - a fortune at that time - mostly between 1157 and 1164.[36]

While Richard I (reigned 1189-1999) had spent nothing on the castle, King John (reigned 1199-1216) ensured that it was a comfortable residence for himself and his retinue. John's rule was strongly opposed by the northern barons, so the castle at Scarborough also needed to be fortified as a strategic stronghold. John visited the castle four times during his reign, and spent a considerable sum on its defences,[37] including the curtain wall during 1202-1212 on the west and south sides, and a new hall called the 'King's Chambers', later Mosdale Hall.[38] In total, John spent £2,291, three shillings and fourpence on the castle. This included £780 that was mostly earmarked for repairing the keep roof in 1211-1212; John spent more on the castle than any other monarch.[39]

Development and decline, 1216-1311

The barbican today; this gateway was completed in the fourteenth century.

Improvements continued under Henry III (reigned 1216-1272). By this time, Scarborough was a thriving port, and though he never visited the castle,[40] Henry spent a considerable sum on its upkeep. Around 1240-1250, he installed a new barbican, or fortifications for the gateway.[41] It consists of two towers flanking the gateway, with two more towers protecting the approach. These were completed in 1343, and have been much-modified since.[42] At this time, the castle was also a powerful base which an unscrupulous governor could abuse: Geoffrey de Neville, for example, who was governor for 20 years in the thirteenth century, used the garrison to seize port goods. Since governors were not required to reside in the castle, they often pocketed funds rather than use them for repairs.[43] By the mid-to-late thirteenth century, the defences were starting to decay, with floorboards rotten, roof tiles missing and armouries bare of weaponry.[44] Corruption continued among the castle's custodians, who could act with impunity as the castle was outside the jurisdiction of the local borough. In the 1270s, governor William de Percy blocked the main road into Scarborough and imposed illegal tolls.[45]

Despite its decline, in 1265 the castle was still committed to Prince Edward, later Edward I (reigned 1272-1307), and used to hold court in 1275 and 1280. In 1295, Welsh hostages from his campaigns to subjugate Wales were held at the castle.[46] His son Edward II (reigned 1307-1327) also imprisoned some of his Scottish enemies there in 1311.[47]

Piers Gaveston besieged, 1312

Scarborough Castle's next appearance in major [[History of English history]] came in 1312, during the reign of Edward II. By this time, the castle was a major fortification,[48] and had a new bakehouse, brewhouse and kitchens in the inner bailey, installed by Henry de Percy, who occupied the castle from 1308.[49] The castle was therefore thought a natural place for the King's favourite knight, the Gascon Piers Gaveston, to seek sanctuary when pursued by the barons who had imposed the Ordinances of 1311 to curb the King's power, and who now saw Gaveston as a threat to their interests.[50] In April 1312, Edward made Gaveston the governor of Scarborough Castle, but his tenure would be brief; in May, the Earls of Pembroke and Warenne, together with Henry de Percy, besieged and took the castle.[51] Despite its strong defences, it fell quickly due to lack of provisions. Gaveston was promised safe escort from the castle, but on the journey south was captured by the Earl of Warwick and subsequently killed. Scarborough fared little better; Edward would later punish the town for not supporting Gaveston by revoking its royal privileges and placing it under the direct rule of appointed governors.[52]

Further assaults and decay, 1318-1635

The castle was besieged several times in the following centuries, playing its part in rebellions and civil war. During the Hundred Years War (1337-1453), Scarborough was an important port for the wool trade, so was attacked several times. With ongoing rumours of a French invasion, a 1393 inquiry into the state of the castle also led to repairs in 1396 and 1400.[53] Henry VI (reigned 1422-1461; 1470-1471) would also order major repairs over 1424-1429, and Richard III (reigned 1483-1485) was the last monarch to enter its grounds. He resided at the castle in 1484 while forming a fleet to fight the Tudors, a struggle he lost along with his life the following year.[54]

Following assaults by France and Scotland in the early sixteenth century, in 1536 Robert Aske unsuccessfully tried to take the castle during the Pilgrimage of Grace, a revolt against the Dissolution of the Monasteries and Henry VIII's (reigned 1509-1547) break with the Roman Catholic Church.[55] Repairs were made the following year, and in 1538 some of the lead of the towers was used by the keeper, Sir Ralph Eure (Evers), to make a brewing vessel; Eure also reported that some of the walls had fallen down.[56] In 1557, forces loyal to Thomas Wyatt the younger, who opposed Mary I (reigned 1553-1558) and Catholicism, took the castle by entering disguised as peasants. Their leader, Thomas Stafford, held the castle for only three days, and was subsequently executed for high treason on Tower Hill.[57]

The Civil War sieges, 1642-1648

For more information, see: Great Siege of Scarborough Castle.
The entire west wall of the castle's keep, as viewed from the barbican gateway, was destroyed in 1645 by artillery bombardment during the English Civil War.

The English Civil War (1642-1651) saw the town, castle and its strategic supply port on the side of Charles I (reigned 1625-1649), with 700 Royalist soldiers led by Sir Hugh Cholmley - who originally occupied the castle as a Parliamentarian in September 1642, but swapped sides in March 1643.[58] The Parliamentarians saw Scarborough as the most valuable Royalist prize because it was the only port not under their dominion.[59] The castle changed hands seven times between 1642 and 1648,[60] and was refortified on Cholmley's orders, including establishment of the South Steel Battery for artillery.[61]

On 18th February 1645, Sir John Meldrum took the town, cutting off any escape routes by land or sea and delivering the last Royalist port for Parliament.[62] The same day, Cholmley retreated into the castle and refused to give in, so the Parliamentarians prepared for what would be a five-month siege - one of the most bloody of the Civil War, with almost continuous fighting. The Parliamentary forces set up what was then the largest cannon in the country, the Cannon Royal, in the twelfth-century St. Mary's Church below the castle, and proceeded to fire 56-65lb (27kg) cannonballs that pounded the castle's defences.[63] In turn, the church was extensively damaged over the three days of fighting.[64] The bombardment partially destroyed the castle keep, but without the outer walls breached, the Parliamentary forces were unable to take the castle immediately afterwards. There followed a period of particularly bloody hand-to-hand fighting around the barbican gateway; ultimately, Sir John Meldrum was mortally wounded.[65]

By July, however, the tide was turning in the Parliamentarians' favour: bombardment, scurvy, lack of water, perhaps a shortage of gunpowder and the threat of starvation meant that the castle's surrender came on 25th July 1645, with only 25 men fit to fight. Only about half of the original 500 defenders emerged alive.[66] Initially repaired and rearmed for Parliament with a company of 160, the castle returned to Royalist hands when the soldiers went unpaid; Matthew Boynton, its new governor, declared for the King on 27th July 1648.[67] This led to a second siege which brought the castle back under Parliamentary control on 19th December, with the garrison defeated as much by the oncoming winter as by the Parliamentary forces.[68] Parliament gave orders to demolish the castle in 1649 and 1651; the orders were subsequently cancelled and a garrison installed in the castle.[69] The castle was later used as a prison for those deemed enemies of the Commonwealth of England, the country's brief period of republicanism; the shell of the keep survives, minus the west wall, which was destroyed in the bombardment. The castle was returned to the Crown following the restoration of the monarchy.

The later Stuarts and imprisonment of George Fox

PD Image
George Fox, who founded the Quakers, was imprisoned in Scarborough Castle in the seventeenth century.

The castle continued as a prison from the 1650s, with the garrison increased in 1658, and in 1662 it returned to Crown hands.[70] Perhaps its most famous inmate was the founder of the Quakers, George Fox (1624-1691), who was imprisoned there from April 1665 to September 1666 for religious activities viewed as troublesome for Charles II (reigned 1660-1685).[71] The castle soon began to decline again: James II (reigned 1685-1688) did not garrison it, his forces gambling that its defences would be sufficient to resist any Dutch invasion,[72] and after the town was seized for William of Orange during the Glorious Revolution that ousted James, no improvements were made.[73]

The castle refortified, 1745-1815

The eighteenth-century red-brick barracks (centre) are visible from the other side of Scarborough's South Bay.

The Jacobite Rebellion of 1745, part of a series of uprising aimed at restoring the Catholic House of Stuart to the throne, saw the castle refortified with gun batteries and barracks for 120 officers and men by 1746. The keep was pressed into service as a powder magazine, storing gunpowder, and the South Steel Battery was rebuilt. In 1748, the Master Gunner's house was also constructed, which served as accommodation until the early twentieth century and today hosts the exhibition on the castle.[74] The castle saw no action during this time, however. Later still, the threat of French invasion during the Napoleonic Wars led to the permanent establishment of a garrison, which remained until the mid-nineteenth century; French prisoners were also held at the castle during 1796.[75]

The World Wars

During World War I, Scarborough was used for British propaganda purposes following the bombardment of the town by two warships of the German Empire, Derfflinger and Von der Tann, on 16th December 1914. This killed 19 people and also damaged the castle's keep, barracks and curtain walls. The barracks were demolished due to the extensive damage wrought by the bombardment.[76] In World War II, the castle served as a secret listening post.[77]

Development of the castle as a tourist attraction

The second half of the nineteenth century saw the castle emerge as a tourist attraction. Foundations of a mediaeval hall were excavated in 1888,[78] and an 1890 photo shows visitors using the grounds to practice archery.[79] By 1920, the site was sufficiently important to be taken into public ownership by the Ministry of Works. The demolition of the eighteenth-century barracks exposed the mediaeval foundations of Mosdale Hall, which can be seen to this day. In 1984, the castle was placed in the hands of English Heritage, which runs a museum at the site featuring a Bronze Age sword discovered nearby in 1980 (see events and attractions, above).


  1. Walmsley (1998: 4); Binns (1996: 17).
  2. Walmsley (1998: 2).
  3. Page (1923).
  4. Scarborough Archaeological and Historical Society (2003: 12, 14).
  5. Walmsley (1998: 1; 3); Binns (2002: 17).
  6. Page (1923).
  7. Walmsley (1998: 4-5).
  8. English Heritage: 'Step Inside Scarborough Castle'. .pdf document.
  9. Page (1923) reports that the roof must always have been flat, because there are no weather-mouldings.
  10. Page (1923); Walmsley (1998: 4-5).
  11. Walmsley (1998: 3-5); Page (1923).
  12. Page (1923).
  13. Walmsley (1998: 4).
  14. See the English Heritage website 'Events at Scarborough Castle'; examples include a mediaeval joust in 2008, and a 'Wartime Weekend' in 2009, featuring battle re-enactments and RAF fly-bys. See Scarborough Evening News: 'It's joust good fun at Scarborough Castle event as hundreds turned out', 4th August 2008, and 'Return to war years at castle', 21st May 2009.
  15. Marsden, Horlser & Kelleher (2006: 135).
  16. Yorkshire Evening Post: 'A gift to the gods... and a godsend for museum'. 11th May 2005.
  17. Scarborough Evening News: 'THIS WEEK: Master Gunner's House, at Scarborough Castle'. 8th May 2009.
  18. Walmsley (1998: 3).
  19. Scarborough Archaeological and Historical Society (2003: 7, 13). The Society speculates that this structure, if it indeed existed, might have been the "hill-fort bay" mentioned by Ptolemy (c.90-168 AD), the Greco-Roman geographer (p.13).
  20. Yorkshire Evening Post: 'A gift to the gods... and a godsend for museum'. 11th May 2005.
  21. Binns (2002: 17).
  22. Scarborough Archaeological and Historical Society (2003: 12, 14).
  23. Walmsley (1998: 1; 3).
  24. Binns (2002: 17).
  25. Monsen & Smith (1989). Translation of the work of the thirteenth-century Icelander Snorri Sturluson.
  26. Goodall (2000: 22-23).
  27. Scarborough Archaeological and Historical Society (2003: 8).
  28. Binns (2002: 15).
  29. Binns (2002: 14, 18).
  30. Scarborough Archaeological and Historical Society (2003: 12, 14).
  31. Binns (2003: 14; 2002: 18-19).
  32. 'GENUKI: Geographical and Historical information from the year 1890'.
  33. Goodall (2000: 23).
  34. Sources disagree on exactly what year the stone castle was begun. Page (1923) suggests that it might have been in the reign of Stephen, but others, e.g. Walmsley (1998: 1), cite the dates of the first entries on English Treasury documents, the Pipe Rolls, to put forward a date of 1158 for the first foundations being laid. Binns (2002: 19), in a detailed account of Scarborough's history, accepts 1157.
  35. Goodall (2000: 23); Walmsley (1998: 1).
  36. Binns (2002: 19).
  37. Goodall (2000: 24).
  38. Clark (p.181).
  39. Binns (2002: 24).
  40. Binns (2002: 32).
  41. Binns (2002: 28).
  42. Walmsley (1998: 2-3).
  43. Binns (2002: 27).
  44. Goodall (2000: 25).
  45. Binns (2002: 33).
  46. Page (1923).
  47. Walmsley (1998: 2).
  48. Rowntree (1931: 142).
  49. Goodall (2000: 27).
  50. Binns (2003: 35-40).
  51. Page (1923).
  52. Binns (2003: 25; 2002: 38).
  53. Page (1923).
  54. Goodall (2000: 27).
  55. Beattie (1842: 76).
  56. Page (1923).
  57. Walmsley (1998: 2-3); Beattie (1842: 76).
  58. Page (1923).
  59. Binns (1996: 147).
  60. Binns (1996: 73-220); Page (1923).
  61. Binns (1996: 141).
  62. Page (1923).
  63. Goodall (2000: 29-31).
  64. Pope (p.13). Church booklet; St. Mary's with Holy Apostles' Church website: A Brief History of St. Mary's by Stan Pope'; Binns (1996: 165-166); Scarborough Archaeological and Historical Society (2003: 31).
  65. Binns (1996: 153-156).
  66. Binns (1996: 157-165).
  67. Binns (1996: 199).
  68. Binns (1996: 207-212).
  69. Rakoczy (2007: 180).
  70. Page (1923).
  71. Walmsley (1998: 1; 3).
  72. Page (1923).
  73. Goodall (2000: 33).
  74. Walmsley (1998: 1-4).
  75. Walmsley (1998: 3).
  76. Walmsley (1998: 2).
  77. English Heritage: 'The History of Scarborough Castle'.
  78. Page (1923).
  79. Goodall (2000: 34).