Friday, 15 April 2022

Skipton Castle, A Castle Jewel of the North - Yorkshire 2022

During our week up in North Yorkshire last month, as well a getting in plenty of walking and a trip out to Hartlepool to visit HMS Trincomalee, we also popped down the road from where we were staying to visit a part of the north of England that has a strong connection with Devon, and a noble family with a name readily recognisable to anyone from my home county with a slight knowledge of local history.

Skipton or Skipton in Craven is a delightful market town astride the Leeds-Liverpool Canal with some great pubs, restaurants and shops, described as the gateway to the dales, and listed in the 2018 Sunday Times report, Best Places to Live in the North of England.

Not only that, but for those of us interested in the history of these Isles, it is home to the 900 year old Skipton Castle, built in 1090 by the Norman knight Robert de Romille, originally as a classic wood constructed motte and bailey affair, later, as most of these castles were, rebuilt in stone, as these structures became a more established network of defences in the country, with Skipton particularly important in defending this part of England from marauding Scots.

With its back to cliffs on rising ground from the its walls overlooking Skipton below and the vertical drop to the Eller Beck behind, the castle made a perfect defensive structure, and when the Romille line died out, King Edward II granted the castle and its estate in 1310 to Lord Robert de Clifford of Skipton and Guardian of Craven.

The Arms of Clifford
Chequy or and azure, a fesse gules

The Clifford's Norman forebears took their name from Clifford Castle in Herefordshire, another estate of theirs, and Lord Clifford ordered many improvements to his castle during his four years in charge, cut short by his demise at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314.

An impression of Lord Robert de Clifford in battle array
as he might have looked at Bannockburn in 1314 where he was killed

The castle would be a Clifford stronghold and family seat for close on four-hundred years until it passed through marriage in 1629 to the Tufton family under John Tufton 2nd Earl of Thanet with his marriage to Lady Margaret Sackville.

With my particular interest in the Wars of the Roses and the English Civil War, Skipton and the Clifford's feature large in the history of both conflicts.

The Murder of Rutland by Lord Clifford - Charles Robert Leslie.
This over-the-top dramatising of the death of Rutland at the hands of Clifford portrays the young noble as an innocent child, rather than a knight clad in armour and ready for battle. 

In the Wars of the Roses it was home to one of the classic villains of the earlier conflict, The 9th Lord John Clifford or 'Blackfaced Clifford', 'Bloody Clifford', 'Butcher Clifford' or 'Blackhearted Clifford', and the name gives a bit of a clue as to his particular reputation. That said, the historical record is one of great debate, as much of the period often is, with disagreement over how bad Clifford's reputation was with his contemporaries, and of course all muddied with a bit of Shakespearean bias and topped off with some nineteenth century over-the-top dramatised paintings of his involvement in the death of the the seventeen year old Edmund, Earl of Rutland, the young son of Richard Duke of York, with both he and his father killed at the Battle of Wakefield, 30th December 1460.

Whatever the truth, Clifford's reputation adds to the drama of this era, and makes a very good story, helping to emphasise the malice and viciousness that both sides displayed to each other during this bitter conflict in English history. 

Battle of Ferrybridge - Graham Turner

Lord John Clifford would himself be killed in the conflict, fighting with the Lancastrians at the Battle of Ferrybridge, 28th March 1461, just prior to the Battle of Towton, a battle site I visited back in 2017 during our stay in York.

During the English Civil War, Skipton, like other significant castles around the country became Royalist strongholds, and Skipton proved to be a particularly tough nut to crack as it defied the tide of war in the north as Parliamentary field armies reduced the king's influence to his garrisons, with Skipton defying the three year siege placed around it and not surrendering until December 1645, with descriptions of sheep fleeces decorating the walls, used to absorb the shock of strikes by roundshot, and with the fleece now part of Skipton town's coat of arms ever since.

Lady Anne Clifford, 1590 - 1676, William Larkin

In efforts to ensure no more trouble Skipton, like other Royalist strongholds, was slighted by Cromwell who ordered all the roofs removed, and the nation can only thank the efforts of Lady Anne Clifford to repair the castle after the war that allows visitors to enjoy and get a sense of this magnificent building's past during the previous nine hundred years.

The Clifford arms still fly over Skipton today, courtesy of Baron Lord Thomas Clifford, Deputy Lieutenant of Devon with the family seat at Ugbrooke Park, near Chudleigh in Devon.

Like all castles that have survived relatively intact over the intervening centuries Skipton bears the inevitable changes introduced by its various owners as the a purely military structure and fortress gave way to the needs of Lord's home, or should that perhaps be a Lady's home with the charming changes introduced by Lady Anne after her repairs to her home after the visit by Cromwell, with arrow slits converted into fireplaces.

From a military enthusiasts viewpoint, illustrations such as those below help to clarify how the original fortress fits in to the building we see today and one must always bring an imagination to reconstruct the various rooms and chambers mixed again with suitable illustrations to enhance the impression.

As Carolyn and I made our way around Skipton I took pictures as we went to try and capture that impression which, when not on the ground, can seem a rather confusing collection of views; so to help the reader follow our route I have grouped the pictures by number and title to marry them with the three dimensional floor plans together with the ground plan above to orientate the exterior shots.

The View leading up from the Main Gate House
The strength of this castle, makes an immediate impression on entering through the gate house and the sight of the imposing drum tower facing the main gate, with its rebuilt top, constructed by Lady Anne Clifford under Cromwellian guidance to ensure that its upper works could no longer support the weight of cannon.

Originally the castle was composed of six such towers and this the watch tower, the most important feature, was designed to intimidate any attacker who might have managed to penetrate past the outer walls into the bailey.

The Clifford's Norman-French motto 'Desormais' ('Henceforth') adorns the battlements of the outer gate

Lady Anne's Steps lead up to the Main Entrance

3D Floor Plan - Ground Floor

3D Floor Plan - First Floor

Fighting Chamber South (17) & Dungeon (19) - Ground Floor
These fighting chambers were part of the original Norman gate defences, designed to allow the garrison to attack any successful breach of the original drawbridge and portcullis.

The dungeon, seen below was created by the tenth Lord Henry Clifford, when he had it constructed after filling in the original moat.

Although very dark, with no natural daylight and very 'compact', with prisoners originally held in leg irons, apparently there are no records of torture, and one prisoner claimed that he had never been so well fed as when he had been a prisoner of Lord Clifford.

Ornate Stair Bannister leading up to First Floor
Leading up from the the main entrance and the fighting chambers is this intricately carve stair case that leads to the first floor and the medieval kitchen.

Medieval Kitchen (1) - First Floor
If you visit enough preserved castles, you will soon recognise the importance of food preparation, certainly if the number and the size of the kitchen areas are a guide, with several kitchens often being a feature together with very large fire ranges and multiple bread ovens close by.

Garderobe right next to the Kitchen - First Floor
The garderobe is situated right next to the waste chute from the kitchen overlooking the stream below .

There was only one spring of fresh water in the castle walls, with elmwood pipes bringing water in from outside, and if this supply was cut, then the garrison had to rely on rainwater captured from the roof and channelled into a cistern below the Conduit Court.

The garderobe or privie occupies a small balcony overlooking the Eller Beck below

Banqueting or Great Hall (2) - First Floor
The social centre of any great Lord's seat was the main hall, where the Lord and his Lady could entertain guests and acting as a business rom when not in use for social activities.

The room must have been very dark in its original incarnation, only gaining natural daylight with the addition of bay windows in the fifteenth century.

A little out of place, but no less interesting were a pair of seemingly 6-pdr carronades on naval trucks.

Withdrawing Room or Parlour (3) - First Floor
With the change in use from a purely functional fighting stronghold to a family residence, social rooms with window views over the surrounding countryside became a necessity to provide a main living area for Lady Clifford and her children.

Lord's Dayroom (4) - First Floor
The 16th century equivalent of a modern day business office is the Lord's dayroom, which would originally have had its walls draped with tapestries, and housed richly carved furniture alongside a blazing fire in the hearth. 

Today it would make a fine study with bookshelves and a chesterfield suite or dare I say a wargaming room!

Muniment Room (5) - First Floor
Now cared for by the Yorkshire Archaeological Society in Leeds, this room once held the important archives, legal documents and rent books for the Skipton estate, which in 1805 was described by Whitaker, in his History of Craven, as being in poor condition because of damp and mice.

The Lord's Bed Chamber (6) - First Floor
George Clifford, third Earl of Cumberland was the last Lord Clifford to sleep in the Lord's bed chamber and his servant would have slept in the small alcove next to the fire place.

The Watchtower (7) - First Floor
The ledge beneath the windows of the middle floor of the main watch tower that greets visitors at the main gate reveals the repairs made to the building along with the many pitched roofs constructed under the direction of Lady Anne Clifford.

The original medieval walls form the ledge and are thirteen feet thick, but the much less substantial additional rebuilt section is the Cromwellian stipulated repairs to stop them supporting roof top gun platforms.

The tower is well lit by the addition of windows all round providing views over the inner courtyard of the Conduit Court and the bailey.

The Watchtower (8) - Upper Floor
The upper floor of the watchtower reveals some of the original Norman defences, namely arrow slits, again modified in places by Lady Anne's rebuild by the addition of the odd fire place to improve the comfort of the place, if still leaving it a little drafty.

The Conduit Court (19) - Ground Floor
The Conduit Court is so named because it forms the terminus of the pipe work carrying spring and rain water into the castle cistern below.

With the Tudor modifications to the castle including a suite of domestic buildings, Skipton castle is graced with its rather unique Conduit Court at its very centre, and it has survived in its present state principally due to the addition of the Long Gallery in 1536 as shown on the ground plan above which was adapted as living quarters in the 1680's with the rest of the castle abandoned as a residence.

This charming court has at its centre an ancient Yew tree planted by Lady Anne in 1659, and the lead pipework is crowned with rainwater heads bearing her initials, A. P., Anne Countess of Pembroke.

The arms of the ninth Lord John 'Butcher' Clifford, killed at Towton in 1461. Wyverns support the coat of arms, half dragon and half sea serpent, and they are also the emblem of Wessex, adorning the shoulder badges of the soldiers of the 43rd 'Wessex' Division, which included the soldiers of the Dorset Regiment, Lady Anne Clifford being Countess of Dorset, as they fought their way through Normandy and into Germany in WWII.

The arms of Margaret Blomflete, Henry Clifford's mother

The Curing Room (15) - Ground Floor
With the adoption of the Long Gallery as the principle living quarters the suite of rooms around the Conduit Court provided perfect space for a new kitchen and associated storage and preparation space for foodstuffs, beer and wine.

The shallow sink in the curing room was essential when preparing meats

The New Kitchen (13) - Ground Floor

The Victorian cast-iron range was supported by a charcoal stove placed under the windows opposite, allowing the cooks to watch their sauces whilst allowing fumes to escape out of the windows

The charcoal stove provided smoke free cooking instead of relying on open hearth wood fires

The Beer & Wine Cellar (11 & 12) - Ground Floor

To complete the needs of a modern kitchen, ample temperature controlled storage of wines and ale is a must.

Exterior view of the Watchtower and Lady Anne's Tablet over the Main Entrance

The imposing exterior walls of the watchtower

Lady Anne's stone tablet over her steps up to the main entrance

Stable Block & Chapel
The chapel has been part of the castle since the 12th century, when Alice de Romille, Lady of Skipton Castle granted the chaplain an allowance for gowns and food, payable at Christmas.

The chapel is dedicated to St John the Evangelist and was reserved for the lord and lady of the castle, their resident retainers, the garrison of the castle and the farmer at Holme Farm, 2 miles away.

The last two recorded uses of the chapel was the marriage of Elizabeth Clifford and Lord Dungarvan in 1635, and the baptizing of her daughter Katherine in 1637.

The east window illuminates the altar and shows off the craftsmanship of the recently restored stonework

Carolyn and I really enjoyed our visit to Skipton and its castle, making the best of the unseasonably warm and sunny weather to walk the Leeds-Liverpool canal, enjoy a boat trip, sample the beverages and culinary delights of the historic canal and beck-side Black Horse Pub whilst soaking up all the history.

During our visit, I couldn't help thinking how the long-long history of these islands sees its people so interconnected one to another, captured in the emblems and badges that adorn the heraldry of its towns, cities, counties and the great aristocratic families; linking the various parts of the country with familiar emblems from Devon adorning structures far away in North Yorkshire, something I think we should embrace in these times, thus offering yet another way to encourage folks to find the things they have in common instead of those that make them feel different.

If you go to North Yorkshire, you must visit Skipton, its castle, and why not include the Black Horse to complete the day?

Bob's French Squadron, plus two French First Rates destined to fight the Battle of Madras next month

Next up: I'm working away in JJ's Shipyard, building French ships for a foreign navy together with some reinforcements for my own, needed for the first engagement of our French Revolutionary War Campaign, and The Battle of Madras, September 1793 - pictures to follow.

The ships are shown at the end of their two weeks in the builders and painters yards having just had their masts fitted ready for their onward journey to the fitting out yard where they will get their sail sets and rigging next week.

More anon.


  1. Lots of local history in this post. Very cool

  2. Excellent post. Got to studying the photos this morning and ened up leaving late for work, lol. Thanks for sharing your journey.

  3. When I went to England in 1990 for a year and lived in Leeds for awhile, my partner and I went to Skipton Castle. I still vividly remember that yew tree in the courtyard. It is a great castle to visit! Thanks for posting.

  4. Hi Chaps,
    Thanks for your comments, and glad you enjoyed the post, with of course apologies to any employer affected.

    I really enjoy these castle visits, that really inform on the evolution and history of these important historical structures.

    Those of the great Lord's add another level of interest given the number of board games I've played where they feature as key nodes on any given map and familiarity seems for me to add another level and seemingly brings the history and the hobby a little closer.


  5. I love castles, and this was another excellent post. Thanks for sharing.

  6. Love the ships. Looking forward to seeing a game.