Knaresborough Castle in Yorkshire is a spectacular ruin. Perched on the very edge of a cliff, high above a gorge containing the River Nidd (a tributary of the River Ouse), it is easy to see why the kings of England regarded this as an important fortress to help them dominate the north of the country. It is uncertain who started building the Norman castle at Knaresborough, but it is certain by 1130 that Henry I (1068 – 1135) had begun to add to the fortifications.
From that time onward, it formed part of the Royal estate, and was an administrative centre, not just for the Royal Forest of Knaresborough (a hunting preserve, reserved for Royalty only), but for the ‘Honour of Knaresborough’ This refers to the list of manors attached to the Royal property, which would have endowed it with rents, crops and animals for the table, and labour, both to work in the castle and in the form of men-at-arms, archers and knights to be available when the Sovereign called, in times of civil unrest or war.
By the 13th century, King John – a king who had such a terrible reputation that no English king, since, has taken that name – spent a lot of time at Knaresborough. However, the major building phase took place in the 14th century started by Edward I (1239 – 1307) and likely completed by Richard II (1377 – 1399), who was responsible for the magnificent King’s Tower at Knaresborough. Unfortunately, the tensions between two factions of the Royal House of Plantagenet, the Lancastrians and the Yorkists, ultimately lead to the splitting of the realm into two warring parties, the supporters of the House of Lancaster and those of the House of York. Horrible conflict – the Wars of the Roses – roared through the country (1455 – 1485). Eventually, a Lancastrian nobleman, Henry Tudor, was crowned as Henry VII, and became the first monarch of the Tudor dynasty.
Knaresborough Castle had by then become part of the lands of the Duchy of Lancaster, the estate of John of Gaunt, 1st Duke of Lancaster (1340 – 1399); he was a younger royal prince, and the founder of a line of noblemen and women who would become heirs to the thrones of England, Castile and Portugal! The fortress of Knaresborough fell out of favour in the 16th century, as the nobility began to expect more comfort than cold and draughty stone castles could provide, and started building fortified manor houses and warmer palaces, instead.
Just like its contemporary fortress (another Lancastrian property) of Peveril Castle at Castleton, Derbyshire, to the south and west, Knaresborough eventually fell into disrepair, and its fine stone began to be ‘mined’ by the town for building use. During the English Civil War, the castle was held for the Crown by forces loyal to Charles I (1600 – 1649), and was besieged in 1644. Cannon shot hammered at the curtain walls until a breach was formed and the Parliamentary forces took the castle. Just like Newark Castle, the winning anti-Royalist regime which took over in England ordered Knaresborough Castle to be ‘slighted’ (that means rendered indefensible) and substantially demolished. By 1648, work had begun on demolishing the King’s Tower, but the town managed to persuade Parliament to stop, and allow the local authorities to use it as a jail.
Here we see a photograph of the King’s Tower – and a small portion of the remaining curtain wall – as it is today. The grounds contain a substantial Tudor Courthouse (with Mediaeval undercroft) which houses a fine museum, and the castle is leased by Harrogate Borough Council (within whose jurisdiction it lies) from Queen Elizabeth II, who has personal control of the Duchy of Lancaster. As you can see, the local residents take full advantage of the magnificent views from the foot of the King’s Tower – as did I !