Conisbrough Castle was built by Hamelin Plantagenet, half brother of Henry II in the 1170’s. The magnificent keep and parts of the gatehouse and curtain wall remain. By late Tudor times it was owned by George Carey, 1st Lord Hunsdon, high steward of the Borough of Doncaster, cousin to Queen Elzabeth and Lord Chamberlain. Its nearest neighbour was Tickhill castle over the limestone ridge to the south west.
Post 1066 the Normans harried the north, dispensed Saxon manors and estates to Williams supporters and built a rapid series of Motte and Bailey castles (with wooden keeps on a central mound and a wooden palisade to defend the inner bailey around the keep). One such was at Doncaster near the later St George’s church, others at Conisbrough and Tickhill. Some of these were soon replaced by stone keeps and curtain walls, but not at Doncaster. Conisbrough had a much more dominant hill top site overlooking a Don ford and hence became a major defensive stronghold with the building of a huge 90ft high cylindrical keep of magnesian limestone in the 1170’s. It was similar to the castle at Mortemer, near Dieppe in France, also a Warenne stronghold. It was soon to have a curtain wall bailey with defensive tower and a barbican (gatehouse), much of which still survives.
It is South Yorkshire’s most impressive military monument, as unlike Pontefract Castle and Tickhill, it survived demolition by the parlementarians during the Civil War of the 1640’s, plundering of stone was also inhibited by 18th and 19th century antiquarians. Now under the management of English Heritage, it has car parking facilities, a visitors centre, and opportunity to walk the dry moat ditch, explore the walls and climb the keep. The keep is one of the largest in the country and affords stunning views over the entire Don valley. Little wonder that Sir Walter Scott took inspiration for his book Ivanhoe after spending time in the immediate area.
At the time of the Norman invasion, Conisbrough with its Saxon stone church was the centre of a huge manorial Lordship and parish belonging to King Harold. At the time of the Domesday Book’s writing, the ‘honour’ extended south to the Nottinghamshire border with manors to the east at Hatfield, Thorne and Fishlake supplying the estate with over 1000 eels per year from the wetlands in mediaeval times.
William I (the Conqueror) gave the Conisbrough honour to William de Warenne from near Dieppe who had been one of his close confidants at the Battle of Hastings. It was Warenne’s descendant Hamelin Plantagenet who built the new stone castle in the 1170’s. The Warennes were also granted the Sandal honour near Wakefield, where they erected another stone fortress.
Conisbrough township prospered in the lee of the castle and its St Peter’s church was given a Norman make-over and contains one of the earliet St George sculptural reliefs. The castle developed its own deer park. ‘Conisbrough’ means ‘Kings Fort’ and the name may date back to a Northumbrian Saxon Earl’s defensive structure on the border with Mercia. As a Norman fortress it formed part of a strategic network – Lincoln, Newark, Sheffield, Pontefract, Sandal, Tickhill, York, and Spofford (near Harrogate). When John de Warenne, 8th Earl of Surrey died without heirs in 1347 the Conisbrough estates reverted to the Crown. Edward III gave it to the Duke of York in 1461. Richard, the then Duke of York’s son became Edward IV and Conisbrough again became a Royal Castle.
The Crown had held the castle between 1322 and 1326 when Edward II had Earl Thomas Warenne executed at Pontefract csatle for leading a northern rebellion. Edward II stopped briefly at Conisbrough in November 1322, but whether accompanied by his gay young lover, Piers Galveston is not recorded!
During the Tudor period the castle was neglected and degenerated into a crumbling ruin, it was not good enough to be defended in the 1640’s Civil War, perhaps that is the reason that it has survived to this day. It remained for a long period in the hands of the Carey family after a grant of ownership by Henry VIII.