Thirsk Castle: a motte and bailey castle


Heritage Category: Scheduled Monument

List Entry Number: 1008761

Date first listed: 09-Nov-1964

Date of most recent amendment: 29-Jan-1993


Ordnance survey map of Thirsk Castle:  a motte and bailey castle
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The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.

County: North Yorkshire

District: Hambleton (District Authority)

Parish: Thirsk

National Grid Reference: SE 42768 81996

Reasons for Designation

Motte and bailey castles are medieval fortifications introduced into Britain by the Normans. They comprised a large conical mound of earth or rubble, the motte, surmounted by a palisade and a stone or timber tower. In a majority of examples an embanked enclosure containing additional buildings, the bailey, adjoined the motte. Motte castles and motte-and-bailey castles acted as garrison forts during offensive military operations, as strongholds, and, in many cases, as aristocratic residences and as centres of local or royal administration. Built in towns, villages and open countryside, motte and bailey castles generally occupied strategic positions dominating their immediate locality and, as a result, are the most visually impressive monuments of the early post-Conquest period surviving in the modern landscape. Over 600 motte castles or motte-and-bailey castles are recorded nationally, with examples known from most regions. As one of a restricted range of recognised early post-Conquest monuments, they are particularly important for the study of Norman Britain and the development of the feudal system. Although many were occupied for only a short period of time, motte castles continued to be built and occupied from the 11th to the 13th centuries, after which they were superseded by other types of castle.

Although the motte and bailey at Thirsk has become partially altered by the gradual encroachment of built-up areas, an estimated 50% of the original area survives as well-preserved earthworks. The undeveloped areas of the bailey and the top of the motte retain conditions for the preservation of building foundations and the accumulated silts of the ditches are thought to contain deposits which preserve artefacts and organic remains which will enable the economic activities of the castle's medieval inhabitants to be reconstructed.


The monument includes the western rampart, the undeveloped area of the bailey and the motte of the Norman castle at Thirsk. The monument is situated on fairly level ground to the west of Market Place. The bailey rampart is located in Castle Garth and comprises an earthen bank 1.5m-2.5m in height by 140m in length with an outer ditch which, although it has become infilled over the years, is estimated to be at least 10m wide and 2m deep. The western edge of the ditch is thought to lie beneath the shallow-founded buildings and metalled areas in properties to the west of Castle Garth while, at the northern end, it runs beneath the grounds of the 19th century Masonic Hall; the southern end of the ditch and rampart are thought to have been destroyed in recent years by the construction of a new building to the rear of 15 Westgate. A small-scale excavation carried out in the 1960's recorded a section through the bank and noted an earlier cobbled surface beneath it. To the east of the rampart is an open area, measuring up to 140m long by 40m wide, which is the interior of the bailey; this contains a number of low rectangular earthworks (less than 0.3m high) which indicate the layout of building plots and gardens within the enclosure. Along the eastern edge of the bailey, a 2m deep scarp plunges into a broad ditch about 20m in width and to the east of this the ground rises to give a large mound, the top of which is roughly 3m above the surrounding land surface. Although altered over the last 100 years by building works and garden landscaping, this mound comprises a motte which was separated from the bailey by the ditch. Decorated stonework is reported to have been found during the construction of the house at Castle Villa in the 1890's. Built-up areas to the east of the motte obscure the eastern extent of the castle but, by comparison with other mottes and baileys, it is estimated that Thirsk Castle originally lay within the area bounded by Westgate, Castlegate, Kirkgate and Masonic Lane and thus it is estimated that the surviving remains represent at least half the area of the castle. Although it was once held that Thirsk Castle was built in AD 975, there is no substantive evidence for pre-Conquest foundation and it is now thought that the castle was erected by Robert de Stuteville in about 1092. Roger de Mowbray held the castle against Henry II in 1174 but in 1175 it was surrendered to the King who ordered its destruction in 1176. The de Mowbray family still held a manor on the site in the 13th century and there is a reference to the destruction of a house and dovecotes by the Scotts in 1322. For a period from 1376 Castle Garth was used as a garden but by the end of the century was laid to grass. Deeds record that in 1658 the land passed to Mr Reginald Bell. Any buildings, the metalled surfaces of footpaths, the scout hut in Castle Garth, garden walls and fences are excluded from the scheduling, although the ground beneath these features is included.

MAP EXTRACT The site of the monument is shown on the attached map extract.


The contents of this record have been generated from a legacy data system.

Legacy System number: 20454

Legacy System: RSM


Books and journals
The Victoria History of the County of North Riding of Yorkshire, (1923)
'Yorkshire Archaeological Journal' in Yorkshire Archaeological Journal - Note , , Vol. 46, (1974)
L'Anson, W M, 'Yorkshire Archaeological Journal' in Castles of the North Riding, , Vol. 22, (1913)
Ballard, R., Conversation with owner's representitive, (1992)
MPP Monument Class Description: motte and bailey castles, (1988)
Pacitto, A L, AM 107, (1986)
RDL, NAR Record, (1961)

End of official listing