Skipsea Castle: 11th century motte and bailey castle and inland harbour


Heritage Category:
Scheduled Monument
List Entry Number:
Date first listed:
Date of most recent amendment:


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The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.

East Riding of Yorkshire (Unitary Authority)
National Grid Reference:
TA 16165 54965

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of time, motte castles continued to be built and occupied from the 11th to the 13th centuries, after which they were superseded by other types of castle.

Skipsea Castle is an important example of a well-preserved early motte and bailey castle whose function as an inland harbour overseeing trade within the lands it controlled is both highly unusual and indicative of the diversity of this class of monument. The earthwork remains of both the castle and the harbour survive well and the buried remains of a wide range of structures and features will survive extensively and in situ because there has been no development and only minimal agricultural disturbance of the monument since the Middle Ages. Organic materials such as timber, leather, textiles and basketry, and also environmental remains, will also be preserved owing to the waterlogged nature of much of the site.


Skipsea Castle is situated in Holderness, north of the village of Skipsea Brough and 2km inland from the present North Sea coast. The monument includes the well-preserved earthworks of a large and impressive motte and bailey castle and the earthwork remains of the inland harbour controlled by the castle. While the bailey is located on a natural ridge of boulder clay, during the Middle Ages the motte stood on an island of sand and gravel within a lake known as Skipsea Mere. The mere was drained in c.1720 and the resultant reclaimed land allotted to various owners. This area is also included in the scheduling due to the important environmental and organic remains preserved in its waterlogged silts. Further remains relating to the castle and its harbour, and also to the failed borough founded by William le Gros in 1160, will also survive outside the area of the scheduling. However, their extent and state of preservation is not fully understood at present and so they are not included in the scheduling. The motte, which is built of sand and gravel, measures c.100m wide at the base by 11m high. It is encircled by a defensive bank currently measuring c.5m wide by c.1.5m high and a ditch measuring between 7m and 10m wide. Originally, the gravel bank would have been higher and the ditch much deeper, but erosion and silting over several hundred years have caused the levelling out of the earthworks. On the east side, a slight earth bank shows the line of the causeway which crossed the former mere and connected the motte with the higher land on which the church is situated. The lack of foundations on the top of the motte indicates that the keep was of timber and had not been rebuilt in stone by the time the castle was destroyed in the early 13th century. However, a short section of mortared stone wall on the south-east side of the motte has been interpreted as part of a gatehouse or similar structure. The bailey lies to the west of the motte and was originally divided from it by the mere. It comprises a crescent-shaped area measuring c.400m from north to south by c.100m east to west. On the north, west and south sides it is enclosed by a substantial defensive bank whose lower parts are believed to be undisturbed boulder clay while the upper parts were built from redeposited clay, creating a rampart which averages 2.5m above the bailey floor and, in some places, stands c.4m high. An outer ditch measuring c.10m wide runs parallel with the bank and, before it became silted up, would have doubled the effective height of the rampart on that side. There were two opposing entrances to the bailey, one through the north side of the rampart and one, still known as Bail Gate, on the south side. Other breaks have been caused by the cutting of modern drainage channels while another, known as Scotch Gap and situated to the south-west, is believed to have been created during the destruction of the castle. The inturned entrance at the southern opening, and a platform indicating the site of a gatehouse, suggest that Bail Gate was the main entry into the castle. In addition, it opens onto a complex of platforms and terraces which has been interpreted as the main area of activity within the bailey, being the site of garrison buildings and warehouses. The remains of a track linking the south gate with the north gate can be seen running along the eastern edge of the bailey. It ends at another area of platforms which overlook the mere, lying across the water from a small peninsula formed by part of the rampart round the motte. Together, buildings in these two places controlled the mouth of a wide channel which curved south between the motte and the bailey. This channel formed part of the inland harbour whose position, within the castle defences, is an indication that the control and storage of trade goods entering and leaving Holderness was one of the main functions of the castle. The channel acted as an outer harbour for ships entering the mere via a navigable watercourse which is believed to have connected the mere with the coast during the Middle Ages. The route and state of survival of this navigation has not yet been fully determined and so it is not included in the scheduling. At its southern end the channel narrowed to form the inner harbour which followed the curve of the bailey from west to east and measured c.25m wide by c.200m long. On its north side, this inland harbour was divided from the mere by a bank which also acted as a causeway extending as far as the motte. On the south side lay the bailey which, at this point, would have contained the wooden wharves and jetties where goods were loaded and unloaded. There is no channel leaving the inner harbour at its east end and this area has been interpreted as a boatyard where boats were repaired and overwintered. The whole of the south-eastern half of the mere, enclosed as it was by causeways to north and south, is believed to have been fresh water while the rest of the mere was salt. Because of this, it may have been used as a fishery, fish being a very important part of the medieval diet and economy. This, however, has yet to be confirmed through the analysis of the silts and organic remains which survive there. In the western part of this area traces of the earthworks left by ridge and furrow ploughing dating to the period after the 1720s when the mere was drained, can be seen. Skipsea Castle was built by Drogo de Beavriere in c.1086 and, until the early 13th century, formed the administrative centre of the Lordship of Holderness. However, following the suspected death by poisoning of Drogo's wife, a niece of William the Conqueror, Drogo fled and Holderness was granted by the king to Odo, Earl of Champagne and Aumale. Aside from a brief period between 1096 and 1102, when it passed to Arnulf, youngest son of Earl Roger of Salisbury, the castle stayed with the Aumale family until 1221. Then it was slighted on the orders of Henry III following the part played by Count William de Forz II in the rebellion against the young king. When it also became an inland harbour has not been precisely dated. However, trade was clearly flourishing by the mid-twelfth century as, in 1160, Count William le Gros founded a market borough. Despite its key location, however, the borough did not survive, though why it declined is not yet understood. The centre of settlement in the Skipsea area shifted east of the church and all that remains inhabited of the borough is Skipsea Brough. In the 1720s, if not before , the area of the monument was given over to agriculture and part of it is now in the Guardianship of the Secretary of State. All signs and modern fencing and gates are excluded from the scheduling though the ground beneath 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:
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Books and journals
Atkins, C, Skipsea Castle, North Humberside, (1988)
Renn, D F, Norman Castles in Britain, (1968)
Ryder, J, Medieval Buildings of Yorkshire, (1982)


This monument is scheduled under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979 as amended as it appears to the Secretary of State to be of national importance. This entry is a copy, the original is held by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.

End of official listing

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