Knaresborough Castle


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.

North Yorkshire
Harrogate (District Authority)
National Grid Reference:
SE 34904 56895

Reasons for Designation

A tower keep castle is a strongly fortified residence in which the keep is the principal defensive feature. The keep may be free-standing or surrounded by a defensive enclosure; they are normally square in shape, although other shapes are known. Internally they have several floors providing accommodation of various types. If the keep has an attached enclosure this will normally be defined by a defensive wall, frequently with an external ditch. Access into the enclosure was provided by a bridge across the ditch, allowing entry via a gatehouse. Additional buildings, including stabling for animals and workshops, may be found within the enclosure. Tower keep castles were built throughout the medieval period, from immediately after the Norman Conquest to the mid- 15th century, with a peak in the middle of the 12th century. A few were constructed on the sites of earlier earthwork castle types but most were new creations. They provided strongly fortified residences for the king or leading families and occur in both urban or rural situations. Tower keep castles are widely dispersed throughout England with a major concentration on the Welsh border. They are rare nationally with only 104 recorded examples. Considerable diversity of form is exhibited with no two examples being exactly alike. With other castle types, they are major medieval monument types which, belonging to the highest levels of society, frequently acted as major administrative centres and formed the foci for developing settlement patterns. Castles generally provide an emotive and evocative link to the past and can provide a valuable educational resource, both with respect to medieval warfare and defence, and to wider aspects of medieval society. All examples retaining significant remains of medieval date are considered to be nationally important.

Despite partial demolition significant remains of Knaresborough Castle survive. In addition to the ruins the below ground remains of the earlier castle are known to survive. The castle has been extensively studied and evidence of significant developments in military architecture are preserved. The castle also featured heavily in the history of medieval England. Taken together the remains at Knaresborough provide important evidence of the development of castle design as well as the history of a major royal castle in the north of England.


The monument includes upstanding and buried remains of the medieval castle at Knaresborough. It is located on a promontory to the west of the town overlooking the River Nidd to the west.

The castle has always been a royal stronghold and was associated with a number of significant historical figures including; the knights who murdered Thomas a Beckett, King John, Kings Edward I and II, Piers Gaveston, King Richard II and John of Gaunt. The earliest known reference to a castle at Knaresborough is 1130, however the visible ruins date to the 14th century. In the early 13th century the castle was maintained by King John as one of his administrative strongholds in the north, and a major programme of works was started in 1204. A century later King Edward I in turn began a programme of modernisation of which only the twin towers of the east gate and fragments of the curtain wall survive. In 1307 his successor King Edward II granted the Honour and Castle of Knaresborough to his unpopular favourite, Piers Gaveston. During this period substantial sums were spent on the castle and the great keep known as the King's Tower was built on the site of an earlier tower. In 1317 the castle saw military action as part of the unrest against the king and in 1318 was used as a refuge from incursions by Scots raiders.

In 1331 the castle was granted to Queen Philippa as part of her marriage settlement with King Edward III and thence became a royal residence. In 1372 John of Gaunt acquired the Honour and Castle of Knaresborough and it became part of the estates of the Duchy of Lancaster, a status held to the present day. After the accession of King Henry IV in the early 15th century the castle ceased to be actively used by the monarchy but continued in its role as the administrative centre for the Honour and Liberty of Knaresborough. During the English Civil War the castle supported the Royalist cause. In July 1644 it was besieged by the Parliamentarians and finally surrendered in December of that year. In 1648, on instructions from Parliament, the castle was thoroughly demolished. Nearly the entire circuit of the curtain wall and all internal structures save the courthouse and part of the King's Tower were destroyed. These buildings survived, as they were required to serve as a courthouse and prison respectively. The moat on the eastern side was also filled in. This made the demolition of the castle easier, offered a place for dumping the rubble and also linked the castle with the town thus breaking its defensive and military role.

Throughout its active life the castle served as a focus for the surrounding community, offering refuge in times of danger as well being a major local and regional administrative centre.

Subsequent to the demolition of the castle most of the usable stone was removed for buildings in the town, particularly in the 18th century. In the 18th and 19th centuries, along with other local attractions, the castle became a popular site for visits by the developing tourist trade centred on the nearby spa town of Harrogate. This use as a leisure amenity continued at the end of the 19th century when landscaping to form pleasure gardens to celebrate Queen Victoria's jubilee was commenced. Since then the castle grounds have remained in public use for leisure and recreation.

The castle displays a pattern typical of the medieval period; an impressive tower, walled enclosures known as the inner ward and outer ward and an external moat. The monument is dominated by the ruins of the King's Tower, which is located in the northern part of the monument directly overlooking the river. It is a massive stone structure which originally contained four storeys: a vaulted basement, a vaulted chamber at ground-floor level, a tall first floor hall and a second floor chamber. The two upper floors were badly damaged in the 17th century so that only about half of the walls and only the floor of the hall survive. The tower housed the residential rooms of the lord, including the domestic chamber, chapel and the hall. Many architectural details such as windows, doorways, stairs and roof and floor supports survive, which along with documentary sources provide evidence of the original internal arrangements. Detailed analysis of the surviving architecture and comparisons with castles elsewhere has shown that the hall was an imposing space whose scale and layout was intended to dominate and impress visitors. Access was via a grand stairway on the eastern side of the tower, which led the visitor past a series of ostentatious architectural features which further expressed the power and status of the lord. Such displays of power became a common theme of castle architecture from the 14th century onwards and Knaresborough is one of the earliest examples of this transition in military architecture away from a predominately defensive and military role towards comfort, elegance and the display of prestige and power.

The tower was located on one side of the inner ward which occupies the western part of the castle. This was the enclosure in which wider domestic and administrative activities took place. Structures located here are known from the 16th century survey to have included the Great Hall, kitchen, larder and the courthouse. This last building still survives and its medieval origins can be clearly seen.

The inner ward was separated from the outer ward by a stone wall, part of which survives as the rear wall of the courthouse. The remainder of the wall no longer survives above ground although its course is known from geophysical survey and excavations in the 1920s. The outer ward was the area in which the economic and industrial needs of the castle were supported. Surveys of the 16th century indicate that activities here included milling, brewing, baking, metalworking and the stabling of horses. Excavations carried out to the south east of the court house complex in the 1920s revealed stone footings for buildings. One of these structures was built against the curtain wall and the remains of a total of 14 hearths and furnaces were found showing that it was used for smelting and metalworking. Also in the outer ward were two sallyports. These were underground tunnels which were used for secret access to and from the castle. They were cut through the rock and were large enough to accommodate riders on horseback. Surrounding the outer ward was the main curtain wall. This was a massive stone wall buttressed at intervals by towers. Little of the wall now survives above ground. Access to the castle was via two gateways leading into the outer ward. One of these at the eastern side of the castle still has a pair of gatehouse towers standing to much of their original height. The second entrance was located in the outer ward immediately to the east of the King's Tower. The gateways were defended by fortified gatehouses which by the 14th century were imposing structures designed to impress as well as to defend access. The gateways were accessed by bridges spanning the moat. Remains of these bridges and their footings will survive below ground. Surrounding the castle on all but the western side was a massive dry moat which measured up to 30m wide. Excavations in the 1920s showed that the southern arm of the moat, adjacent to the sallyport, was at least 3.5m deeper than the current ground level. The northern arm of the moat was landscaped in the 19th century as part of the creation of the pleasure gardens and the eastern arm of the moat was filled in during the demolition of the castle after the civil war. However it is considered that significant remains of the moat will survive. There was no moat on the western side of the castle as the sheer river cliff was sufficient defence.

A number of features are excluded from the scheduling. These are: the courthouse and prison and old school building which are Listed Buildings Grade II, the surface of paths, hard standings and the car park, free standing modern walls (not including retaining walls), hand rails, benches, lights, signs, ticket machine, the war memorial, gates and kerbstones although the ground beneath these features and/or the surfaces to which they are attached 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.

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Books and journals
Kershaw, M J, Knaresborough Castle, (1998)
Atkinson, A, 'Yorkshire Archaeological Journal' in A Note On Knaresborough Castle, , Vol. VOL 36, (1944), 198-208
Atkinson, A, 'Yorkshire Archaeological Journal' in Some Remarks On Knaresborough Castle, , Vol. VOL 31, (1934), 114-132
Barber, S C, 'Yorkshire Archaeological Journal' in Excavations At Emarks On Knaresborough Castle, , Vol. VOL 30, (1930), 200-224
Dixon, P, 'Chateau Gaillard' in The Donjon at Knaresborough; The Castle as Theatre, , Vol. VOL 14, (1990), 121-139
Le Patourel, , 'Yorkshire Archaeological Journal' in Knaresborough Castle, , Vol. VOL 41, (1963), 591-607


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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