History of Knaresborough

All images are protected by copyright and must not be used without permission. Please acknowledge these pages with appropriate web address (including a link on web pages), the author and the original references (where appropriate) if you use this material for non-commercial research or educational purposes. For any other purpose permission must be sought via info@knaresborough.co.uk.

Knaresborough has a fascinating and varied history. Its roots go back centuries and throughout its long history it has been peopled with a wealth of characters, from Hugh de Morville, murderer of Thomas Beckett on the steps of his cathedral at Canterbury, to Blind Jack, the world renowned road builder.

Here you will find explorations of many aspects of Knaresborough history and the people who have made it such a fascinating place. A further collection of historical accounts with the accent on individual stories is available here via the button.

The particular siting of Knaresborough may well be due to the easily defended location – the castle remains stand on a rocky outcrop 120 feet above the river. Ancient Britons gave the Nidd its name over 2000 years ago, although very little evidence of iron age or subsequent Roman occupation remains.

The origin of the name of Knaresborough is not altogether clear, although one of two sources seems most probable. The origin of “borough” is not in dispute, being derived from “burgh”, an Anglo-Saxon word for fortress or fortified settlement. “Knare” may come either from the name of a chieftain, such that the whole means something like “Cenheard’s fortress”; or it may derive from “knar” – a rocky outcrop – thus giving Knaresborough the appellation of “the fortress on the rock”, which would fit the location very well. The development of the name of the town is explored in ‘From Chenaresburg to Knaresborough’.

Several ancient name derivations survive around the town – “gate” is a Scandinavian word for street and survives in “Briggate” – the street leading to the bridge, “Kirkgate” – the street leading to the church, “Tentergate” – the place where cloth is stretched for drying on “tenterhooks”; “ing” means meadow, “Gracious” as in Gracious Street, probably derives from Anglo-Saxon “gracht-huys” – the houses on the ditch.

The very first mention of Knaresborough is in the Domesday book, begun in 1086 only twenty years after the conquest by order of William, as “the Manor of Chenaresburg”, there being no mention of a castle at this time. Thus it is the time of William the Conqueror and the Norman invasion which sees the beginnings of the town of Knaresborough when Serlo de Burgh was granted the Manor of Knaresborough as a reward for his part in the invasion.

In 1158 Knaresborough was granted to Hugh de Morevill, possibly as compensation for lands given to the King of Scotland. Morevill forfeited the lands in 1173, according to Early Yorkshire Charters: “… not apparently for his participation in the death of Becket, but for complicity in the rebellion of the young Henry.”. Knaresborough, together with Aldborough, were granted to William de Stuteville in the same year.

The totality of the Manor was known as the Honour of Knaresborough and comprised three parts – the Forest, the Borough or Town, and the Forest Liberty. In medieval times a Forest was not simply an extensive expanse of wooded area but included clearings and settlements and was associated with hunting. The Forest of Knaresborough was located west and south-west of the town and covered about 100,000 acres, stretching twenty miles from east to west. The inhabitants of its settlements were occupied in farming, fishing, charcoal burning, and iron smelting. The Forest Liberty was an area of farmland to the north of the town where its dozen villages occupied a fairly flat and easily cultivated landscape.

We now begin to see the town developing. The earliest recording for the parish church is in 1114 in the Coucher Book of Nostell Priory as “the Church of Cnaresburgh” and we can today see remains from this time, particularly in St John’s which has outlines of Norman windows and a typical chevron patterned string course. The first documentary evidence for the castle occurs in 1130 in an account of works carried out by Henry I, when Knaresborough is again described as “Chenardesburg”.

When the direct line of descent of the Stuteville lords of the manor was interrupted, King John contrived to take over the Honour for himself (1204/1205) by the levy of a fine. The king was then able to collect various revenues associated with rents, harvests, court proceedings etc. In 1211 the revenue came to £318, 19s 3d (Early Yorkshire Charters). In the same year his outgoings included “work on the castle of “Cnarreburc” and on the ditch and houses thereof for 2 years £119, 18s. 8d.”; also “in work on a new mill, improvement of fulling mills and repair of the mill-pools of Knaresborough and Boroughbridge £15, 8s. 2d” (Early Yorkshire Charters). He was one of several royal visitors who enjoyed hunting in the forest.

The East Gate of the Castle © Alyson Jackson 2001

The East Gate of the Castle
© Alyson Jackson 2001

The Museums & Arts section of Harrogate Borough Council provided the detailed information on Knaresborough Castle. It is reproduced almost completely verbatim from the guidebook to the castle (1998) and the acknowledgements are included below. We would like to thank Mary Kershaw, at the time of the article’s preparation the Curator of Harrogate Museums & Arts, for her enthusiastic support and guidance.


Knaresborough Castle is situated at the top of a large cliff, with a commanding view of the River Nidd and the Forest of Knaresborough. The castle ruins do not convey its important role in the development of the English nation. For most of its history, Knaresborough Castle has been in royal control, and it has retained this long tradition to the present day. It is now in the possession of the Crown, as part of the Queen’s inheritance of the Duchy of Lancaster.

The Early Castle

Aerial view of the Castle in 1956. Courtesy of Vollans of Knaresborough

Aerial view of the Castle in 1956.
Courtesy of Vollans of Knaresborough

Like all castles, Knaresborough served as a focus for the surrounding community: a refuge in times of danger and a centre for government and judicial administration. Long after the castle’s military significance had diminished, it continued to function as a centre for justice, administering the Honour of Knaresborough. Even after the castle was ordered to be dismantled by the Parliamentarians, the townspeople of Knaresborough managed to successfully petition the government to allow them to preserve the King’s Tower and to use it as a prison.

Very little is known about the early history of Knaresborough, and the origins of the castle are equally obscure. The first reference to the town is from 1086 in the Domesday Book, and although we know that much of ‘Chednaresburg’ was in the possession of the King, there is no mention of the castle. The name Chednaresburg implies a fortification, and is the only tantalising glimpse of a predecessor to the medieval castle. ‘Burg’ is an Anglo-Saxon word for a defended enclosure, and suggests that Knaresborough may have had some form of early defensive structure. This would most likely have taken the form of a bank and ditch surrounding the town, and would not refer to the presence of a castle.

The earliest castle at Knaresborough was established after the Norman conquest, predating the standing fourteenth century remains by nearly 200 years. Throughout its long history, the castle has been in royal control or held directly from the Crown. Its fortunes have risen and fallen with the history of the English Monarchy. The first documented reference to a castle at Knaresborough is from the Pipe Rolls of 1129-1130, which make reference to £11 spent by Eustace fitz John for the King’s works at Knaresborough. In 1170, when Hugh de Moreville held the castle, he and his followers took refuge there after they had murdered Thomas a Beckett in Canterbury.

King John

King John took a particular interest in Knaresborough and he spent £1,290 on works at the castle, including the excavation or enlargement of the moat. The remains of this great dry ditch can still be seen around the southern and northern halves of the castle, and this is the earliest remaining visible construction. King John visited often during his reign, residing here while hunting in the Forest of Knaresborough. The vast area covered by the medieval Forest of Knaresborough would have provided excellent grounds for this pastime, and the royal privileges in the Forest were carefully guarded.

King John maintained Knaresborough Castle as one of his administrative strongholds in the North. He is reputed to have spent more money on the castles at Knaresborough and Scarborough than on any others in the country. Knaresborough repaid his patronage, and was held for the Crown during the Baron’s Revolt in 1215-16. The lack of visible remains from this period, apart from the moat, and possibly the lowest storey in the Old Courthouse, presents a misleading picture of its importance at this time. The money spent on the castle and the people who spent time there are clear signs of its important status in the affairs of the country.

The Edwardian Castle

Edward I

In the early 14th century King Edward I turned his attention from his successful Welsh campaigns and looked toward the North. He began a programme of modernisation at Knaresborough Castle, and made repairs to buildings referred to in court records as the ‘White tower, the great hall, the great chamber, the great chapel, the chapel of St. Thomas and the great gate’. These historical references are the only record we have which can give us a picture of the castle at this period. From the brief glimpse they give us, we know that Knaresborough Castle consisted of a substantial range of buildings by the 14th century. All that survives from that period now are the twin towers of the East Gate and fragments of the curtain wall.

Edward II

When Edward of Caernarvon succeeded his father Edward I to become King of England, the country lost a strong ruler to a weaker man, who was influenced by unpopular favourites. Piers Gaveston was the first of these men to gain Edward’s favour, and in 1307, Edward II granted the Honour and Castle of Knaresborough to Gaveston. In reality the estate remained in the King’s control, and a substantial amount of money from the royal purse was spent on the Castle. Piers Gaveston was extremely unpopular amongst the powerful barons, who felt he exercised undue influence over the King. In 1311, under pressure from the barons, he was banished, but was later re-admitted into the country and the King’s favour. In 1312, Gaveston was besieged at Scarborough Castle. During the siege, Edward remained at Knaresborough Castle, to be close at hand. Gaveston surrendered and was eventually beheaded.

Edward II’s reign was marked by continuing internal friction amongst powerful factions, and ever increasing raids by the Scots into northern England. This general unrest led to rebellion and on 5 October in 1317, Knaresborough Castle was seized by supporters of the Earl of Lancaster, and held against the King. The Constable spent ,£55 to mount an attack to retake his own castle, and used a siege engine to breach the curtain wall and recapture it three months later. In 1318 the raiding Scots penetrated as far south as Knaresborough. Much of the town including the church and priory were devastated by these raids, with the castle as the only point of refuge in the town.

The powerful aristocracy were soon in a state of complete rebellion, led by the King’s own wife, Queen Isabella. In 1327 they deposed Edward II and accepted his son as King Edward III. It was an age when the monarch needed to be strong and forceful in order to reign successfully. Edward I had been a strong, determined man who ruled with great control. His son could not have been more unlike in character. Where his father had subdued Wales, Edward II suffered humiliating defeats at the hands of the Scots. After losing the throne, Edward II was imprisoned and eventually barbarously murdered.

Edward III

In 1331, Edward III’s wife Queen Philippa received the Honour and Castle of Knaresborough as part of her marriage settlement. It was while in her possession that Knaresborough Castle became firmly established not only as a royal possession, but as a royal residence in the truest sense. Previous monarchs had used the castle to consolidate their power in the North, but Queen Philippa spent many summers in residence at Knaresborough Castle, her young family with her. During this period, up until her death in 1369, much of the summer court season would have revolved around Knaresborough Castle, and the elegant King’s Tower and dramatic view from the cliff would have been familiar scenes to members of the Royal Court.

Lancastrians & Tudors

Duchy of Lancaster

It may have been memories from his childhood spent in Knaresborough that encouraged John of Gaunt, in 1372, to give up his properties in Richmond for the Honour and Castle of Knaresborough and the Honour of Tickhill. As Duke of Lancaster, John of Gaunt had a large inheritance including many castles of great importance. Knaresborough from that time onwards was joined to these estates and belonged to the Duchy of Lancaster.

Upon John of Gaunt’s death in 1399, King Richard II confiscated the Lancastrian estates as the property of the Crown, disinheriting Henry Bolingbroke, John of Gaunt’s son and heir. Henry returned to claim his inheritance, landing at Ravenspur, and travelling to receive support from his Castles at Pickering, Knaresborough and Pontefract This confrontation eventually led to the downfall of King Richard II, who was deposed and imprisoned. He spent a night as prisoner in Knaresborough Castle, most likely in the King’s Tower, before he was taken to Pontefract, where he was murdered. Henry Bolingbroke’s ascendance to the throne as King Henry IV brought the lands of the Duchy of Lancaster directly under the control of the Crown, and Knaresborough was a royal castle once again.

The Late Medieval Castle

Although the accession of Henry IV brought the Lancastrian inheritance under control of the Crown, Knaresborough Castle no longer played an important role in national affairs. The castle continued to serve a crucial function in regional administration, and the manor courts were still held here. The history of the castle during this time until the Civil War is fairly obscure, illuminated only by occasional references which show it was kept in good repair. It remained directly in control of the Crown throughout this period, except from 1422 to 1437 when it formed part of Queen Catherine’s dower, when her husband King Henry V died.

The Tudor Castle

Castles had largely lost their defensive significance by the Tudor period, and new tastes were leading to the construction of fortified stately homes rather than old-fashioned and less comfortable castles. However, many castles were maintained and modernised, and in both 1538 and 1561 surveys were undertaken which showed Knaresborough Castle to be in a state of disrepair, but not decay. The timber and leadwork throughout the castle needed to be replaced, and most of the timber buildings were beyond repair. The stonework was essentially in sound condition, and was considered to be easily made defensible again. By 1600 the upper storey of the Courthouse was built, and court cases from the Forest and Liberty of Knaresborough were tried here. Whether the repairs identified in the earlier surveys were undertaken is not known for certain, but by the Civil War, the castle was still able to be defended.

Civil War to Modern Day

The Civil War

Knaresborough Castle supported the Royalist Cause during the Civil War, but in 1644 the Parliamentarians were gaining control in Yorkshire. After the battle of Marston Moor in July 1644, the castle was besieged, and finally surrendered when cannon breached the wall on December 20. In 1646 Parliament ordered the castle to be rendered untenable, and by 1648 demolition had commenced. Nearly the entire circuit of the curtain wall was destroyed, as were all the buildings in the grounds, except the Courthouse. The King’s Tower was in the process of demolition when the townspeople petitioned Parliament to allow them to maintain it as a prison. Demolition was halted and the Tower was left standing. The King’s Tower and Courthouse continued to serve as prison and courthouse for some time.

The Modern Castle

Knaresborough Castle site layout

Knaresborough Castle site layout

In the early 20th century, a bowling green and tennis courts transformed the role of the castle in the town, creating a leisure area for local residents, and relegating the structures of the castle to a secondary, almost superfluous role. The putting green now occupies the area where the tennis courts used to be. A war memorial commemorates the many local residents who gave their lives in the defence of their country in the First and Second World Wars. The Courthouse is now a museum which provides an explanation and interpretation of the history of the town, and which still contains furniture from the original Tudor courtroom.

The castle now stands as a monument to Knaresborough’s history, and as a centre for interpretation and understanding of that past. The 20th century has seen a renewal of interest in our historic monuments; in their preservation and interpretation, and in their value as integral elements in our modern landscape. The standing buildings and fragments of wall within the castle grounds provide a glimpse not only into the activities of the past which led to their construction and use, but also to the late activities of disuse and destruction. In their own unique way they stand as a permanent reflection of the changing values and attitudes of our society, from Medieval times to present day.

The Buildings

The Moat

The castle was, and still is to an extent, divided into two areas, known as the inner and outer wards. Originally a stone wall would have separated the two wards, running from the King’s Tower across to the north-eastern side of the Courthouse range of buildings.

The entire castle was surrounded by a massive dry ditch, referred to as the moat, which was the first line of defence. This is the earliest surviving feature of the castle, dating from the first decade of the 13th century or earlier, and originally extending from the edges of the cliff to form a complete circuit around the castle grounds. The north-eastern side of the ditch, separating the castle from the town, has been filled in and is now under the car park. A walk along the moat provides the best impression one can gain of the impressive defensiveness of the situation and construction of the castle. Looking up to the massy towers along the curtain wall gives an idea of how impregnable the complete castle would have been.

The Outer Ward

Surveys conducted in the 16th century give indications of the types of structures which would have been found in the outer ward, and this area would have been teeming with the activities needed to support life in the castle. Milling, brewing, baking and smelting would have taken place here, and horses would have been stabled here. The outer ward would have served most of the ‘industrial’ needs of the castle.

Remains of the East Gate, rebuilt by Edward I between 1300 and 1307

Remains of the East Gate, rebuilt by Edward I between 1300 and 1307

East Gate & Curtain Wall

The two solid half round towers on the eastern side of the outer ward are the remains of one of the two medieval gates into the castle. These towers buttressed the curtain wall as well as providing entry into the castle grounds. The remains of portcullis slots are still visible in the sides of these towers, where a heavy wooden portcullis would have defended the entrance. Until the 19th century, a masonry arch spanned the entrance between these two towers, a remnant of the original gatehouse. This collapsed some time in the 1840’s.

Following the line of the curtain wall from the gate around toward the rear of the courthouse, there is a wide but short piece of wall. This is the remnant of a large tower, and as late as 1940 this stood up to 7.5 metres (25 feet) in height. Unfortunately, the weight of the upper portion was too great, and the upper courses of the tower collapsed into the moat.

The Sallyports

Hidden within the outer ward are two sallyports, underground tunnels which were used for secret entry and exit from the castle. These tunnels are nearly 2.5 metres (8 feet) high and 2 metres (6 feet) wide in places, and are constructed of rough mortared rubble immediately below the ground, and then are hewn through the solid rock. They are easily large enough for a small party of armed men to have secretly left the castle and harass besieging troops. These sallyports slope steeply down to the level of the bottom of the moat, where the soldiers would have emerged secretly under cover of darkness. The exit from the northern sallyport has been completely blocked. by the infill of the moat. The eastern sallyport is now open and accessible by guided tours during the summer season.

Inside one of the secret underground sallyports, built in the late 13th or mid 14th century

Inside one of the secret underground sallyports, built in the late 13th or mid 14th century

The Inner Ward

It was within the inner ward of the castle that the royal living quarters were situated and where domestic and administrative activities took place. The Courthouse range of buildings mark the south eastern side of this ward. The King’s Tower dominates the northern side. A dividing wall would originally have extended from the Tower around to meet the Courthouse, and would have clearly separated the inner and outer wards. Passage from one ward to the other would have been through an additional gate, which has since disappeared. This gate appears to have been located approximately midway between the Courthouse and the King’s Tower.

The Courthouse

The undercroft of the Courthouse is the earliest surviving structure on the site. Although a 14th century doorway has been inserted into this building, the masonry appears to be late 12th/13th century in style. The upper storey which now houses the Museum was added by 1600, and still contains the furniture from the original Tudor Court, a rare survival. The eastern end of this building was added as a prison in the 18th century, built on the site of a chapel, and the western end was added in the 1800’s. In the medieval period this range of buildings would have provided lodgings, a chapel and a depository for administrative records.

The Curtain Wall

Proceeding from the Courthouse toward the war memorial, the half-round 14th century buttress towers on the edge of the cliff reveal more of the structure of the castle than is apparent at first glance. Like most other structures in the castle from this period, their external face was built of fine dressed stone, while the inside was filled with rubble. These towers were built against the exterior of the curtain wall. During the lifetime of the castle, the view from this point would have been completely obscured by the height of the curtain wall.

When looked at from the side, these towers reveal the profile of the wall against which they were built, which appears to have been buckling at the time of their construction. The towers may have been built to support a wall which was too close to the edge of the cliff; or they could be later additions to a much earlier wall which was showing the effects of age. They give an insight into an earlier castle if the rubble within their core is examined closely. There are pieces of carved stone within this rubble which may date from the Early English period, and are from earlier buildings which were replaced in the reign of Edward I or Edward II.

Between the War Memorial and the King’s Tower are few traces of the medieval castle, but this is the area where the complex of living quarters would have been located. The Great Hall was built against the curtain wall here, and the kitchen and larder were also within this area. Traces of such buildings were revealed in limited excavations carried out in the 1920’s. The well which served the inner ward is at the end of this area and is marked by a round paving stone to the southwest of the King’s Tower.

The King's Tower was the height of fashion when it was built in 1307-1312

The King’s Tower was the height of fashion when it was built in 1307-1312

The King’s Tower

The area around the King’s Tower serves as the focal point for the castle today, much as it would have in the castle’s lifetime as a residence. The tower itself is a magnificent and complicated structure, and marks a change in the style of castle building, a period when comfort and elegance were playing an important part within a defensive structure. The building was not simply a utilitarian, uncomfortable stronghold to be retreated into in times of peril; it was a self-contained residence, strongly fortified, but very comfortable.We know from detailed accounts for its construction that the present tower was built from 1307-1312 complete to the lead on its roof and the glazing of its windows. The accounts indicate that Edward II took a direct interest in the progress of the project, which may account for the elaborate architectural detail and quality of craftsmanship throughout. The foundations of an earlier tower below the 14th century building were revealed in 1990 excavations on the site.

The ‘Porch’

This little structure to the south-east of the King’s Tower had previously been the subject of much debate, and had been thought to be a gate passage from the outer to the inner wards. Its ruined state conceals that this little structure was an antechamber (or waiting room) for access to the main hall above in the King’s Tower. The general entrance was through double doors within the (now) open arch on its western side, facing the inner ward. Inside this antechamber, a stone wall bench extended around three sides, and thick limestone floor flags paved the floor.

Original entrance into the 'porch', showing remains of stone wall bench

Original entrance into the ‘porch’, showing remains of stone wall bench

These match the interior of the first floor of the King’s Tower exactly. A stair led upstairs into another, similar waiting chamber. The carved stone handrail for this stair is still visible on the side of the King’s Tower.

The King’s Chamber

The first floor level is popularly known as ‘The King’s Chamber’, and it is believed that it was here that Richard II was imprisoned before being taken to Pontefract Castle. Private access to this chamber was via a spiral stairway from the floor below. The carved stone handrail in this round stairwell is an unusual feature. General access to the first floor was from the eastern end of the building, via the ‘porch’ or ground floor antechamber.

There is a fireplace at one end of the dais, and at the other end, overlooking the courtyard, is a large decorative window, with a carved hood moulding and ball flower ornament. This ball flower ornament also occurs over the inside of the western doorway at York Minster, and is probably from the influence of Hugh of Bouden, master mason of York Minster who oversaw works at Knaresborough Castle temporarily when mason Hugh of Titchmarsh was called away.At the extreme eastern end of the first floor is a small chamber, reached via the stair from the waiting room below in the ‘porch’. Persons waiting for an audience with the Lord of the Manor would wait here before being admitted. From this chamber, one would pass through a gateway consisting of double wooden doors on either side of a portcullis. The slot for this portcullis is still visible in the wall. Passing through this entrance, one would step down into a single large chamber. At the far end is a raised dais area, with a decorative arched recess built into the wall behind. This extravagant arrangement would form an impressive backdrop, which would elevate the King or Lord seated on the dais, and was designed to instill a sense of awe. Around the perimeter of this chamber, extending into the antechamber and serving as window seats, are the remains of a carved wall bench, where courtiers would be seated during official reception times. This elaborate construction adds to the impression of importance, elegance and comfort which were built into the design of the King’s Tower.

The Dungeon

The lowest level of the King’s Tower consists primarily of a cellar, the construction of which is believed to be architecturally unique in this country. The arrangement of twelve rib vaults springing from a central column supports the floors above, and is unknown elsewhere. The external walls are 4.5 metres (15 feet) thick. Air arid light are provided by a bent channel in the northwestern wall which leads to the outside. There are numerous examples of graffiti on the dungeon walls, especially in the passage leading down the stairs. This room was a secure storage area for supplies. One of the most important aspects of surviving a prolonged siege in a castle was the provision of adequate food and water for the garrison inside. Access to the cellar was down a ramp which came out at right angles to the building. The current stair access is a much later alteration.

Knaresborough Castle Site Layout

Knaresborough Castle Site Layout

The Ground Floor

The ground floor of the King’s Tower probably served as chambers for the Constable of the castle with private access to the main presence chamber on the first floor. This level consists of one large chamber which originally had four mural chambers leading off from it, although the Civil War demolition has obscured this arrangement. The first mural chamber (A) is located at the eastern side of the room. The small alcove cut into the wall in this chamber looks to be a later addition, end may date from the later period when the King’s Tower was used as a prison. A small window in the wall of this chamber overlooks the main room.

At the furthest side of the room is an entrance to another mural chamber (B), which served as a garderobe. This garderobe still retains its original privy shaft which would have carried the waste out of the King’s Tower into the moat. These shafts were one of the most vulnerable parts of a castle, as besieging troops could send a small man or boy to climb up the shaft to enter the castle, and open the gates once inside. The two windows in this chamber are an unusual feature, particularly on a wall which faces the exterior of the castle. These windows, combined with the unusually large size of the room, have led to the suggestion that this may be a very early example of a bathroom in a domestic English building.

There are three other chambers at this level of the Tower with entrances from the inner ward, separate from the main chamber. On the western side is a door leading to a small L-shaped room (C) which may have been used as a strong room or a secure store. On the eastern side are two barrel vaulted connecting rooms (D) which may have served as watchman’s quarters. The function of most of the rooms in the castle would probably have changed according to requirements.

The Second Floor

It is difficult to know what specific -arrangement the rooms on the upper floor would have taken. The second floor covered a slightly smaller area than the first floor, and would have contained the lord or lady’s private chambers, and probably a private chapel. The floors were made of wood, and access to this level was via a spiral stairway from below.

Excavation on the site of the northern sallyport, 1961

Excavation on the site of the northern sallyport, 1961

Works to the Castle 1986-90

The first floor of the King’s Tower had been covered in asphalt until a programme of repairs to the castle was begun in 1986. The asphalt was removed, and below it was up to 1 metre (3 feet) of debris from the demolition of the castle after the Civil War. The black line of the level of the asphalt is still visible around the walls, and gives an indication of how much of the detail at this level was hidden for centuries.Excavations around the King’s Tower took place from 1988 to 1990, and revealed a wealth of information about its development and layout. These works demonstrated the accuracy of a drawing of the castle from 1538 which shows a gate on the eastern side of the tower. This gate gave access to the outer ward of the castle from Kirkgate.

The ground level of the castle has changed dramatically over the centuries, with thick deposits built up over time through building projects, demolition and through ordinary living debris throughout the medieval period. The original ground surface of the earliest castle appears to have been approximately 2 – 3 metres below the present level.


Research into the history and development of Knaresborough Castle is a continuing process to which many people have contributed over the years. This current guidebook is indebted to the archaeological work done at the castle by Stephen Barber in the 1920’s and by Jean le Patourel in 1961. The support and guidance of English Heritage has been instrumental in developing an understanding of the castle. More recent work has been greatly assisted by the efforts of the KNAG’s (Knaresborough Archaeological Group), and in particular Tony Law, whose great affection for, and knowledge of, Knaresborough Castle has been an irreplaceable resource. I am also indebted to John Symington for his work on the history of the castle, and his enthusiasm for the people who have created that history.

Mary J Kershaw

Dr. Arnold Kellett’s research has revealed that the first recorded instance of a Royal Maundy (Royal gifts) took place at Knaresborough on April 15th, 1210. King John gave the traditional gifts to each of thirteen paupers – thirteen pence, one belt, one knife, clothing, and a pair of shoes. The tradition, of course, is still maintained to this day, although the reigning monarch now gives a second purse in lieu of clothing. Dr. Kellett’s evidence for the historic claim for Knaresborough comes from the king’s personal account of his expenses – the Rotulus Misae.

Hugh de Morville was Constable of the Castle of Knaresborough and leader of the unfortunate group of four knights who took King Henry II at his word when he said “will nobody rid me of this turbulent priest”. On December 29th, 1170 they murdered Thomas Beckett, Archbishop of Canterbury, on the steps of the altar of his cathedral. The four knights first fled to Knaresborough, where legend has it that they were reviled even by the dogs of the town, although Hugh is also said to have built Hampsthwaite Church and dedicated it to the canonised priest as an act of penance.

Robert Floure was born in York around 1160 and became a hermit in a riverside cave at Knaresborough. Attributed with miracles of healing and powers over wild animals, when he died in 1218 a cult grew up and the waters of St. Robert’s Well were said to have healing powers. His land was given to the Trinitarian Friars and a friary was built. Nothing of the riverside friary remains today. See also ‘The Will of Thomas Hill’ and ‘St Robert’s Cave and Friary’.



The Market Cross

The market is first mentioned in 1206 and the fair in 1304 but the earliest known charter was granted by Edward II in 1310, confirming Wednesday as Market Day and the fair to be held between July 18th and July 20th.

During this time the castle continued to expand. Under Edward II it gained twelve towers and a keep.

Rebels occupied the castle during Edward’s reign and the curtain wall was breached with a siege engine during its recapture. Later, Scots invaders burned much of the town, including the parish church. The church was restored by Queen Philippa, wife of Edward III, who had been granted “the Castle, Town, Forest and Honour of Knaresborough” as part of her marriage settlement in 1328. After her death the Honour was granted in 1372 by Edward to their youngest son, John of Gaunt (born in Ghent). He had already inherited the estates of his wife, Blanche of Lancaster, and was Duke of Lancaster and thus linked the Honour of Knaresborough with the Duchy of Lancashire and hence to the Lancastrian cause in the Wars of the Roses.

King Richard II spent a night in Knaresborough Castle on his way to Pontefract Castle in 1399 where he was murdered.

This wayside shrine was carved out of the rock face near Low Bridge in 1408 by John the Mason. The entrance is guarded by a carved medieval knight, possibly a Knight Templar, whose face has been “restored” in later times! Services occasionally take place but must be held outside as the chapel measures only 12 feet by 8 feet. See also ‘The Will of Thomas Hill’ and the tab labelled ‘The House in the Rock..

The various religious upheavals of the first half of the sixteenth century, during the reigns of Henry VIII, Mary and Elizabeth, affected the people of Knaresborough who were generally loyal to the Catholic faith. They were conservative in their religion and slow to accept new ideas, especially if imposed from above by a distant monarch. In addition, most of the local landowners and lords were of the Catholic faith. After the unsuccessful Rising of the North in 1569 services were still being secretly held but the Protestant religion gradually became established. In 1580 a great effort was made to suppress recusancy (the refusal to conform) and an Act of Parliament the following year made this a crime punishable by a fine of £5 a week.

At this time the parish church became firmly established as the church of St John the Baptist, having previously sometimes been known as St. Mary’s (a more Catholic name)and the Parish Register was begun in 1561 with the recording of 41 baptisms, 12 marriages, and 21 burials in its first year. Thatched Manor Cottage at the bottom of Water Bag Bank (up which ponies carried bags of water from the river to the town) dates from this period. Effigies of the Slingsby family in the parish church are worthy of note and include the recumbent Francis Slingsby who died in 1600, cavalry officer to Henry VIII, with his wife lying on his right hand side as she was from a higher born status of the Percy family. Other notable tombs are those of Sir Henry Slingsby, executed under Cromwell in 1658, and Sir Charles Slingsby who drowned in 1869. The church also contains a fine late Jacobean font-cover.

Knaresborough Castle As restored in 1590 by order of Queen Elizabeth. Image from an old postcard kindly lent by Pat Wood.

Knaresborough Castle As restored in 1590 by order of Queen Elizabeth. Image from an old postcard kindly lent by Pat Wood.

During the civil war Knaresborough was a Royalist stronghold. The castle remained loyal to King Charles but was taken by Cromwell’s soldiers, after a short siege, on December 20th, 1644. A popular story tells (see e.g. The Knaresborough Story) how a Mrs Whincup successfully led a group of people to plead with the commander for the life of a boy found taking food to his besieged father. The castle suffered little damage at this time but in 1648 was a victim of an Act of Parliament ordering the demolition, or “slighting”, of several Royalist castles.

Sir Henry Slingsby, MP for Knaresborough, who had been expelled from the House of Commons for his Royalist tendencies in 1642, remained determined to restore the monarchy. He was arrested in 1654 and charged with high treason. Being found guilty, he was beheaded on Tower Hill on June 8th, 1658 and his headless body returned to Knaresborough for burial.

The early 17th century saw the establishment of King James’s School in the town, its charter being granted in 1616, beginning a long tradition in the town emphasising the importance of education. Originally this was an all-boys school, endowed with £20 per year by Rev. Dr. Robert Challoner, who was born in Goldsborough, and boys from Knaresborough and Goldsborough were to be admitted free, with fee-paying scholars admitted at the discretion of the governors. By 1820, however, there had been no free scholars for over twenty years. In 1971 it became a large mixed comprehensive school, still bearing the name of King James.

The Charity School was established at the bottom of the High Street by Thomas Richardson in 1765. It was to accommodate “thirty boys and girls of the township of Knaresborough, and for putting them out to apprenticeship”. Several Sunday Schools provided elementary education for all denominations.

It was in the latter half of the sixteenth century that Knaresborough’s reputation as a spa town began with its recommendation as a base for taking the newly discovered waters of Tewit Well. Many eminent travellers of the day, including Celia Fiennes (1697) and Daniel Defoe (1717) visited Knaresborough at a time when Harrogate was still only two small hamlets – Low and High Harrogate. Inns and hotels were being built in High Harrogate but the tradition at this time was to stay in Knaresborough and travel to the Harrogate area to take the waters.

Legend has it that Mother Shipton was born in 1488 in the now famous cave near to the Dropping Well on the banks of the River Nidd. The earliest reference appears in a book of 1641, associating her with York. A later pamphlet of 1667 states that she was born at “Naseborough near the Dropping Well in Yorkshire”. She is famed as a prophetess, though there is a good deal of mystery surrounding prophesies attributed to her, many seeming to have been created or embellished in later times.

The Dropping Well From an 1891 publication courtesy of David Oswald

The Dropping Well
From an 1891 publication courtesy of David Oswald

John Leland, Henry VIII’s official antiquary, makes no mention of Mother Shipton in his account of his visit to Knaresborough in 1558, although he visited, and was impressed by, the Dropping Well. Samuel Pepys recorded in his famous diaries, at the time of the Great Fire of London, that when Prince Rupert was at sea he heard about the Great Fire and said ‘now Shipton’s prophecy was out’. She herself was surely not a myth, the fascination of her prophecies enduring to this day.

The Dropping Well has appealed to visitors for centuries, attracted by the curious sight of objects, suspended in the cascade of water, apparently turning to stone. In reality, the objects are calcified by a deposit from the waters.

Although the origins of Mother Shipton and her prophecies may still be debated today, the Mother Shipton Cave and the Dropping Well remain very popular attractions in Knaresborough, delighting thousands of visitors every year.

Mother Shipton’s Cave and the Petrifying Well – Visitor Information

History of the House in the Rock (Fort Montague) and the Hill family – Nancy Buckle.

The House in the Rock is a thing that dreams are made of, and indeed was conceived through a dream of a humble linen weaver, Thomas Hill – my great-great-great-great-grandfather, who, like his forebears, lived in a whitewashed cottage at the foot of the magnesium limestone cliff which was to be the substance of his toil.


The River Nidd and buildings in front of the House in the Rock © Alyson Jackson

In the year 1770, armed with pick, chisel and hammer, and with the goodwill of Sir Charles Slingsby Bart. – the Lord of the Manor – and Margaret, Duchess of Buccleugh, he commenced his assault on the rock face. Over a period of sixteen years he hollowed out an elongated deep cleft in the rock; this extended from the foot of the cliff at the Abbey Road area to the top of the cliff at the Crag Top area thus facilitating a split level system of dwelling. The resulting mass of rocks and rubble caused by the excavation was recycled. The rocks were fashioned into building blocks to build up the front wall so that the completed dwelling consisted of three walls of solid rock and a front wall of dressed, excavated stone. Excesses of rubble were burned in kilns on site to obtain lime to be used in the building process.

Eventually the house was to have four rooms leading up from one another, lighthouse fashion. The top room protruded from the cliff face reversing the lower construction in having a rear wall of rock and three built walls.

At a later date castellations were added to both upper and lower levels by Thomas Hill and his elder son, also named Thomas, giving the appearance of a fort. The house then became known as Fort Montague at the request of the duchess of Buccleugh – the principal sunscriber to it.

The views from all windows were, and indeed are to this day, breath-taking. The very concept of viewing the Nidd Valley from what is the interior of the cliff is enchanting whether the valley be cloaked in a mantle of snow, russet with autumn tints, dressed in lush summer foliage or the delicate hues of spring.

Landscaping of the cliff top areas and lower gardens took a further five years. By this time Thomas Hill was helped by his son. Soil had to be carried for considerable distances to give a good depth to the cliff top areas, and countless shrubs, plants, ornamental trees and statues were provided by the Slingsby’s, together with pairs of exotic peacocks. Following completion the gardens were likened to the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. Doubtless the sub-tropical summers experienced then were a tremendous advantage, even allowing apricots to be freely grown.

Thomas Hill, his wife and six of his seven children inhabited the house. The eldest son, Thomas, also a linen weaver, had married and lived elsewhere but was still very much involved with the House in the Rock. It was he who persuaded his father to place two cannon on the roof battlements – one authentic and the other a replica. These were in situ until the end of the 19th century, the working cannon being fired under careful control on “feast and field days”. Both cannon were removed when two “likely lads” – one of the Hill family and his friend (a member of the Renton family – well-known auctioneers) – fired the cannon without permission, the cannonball allegedly landing in Calcutt village, fortunately with no casualties!

The house was arranged with the kitchen/living room at the top. Here was a great iron range for heating and cooking. It was the most used room in the house and from then up until the 1950’s contained a “shut-up bed” in one corner. This was of particular use in childbirth, sickness, and, of course, over the years many members of the family would die in it. When folded away it presented the appearance of a chest of drawers with a cupboard on top but these were mere artifacts to camouflage the two doors which hid the folded-up bed from view.


The Hill descendents lived in The House in the Rock

The room was furnished with a plain wood kitchen table, a large dresser with delpht rack, various high-backed wooden chairs, and, towards the end of the 19th century, a large, long settle which had a set of drawers beneath the seat. The settle was purchased by Ann Hill, wife of the last of the Hill men to bear the name Thomas. She paid the princely sum of one shilling and sixpence for it and saved it from being chopped up for firewood by a neighbour. When Ann died the house went to the youngest of her seven children – Ellen. The only surviving male – James – emigrated to Canada but to this day the eldest male in his family line is always named Thomas.

Ellen married a retired army officer whose father wove the famous shirt without a seam. On his early retirement John was the accountant at Walton’s Mill

The room below the kitchen/living room was known as the Ash Chamber because in the late 18th century, at the time of completion of the house, a branch of a large ash tree was level with the window and tapped on the pane when the wind blew. The room was reached by descending a short flight of wooden stairs comprising a trap door which, when lowered, created extra floor space for the top room. Very much in evidence here is the enormous chimney breast rising from the fireplace in the lowest room of all. This chimney served as a central heating system for the entire house, but the fire had to be kept stoked up from the end of September until the following March. It took two weeks for the chimney both to heat up and cool down. As the winters were paricularly severe at this time the “central heating system” was a great asset.

Upon further descent down rock steps a little bedroom stands to the side. It was lined with wooden boards in the middle of the 19th century as the Hill wife of that time was alarmed that harebells were actually growing in the room!

The lowest room, or “Bottom House”, produces a sense of genus loci which persists through the whole house. There is a seething atmosphere which some find disturbing and others comforting. Here the last Thomas Hill fell down the steps onto the rock floor, breaking his neck and dying several hours later. This happened at the end of the 19th century and, of course, there was nothing anyone could do for him except to make him as comfortable as possible, comfort him and pray with him.

The same room was a very communal area where the door which led to the Nidd Valley was never locked. The menfolk of the valley congregated on winter evenings round the fire, fortifying themselves with tankards of porter which were heated by dipping in a red hot poker. It is easy to imagine the men tramping along the four yard rock passage between the door and the room.

There have been countless quirky events attached to the family.

The House in the Rock, 1999

The House in the Rock, 1999 © Alyson Jackson

The house, although a dwelling place, was a viable tourist attraction from its completion in 1786. The second Thomas Hill, who helped his father finish the house and complete the gardens, produced mock white five pound notes which were sold as souvenirs at the house. The five pound notes were withdrawn when the Bank of Newcastle was duped by them! There are still copies in circulation but they are hard to find.

In the early 19th century a rather strange child appeared in the family, although not in the direct line. This child had abnormal very blonde woolly hair resembling the fleece of a sheep and was known as the Woolly-Headed Boy of Fort Montague. He conducted visitors around the house and must have been a great curiosity himself.

The wife of the second Thomas Hill bore sixteen children, all of whom reached adulthood. Her husband, however, died relatively young and she was left with several young children dependent upon her. She had a marquee erected in the gardens adjacent to the Crag Top and obtained a wine, spirits and cigar licence which, together with the income from visitors to the house, enabled her to raise the rest of her family.

Up to the middle of the 19th century water had to be carried from the river – quite an operation, especially in winter when a hammer had to be used to break the ice!

The house was visited by tourists until 1994 and lived in by the descendents of Thomas Hill until 1996 when I myself was forced to vacate it to enable it to undergo renovations. My aim is for it to be available to the public, as was intended by my great-great-great-great-grandfather Thomas Hill, who made it by blood, sweat and toil. It must not be lost to heritage.

Probably the most famous of Knaresborough natives, John Metcalf lost his sight at the age of six through smallpox. Determined not to let this misfortune hamper his progress in life he became an accomplished musician, guide, and, most famously, road maker. His road building activities began when he was over fifty but he still managed to build hundreds of miles of roads in the North of England as well as bridges. Special tools helped him in his road-making activities, including a specially adapted “viameter” which measured distances and which he was able to “read” by touch. The viameter is kept in the local museum. He died in 1810 at the age of 92 in Spofforth, where an evocative stone marks his grave.

Blind Jack

Blind Jack

Transcript of Gravestone
Here lies John Metcalf one whose infant sight
Felt the dark pressure of an endless night:
Yet such the fervour of his dauntless mind,
His limbs full strung, his spirit unconfin’d,
That long ere yet life’s bolder years began,
His sightless efforts mark’d th’aspiring man.
Nor mark’d in vain High deeds his manhood dar’d,
And commerce, travel both his ardour shar’d:
Twas his a guide’s unerring aid to lend;
O’er trackless wastes to bid new roads extend;
And when Rebellion rear’d her giant size,
Twas his to burn with patriot enterprize,
For parting wife and babes one pang to feel,
Then welcome danger for his country’s weal.
Reader! like him exert thy utmost talent giv’n;
Reader! like him adore the bounteous hand of Heav’n.

He died on the 26th of April 1810 in the 93rd year of his age.
A more detailed account can be found in The Life and Times of John Metcalf.

The textile industry has been associated with Knaresborough for centuries – records of 1211 mention mills. While the woollen market expanded in the sixteenth century to satisfy an increasing population and the quality of its cloth improved, interruptions to export caused a depression in the latter half of the century and competition among producers must have been intense. Knaresborough was at a disadvantage because of its poor access to the major marketing centres – in the case of textiles these were Leeds and York. By specialising in a higher quality linen Knaresborough was able to take advantage of the increase in living standards and fund its higher transport expenses. An industry which began in cottages and small workshops gradually transferred to mills.

Old linen mill and weir. Image from an old postcard kindly lent by Pat Wood

Old linen mill and weir. Image from an old postcard kindly lent by Pat Wood

In 1791 a cotton mill was built on the site of a paper mill on the banks of the River Nidd at Knaresborough, and this was in turn converted to flax spinning in 1811. This was the famous Castle Mill, taken over in 1847 by Walton and Company for both yarn spinning and power-loom weaving. At the beginning of the nineteenth century Knaresborough became famous for its linen. In 1838 Walton and Co., had been appointed linen manufacturers to the Royal Household and in 1851 were awarded the Prince Albert Medal for the completely seamless shirt woven by George Hemshell on a hand loom. Castle Mill has now been converted to private residences.

Industrial development was still hampered by the lack of an efficient transport system to bring raw materials and supplies to the town, and to take manufactured goods out to the major trading centres, particularly to the linen market at York. A canal system was proposed around 1818 but deemed to be too expensive due to the large number of locks which would be required. A railway system was costed and proposed in 1820 but did not gain sufficient support and the situation was left unresolved until the middle of the century.

Now the fabric of the town began to receive necessary attention, to relieve the squalor of the streets and improve the living conditions of many of the town’s inhabitants. Chapels and schools were built throughout the century and the Improvement Commissioners were charged with the “paving, lighting, watching and improving of Knaresborough”. The first half of the century saw the beginnings of street gas lighting (1824) and sewerage installations(1850). The impressive railway viaduct was completed in 1851, finally ushering in the railway age to Knaresborough – three years after the first viaduct had collapsed into the river as it neared completion.

Looking down over the River Nidd and Railway Viaduct from the Castle precincts.

Looking down over the River Nidd and Railway Viaduct from the Castle precincts.

The viaduct was vital in establishing efficient communications with the town.

The Water Carnival, now discontinued, also saw its origins in Victorian times. It was a great spectacle of the day and was staged on the river. An illuminated Fairy Castle on the river bank and Chinese lanterns in the trees created a magical scene after dark. Illuminated carnival boats were accompanied by a band on the top deck of the houseboat “Marigold”. The day culminated in a fantastic firework display which included a waterfall of fire from the viaduct, in imitation of Niagara Falls.

The relatively carefree times were halted by the Great War in which 156 Knaresborough men were killed.

The names of the dead of two world wars inscribed on the War Memorial in the Castle precincts (see below) – more information for these names can be found at Roll of Honour.

The Second World War took its toll, and 55 names were added to the War Memorial in the Castle precincts.After the war Knaresborough remained popular with visitors, now able to come from farther afield on the train. Boating and riverside walks were popular, as well as visits to the Castle and Dropping Well, with riverside tea rooms to provide refreshment.

In the post-war period, although new housing has increased the size of the town threefold, Knaresborough retains its charm. Traditions continue in an Edwardian Fair, Market Square carol service and the Boxing Day tug-of-war, and are joined by newer events such as the Bed Race, begun in 1966 by the Round Table and FEVA – the festival of entertainment and visual arts. In 1988 the ancient office of Town Crier was revived. Since 1969 Knaresborough has been twinned with the German town of Bebra, and many successful exchange visits and new friendships have followed.

Knaresborough has been touched by many of the pivotal events of English history, and remains today, as for centuries past, beautifully fascinating in its proud setting on the River Nidd.









  • A History of Harrogate and Knaresborough; The Harrogate W.E.A. Local History Group; Editor Bernard Jennings; The Advertiser Press Limited, Huddersfield; 1970.
  • A History of Nidderdale; Pately Bridge Tutorial Class; Editor Bernard Jennings; Advertiser Press Limited, Huddersfield; 1983.
  • Early Yorkshire Charters Vol.I and Vol IX (The Stuteville Fee) based on manuscripts of the late William Farrer and edited by Charles Travis Clay C.B., F.B.A. Printed for the Yorkshire Archaelogical Society Record Series 1952. Consulted at Public Record Office, Kew, UK.
  • Historic Knaresborough; Arnold Kellett; Smith Settle Limited, Otley; 1991.
  • The Knaresborough Story; Arnold Kellett; Lofthouse Publications, Pontefract; 1990.
  • Knaresborough in Old Picture Postcards; Arnold Kellett; European Library – Zaltbommel/The Netherlands; 1996.
  • Knaresborough (Archive Photographs); Arnold Kellett; Chalford Publishing Co.; 1995.
  • Knaresborough Workhouse; An interesting series of pages about Knaresborough Workshouse, and workhouses in general may be viewed here.