Conserving Yorkshire’s Castles

In honour of Yorkshire Day on 1 August, we take a tour of some of the castles we’ve been involved in conserving for future generations across this fine part of England.

Pontefract Castle, West Yorkshire

© Chris Collett

In its day Pontefract Castle was one of most important fortresses in the country. It was originally built in the late 11th century by Ilbert de Lacy who had supported William the Conqueror during the Norman Conquest. Over time the original wooden structure was replaced with stone and expanded into a huge castle that became known as the “key to the north”.

Pontefract Castle boasted a large network of dungeons that hosted a number of high profile guests including James I of Scotland and Charles Duke of Orleans who was captured at the battle of Agincourt in 1415. The most famous prisoner though was Richard II who, it is thought, lived out his final days there after being deposed by Henry Bollingbroke in 1399.    

During the English Civil War Pontefract Castle was a Royalist stronghold, which was besieged on three separate occasions. Understandably, Oliver Cromwell hated the castle and wanted to see it destroyed. He gained the support of the local townspeople who also wanted to see it razed to the ground as they had suffered badly as a result of the sieges. This has left us with the ruins we have today.

Over the past 15 years, Historic England has given more than £700,000 grant aid to conserve the surviving parts of the castle and played a key role in advising on the restoration work. The opening of a new visitor centre in 2017 and an extensive programme of public events is helping to make Pontefract Castle a major West Yorkshire visitor attraction and much-loved local amenity.  

Harewood Castle, West Yorkshire

Harewood Castle © Harewood House Trust

Harewood Castle is the oldest building on the Harewood Estate in West Yorkshire. It was built by lord of the manor Sir William de Aldeburgh after he was granted a licence to create fortifications in 1366.  

While the castle was designed to defend against would-be attackers, it was also built for comfort and to impress the neighbours. The thick walls, portcullis and arrow slit windows show a concern for defence. But other features, such as the ornate window frames and the extensive network of walkways, were for decoration and social status. 

Following de Aldeburgh’s death, ownership of Harewood Castle was passed on jointly to his two daughters. It was shared by the sisters and their descendants who collectively lived in the property for more than 200 years. The last resident was Robert Ryther, who left the castle to move to his wife’s family’s estate in Lincolnshire in around 1630.

When the amalgamated Harewood and Gawthorpe estates were bought by Sir John Cutler, in 1657 the castle was already falling down and uninhabitable. In the 18th century it was incorporated into a romantic pleasure grounds by the Lascelles family. In the early 2000s English Heritage (now Historic England) developed a restoration plan and contributed £500,000 to repair it.

Sheriff Hutton Castle, North Yorkshire  

© Historic England Archive DP056279

Sheriff Hutton Castle was held by three of the most powerful figures in English medieval history. Built by the Neville family from 1382, Richard Neville, known as ‘Warwick the Kingmaker’ held the castle until his death at the Battle of Barnet in 1471. The castle was then seized by the Crown and granted to Richard Duke of Gloucester, who became Richard III.  Richard III was to use  Sheriff Hutton  as the headquarters for the Council of the North, an  administrative body  set up by his brother Edward IV to impose royal authority in the north of England for which  Richard was its first Lord President.   

When Richard’s rule was threatened by Henry Tudor he used Sheriff Hutton Castle as a safe house for members of his family including his niece Catherine of York, who later married Henry.    

© Historic England Archive DP056304

After the Battle of Bosworth in 1485 ownership of the castle fell to Henry VII and in 1525 he gave it to his friend the French nobleman Sir Henri Le Carre who then sold it to the Howard family a decade later. By this time the castle was already in need of repair and it slipped into decline over the following centuries. By the early 20th century it was in ruins and being used as a farmyard.

Between 2001 and 2003 English Heritage spent more than £900,000 on repairs to the  nationally important Scheduled Monument, ensuring its long-term conservation.

Sandal Castle, West Yorkshire

© Historic England Archive DP077051

Originally built and owned by the Warennes family in the 12th century, Sandal Castle in Wakefield passed to Royal hands in 1347 when Edward III gave it to his son Edmund of Langley, the founder of the House of York. In 1460, it was the scene of the Battle of Wakefield where Edmund’s grandson and claimant to the throne, Richard of York suffered a crushing defeat at the hands of Lancastrian forces.

Like Sheriff Hutton Castle, Richard III briefly made it a headquarters for the Council of the North and planned to make significant investment in the castle. However, following his defeat at the Battle of Bosworth, the castle fell into gradual decline. 

Several years ago, we funded a programme of repairs to the castle through a generous legacy left by local resident George Hyde.

Harlsey Castle, North Yorkshire  

© Historic England Archive DP175828

Situated near Northallerton in North Yorkshire, Harlsey Castle’s first known owner was Sir James Strangeways, a judge of Common Pleas who purchased the manor in 1423.

© Historic England Archive DP17516

The castle passed to his son, James, who was High Sheriff of Yorkshire and Speaker of the House of Commons. It remained in the family until it was sold to the Dacre family in 1541. It is likely that it fell into disrepair after the manor was forfeited to Queen Elizabeth I in the 16th century.

The cellars of the castle have survived and were used as farm outbuildings. However, they were in such a state of disrepair they were added to the Heritage at Risk Register. In 2017 Historic England gave a grant of £161,000 to repair the cellars and enable them to be used again as part of the farm.

Further Reading

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