Knaresborough Castle

Has been described as a Certain Timber Castle (Other/Unknown), and also as a Certain Masonry Castle

There are masonry ruins/remnants remains

NameKnaresborough Castle
Alternative NamesKnarsborrow; Cnaresburg; Cnaresburh
Historic CountryYorkshire
Modern AuthorityNorth Yorkshire
1974 AuthorityNorth Yorkshire
Civil ParishKnaresborough

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. (Scheduling Report)

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. (Kershaw)

Gatehouse Comments

The interesting and unusual King's Tower is the chief remnant, this was built 1307-1312, with direct interest from Edward II. This was given a full analysis by Philip Dixon, in a 1990 Château-Gaillard article, where it is seen as a display of the lordly status of the king's favourite Piers Gaverston. One of the supposed sallyports (the eastern) starts near the kitchen and may well be a rather more prosaic route for the disposal of kitchen waste into the gorge of the River Nidd although the other (the northern), defended by a portcullis and originally opening into the moat near to the town, is a rather more convincing example of a sallyport.

- Philip Davis

This site is a scheduled monument protected by law

This is a Grade 1 listed building protected by law

Historic England Scheduled Monument Number
Historic England Listed Building number(s)
Images Of England
Historic England (PastScape) Defra or Monument number(s)
County Historic Environment Record
OS Map Grid ReferenceSE349568
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Photograph by Philip Davis. All rights reserved
Photograph by Philip Davis. All rights reserved
Photograph by Philip Davis. All rights reserved
Photograph by Philip Davis. All rights reserved
Photograph by Philip Davis. All rights reserved
Photograph by Philip Davis. All rights reserved
Photograph by Philip Davis. All rights reserved
Photograph by Philip Davis. All rights reserved
Photograph by Philip Davis. All rights reserved
Photograph by Philip Davis. All rights reserved
Photograph by Philip Davis. All rights reserved
Photograph by Philip Davis. All rights reserved
Photograph by Philip Davis. All rights reserved
Photograph by Philip Davis. All rights reserved
Photograph by Philip Davis. All rights reserved

Most of the sites or buildings recorded in this web site are NOT open to the public and permission to visit a site must always be sought from the landowner or tenant.

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  • Goodall, J., 2008 Jan, 'A royal gift' Country Life Vol. 202.3 p. 72-5 online copy
  • Dixon, Philip, 1998, 'Design in castle-building: the controlling of access to the Lord' Château Gaillard Vol. 18 p. 47-57
  • < >Dixon, P., 1990, 'The donjon of Knaresborough: the Castle as Theatre' Château Gaillard Vol. 14 p. 121-39 < >
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  • 1962-3, Medieval Archaeology Vol. 6-7 p. 324 download copy
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  • Atkinson, W.A., 1936-38, Yorkshire Archaeological Journal Vol. 33 p. 175-95
  • Atkinson, W.A., 1931-34, 'Some remarks on Knaresborough Castle' Yorkshire Archaeological Journal Vol. 31 p. 114-131
  • Barber, S.C., 1929-31, 'Excavations at Knaresborough Castel 1925-1928' Yorkshire Archaeological Journal Vol. 30 p. 200-24
  • 1925, Journal of the British Archaeological Association Vol. 31 p. 266-7
  • 1923, Journal of the British Archaeological Association Vol. 29 p. 79-83
  • Clark, G.T., 1881, 'Knaresborough Castle' Yorkshire Archaeological Journal Vol. 6 p. 98-112 (reprinted in MMA with fewer illustrations) online copy
  • 1863, The Gentleman's Magazine Part 1 p. 638-41 (history)
  • King, Edward, 1782, 'Sequel to the observations on Ancient Castles' Archaeologia Vol. 6 p. 324-26 (reprinted in Antient Castle)

Guide Books

  • Kershaw, Mary J., 1987, Knaresborough Castle (Harrogate Borough Council)
  • Barber, S.C., 1947, Knaresborough Castle (Knaresborough)

Primary Sources

  • Pipe Rolls 1129-30, 1203-12 (see Pipe Roll Society for published references)
  • Stubbs, W. (ed), 1880, The Minor Works comprising the Gesta regum with its continuation, the Actus pontificum, and the Mappa mundi, by Gervase, the Monk of Canterbury (London: Longman Rolls series 73) Vol. 2 p. 440 online copy
  • Rickard, John, 2002, The Castle Community. The Personnel of English and Welsh Castles, 1272-1422 (Boydell Press) (lists sources for 1272-1422) p. 485-6
  • Holmes, R., 1894-5, 'Wapentake of Osgoldcross' Yorkshire Archaeological Journal Vol. 13 p. 110 (Escheat of 1370) online copy
  • Parsons, D. (ed), 'Return of the State of the Castle of Knaresborough 1561' in The Diary of Sir Henry Slingsby (London) p. 239-43 (survey of 1561) online copy
  • C145/124(8) (Survey of 1333) The National Archives reference (calendared in Maxwell Lyte, H.C., 1916, Calendar of Inquisitions Miscellaneous (Chancery), preserved in the Public Record Office (H.M.S.O.) Vol. 2 p. 336 No. 1372 [online copy >])
  • DL44/112 (Survey of 6 Elizabeth) The National Archives reference
  • DL44/309 (Survey of 23 Elizabeth) The National Archives reference
  • DL44/387 (Survey of 28 Elizabeth) The National Archives reference
  • DL44/469 (Survey of 33 Elizabeth) The National Archives reference
  • E36/159 ff. 5-12 (Survey of 29 Henry VIII) The National Archives reference
  • SP14/49/82 (Survey of 1609) The National Archives reference


  • Constable, Christopher, 2003, Aspects of the archaeology of the castle in the north of England C 1066-1216 (Doctoral thesis, Durham University) Available at Durham E-Theses Online