Conisbrough Castle, home to Earl William de Warenne, is a great place to visit. Some years ago I wrote a short ‘tourist guide’ piece, the text of which you can find below.
It gleams in the sunlight, towering over the surrounding countryside.
The spectacular white keep of Conisbrough Castle, built of magnesian limestone, is a landmark which has dominated its setting for over eight hundred years. As you approach it from the bottom of the steep hill, raising your head to take in the imposing structure, it becomes both more impressive to the modern eye, and more oppressive to the medieval one, as you imagine the inhabitants of the village of long ago, used only to wattle and daub huts, scurrying around its edges about their daily business. Although stone from the outer walls has long since been robbed, the keep remains tall and smooth and virtually whole, a testament to the awe in which it was held.
Conisbrough was originally a Saxon settlement, but the land was given to William de Warenne, one of William the Conqueror’s followers, shortly after the Norman conquest. He became the Earl of Surrey, and it was he who first had a wooden castle built here. This remained until his great-granddaughter Isabel inherited the estate from her father, and was then wed firstly to one of King Stephen’s sons and then to Hamelin Plantagenet, the illegitimate half-brother of King Henry II. From this Plantagenet stock came greatness: Hamelin held the earldom for over forty years from 1163 until 1202, and oversaw the transformation of the castle from its old wooden beginnings into a place fit for royalty – as indeed it was when his nephew King John stayed here in 1201.
The great stone keep, which dates from around 1180, is unique in its design in this country, being cylindrical but with six huge buttresses around it which give it a polygonal shape. This would make it immensely strong in the case of any attack either from men or from the stone-throwing siege machinery of the time, and even to the modern eye the keep is clearly built with defence rather than display in mind. It has very few windows, and these only small and high up in the walls; the entrance is at first-floor level via a wooden staircase which could be burnt in times of trouble, leaving attackers with no means of entrance. This staircase brings those entering into a storeroom with only a hatch leading back down to the ground – not a dank dungeon, as many assume, but another secure store, which itself contains access to the well shaft which would ensure the keep could be self-contained even if the outer and inner wards should be captured. The stairways are set in the thickness of the huge walls, and as you ascend in the atmospheric gloom it is easy to imagine travelling back in time to the castle’s heyday.
As you visit there are many things to look out for. The refurbishment of the keep carried out in the 1990s means that you can climb right up to the roof, where panoramic vistas are to be found: picture yourself in the role of the medieval soldier, scanning the landscape for enemies, or simply admire the countryside and see where the outer boundaries of the castle would once have stood, around the bottom of the hill.
On your way up to the roof, be sure to explore the rest of the keep. Each floor has one main room, but do not ignore the side chambers, from the beautiful arched vaulting in the chapel, where the vestiges of decoration may still be seen, to the rather alarming latrine where the vertiginous drop down outside the keep is clearly visible. Look closely at the architecture as you ascend through the keep: although you walk through the room on each of the upper floors – the council chamber and the bedroom – to get to the next set of stairs, if you look carefully enough you can see the ghost of other archways in the wall, which suggest that there may once have been passageways around the edges of the rooms, safeguarding the earl’s privacy as he worked or slept.
Outside the keep in the inner bailey there are some curiosities for those who wish to investigate, oddities which may well have resulted from interference much later in the castle’s history. Over near the remains of the Great Hall there is a culvert set into the ground which strangely seems to drain inwards to the courtyard rather than outwards beneath the walls. Why is this so? Most peculiar of all is the short path which has been marked out to one side of the keep, with stones that are clearly individual steps taken from a spiral staircase. The mystery? There are no spiral staircases at Conisbrough …
Where did they come from? This is just one of the many things to ponder as you walk back down the hill, away from the brooding presence of the castle described as ‘South Yorkshire’s Best Kept Secret’.