Conisbrough Castle
  In October 1317, Conisbrough Castle, then held by John de Warrene
  8th earl of Surrey, was attacked by Thomas earl of Lancaster's men.

We know this because on the 3rd November King Edward II  issued a Parliamentary writ ordering Lancaster to cease attacking Warrene's Yorkshire castles and the king offered to do justice in the dispute towards Lancaster if he would desist.[Foedera, II, p.345]. The chronicle of St. Werburgh's, Chester, records the devastation of all Warrene's lands north of the River Trent at this time and Maud de Neirford, Warrene's mistress was among those ejected from his other Yorkshire castle at Sandal Magna. [Maddicott, 1970, pp.207- 208]
According to a petition given to Edward II in 1322, John de Warrene described how Lancaster had attacked his Yorkshire castles and during a meeting at Pontefract had threatened him with death unless he released all his lands to him. These included not only the Yorkshire lands, such as the Wakefield Manor and Conisborough but also manors in North Wales and estates in Norfolk. Warrene had been forced to comply on the 29th November 1318 when he signed documents to this effect at Doncaster. Twelve of Lancaster's retainers were sole witnesses and are likely to have coerced Lancaster into signing. Warrene was also given the impossible task of paying Lancaster £50,000 by Christmas Day at the house of the Friars Minor in Leicester, the same twelve retainers also witnessed this agreement. It appears that Lancaster was attempting to remove Warrene's influence in the North of England completely for Warrene, since 1313 had been a supporter of  King Edward, and Lancaster had been at periodic military variance with the king from 1308-1322 over the King's choice of favourites.

                Conisbrough impression   

                 An artist's impression of Conisbrough Castle. The curtain wall to the right of the picture is where the invaders attacked  the castle

The settlement, much in Lancaster's favour was completed at Kirk Smeaton on the 30th November 1318 when Warrene granted all his Welsh lands to Thomas for life. Warenne's lands in Norfolk e.g. Castle Acre, were almost certainly released to Lancaster at this time. In addition to lands, Warrene had to release to Lancaster the valuable wardship of Richard Foliot, who later died in 1325 before he became of age. Most of the land releases were ratified by Edward II in January of 1319. It is very probable that the King was partly aquiescing to Lancaster, for Lancaster's self-interest was beginning to over-ride his governmental concerns. Lancaster had not gained all he wanted from the Treaty of Leake and he was losing ground on the Ordinances, particularly in the choice of the Kings courtiers whom he considered to be 'evil counsellors'.
Two situations had arisen which had an influence upon the loss of Warenne's lands. Firstly the 'abduction' of Lancaster's estranged wife, Alice, by a knight of Warrene's, and secondly, from 1316, Warenne's efforts at divorcing his wife Joan of Bar which led to his eventual excommunication. The former situation gave Lancaster a pretext to attack Warenne's Yorkshire castles whilst  the impending divorce was not supported by King Edward II, for Joan was the King's kin. No doubt, Edward wished to punish Warenne for his dereliction of Alice and Lancaster provided that opportunity. A clever move, for this now played into the hands of the king allowing Lancaster to wallow in self- interest whilst Edward secured a better outcome for himself in governance. Whilst Warenne had 'chosen the lesser of two evils', Lancaster had been 'bought off' and 'taken the money and run'.
However, now Lancaster had no rival in Yorkshire, already holding Pontefract Castle and its honour, he had now secured the castles of Sandal and Conisbrough as well as the manors of Sowerby, Halifax, Dewsbury, Wakefield, Thorne, Fishlake, Hatfield and Braithwell, he seemed unchallengable in the North.
By January 1318 Lancaster had firmly secured control of Warenne's estates in Yorkshire and had appointed John de Lasceles as constable at Conisbrough [C.P.R. 1358-61, pp.555-6]. Lascelles set about disposing of  timber from the castle to help in the repair of the house of one of Lancaster's retainers whilst more dispersals of materials were carried out in February and March by Lascelles. [SC. 8/157/7833, Maddicott, 1970, p.340]
A snap-shot of earl Thomas of Lancaster's lands in 1319-20 shows that he also held other manors in Yorkshire. These were Conisbrough, Pickering with its receivership, Scales, Rothwell, Altofts, Leeds, Hegale [?Headingley], Barwick-in-Elmet and the free court of Pontefract. [PRO. 30/26/71/1.]

On the 22nd of March 1322, earl Thomas, who had lost at the Battle of Boroughbridge, was executed at Pontefract and from that time his lands were sequestered by King Edward II until in 1326, John de Warrene received his lands back which he held until his death in 1347. John having no living heirs, the castle then passed into the hands of Edward III who granted it to his youngest son, Edmund de Langley in his nonage, under the control of Queen Philippa.
A plan of Conisbrough Castle
Plan of Conisbrough CastleThe Keep
Seen from the exterior it is not obvious that the ashlar limestone keep at Conisbrough is circular. It is supported by six massive buttresses which provide it with an angular appearance. There are very few loop holes in the structure, which, with its fifteen foot thick walls would have provided security during attack but left the occupants with a feeling of claustrophobia. It is a testament to the ability of Thomas of Lancaster's men that they succeeded in taking the castle at all.
The Curtain Wall
Because of damage sustained to the south-east curtain wall during the taking of the castle, earl Thomas had repairs carried out in 1319. It is likely that the wall was undermined at this point. A common method was to use a 'tortoise' of shields, dig tunnels under the walls, prop the tunnels with timber and then set fire to the props causing the walls to collapse. This damaged part can be clearly seen as a later addition on the plan of the castle at left and also on the artist's impression above which included the second and third turrets from the gateway. Later this part of the wall collapsed indicating that these repairs were done hastily. Indeed relationships between Lancaster, the king and the king's 'evil advisers', Hugh Despenser the younger amongst them, began to degrade from the York Parliament of 1318.

Artist's impression
painting of Conisbrough Castle

The Keep

                                              . Conisbrough Water Colour
keep Keep
                          1970's    1990's showing the collapsed curtain wall in the south-east 

                                              An artist's romantic impression of Edward Prince of Wales and his father King Edward III at Conisbrough Castle



                                            An aerial view of Consisbrough Castle showing evidence of Lancaster's breaching of the bailey wall.




1. Hinton, I.T.  A New and Complete History of the County of York. Thomas Allen, Warwick Square.
2. Maddicott, J.R. Thomas of Lancaster 1307-1322. O.U.P.1970.
3. Yorkshire Castles. Department of the Environment H.M. Stationery Office, 1973.

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© Copyright Tim Midgley 2006 revised 3rd January 2018.