Skipton Castle was designed to be a medieval fortress but now her imposing walls attract thousands of visitors a year. Skipton Castle is one of the best preserved medieval castles since its modernization and has survived virtually unaltered for more than 300 years. If you want to see what living in a castle was really like hundreds of years ago this is the place to visit. Many castles across England are in ruins from previous wars or bad need of repair due to age.
Skipton is west of Leeds in the Yorkshire Dales. This is an area that is deeply under appreciated by tourists. Northwest of Manchester, it is only a 1½ hour drive.
Skipton was not on my original list of castles to explore but on a previous trip to Bolton Castle, also in the Yorkshire Dales, I was told it was worth seeing. It was a worthwhile suggestion.
Most castles are in constant repair or are in disrepair. Dukes and Duchess’, Lords and Ladies’ who in many cases still own the castles just do not have the massive resources it takes to update or maintain a 300-900 year old fortress. Skipton Castle was restored after the English Civil War when Cromwell’s troops “slighted” the castles defenses – a term which means the walls and towers were left in ruins and the wooden floors and roofs were burned. It was to ensure the castle would not be used as a fortress again.
What a pleasant surprise Skipton turned out to be – both the town and the castle. I visited on a late Sunday afternoon and everyone in the town seemed to be out socializing. The town was clean with lots of great old shops, nice restaurant/pubs and rooms to let. There are some towns in England that beg you to stop, walk around and learn their history. Skipton is one of those towns.
The castle was the most complete castle I have seen to date. Although the old kitchens, bedrooms, halls and watchtowers are no longer feasible to live in the castle appears much as it was 300 years ago. For that alone it is a castle worth visiting. The castle has a number of unique features like the courtyard in the center of the castle.
Because of the pristine condition a casual visitor can get a good visual representation of what everyday life was like in various areas of a medieval castle; the kitchen, the drawing rooms, the banquet halls, the bedrooms, the wine and beer cellars, the curing room and the watchtowers. This alone was worth the visit. There are tales and stories in all ruins but Skipton offers the experience of seeing firsthand what life was like in a medieval castle.
I learned that all workers in the kitchen were men who worked half naked due to the heat of the two fireplaces. It would have been crowded, hot and smelly. Water was scarce with only a single source within the castle. Wood pipes carried the water into the castle but during times of siege inhabitants had to rely on rain water collected in a cistern under the “Conduit Courtyard” in the center of the castle.
The banqueting hall was the center gathering location of the medieval castle. The Lord and Lady of the house dined each day with their guests usually just before noon. The chamberlain, responsible for sitting arrangements, became a popular figure in the medieval household as social standing was indicated by the location a person sat relative to the high table and to others.
The castle is well protected with 3 of the original drum towers standing today. Watchtowers with narrow arrow slits allowed the defense a strong position in the event of an attack. At one time a moat surrounded Skipton Castle and visitors, as well as enemies, had to cross a drawbridge to enter the castle.
During the medieval times water was a source of sickness. Ground water was soiled with waste and contaminants from humans. People realized they could drink ale or beer and stay healthy. For some reason it took centuries for people to realize it was the heating process of the beer that killed the germs in the water. It wasn’t unusual for children as well as adults to drink beer during this time but wine was saved for royalty. Most castles had a brewery located in is lower areas near the kitchen.
The chapel, located outside the walls on the castle grounds, was built in the 12th century! It is dedicated to St. John the Evangelist and was reserved for use by the Lord and Lady of the castle, the castle residents, the garrison and a single local farmer. The last two recorded uses were in 1635 and 1637 for a marriage and baptism. It was later converted to a stable but recently restored. There is another church just outside the castle grounds where the people of the community worshiped.
The Background and History
William of Normandy (Normans were of Viking heritage from what is now France) attacked and defeated King Harold of England in the Battle of Hastings in 1066. Harold had promised not to seek the throne when King Edward the Confessor died. William had claim to the throne as the illegitimate son of the Robert I, Duke of Normandy since Edward didn’t leave an heir. However upon the King’s death Harold indeed accepted the crown. Harold was killed at the Battle of Hastings and William of Normandy became William the Conqueror.
The Normans now controlled England and moved quickly to secure their power. Shortly after the Battle of Hastings, Robert De Romille, a Norman baron, built a wooden fort where Skipton Castle is today. It didn’t hold up well against the raiding Scots from the north so a stone fortress was built. King Edward I of England bought the castle for £100 (100 pounds today is $150 but in that a large sum of money) and granted it to the Clifford family in 1310.
The history of the castle is tied to the Clifford family as Robert Clifford became Lord Clifford of Skipton and Guardian of the Craven, the land north and west of the castle. The elder Clifford was killed at the Battle of Bannockburn, in which the Scots soundly defeated the British, shortly after the castle was fortified in 1314.
There were several Cliffords of note during their ownership. The 9th and 10th Lord Clifford of Skipton, John Skipton (1430-1461), was known as “Bloody Clifford” and “the butcher” because of his savagery in battle. Shakespeare’s Henry VI, parts II and III, records how John slaughtered many Yorkists in the War of the Roses (between royal family in York and royal family in Lancaster). John Skipton killed the Duke of York and his son in revenge for killing his father Thomas Clifford. He then placed the Duke’s head over the gates of York. He himself was killed at the Battle of Towton.
His son, Henry was sent to Cumberland by his mother where he tended sheep in hiding until he was restored as the 10th Lord by Henry VII. From that time onward he was always known as “the Shepherd Lord”. Some of the cannons in the castle today were brought back from the Battle of Flodden in which he helped to defeat the Scottish. James IV, the Scottish king, was killed in the battle having the distinction of being the last British monarch to be killed in action.
George Clifford, 3rd Earl of Cumberland and 13th Lord Skipton (1558-1608) squandered a fortune before he was 30 and then turned to privateering to regain his wealth. He commanded the Elizabeth Bonaventure against the Spanish Armada. He was responsible for sacking Puerto Rico in 1598. However none of his adventures against the Spanish regained his wealth and he died in 1598 in debt.
During the British Civil War the castle would have interesting footnote. Castle Skipton was the last Royalist bastion in the north against Oliver Cromwell. After a three year siege a surrender was negotiated between Cromwell and the Royalists. Lord Skipton was able to leave the castle in full regalia with his troops. Cromwell “slighted” the castle to ensure it could not be used again as a fortress. To commemorate the event Lady Anne Clifford (1590-1676) planted a Yew tree which stands today in the Conduit Courtyard and made the repairs to the castle that are evident today.
Category Rating: A
Overall Rating: #3
Comments: The castle, the town and the Yorkshire Dale are worth the trip. Take a day to explore the castle, shop in the town and enjoy this wonderful site.