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Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Scarborough Castle

Yorkshire castles, haunted, siege, Scarborough, German bombardment English coast
Scarborough Castle dominates this Victorian seaside resort from a massive precipitous headland bulging up from the North Sea. It has a fascinating 3,000 year story to tell – but its fame is assured because the ghost of Piers Gaveston, Edward II’s extremely close friend, is reputed to haunt it. If this prospect isn’t enough to put the willies up you, Piers’ headless spectre, allegedly, leaps out of the shadows, causing the unwary tourist to tumble down the sheer cliff face onto the fish and chip wrappers below. Which just goes to show that Piers must have been a pretty bad egg after all. He actually met his death 180 miles to the south, though, on Blacklow Hill, Warwickshire, where he was beheaded and run through on the orders - or with the connivance – of the Earl of Warwick. Maybe his spirit prefers the sea air at Scarborough.

Scarborough castle, Civil War, Piers Gaveston, George Fox, Yorkshire
There is evidence of settlement on the headland long before all that, however, from around 800BC and, in 1984, a Bronze Age sword was discovered. A thousand years’ later, in the 4th century AD, the Romans built a signal station on it – probably one of a coastal chain designed to warn of attacks from Germanic pirates. Then, skipping another 500 years or so (during which nothing happened unless you were there...), a Viking called Thorgils Skarthi arrived around 965AD and Scarthaborg was founded - Skarthi is an Old Norse nickname meaning ‘hare-lipped’ and borg (Old English burh) means ‘fortified place’ – so Scarborough means something like “Skarthi’s stronghold”. A chapel was built close to the old Roman signal station shortly after this and we assume a settlement grew up, probably in the sheltered harbour below the castle. But in 1066, the Norwegian King, Harald Hardrada, set fire to the town and slaughtered many of the residents – shortly before receiving his come-uppance at the Battle of Stamford Bridge

By the 12th century, a serious fortress had been erected on the headland and from 1159 Henry II turned this into a royal castle. His son, King John, carried out extensive alterations – including the construction of a royal chamber block and hall. Indeed, John spent more on Scarborough than on any other castle – but perhaps he needed to, because repairs seem to have been a recurring need throughout its history. In fairness, it is an exposed site and, without ongoing attention, medieval castles tended to dilapidate. However, by the time of Edward I (1272-1307), Scarborough was one of the great castles of England. Edward held court – and Scottish prisoners – here. Piers Gaveston’s connection came in 1312, when he took refuge in Scarborough and was briefly besieged before giving himself up with the promise of safe conduct – a promise which, as we know, the Earl of Warwick did not feel bound to keep. The castle was attacked by the French during the Hundred Years’ War but, curiously, the Wars of the Roses seem to have passed it by. By the late 15th century it was in poor shape again, though Richard III stayed awhile in 1484, before going on to lose his crown to Henry VII and take up a long residency under a car park.

Vikings, Yorkshire, Hardrada, Pilgrimage of Grace
Scarborough Castle was briefly besieged by rebels in the aftermath of the Pilgrimage of Grace – a (mainly Yorkshire Catholic) revolt against Henry VIII’s church reforms – and one of the leaders, John Wyvill, was hanged in chains outside the town. It was under siege again in 1557 when Thomas Stafford, apparently something of a nutcase, walked in, proclaimed himself ‘Protector of the Realm’ and tried to incite rebellion against the Catholic Queen Mary, claiming that England would be overrun by Spaniards as a consequence of Mary’s marriage to King Philip of Spain. The castle was easily re-taken and Stafford was hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn. Thirty two of his followers were executed too - at least some of them at Scarborough, where their bodies were boiled and tanned as a deterrent for others; it would work for me.

Things seemed to calm down a bit until the English Civil War broke out in 1642. Sir Hugh Cholmley initially occupied the castle for Parliament, but switched to the Royalist side. Apart from a brief and bloodless recapture by Parliamentary forces in 1643, Cholmley successfully held Scarborough and the castle for the King, providing an invaluable port, until 1645. After a long siege, during which the castle (and St Mary’s church below) were severely damaged Cholmley, with no food and only 25 men fit enough to fight, was forced to surrender; more than half of his original force of 500 had perished. A second – much briefer - siege took place when the latest Parliamentary commander, clearly a man of principles, also declared for the King because Parliament failed to pay the garrison. 

After the Civil War, the castle became a prison – one of its inhabitants from 1665-66 was George Fox, founder of the Society of Friends (Quakers), who complained that the conditions were appalling. However, apart from attacks by the Dutch and American navies in 1653 and 1779 respectively – obviously nothing to worry about - Scarborough’s military adventures seemed to have come to an end. A barracks had been built in the wake of the 1745 Jacobite rebellion (on the site of King John’s chamber) and a battery was established on the headland. But all was relatively peaceful for awhile.

Visit Scarborough, Victorian resort, castle, WW1, North Yorkshire
Everything changed for Scarborough at five minutes past eight in the morning of 16th December 1914. Two battle cruisers of the German Imperial Navy, Von Der Tann and Derrflinger, opened fire on the town. The attack was ostensibly an attempt to draw Britain’s Grand Fleet into battle. 200 shells were fired: the castle and its barrack block were seriously damaged, as were other buildings in the town below; 90 people were injured and 18 killed, including 14-month old John Shields Ryalls, who perished with his nurse, in her arms.

Most of Scarborough Castle is now in ruins. The castle gate and barbican, spanning the only reasonable approach, still impress though; Henry II’s great keep, so badly damaged in the Civil War, looms over you and the curtain wall extends along the south, until it disappears over the eroding cliff. The 18th century Master Gunner’s House includes some interesting displays. Other remains - John’s chamber and hall and the Roman signal station - can be seen in outline. When you think about it, it's surprising so much has survived.  The staff are friendly and it’s a bracing walk around the top of headland, with great views on a good day. So don’t visit Scarborough without seeing the castle. But keep an eye out for Piers Gaveston, the little tinker.

For more, click HERE.


  1. Been to Scarborough a few times, but never visited the castle. Interesting history.

  2. I have been to Yorkshire a few times, but never made it to Scarborough. Grrr. And to think how close we were, at Castle Howard. Next time, for sure! I also want to get to Whitby and Staithes. This was a fascinating post. I'm forwarding it to my husband whose computer is in the next room. lol I wonder if we could bring boiling and tanning back to corrections facilities.

  3. Hello Mike!
    Beautifully have described this castle ... Cheers :)


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