Scarborough Castle in the seaside town of Scarborough in North Yorkshire sits on a headland that overlooks both the South Bay and North Bay of the town. It has a position in the town that gives it unparalleled views that demonstrate its strategic importance.
The occupation of the site the castle sits on dates back to the Iron Age having been the site of a hill fort. It was later the site of a Roman signal station in around 370AD, the foundations of which can be seen to this day. The signal station encompassed a square tower which sat in a courtyard that was square protected by a curtain wall. This enclosure was surrounded by a ditch. There were several of these stations built along the coast of Yorkshire in order to protect the country from Anglo-Saxon raids. They were abandoned in 410AD when the Romans withdrew from Britain.
The next occupation of the castle site would be during, possibly, the Anglo-Saxon period. During this time it is thought a settlement was built. Though the next definite period of occupation is during the Viking period from where the founding of the modern town traces its history. In 966/967 AD two Viking brothers called Thorgils and Kormak lead a raid on Ireland, Wales and England. It was during this raid that Thorgils and Kormak founded what would become the modern town of Scarborough. It is thought the town’s name is derived from Thorgils nickname of ‘Hair Lip’ or ‘Skarthi’ in Viking and the Viking word ‘borg’ which means ‘stronghold’. So stronghold of Thorgils. The history of Scarborough and the Vikings is a mixed one, with Harold Hardrada going on to raid the town in the months prior to the Battle of Hastings in 1066.
It should be noted at this point, it has also been suggested in recent years that the roots of modern day Scarborough actually traces its history back to the Anglo-Saxon period.
Scarborough Castle itself was founded in about 1130 by William le Gros, Count of Aumale. William was created Earl of York by King Stephen in 1138. He then set about establishing his control of the region. The first castle was constructed out of wood, as were many castles of the period. William is recorded as enclosing the headland that the castle occupies with a wall and erecting a great tower where the remains of the keep stands today.
In 1154, King Henry II aceeded to the throne. He set about regaining control of all royal castles. Scarborough Castle was built in a royal manor and thus fell into such a category. He took control control of the castle and on his orders in 1159 the reconstruction of the castle in stone began and took about 10 years.
A new town was established beneath the castle. A sum of £650 is recorded as being spent on the castle, this was mostly spent on the construction of the keep. It has been suggested the keep or `great tower` was constructed as a status symbol. No major works next occurred at the castle until the reign of King John. It is known that King John visited the castle and during his reign he spent quite a large sum improving its fortifications as he saw it as a key strategic stronghold in the north. Construction during John’s reign included a new curtain wall and a new hall. An inner bailey was created at this time, In total, John spent over £2,000 on the castle. More money was spent on Scarborough Castle during John’s reign than any other castle.
After John’s death in 1216, his son Henry III continued to invest in the castle. Henry added a barbican between 1242-1250. The barbican was completed in 1343. The barbican that can be seen at the castle has been much modified since then. Henry never visited the castle and it seems to entered a period of decline toward the end of his reign (1216-1272).
It is recorded that the governors of the castle during this period often acted with imputiny, imposing tolls, seizing goods and generally causing issues for the local population.
In 1265, the castle was put under the stewardship of Prince Edward who would go on to become Edward I. Edward’s reign lasted from 1272 to 1307, during this time he held court at Scarborough Castle on several occasions. Hostages from his campaigns in both Wales and Scotland were imprisoned at the castle..
In 1308, Henry Percy, Baron Percy was occupying the castle. During his tenure at the castle a new brewhouse, bakehouse and and kitchen in the inner bailey were added. Edward II (1307-1327), made Isabella de Vesci the governor of both Bamburgh and Scarborough castles in 1312. During that year, Piers Gaveston the king’s favourite sought sanctuary at the castle when pursued by the Barons who imposed the ordinances of 1311, which sought to restrict the powers of the king (Edward II). The Barons saw Gaveston as the king’s favourite as a threat to their interests. In 1312, he was made governor of the castle by the king. Though his time in the role of governor was short, he was seized at the castle following a short seige. He would later be executed. King Edward responded by revoking the royal status of the town in return for not supporting Gaveston.
The next significant period in the castle’s history was during the Hundred Years War (1337-1453). Scarborough was raided on several occasions, with John Mercer of Scotland leading a raid in 1378. In 1393, with the threat of French invasion growing, a survey was undertaken of the castle’s defences. Henry VI ordered major repairs between 1424 and 1429.
Richard III (1483-1485) was the last monarch to stay at Scarborough Castle in 1484. He was there to prepare a fleet in order to repel a possible invasion by Henry Tudor, later Henry VII. Richard would die the following year.
The next major conflicts at Scarborough occur in the early 16th Century, when both French and Scottish forces attacked the castle. In 1536, a revolt broke out against Henry VIII’s (reigned 1509-1547) religious reforms. The revolt was known as the Pilgrimage of Grace. Robert Aske the leader of the rebellion lead an assault in the castle which was unsuccessful. Renovation work was undertaken at the castle in 1537. The governor at the castle was Sir Ralph Eure. He reported that some of its walls had fallen down at this time.
In 1557, the castle was attacked by forces lead by forces loyal to Thomas Wyatt the Younger who lead a rebellion against Mary I. Thomas Stafford lead the attack on the castle, his forces held the castle for three days. Stafford would later be executed for treason.
The next period of major events to effect the castle was during the English Civil War. When the war broke out in 1642, the castle was held by Parliamentary forces under the leadership of Sir Hugh Cholmley. Sir Hugh and his forces would latterly switch sides to the Royalist cause. The fortifications of the castle were enhanced, with a new new gun battery being added.
With Scarborough Castle and the town in the hands of the royalists, Parliament saw Scarborough as a valuable asset that wasn’t under their control.
In 1645, Parliamentary forces attacked the town of Scarborough. It took them three weeks to capture it. Sir Hugh and his forces retreated to the castle where they held out for five months.
The castle came under heavy and sustained bombardment. The bombardment was so intense that half of the keep collapsed as can be evidenced today. The seige was one of the most bloody of the civil war, there was large amounts of hand-to-hand fighting. The leader of the attacking Parliamentary forces, Sir John Meldrum, was killed in heavy fighting near the castle barbican.
On 25th July 1645, with the conditions in the castle having become dire with scurvy being rife, lack of supplies and able men, the castle garrison surrendered. After the seige, the castle was refortified by Parliament. In 1648, the castle garrison under the leadership of Matthew Beyton declared their support for the king as Parliament had failed to pay them. The castle then suffered a second seige during which Parliament regained control of the castle. In total, the castle changed hands seven times during the war. The castle would later be used as a prison during and after the Commonwealth years. The castle was returned to the control of the crown when the monarchy was restored.
One of the most famous people to be imprisoned at the castle was George Fox, the founder of the Religious Society of Friends (the Quakers). He was held at the castle from April 1665 to September 1666. During the Glorious Revolution that ousted James II (1685-1688) from the throne, the castle was captured by forces loyal to William of Orange. The castle had been in decline prior to its capture and hadn’t been garrisoned.
In 1745, during the Jacobite Rebellion which aimed to restore the Catholic Stuart dynasty to the throne, the castle was refortified. A barracks building was constructed in the walls of King John’s Chamber and new gun batteries added by 1745. In 1748, the Master Gunner’s House was constructed.
During the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815), the castle was garrisoned and but saw no action. This garrison remained in place until the middle of the 19th Century.
During the First World War, on the morning of 16 December 1914, two German warships bombarded the town and castle. The two German ships was also go on to attack Whitby and Hartlepool. During the bombardment, seventeen people were killed with 80 seriously wounded. The castle itself sustained heavy damage with the barracks, keep and curtain wall being badly affected.
The castle became the responsibility of the state in 1920 when the barrack block which had been damaged during the bombardment was demolished.
Today, the castle is managed by English Heritage and is open to the public.