Conisbrough Castle

Project Profile

Project Title :

Conisbrough Castle, Doncaster

Client :

English Heritage

Type of Work :

Earthwork and Geophysical Survey

Project Gallery 

A historic engraving of the castle from 1801   Historic Estate Map 1901  
Digital Terrain Model of the castle   Historic photograph of Conisbrough gateway  
Consibrough keep   The great ditch at Conisbrough  
Conisbrough plan of castle with hachures  



From Saxon fortress to medieval Royal Castle to Picturesque ruin

"There are few more beautiful or striking scenes in England, than are presented by the vicinity of this ancient Saxon fortress. The soft and gentle river Don sweeps through an amphitheatre, in which cultivation is richly blended with woodland, and on a mount, ascending from the river, well defended by walls and ditches, rises this ancient edifice". Ivanhoe, W. Scott, 1819

NAA were commissioned by English Heritage to undertake a detailed analytical earthwork survey of a pronounced knoll, overlooking the River Don on the north-western side of Conisbrough, on which stands the magnificent 12th century castle built by Hamelyn Plantagenet, fifth Earl of Surrey. The castle was popularised by Sir Walter Scott in Ivanhoe, published in 1819. In his text, Scott incorrectly calls the castle a 'Saxon fortress' although it seems now that he may have inadvertently been partially correct since hints in the documentary sources suggest a possible defended site at Conisbrough some 700 years earlier.

Geoffrey of Monmouth, describing the battle of Maesbeli in his 12th century Historia Regnum Britanniae, wrote:
"Then, when all the companies on both sides were drawn forth in battle-array, the foremost ranks engage, dealing blow upon blow and shedding no little blood. On the one side the Britons, on the other the Saxons, drop down to die of their wounds. Aurelius cheereth on his Christians, Hengist giveth the word unto his Paynims; and as the conflict thus was raging, ever among did Eldol seek occasion to get at hand-grips with Hengist, but none such offered; for Hengist, when he saw his own men fall, and that the Britons by God's grace were gaining ground, straightway fled away and made for the Castle of Kaerconan, that is now called Cunungeburg"

Tradition has it that Hengis and his brother Horsa were Anglo-Saxon mercenaries invited by Vortigern, a post-Roman British leader, into the country to counter the threat of barbarian incursions. Initially the brothers were true to their word and fought for Vortigern but eventually seized their opportunity and turned against their host. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records bloody battles fought by Hengist in southern England throughout the mid to late 5th century. However, there is no mention of the battle of Maesbeli, or indeed Cunungeburg: the 'King's Fortress'.

However, a charter of AD664 does record the granting of land at Conisbrough to St Peter's Minster at Medehamstede, by Wulfhere, King of Mercia, although, this does not necessarily mean that a settlement was in existence here at this time. The first reference we have to a settlement at Conisbrough is AD1002, when it was mentioned in the will of Wulfric Spotte, an Anglo-Saxon aristocrat who was a minister and advisor to Ethelraed Unraed.

After the Norman Conquest and the construction of Hamelyn Plantagenet's castle, Conisbrough had a rather chequered history. It became a royal castle in 1461 on the accession of Edward IV, the former Earl of Cambridge, to the English throne. However, soon after the site seems to have fallen into disrepair and by 1538 the gates, drawbridge, and a lengthy section of curtain wall had all collapsed and the castle lay abandoned.

The research undertaken by NAA has demonstrated how the castle's original builders sculpted and modified the knoll to form the outer ring of defences, while the geophysical survey may have identified significant building remains surviving beneath the surface of the outer bailey. The study also provided some insights into the later development of the parkland estate during the late 18th century when the Picturesque movement was having a marked effect on the landscape across Britain. Even before the publication of Ivanhoe, the dramatic beauty of the shattered ruin, set in the verdant landscape, was proving popular with the leisured classes who would travel the considerable distance from Leeds to visit the site. The additional association of the castle with a romanticised historic figure like Hengist, may have also contributed to its appeal, and was possibly the inspiration behind Scott's use of the site in the first place. However, unfortunately, any physical evidence of the pre-Conquest origins of the site, hinted at in those early documentary references, still continues to remain elusive.