Conisbrough lies near Doncaster in one of the poorest parts of England. But it holds two medieval jewels – a very early Anglo-Saxon church and a magnificent Norman Castle
Spending a Saturday night in Conisbrough is a heart-warming experience. Apart from having to try and escape inhaling the fumes from the local pubs while walking past, or surmounting the trouble of finding anything at all to eat – because everybody has suspended with this basic need until the carveries open on Sunday – it is nice to see people still coming together for a pint (or two as it happens). This may be one of the most downtrodden villages in the old mining districts in Southern Yorkshire, houses may be derelict and small children are without exception dressed up in cheap patent-leather shoes. Nevertheless the local community soldiers on with a basic friendliness towards each other and any odd medievalist on a field-trip.
As a warm-hearted and very helpful woman explained to me rather surprisingly over breakfast: “this place is in fact rather “medieval”; we all know each other down to every bit and detail”, she said. She had been watching “Secrets of the castle with Ruth, Peter and Tom” (BBC) and obviously felt the comparison to be to the point.
Contributing to this “medieval aura”, though, which she so keenly experienced, is probably also the towering castle, which seems to dominate the old mining town.
With its magnificent great tower it must absolutely be considered one of the most “castly” castles in Good Old England. Although abandoned in the early 16th century, locals obviously had enough stones to quarry elsewhere, and even if it was robbed of parts of its wall, it was early on thought of as a very picturesque ruin. Famously, it inspired Sir Walter Scott to write his most novel “Ivanhoe”, a connection, which the place still profits from. Today it is cared for by “English Heritage” and a group of friendly and knowledgeable curators and guides, who work to turn it into a must-see for both local schoolchildren and the odd tourist, while gently fanning the Ivanhoe-connection.
The best way to get a feeling for the landscape is to climb the mighty tower, which was built into the curtain wall of the inner baily some time in the late 12th century on top of a promontory of limestone. From up here it is possible to look down on the river Don and its confluence with the river Dearne and the ancient Roman road, which led from Doncaster to Templeborough. Here is also a view towards Strafford Sands, where the Don used to be forded. This was probably the traditional meeting place for the Viking Wapantake of Strafforth Hundred (Strafford is probably derived from Stratford or Street-ford(ing). It was also on the line of the ancient border between Mercia and Northumbria.
Obviously the castle was located in such a way that it was possible to oversee the movements of goods and men from the North to the South. But it was also possible to collect customs of the agricultural produce freighted down the river Don to East of England.
It is generally believed that Conisbrough was part of an old Anglo-Saxon/ Viking administrative unit, which was owned by Earl Harold Godwinson, who seized the English throne after Edward in 1066; and who was killed at Hastings in the same year. Very soon after one of the most trusted companions in arms of William, William de Varenne, was appointed the first earl of Varenne. He had married a distant relative of Queen Matilda, called Gunrada.
At that time the honour of Conisbrough consisted of 28 villages covering most of the south eastern corner of southern Yorkshire.
In Doomsday, Conisbrough is described as a village with 21 villagers, 11 smallholders, two mills and a priest. All-in-all they worked 16 plough-teams, of which 5 belonged to the lord and 11 belonged to the village. But Conisbrough was only a small part of the wealth of William de Varenne, who held land in 13 counties all over the country. In modern money his holdings have been estimated to be worth £57 billion, a record in Britain during the last millennium.
At that time earth banks and timber palisades probably surrounded the inner bailey. Inside, there would have been a timber-framed hall, a kitchen and a chamber. There was probably also an outer bailey covering the ground to the west.
The Grandiose Keep
The present castle was built in the late 12th century by their grandchild, Isabel de Warenne who was married to William, son of king Stephen. Later she married Hamelin of Anjou, King Henry’s illegitimate brother.
The unique feature of the castle is its round tower faced with finely dressed limestone. These had been sourced locally to the east of the village. With six buttresses it appears more robust from the outside than from the inside, where the visitor gets a sense of a small and private apartment, which must have been at the height of its fashion at the time of construction.
At the ground floor there was a huge well and probably storage room, which was accessed via a ladder from the first floor. Exactly how this was used is not known. Second floor held a great chamber, which is believed to have been richly furnished. One of the fine details is the magnificent chimneypiece next to which was a water basin fed by rain-water via lead pipes from the roof. The third floor was used as bedroom. Here was yet another chimneypiece, which although smaller served to make the room cosy.
From here a doorway led to a small chapel located in one of the buttresses. A smaller and more cramped doorway led into a sacristy, where the vestments and holy vessels would have been kept. Perhaps this was also used to house the “treasure” consisting of jewels, coins, drinking vessels and the like. This was the private chapel of the lord and his family. Another chapel was in the grounds of the inner baily. used by the servants in the castle. Here in the inner bailey was also the great hall used for the business transactions carried out whenever the lord was in residence. Later in the 14th century a so-called solar was attached to the west end of the great hall. This furnished the earl and his family with more comfortable rooms than those in the great tower built by their ancestors 150 years earlier.
The Church of St. Peter
Walking down the hill from the castle and up another we find the centre of the small village with its church, graveyard and former centre square (now busy road). The church is arguably the oldest Anglo-Saxon Church in Yorkshire. It is believed to have been built around AD 740, but excavations indicate there was an even earlier wooden predecessor.
Archaeological excavations have demonstrated that the church was perhaps built in an enclosure. It has been speculated that it was part of a very early monastic of royal compound located near the place, where the battle of Idle is supposed to have taken place in AD 616. Another hypothesis is that the findings indicate a wall of a stock-pond for fish, which has been dendrochronologically dated to the end of the 6th or the beginning of the 7th century. This would also indicate that the church was built in connection with an upper-status settlement (monastery and/or royal hall) aka Conungesburh – the Kings Burgh.
As it stands today the church is an amalgamation of different building materials and periods. The early church was curiously enough constructed of a mixture of reused Coals Measure sandstones and reused blocks of limestone, probably quarried from a nearby Roman villa-site, but they may also have come from the Roman forts at Templeborough further to the West and ferried down the Don. Nevertheless, it is an impressive building with a nave measuring 13.4 x 5.28 metres. The original chancel was enlarged in or around 1050 and further extended in the 15th century. The Normans also added the aisles, which gives the church a very wide character.
Located north-east of Conisbrough town centre off A630; 4 1⁄2 miles south-west of Doncaster
Conisbrough St. Peter
Opening Times: The church is open every day from 9:00am – 4:00pm with a few exceptions.
The Conisbrough Estate and the southern boundary of Northumbria. Environmental and archaeological evidence from a late sixth/early seventh century structure and a later deer park boundary at Conisbrough South Yorkshire.
By Paul C. Buckland, David Hey, Richard O’Neill and Ian Tyers.
Unpublished paper 2013
By Stephen Brindle and Agnieszka Sadraei
English Heritage Guidebooks 2015
Landscape, Conservation, and Action Plan.
Dearne Valley Partnership 2014