If you really want to explore the history of England, and Yorkshire, then castles are a really good place to start. These ancient buildings have been standing for centuries and have survived through some pretty turbulent times. These incredible historic landmarks also make for fantastic days out, and Yorkshire has some of the best castles in England, perhaps the world!
Personally, I find nothing more interesting than exploring the ruins of these historic places. You can get truly lost in thought, imagining the people who have wandered their corridors, and the schemes and plots that have been thought up within their walls.
For a county as big as Yorkshire it is inevitable that there are going to be a good number of castles waiting to be explored. Furthermore, for people and families looking for things to do in Yorkshire, you can absolutely guarantee there will be a fantastic castle near you waiting to be visited.
So, here is a list of 7 of the best castles in Yorkshire, you absolutely must visit.
You really need to visit Middleham to appreciate the scale of its castle. Although largely ruinous and devoid of any kind of roof, Middleham castle is totally overwhelming. Last time I visited it was cold, wet, windy and foggy (as to be expected), but it was still a fantastic place to explore and wonder.
It’s a fairly significant fortress too when you consider it was once owned by Richard ‘the kingmaker’ Neville, and is largely believed to have been the childhood home of King Richard III. Middleham later fell into the hands of King Richard when his traitorous father in law died at the battle of Barnet.
Middleham remained a Royal Castle until 1607 when it was sold by King James.
The ruins today are dominated by the enormous Norman tower and the much preserved curtain walls.
If your visiting Middleham I would certainly take a coat as the weather can get pretty hairy! Middleham itself is a lovely small town and if you need to take refuge there are a couple of good pubs serving good beer.
Middleham Castle is owned and managed by English Heritage and entry is a bargain at only £6.00 for adults and £3.60 for children over 5. Members get in for free. If you haven’t been to Middleham then you absolutely have to give it a go.
Only a short drive from Middleham, Richmond Castle is a true Norman fortress. Perched in a commanding position above the river Swale, the fortification was constructed following the devastating ‘harrying of the North’ by one of Richard the Conquerors closest allies – Alan Rufus.
I attended Richmond Castle in my childhood several times when learning about the Norman Conquest, and was always blown away by the enormous tower keep. This is actually one of the largest Norman towers in existence and also one of the best preserved.
You can imagine what it must have been like in 1071 when this monster was being constructed. Nothing on this scale existed back then, so the effect it must have had on the local population must have been incredible. What an immense symbol of Norman power.
Legend has it that King Arthur and his knights lay sleeping below the castle and that underground tunnels are haunted by the ghost of a lost drummer boy!
Like Middleham, Richmond castle is also owned by English Heritage and entry costs £6.50 for adults and £3.90 for children. Again, members get in free.
I can’t talk about castles without mentioning the incredible Cliffords Tower in York. Although only the keep remains, this is a wonderful example of a traditional motte and bailie castle. Of course, the stone keep was a later addition, but with the original mound still present you can imagine what it must have looked like.
The original wooden castle was built by Richard the Conqueror shortly after his invasion of England, and in 1069 was burned down by Danish invaders supported by angry locals. Richard subsequently rebuilt his wooden castle before unleashing his rage on the North of England.
Not many people know that a sister castle was built on the opposite side of the river. Part of the original mound still exists but is largely hidden behind the medieval walls.
Another tragedy happened in 1190 when York’s Jewish residents were forced to take refuge within Cliffords Tower, and committed mass suicide by setting the structure on fire. In the mid 13th Century construction of the iconic stone castle we see today was begun. The design is extremely rare with the tower taking the shape of a four leaf clover.
Practically nothing of the later castle complex exists, but if you look closely behind the court building you might just see part of the original gatehouse, overlooking the river. Having grown up in York I have a gazillion photographs of Cliffords tower and have visited about as many times. Its very close to my heart.
English Heritage charge for entry £5.70 for adults and £3.40 for children. If you are visiting York then best make a day of it as there is so much to see and do!
Helmsley Castle might not have been as big as some of the castles in this list, or as significant, but it does occupy one of the most beautiful locations. Situated within the Duncombe estate, Helmsley castle sits just above the picturesque town and is completely encircled by a man made moat. Part of the imposing keep still exits along with the impressive barbican gatehouse.
A castle has stood on the same site since 1120 but it was not until 1186 that the original wooden structure was converted to stone.
Helmsley castle was actually owned by King Richard III for a short while but he never stayed there, preferring his super fortress at Middleham.
It’s easy to think that the dominant main tower we see today was damaged during some war. Not so. What actually happened was that following three months of besiegement at the hands of Sir Thomas Fairfax in 1644, part of the tower was destroyed following the occupiers surrender.
Following its acquisition by Charles Duncombe in 1695 the castle was largely left to decay with the Duncombe family later building a beautiful mansion at Duncombe Park. The castle was deliberately left to fall into disrepair and was used as a romantic backdrop to picnics and the like (as was the fashion).
Helmsley is a beautiful little town with plenty of popular cafes, bistros and pubs. If your in the area then I would recommend visiting Rievaulx Abbey (English Heritage) and Rievaulx Terrace (National Trust) which are just down the road. Pickering castle and Byland Abbey are also just a short drive away.
Entry to Helmsley castle is £7.20 for adults and £5.40 for children. English Heritage members get in for free. There is a council run car park just next to the castle and if your lucky there are some places to park on the street for free!
Positioned on a naturally defensible outcrop overlooking the Yorkshire Coastline, it’s clear to see why a fortification has sat here for nearly 3000 years. Scarborough castle is an incredible place to visit and has a very significant past. It’s quite incredible to find that remains of a Roman signal station and an Anglo Saxon chapel are still visible today.
Although a large wooden fortification built by a relative of William the Conqueror previously stood on the site, the huge stone keep we see today was built by King Henry II as part of a large scale remodelling in 1157.
The castle was later made into comfortable accommodation and further fortified by King John who’s rule was largely opposed by many in Northern England. John spent an incredible amount of money upgrading the castle and visited a whole 4 times! Actually, this was considered quite a lot by the standards of the time and John invested more in Scarborough that any other castle.
What is particularly interesting is that Scarborough castle was still defending England in World War One when it was bombarded by two German Warships. Much of the keep was destroyed.
I actually nearly began working at Scarborough Castle a few years back as a volunteer. Unfortunately work commitments meant I couldn’t take the position, a real shame as I absolutely love the place.
Entry costs £6.90 for adults and £4.10 for children. There is no parking on site (other than several disabled bays) but you can park on the local streets for a fee. The castle is managed by English Heritage.
Conisbrough Castle like many of Englands castles, the origins of Conisbrough can be traced back to the Norman Conquest of 1066. Although Conisbrough started out in life as a typical Norman earthwork fortification, the castle we see today was largely constructed in the late 12th Century by Hamelin Plantagenet, an illegitimate half brother of Henry II.
Conisbrough castle is largely dominated by its stunning, and architecturally unique, cylindrical shaped keep. At 97 feet tall it really is a sight to behold. With five floors, seven buttresses and walls that get thicker towards the bottom, no other keep of this design exists in the country.
The castle is also steeped in history having been a stronghold for the Yorkist cause during the Wars of the Roses, and also starring in Sir Walter Scotts popular novel Ivanhoe.
Sadly the castle fell into disrepair towards the end of the 15th century. This however served to be its saving grace, saving it from being further dismantled during the civil war. Today the castle makes for an extremely popular tourist destination and due to its unique characteristics it really does warrant a visit.
Entry to the castle is £6.20 for adults and £3.70 for children.
Sheriff Hutton Castle
Sheriff Hutton castle is a bit of a bonus entry to this list. I say this because whilst you cant officially explore the interior, it is possible to circumnavigate the site by using a public footpath. You can get pretty close to the castle ruins, and best of all it wont cost you a penny!
Situated just a few miles north of York in the village of Sheriff Hutton, Sheriff Hutton castle has a pretty interesting past. Although largely ruinous today, you only need to visit the site to appreciate how large it would have once been.
Although an Anglo Saxon fortification one stood on this site (the earthworks are still visible), the current castle was completed in 1398 having been built by Lord John Neville. The castle was built as a substantial home with four large stone towers and a great hall within the courtyard.
Sheriff Hutton Castle has since been owned by such well known characters as Warwick ‘the Kingmaker’ Neville and King Richard III. Richard made this one of his northern strongholds and even based his Council of the North here. If you want an idea of what the castle must have looked like, head over to Bolton castle as this was likely designed by the same architect and has many very similar features.
Sheriff Hutton Castle is privately owned and not open to the public. There is however plenty of parking in the village and a very good pub. You could also visit the local church which contains an effigy of Edward of Middleham, the son of King Richard III.
I hope you have enjoyed this article. For more exciting family days out, things to do, and places to explore in Yorkshire please do subscribe to the mailing list and follow me on social media.