Scarborough Castle stands on a massive promontory of rock that rises above the North Sea.
The site has been intermittently inhabited and fortified for nearly 3,000 years. Scarborough has long been an important gateway to north east England, via its ancient harbour. In the fourth century, the Romans built one of a chain of coastal signal stations here, that kept watch for seaborne raiders.
Tools, pottery and jewellery have been found on the site, dating back to a settlement here in the Bronze Age. A magnificent bronze sword – a copy of which can be seen in the Castle’s collection – testifies to the skill of our ancestors in metalworking. In addition, there is evidence of the Roman occupation, when the signal station would have been garrisoned by troops. There is evidence that a tall tower once stood on the site, surrounded by a low wall. A fire could have been lit, which would have acted as a beacon to warn other signal stations along the coast, of approaching danger. Around 1,000 AD, a chapel, dedicated to Our Lady (the Virgin Mary), was built over the remains of the signal station. It is still possible to look inside the remains of the chapel which was extended in the 12th Century and was probably in use to as late as the 16th century. During later excavations, many bodies were found which were moved to a mass grave and covered with an engraved stone, which can be seen near the site of the Chapel.
A castle was first established here by William Le Gros, Earl of York, in the mid- 12th century. In 1155 he was forced to surrender it to the rapacious Henry II, who built the great tower and began developing the town beneath the castle walls. Scarborough Castle figured prominently in national events throughout the Middle Ages and Tudor period and was besieged on several occasions.
The rugged outline of the Great Tower or Keep, still dominates the headland. From here the castle overlooks the town and all approaches to it from the land and the sea. It was built of stone and was meant as a symbol of royal power and authority. To add further impact to the castle, the approach to it was deliberately complicated, so that any visitor had to walk clockwise around the entire building before entering it. With each step the castle would have loomed larger – a symbol of the power of the royal owner.
The keep was the home of the royal family, when in residence, with many rooms over three floors and a basement. It included a small chapel and impressive reception rooms, where the King would have met visitors. The rooms would have been sumptuously furnished with rich hangings and grand furniture, all meant to proclaim the power and grandeur of the occupants. The keep was surrounded by a large curtain wall, which ran the length of the site and added further security for the family. The entire site would have been a hive of activity all year round.
Henry’s son, the notorious King John, spent a great deal of money – millions in today’s currency – on fortifying the castle. He extended the massive walls – which would have been about 18 feet high – and evidence of their structure can still be seen today. He also ordered the construction of two further buildings – King John’s Chamber Block and the King’s Hall. John was a very unpopular king and constantly at odds with his Barons, but the reasons he caused these buildings to be erected are unclear. The last monarch to visit the castle was Richard III, who had a manor house nearby in Northstead. After that the castle fell into disuse until the advent of the Civil War in the 17th century.
The Civil War saw the castle reoccupied and garrisoned. The massive damage to the keep was caused during this time by Parliamentary forces, who fought fiercely to take the castle, which was being held for the Crown. Sir Hugh Cholmley wrote in 1645, ‘The fall of the Tower was a very terrible spectacle and more sudden than expected.’ Hundreds of troops died on the site and their bodies had to be left to rot as those surviving did not have the strength to dig graves for them. The troops fought bravely to keep the castle in royal hands, but were finally defeated by being starved into submission.
In the 19th century Barracks were built over the remains of King John’s Chamber Block, but were subsequently demolished and only a few red bricks in the walls remain of their occupation. However, the Castle remained occupied by the army until the late 19th Century.
In 1914 the town and castle were shelled in a surprise attack by German warships. The Keep was hit and damage was sustained to the curtain wall.
The castle remains a popular visitor attraction and during the year many events are held on the site.