Conisbrough Castle

On a recent visit to Sheffield we made a detour to visit Conisbrough Castle. I was keen to visit as this Castle provided Sir Walter Scott with the inspiration for his novel Ivanhoe.

Ivanhoe is the story of a dispossessed knight who, through the offices of a just king, is able to marry his love. Outside of the romance of this tale, Scottish writer Sir Walter Scott’s phenomenally popular medieval yarn is also a story about the creation of a "British" identity, and reveals much about important political and intellectual debates of the day. The birth of this identity was situated in an "ancient" seat of kings, Conisbrough Castle in South Yorkshire.

In a letter to a friend in 1811, Scott recalled the glimpses of Conisbrough Castle he had seen as he travelled north: "I once flew past it in the mail coach, when its round towers and flying buttresses had a most romantic effect in the morning dawn."

Thus captivated, he embellished Conisbrough with ancient origins developed from his accurate interpretation of the origins of its Old English name Cyningesburh (the fort of the king). In Ivanhoe, "Coningsburgh" is the ancient seat of kings where leaders of the two races of the kingdom – the educated but aloof Normans and resourceful but backward-looking Saxons – met to be reconciled by Richard the Lionheart. Though the castle is not as old as Scott imagined, the venue he chose to unite the groups, to forge a new English identity, was understood to be a castle from a lost golden age.

The motif of unity was clear: Scott wanted to stress the potential of a newly forged British identity out of the constituent peoples of the country in the aftermath of recent civil violence, at Peterloo in 1819, and the more distant Jacobite uprising of 1745. Ivanhoe, published in the same year as Peterloo, was in part Scott’s own appeal to a golden age of democracy and unity.

John Goodhall in his excellent book, The Castle writes: "the keep of Conisbrough Castle is a hugely ambitious creation of cut stone probably built in the 1180s. To the eye of many mid-nineteenth-century antiquarians, including Walter Scott, however, this tower with its six huge external buttresses was a monument to the dark ages of the Anglo-Saxon World."

Such was Scott's impact on the public's perception of British history and the pre-Medieval world, in particular, that his readers all believed that the Castle dates back to the Anglo-Saxon age.

Later, landscaping work was carried out in the 18th and 19th centuries, probably by the owners of the castle, to enhance its picturesque qualities, and the castle certainly achieved some fame as a romantic ruin. It was depicted by numerous artists.

"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, which, as its Saxon name implies, was, previous to the Conquest, a royal residence of the kings of England."

We enjoyed our visit enormously. The castle is majestic and the setting superb. Conisbrough Castle is truly an example of fiction influencing reality!