Pickering Castle – 13th Century Motte and Bailey Castle

Pickering is a market town on the edge of the North Yorkshire Moors. It is the terminus at one end of the North Yorkshire Moors Railway (NYMR). The 13th Century Pickering Castle is a short walk away from the town centre and railway station. It is compact and quite well preserved. Over the years, different medieval kings have used the castle for a variety of things, including a holiday home and a royal hunting lodge.

The castle ruins are in differing stages of decay, although some parts have been restored. The defensive ditches and motte are very much in evidence. The site is surrounded by a curtain wall most of which is intact. Three square towers and a gatehouse are set at intervals in the wall. On the west side is a steep cliff that would have been a great defensive attribute.

In a similar fashion to Clifford’s Tower in York and Helmsley Castle, Pickering Castle makes good use of its earthworks to complement its stone fortifications.

Visiting the Castle

I live quite close to Pickering but until recently I’d never visited the castle. It’s surprising what you discover on your doorstep sometimes. I suppose that’s one good thing that’s come out of lockdowns. Anyway, I’ve recently taken out an English Heritage membership which means I can enter their properties for free. So I had a day out visiting Pickering Castle in the morning, picnic lunch in the grounds and then a visit to nearby Helmsley Castle in the afternoon.

Covid restrictions mean that you have to book online to visit English Heritage properties. I haven’t found the requirement to book too onerous, I’ve nearly always got the time slot I wanted. On several occasions, I have booked a visit on my phone outside a property and turned up a few minutes later. Actually, when I visited Pickering Castle on a Saturday in early May it was very quiet. I had the castle to myself for much of the time I was there.

The castle is open daily from March through to October but is closed during the winter. Dogs on a lead are welcome.

As well as exploring the ruins, there are steps so you can walk to the top of the motte and enjoy great views of the castle grounds and surrounding countryside. Once you’ve had a look around the inside, take a walk around the path which runs all the way around the outside wall of the castle. This gives you a really good impression of the difficulty of attacking such a structure.

Travelling to Pickering

If you are travelling to Pickering by car the castle has a small car park, free to English Heritage members (YO18 7AX). You can also travel to Pickering on the NYMR from Whitby, Grosmont, Goathland and Levisham. Two bus routes pass through the town, the famous Coastliner Leeds to Whitby service and the East Yorkshire 128, X28 Scarborough to Helmsley service.

Parking is limited, so on busy days you might find it easier to park in the town centre. It’s then only a short walk to the castle.

Photos

History

The original castle was built in 1069-1070 by the Normans under William the Conqueror. The early building included the large central mound (the motte), the outer palisades which would have enclosed the bailey and the internal buildings including the keep on top of the motte. The castle’s purpose was to maintain control of the area after the Harrying of the North. Pickering was chosen as a location for a castle because of its strategic location with roads running north to Whitby, south to Malton, west to Northallerton and east to Scarborough.

Originally, Pickering Castle was a timber and earth motte and bailey castle. Later wood was replaced by stone. Between the years 1323 and 1326, the construction of the curtain wall along with three towers was completed.

12th and 13th Century

A number of quite significant modifications were made to the castle in the late 12th and early 13th centuries. Under Henry II the wooden palisade on top of the motte was replaced with a stone shell keep. The Coleman Tower was built which became the gateway into the inner bailey. Under King John, more construction was carried out. However, it was under Henry III that extensive upgrades were made to the castle. This included rebuilding the curtain walls and the shell keep. Scarborough Castle and York Castle were also upgraded at the same time.

In 1255 the King’s Justiciar, Roger Bigod was given responsibility for the castle. In 1264 the castles at Pickering and Scarborough were prepared for action when the Second Barons’ War broke out. However, when Simon de Montfort the rebel leader died at the battle of Evesham, the war was defused and there is no record of the castle at Pickering ever being attacked.

Nevertheless, in 1322, Edward II funded upgrades to Pickering Castle, these included rebuilding the curtain walls of the outer bailey in stone. The main reason for these upgrades was that the king was concerned about the threat of a Scottish invasion. The new stone wall featured a gatehouse tower and three additional towers, Diate Hill Tower, Rosamund’s Tower and Mill Tower which was later used as a prison. Rosamund’s Tower is three stories high and projects outside the perimeter wall.

15th Century

By the late fifteenth century, the use of the castle was in decline. It did serve periodically as accommodation for royalty who used the nearby forest for hunting deer and wild boar. However, the defences were neglected and it took no part in the Wars of the Roses.

17th Century

By the Tudor period, it was being plundered for its materials and quickly descended into ruin. It was in no fit state to be used as a defensive structure during the seventeenth century Civil War. After the conflict, it was seized by Parliament along with the rest of the Duchy of Lancaster.

It was returned to Charles II upon the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 but the castle was never rebuilt and, with the exception of the chapel, it remained an abandoned ruin until taken into the care of the Office of Works in 1926 (now English Heritage).

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Exploring Yorkshire - Pickering Castle

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