Vetusta Monumenta: Ancient Monuments

Plate XLIV: Knaresborough Castle in Yorkshire


A strong Castle built by Surlo de Burge near the time of the Conqueror. King Henry IIId created Hubert de Burgh Earl of Kent, on whom amongst other things he setled this Manour, Castle and Honour. It return’d again to the Crown, and Edward IId (Cart. 1. E. 2d. n.6) gave it to his Favourite PIERCE de GAVESTON; after his death it remain’d in the  Crown till ye 46th of Edward IIId ( who granted it to John of Gaunt Duke of Lancaster: besides other great Estates gave him this Castle and Honour to maintain his Grandeur; from that time this has belonged to the Dutchy of Lancaster. The Castle is long since demolish’d, but from an Old Draught now remaining in the Dutchy Office, this Plate was Engrav’d. 


Engraving by George Vertue after a drawing of Knaresborough Castle from the reign of Queen Elizabeth. The original drawing belonged to a cache of nine Elizabethan drawings of castles held by the office of the Duchy of Lancaster. They were produced to illustrate a survey of the properties of the Duchy of Lancaster, undertaken by the Chancellor of the Duchy, Ambrose Cave, in 1561. Smart Lethieullier’s discovery of these drawings during a visit to the duchy office as well as the Society of Antiquary’s (SAL) commissioning of George Vertue to engrave eight of these drawings on 20 April 1732 (SAL Minutes I.288) are discussed in more detail in the commentary on Plate XXXIX. Vertue exhibited a proof print of Knaresborough Castle at the meeting of 8 May 1735 (II.71). He delivered one hundred prints at the meeting of 22 May 1735; each member present received three prints (II.78). 


The plate shows Knaresborough Castle, North Yorkshire, as it was drawn for Cave’s survey in 1561. The castle is located to the west of the town of Knaresborough on a steep cliff overlooking the River Nidd. Besides the river and a bridge crossing it, Vertue’s engraving also shows the Forest of Knaresborough, a watermill and sluice, two flocks of sheep, and two small groups of human figures. The earliest records of the castle date to the early twelfth century. It was rebuilt under King John early in the thirteenth century and maintained as a northern stronghold under King Edward I. A major programme of works at considerable expense, including the demolition of the old keep and the construction of an imposing new keep, significant parts of which survive, was carried out under Edward II early in the fourteenth century. Records and archaeological evidence show that the period of energetic building activities ended with Edward II’s reign (Dixon 2016, 335). During the Civil War, Royal forces weathered a month-long siege in Knaresborough castle before being forced to surrender to Parliamentary forces on 20 December 1644. The castle was demolished in 1648, but the courthouse – dating to the medieval period but heavily rebuilt over the following centuries – and parts of the keep survived and continued to be used as prison and courthouse. Today, visitors can see the remnants of the fourteenth-century keep (King’s Tower) and the dungeon underneath, fragments of the curtain wall, sally ports, a pair of gatehouse towers on the eastern side of the castle, and the courthouse which now serves as museum. 

Commentary by Katharina Boehm:

This plate is the fifth of a total of six engravings by George Vertue, based on the sixteenth-century drawings of medieval castles belonging to the Duchy of Lancaster, which were included in the first volume of Vetusta Monumenta. As the text given underneath the engraving of the drawing indicates, the members of the Society of Antiquaries of London (SAL) were well aware of Knaresborough Castle’s rich historical resonance. The castle had served as refuge to the four knights who had assassinated Thomas Becket in 1170; it became a major site of the struggle between Edward II and his peers after the king spent large sums redesigning the castle for his favourite Piers Gaveston; it served briefly as prison for the deposed Richard II before he was moved to Pontefract Castle, where he died; and it was a favourite hunting spot of John of Gaunt.  Knaresborough was besieged by parliamentarian forces during the Civil War and afterwards demolished on the order of parliament (Ryder 1982: 87-107). It was likely Knaresborough’s connection to important historical events and figures that prompted the SAL to select include this plate, alongside prints of the equally historically significant castles of Lancaster and Pontefract, in a set that was presented by the SAL to the third Duke of Rutland, then Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. The Duke had lent the original drawings to the Society of Antiquaries and given permission for them to be engraved (SAL Minutes II.150).

The original Elizabethan drawing, which measures 55 x 115cm and is held by the National Archives (TNA MR 1/14), is particularly interesting because it is one of two drawings of the set which depict manorial mills in addition to the castles (the other drawing shows Tickhill Castle, TNA MPC 1/96; see Plate XLVI). When Ambrose Cave, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, carried out his survey of the duchy’s properties in Yorkshire and the north Midland counties at the behest of the crown in the summer of 1561, his brief was not only to report on the state of repair of the duchy castles, but also to inspect forests, parks, woodlands, mills and milldams. Cave’s task was to compile a catalogue of measures that would cut back on costs in the maintenance of duchy properties and increase income. He was also charged with improving the land within a radius of seven miles from the castles and manorial houses, restoring chases, parks and forests (Hoyle 1992, 42-43). Traces of Cave’s preoccupation with the agricultural yield and improvement of the duchy’s estates are clearly visible in the drawings showing the castles of Knaresborough and Tickhill. The artist who drew Knaresborough castle included a watermill and sluice situated on the bank of the river Nidd as well as a group of tall trees, located on a hill behind the castle, symbolizing the Forest of Knaresborough, which featured a royal park and a royal hunting lodge constructed late in the thirteenth or early in the fourteenth century (Grainge 1871, 339-345).

Vertue’s print contains several features not present in the original drawing. These emphasize the fact that the land surrounding Knaresborough castle was a working landscape: Vertue inserted two flocks of sheep grazing on softly sloping hills and added a dovecote to the watermill. However, it is important to note that similar to Vertue’s depiction of the agricultural landscape around Furness Abbey (Plate XXVII), the Knaresborough print takes a distinctly picturesque approach to this agricultural theme. Vertue changed the look of Knaresborough Forest, giving the trees slightly gnarled trunks, adding branches, and turning the oddly-shaped, oversized leaves shown on the original drawing into more realistically drawn treetops of oaks. Vertue gave the mill a thatched roof and added smoke billowing from its chimney; he also integrated the dovecote into a visually appealing ensemble consisting of a tree and an irregular, seemingly fortified wall in the lower right-hand corner. The fact that this wall appears as though it has been constructed out of stones taken from the castle’s ruined curtain wall adds another temporal layer to the print: from the final decades of the seventeenth century onwards, many buildings in the town of Knaresborough and the surrounding area were built out of stones taken from the remains of the castle (Grose 1785, 132). A 1721 drawing of Knaresborough Castle by Samuel Buck, which was later turned into a print and included in the second volume of Buck’s Antiquities (1774), suggests that at this point there survived only fragments of the curtain wall and of a small number of the towers. Meanwhile, a set of drawings of the castle and its environs created by Francis Place in 1711 shows that a watermill was still being operated on the same spot in the early eighteenth century. 

Other prints by Vertue included in Vetusta Monumenta – notably Plate VIII, based on a drawing by William Stukeley showing the ruins of the Roman town of Verulamium – combined visualisations of the same site that evoked different moments in time (i.e. the ancient past when the Roman walls of Verulamium were still intact, and the eighteenth-century present in which fields were enclosed and tilled, revealing the remains of the Roman town). While this particular technique of creating a temporal palimpsest or collage view (Smiles 2017) was not used by Vertue in the castle series, the print of Knaresborough is not the only engraving which seems to combine different temporal moments: Plate XLI and Plate XLVI each populate views of Lancaster Castle and Tickhill Castle as they appeared in the sixteenth century with the figures of two touring antiquaries, whose dress and posture resembles that of the modern-day antiquaries whom Vertue shows exploring the medieval ruin of Furness Abbey and the remains of Waltham Cross in Plate VII and Plate XXVII. Besides inserting the stone wall with its ambiguous historical associations into the margin of the Knaresborough print, Vertue also eliminated the four human figures that appear on the original drawing and that link the castle most explicitly to an earlier historical moment. Positioned on the battlement of the tall tower flanking the gatehouse on the right, these figures comprise two trumpeters as well as two monarchical figures wearing crowns and carrying scepters who are perhaps intended to recall King Edward III and Queen Philippa who had transformed the stronghold of Knaresborough into a royal residence in the fourteenth century (Mitchell and Janes 2014, 32). Vertue swapped out these figures against conventional staffage figures that contribute to the agricultural theme of the print but cannot be tied to any particular historical period. A group of three figures are shown with a horse close to the timber bridge leading to the gatehouse: their classical robes bring to mind the contemporary vogue for the georgic mode. A second group, consisting of two adults and two children and dressed in what appear to be more modern clothes, are headed towards the watermill. 

Vertue’s compositional choices – his insertion of picturesque details and of a stone wall that evokes the eighteenth-century present rather than Knaresborough’s sixteenth-century past; his displacement of the medieval monarchs with staffage figures of timeless agricultural labourers – throw into sharp relief the process of aesthetic translation that characterises Vertue’s work on the full series of castle prints. In each instance, Vertue worked with Elizabethan outline drawings that depicted features relevant to Cave’s survey but made little attempt to insert these castles and buildings into an attractive, detailed landscape. Vertue adapted his source material to the aesthetic conventions of early eighteenth-century topographical engravings, but he did not correct the Elizabethan artist’s limited skill in perspective, as can be seen, for instance, in the impossible angle of the bridge crossing the River Nidd in the upper right corner of the print, or in the exaggeration of the angles at which different parts of the castle wall meet to the right of the gatehouse.  

The visual oddity of the Knaresborough print and the series as a whole, when viewed alongside other plates of medieval buildings in Vetusta Monumenta such as Plate XXXV of Colchester Castle, is a product of the friction between the plates’ early eighteenth-century picturesque aesthetic and their Elizabethan source material (including the defective perspective of the original drawings). Travel and the availability of prints by Samuel Buck and others must have familiarised many members of the SAL with the present, ruined state of the duchy castles. Vertue’s prints, by contrast, restored Knaresborough and the other castles to their sixteenth-century splendour, but they also embedded these castles in richly detailed landscapes into which the eighteenth-century viewer could insert him- or herself (notably by identifying with the touring, modern-day antiquaries that examine Lancaster Castle and Tickhill Castle in Plates XLI and XLVI). Vertue’s design of these prints invites speculation that their value to the members of the SAL might have consisted not only in the manner in which they made available archaeological information about long-destroyed medieval castles, but that some members might have been equally attracted to these plates’ ability to serve as vehicles of imaginary transport, inviting the viewer to step into the past.


Buck, Samuel. 1774 [1721]. “The South View of Knaresborough-Castle in Yorkshire,” in Buck’s Antiquities. Vol. 2. London: Sayer.

Dixon, Peter. 2016. “The Donjon of Knaresborough: The Castle as Theatre,” in Late Medieval Castles. Ed. Robert Liddiard.3 33-48. Woodbrige: Boydell.

Grainge, William. 1871. The History and Topography of Harrogate, and the Forest of Knaresborough. London: Russell Smith.

Grose, Francis. 1785. The Antiquities of England and Wales. Vol. 5. New edn. London: Hooper.

Hoyle, R.W. 1992. “Introduction: Aspects of the Crown’s Estate, c. 1558-1640,” in The Estates of the English Crown, 1558-1640. Ed. R.W. Hoyle. 1-57. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

“Knaresborough”: Perspective View of Knaresborough Castle. 1561. The National Archives, Kew. MR 1/14.

Mitchell, Rose, and Andrew Janes. 2014. Maps: Their Untold Stories. Map Treasures from the National Archives. London: Bloomsbury.

Place, Francis. 1711. Knaresborough Castle […]. The British Musuem, Prints and Drawings. 1850,0223.819

Ryder, Peter F. 1982. The Medieval Buildings of Yorkshire. Ashbourne: Moorland.

Society of Antiquaries of London.  1718- Minutes of the Society’s Proceedings.

Smiles, Sam. 2017. “Material Witness: The Imaging of Historical Sites”, in Mediating the Materiality of the Past, 1700-1930, edited by Katharina Boehm and Victoria Mills. Word & Image 33, no. 3 (Autumn): 240-56. Please give DOI or stable URL  here if available.

Further Reading:

Dixon, Peter. 2016. “The Donjon of Knaresborough: The Castle as Theatre,” in Late Medieval Castles. Ed. Robert Liddiard. 333-48. Woodbrige: Boydell.

Grainge, William. 1871. The History and Topography of Harrogate, and the Forest of Knaresborough. London: Russell Smith.

Hargrove, Ely. 1784. History of the Castle, Town, and Forest of Knaresborough with Harrogate. 4th edn. York: Blanchard.

This page has paths:

This page has tags:

This page references: