Today I filmed a short piece with the BBC’s Amy Garcia on
Skipton Castle’s role as a Royalist stronghold during the Civil War. The programme aims to follow the River Aire from its source in Malham, down to Ferrybridge, covering some important landmarks on the way, Skipton Castle undoubtedly being one of these.
Skipton Castle is the ancestral home of the Cliffords – great builders of fortresses, designed to protect Northern England against the Scots. Skipton, Appleby, Brougham, Brough, Pendragon were castles held by the Cliffords in a strong defensive line.
The Cliffords were a very warlike family. They first came to Yorkshire in 1310, and in 1314, Robert the first Lord of Skipton died at the Battle of Bannockburn – the
Cliffords rarely died in their beds. The fourth Lord Clifford fought at Crecy and they were leading supporters of the Lancastrian cause during the Wars of the Roses, Thomas the 8th Lord died at the first battle of St. Albans and his son John, died in a skirmish at Dintingdale on the eve of the Battle of Towton. His son Henry, also known as The Shepherd Lord, was a commander at the Battle of Flodden where the Northern English army inflicted a massive defeat on the Scots and he brought home as a trophy, 3 of King James IV famous 7 sister guns; big brass culverins that fired 19 pound shot. These guns were to play a vital role in the defence of the castle during the Civil War.
By the time we get to the Civil War, the Henry Clifford that was in the possession of the castle then was 15th Lord Clifford and 5th Earl of Cumberland. He was not perhaps as warlike as his ancestors but he was a very good administrator. He used his money and power to fortify the Royalist strongholds and supply horses, fodder, lead and coal for the King’s men. Skipton Castle was strategically important as it was the gateway to the Aire Gap across to Lancashire, Westmorland and Cumberland where there were more Royalist forces and also to collect much needed revenue from the Clifford Estates. The King’s men also used the castle for lightning strike raids to harry and inconvenience the Parliamentarian Forces resident in Yorkshire, mainly around the textile towns. The castle held open a frontier line of communication. Whilst Clifford was initially appointed General of the Royalist Forces in Yorkshire, he relinquished this title to the Earl of Newcastle in
December 1642 after some serious skirmishing in and around Skipton. Sir John Mallory was made commander of Skipton; he was Earl Henry’s choice and the Earl still took practical command during Mallory’s absences, although he left the castle in 1643 on the death of his daughter. (He died in York soon after and was buried in Skipton).
The castle was an almost impregnable fortress. For its defences it had 12’ thick walls and Eller Beck at the rear provided sheer cliff walls to impede attack. The front
of the castle was built on solid bedrock so it can’t be mined to weaken the castle walls. There was a much bigger curtain wall then and it was packed with earth to absorb the impact of artillery. The Cavaliers raised platforms on which the guns could be mounted and occupied the adjacent Holy Trinity Church as part of their defences.
But the Royalists were fighting a losing battle and their castles fell one by one. The last two remaining were Skipton and Bolton. When Pontefract Castle fell in July 1645, General Poyntz, the Parliamentarian Commander in Yorkshire, turned his attention to Skipton. However, despite the ascendancy of the Parliamentarians, he was not without his problems. He was short of men, the men he had under him had not been paid and were threatening to mutiny and crucially, he did not have
enough siege weapons. A small munitions force from Appleby did try and come to the General’s aid but Skipton’s commander John Mallory despatched a mounted force to intercept and inflict severe casualties on them. He advanced on the town and the Royalists withdrew to their defensive barriers in the castle and church. Some townsfolk went to the aid of the Skipton garrison whilst others surrendered. Poyntz offered Mallory terms, but these were refused. He knew he would need a siege train if he was to batter the castle in submission but he had to write off to the Parliamentarian Committee at York for this. He managed to cut off the external water supply to the castle, leaving only a small well, but in this part of the Dales we are seldom short of rain and this was collected on the lead roof of the castle (a quarter of an acre). Meanwhile, some of Poyntz’s cavalry mutinied because they had still not received the pay they were promised and the General felt he was in as much danger from his own men as the Royalist defenders.
Evens out of the County, conspired to confound the unfortunate General Poyntz when King Charles I reached the large Royalist stronghold garrison at Newark and it looked like he was preparing to advance on Yorkshire. Poyntz was recalled to stop Charles moving North and the first siege was over, after only 2 weeks.
Crucially, this allowed the Craven men to gather in the harvest and prepare for another siege. When Sandal Castle fell on 1st October, only Skipton and Bolton castles held for the King. The Parliamentarians wanted their Yorkshire army to go into the Midlands to defeat what was left of the King’s Forces but they could not really do this until the two Royalist strongholds had fallen. They decided to open negotiations with Mallory to discuss terms for surrender. There was a meeting on 8th
November, where Mallory sent representatives but his terms were not accepted. This time, the Parliamentarians sent Colonel Richard Thornton to Skipton with 2,000 cavalry and 2,000 foot soldiers. He was close to the town on 18th November and by this time Bolton Castle had already surrendered (6th November) so Skipton castle stood alone.
Thornton’s first move was to capture the town but this time Mallory’s men did not withdraw to the castle and held on for three days of fierce fighting before falling back to the defences. Thornton called for the siege train from York but this took a while to get there due to the wet weather. He started a heavy bombardment of the castle which must have been terrifying for the defenders. Nevertheless, they staunchly held out until favourable terms for an honourable surrender were reached on 21st December 1645.
Lady Anne Clifford, in defiance to Oliver Cromwell, had the castle repaired but the famous Seven Sisters guns from Flodden were confiscated by him, and in a spiteful act of petulance, he sold them to a scrap dealer in Wigan. What a vandal.
Picture courtesy of Rae Tan