Skipton Castle in the Wars of the Roses

Skipton Castle is situated at the southern end of the Yorkshire Dales. Guarding a junction of key routes into the north, and cross country, it had strategic importance from its foundation in the 11th century until it was slighted on Cromwell’s orders following a siege in the English Civil War. In the Wars of the Roses Skipton Castle was held by several prominent figures and was forced into submission at least once.

Skipton Castle under John, 9th Baron Clifford

As tension mounted in the 1450s Skipton Castle was held by the Clifford family. The Clifford’s, led by Thomas, 8th Baron Clufford, had participated in feuds between the regions more senior magnates: those of the Percy and Neville (of Middleham) families. Allied to the Percy’s the Clifford family were a major force in the faction that later formed in support of the Lancastrian cause. This led, in May 1455, to Thomas 8th Baron Clifford being killed in the First Battle of St. Albans.

As animosity continued in Yorkshire, the importance of Skipton Castle and the retinue of the Clifford household was clear. Skipton is effectively a gateway into and out of the remote Yorkshire Dales. It is at a natural junction of those routes to/from the north and a major trans-pennine route. In simple terms, control of Skipton Castlr and maintenance of a garrison or easily assembled mobile retinue secured a very large geographical area for whoever held it. Furthermore, the Castles location placed it within a high value economic setting, as the area was ideal for the Wool Trade.

The death of Thomas 8th Baron Clifford at St. Albans led to his son becoming John 9th Baron Clifford. The 20 year old Baron was already a seasoned soldier, and had participated in raids and clashes alongside Thomas Percy. As regional and national affairs saw the political divisions widen, Baron Clifford allied himself not only with the Percy family but also at the heart of Queen Margaret’s affinity.

Skipton Castle and the Clifford retinue, known as ‘the Flower of Craven’, were at the forefront of activity as political disputes turned to war. The Skipton based retinue of Baron Clifford fought in the Battle of Wakefield. Indeed, it was John 9th Baron Clifford who was responsible for the death of Edmund Earl.of Rutland, son of the Duke of York, during the rout that followed the defeat of the Yorkist force on the battlefield.

Following the Battle of Wakefield Baron Cl8fford and his retinue remained central to Lancastrian plans. As the Yorkists marched north, it was from Skipton that Lord Clifford’s ‘Flower of Craven’ arrayed as part of the Queens large army. Mobile, armed with local knowledge, and fiercly loyal to the Lancastrian cause, it was they under Baron Cl8fford who were dispatched to Ferrybridge to prevent the Yorkists taking the bridge. John 9th Baron Clifford and his ‘Flower of Craven’ paid for their loyalty with tbeir lives. As Ferrybridge was taken they withdrew toward the main Lancastrian force. They were intercepted and slain by a Yorkist force at Dintingdale.

Once the Yorkists completed tbeir victory over the Lancastrians through victory at Towton, it left Skipton Castle with no experienced military commander, the retinue all but destroyed, and the castle held nominally by Lady Clifford, with her son, Henry, still a child. When Yorkist forces arrived in Craven, the castle at Skipton was faced with near certain defeat in any siege, or the option to submit on terms. After a short standoff, the castle submitted to the Yorkists.

Skipton Castle, the ‘Shepherd Lord’ and Sir William Stanley

Following the Yorkist victory at Towton and the death, at Dintingdale, of John 9th Baron Clifford, Skipton Castle became a crown property. The castle was held by King Edward IV until 1465, when he awarded the honour of Skipton, including the castle, to Sir William Stanley.

Whilst control of the castle and honour had fallen into Yorkist hands, the Clifford heir, Henry, was alive and not in Yorkist custody. Local sources recount the story of the young Henry Clifford being ‘The Shepherd Lord’. Whether true, or legend, the story is that he was moved deep into the Yorkshire Dales, where he hid and worked among farmers who remained loyal to the Clifford family and Lancastrian cause. Whether or not Henry Clliford did work as a shepherd is impossible to ascertain but that he survived and was looked after is a definate. In Edward IV’s second reign he petitioned the king, with the support of Richard Duke of Gloucester, so he was not totally isolated from court and as post Tewkesbury rapproachment commenced he felt able to communicate with senior members of the House of York: none other than two brothers of the Earl of Rutland who had been killed by Henry’s own father. Henry’s attempts to restablish his family were unsuccessful at that time. Sir William Stanley had aided the king’s return to power in 1471 and his reward was unlikely to be stripped in favour of a prominent Lancastrian family with whom the Yorkists had many historic quarrels.

Richard Duke of Gloucester as holder of Skipton Castle

Sir William Stanley held Skipton Castle until 1475. Then, it transferred into the hands of Richard Duke of Gloucester, the future King Richard III. This was no slight on Sir William, a number of landholdings were transferred across the region in order to provide the Duke with a powerbase to support his administratuve and military leadership in the north. The transfer consolidated Richard’s control of Yorkshire and provided him with a network of militarily experienced men and an established structure for rapidly arraying in support of any defence of the Anglo-Scottish border. Sir William received alternative lands around Chirk, North Wales, which further concentrated Stanley power in their region of influence. Richard held Skipton as Duke and retained it as King until his death in the Battle of Bosworth.

Cliffiord’s restored and Skipton’s role combatting the invasion of 1487

Following Henry Tudor‘s victory at Bosworth and the establishment of his governance, the attainders passed by Edward IV’s parliaments against leading Lancastrians were overturned. This included the attainder issued in respect of the Clifford family. And so Henry was restored to his families titles, becoming Henry 10th Baron Clifford, and having his fathers landholdings, including Skipton Castle, restored [in the main, it wasn’t a 100% match to his fathers lands or grants].

The restoration of the Clifford family paid dividends as early as 1487. When the Yorkist army of the Earl of Lincoln and Lambert Simnel landed at Piel Island the ‘Flower of Craven’ was rapidly arrayed and deployed to harass the advancing invasion force. Whilst the Earl was always most likely to march on York, hoping it retained Yorkist sympathies due to its close ties to Richard III, the very existence of a Castle and experienced retinue at Skipton effectively cut off one potential route south: essentially Skipton blocks southbound marches through the passes of the Yorkshire Dales.

Post Script: Skipton transformed for a Tudor marriage

Skipton Castle today is a little different in design to the way it looked during the Wars of the Roses. During the Tudor era a new wing was built adjoining the residential areas of the medueval keep. This was due to the 1536 marriage of [a different] Henry Clifford to Elizabeth Brandon, who was a niece of King Henry VIII.

Post Script: Skipton under siege

A second reason why the castle looks different today to its 15th century appearance is a consequence of the English Civil Wars. During this conflict Skipton Castle was besieged by Parliamentary forces. As with other strongholds that had resisted, such as Pontefract, the castles walls were ‘sl8ghted’ on the orders of Oliver Cromwell. If inside the towers of the castle you will note how the thickness of walls suddenly changes as you walk upstairs. The lower levels being the original medieval wall thickness, the upper level being a later restoration of the walls which are much thinner and virtually useless as a defensive feature against cannon.

Skipton Castle links

Skipton Castle –

University of Leeds Library – Skipton Castle Collection. Note that the Brotherton library at the university also contains the Clifford family archive.

Featured Image

Skipton Castle Gatehouse. Via Wikimedia

Leave a Reply