During the civil wars which followed the death of Henry 1st, the Percy family built a castle on this site to guard the ford across the River Wharfe against raids by armies from Scotland which controlled England to the north of Yorkshire. Built without royal permission, it was demolished by order of Henry 2nd. Only the foundations of the keep remain.
During the Civil War remains of the castle were held by Parliamentary troops under the command of Sir Thomas Faifax who repelled an attack by Royallists from York.
Wetherby Castle is categorised as a tower keep castle. Such castles were strongly fortified residences in which the keep was the principal defensive feature. Keeps were either free-standing or, as at Wetherby, surrounded by a defensive enclosure normally including ancillary buildings such as stabling and workshops.
The castle at Wetherby is thought to have been developed from an earlier ringwork. Ringworks were medieval fortifications built and occupied from the late Anglo-Saxon period to the later C12. They comprised a small defended area formed by a substantial ditch and an inner bank surmounted by a timber palisade or, rarely, a stone wall, typically enclosing otherwise undefended buildings.
Only the foundations now remain, very little of which comes above ground level, in 2005 and 2006 the three dwellings occupying this site were demolished and replaced by flats, named ‘Castle Keep’ to reflect its history, and marked with the blue plaque commissioned by Wetherby Town Council and Wetherby Civic Society
The core part of Wetherby Castle is designated as a Scheduled Ancient Monument, scheduled description as below:
The existence of a medieval castle at Wetherby was confirmed by archaeological investigations in 2003-05 in advance of the construction of an apartment building. These investigations demonstrated that the substantial stone foundations first uncovered in 1922 are the remains of a castle keep set in a defended enclosure.
Finds recovered during the archaeological work are consistent with a relatively high status secular site, including evidence for horsemen and the consumption of hunted game animals. Datable finds were predominantly late C11 to early C12, with very little evidence for occupation later on in the medieval period. The excavations uncovered small quantities of late Anglo-Saxon/early Norman pottery, some sealed beneath the castle rampart, which suggest that the monument was a pre-Conquest manorial site before its development as a castle.
This manorial site was probably the one held by William de Denby as a tenant of William de Percy at the time of the 1086 Domesday survey. It is the Denby family who are thought to have constructed the castle, probably initially as an earthen ringwork in the C11, adding the stone keep slightly later, perhaps in the C12. This strengthening of the castle is likely to have occurred during the reign of King Stephen (1135-54) in a period known as the Anarchy when a number of adulterine (illegal or unlicensed) castles were built nationally as a result of civil war and a breakdown of royal authority. Many of these castles were demolished on the orders of Henry II from 1154 which could explain the limited archaeological evidence of later activity on the site.
In circa 1175 Wetherby was briefly seized from a later William de Denby by the Earl of Warwick (who was married to Matilda de Percy). This episode represents an alternative date for the destruction of the castle, although continued conflict between the Percys and Denbys until 1221 over the control of Wetherby suggests it had a continued strategic importance. Although there is no known direct evidence, it is reputed that stone from the castle was used for the construction of Wetherby Bridge in the 1230s. It is certainly unlikely that the castle was still a significant fortification after 1238 as it was not mentioned in the grants documenting the transfer of Wetherby to the Order of the Knights Templar.
The local legend that Wetherby Castle was constructed by the Templars and was destroyed by Scottish raiders in 1318-19 is certainly not supported by the archaeological evidence.
Following the destruction of the castle, the area, typically referred to as Castle Garth in early maps and documents, is thought to have formed open pasture or orchards until the construction of Castle Gate House in the 1930s. In 1922 the castle keep was partially excavated by the owner, Dr Hargreaves, and subsequently incorporated into landscaped gardens with paths, seating areas and raised beds in the 1930s.
Wetherby Castle is categorised as a tower keep castle. Such castles were strongly fortified residences in which the keep was the principal defensive feature. Keeps were either free-standing or, as at Wetherby, surrounded by a defensive enclosure normally including ancillary buildings such as stabling and workshops. They were built from immediately after the Norman Conquest to the mid-C15, with a peak in the middle of the C12, most being new creations with a few being formed from earlier earthwork castles. They are widely dispersed throughout England with a major concentration on the Welsh border. They are rare nationally with just over 100 recorded examples.
The castle at Wetherby is thought to have been developed from an earlier ringwork. Ringworks were medieval fortifications built and occupied from the late Anglo-Saxon period to the later C12. They comprised a small defended area formed by a substantial ditch and an inner bank surmounted by a timber palisade or, rarely, a stone wall, typically enclosing otherwise undefended buildings. Ringworks acted as strongholds for military operations and in some cases as defended aristocratic or manorial settlements. They are rare nationally with only around 200 recorded examples. The reign of King Stephen (1135-54) is thought to have seen the construction of significant numbers of adulterine castles, castles built without royal permission, across the country, very few were documented and even fewer have been positively identified and located.
DESCRIPTION: the castle occupies a naturally defended position at the top of a steep river escarpment overlooking a bend in the River Wharfe, the keep sited at the highest point, set within a defended, embanked enclosure interpreted as being an earlier ringwork. This ringwork is thought to have extended to the E nearly as far as Scott Lane, probably with a gatehouse aligned with the current street Castlegate, and northwards possibly as far as the northern end of Scott Lane, the southern and western sides following the river escarpment.
Although sample excavation found that at least part of the rampart forming the ringwork survived as a bank of cobbles and rubble limestone up to 10m wide standing to 2m above the buried medieval ground surface, this being part of the southern rampart included in the monument, the full extent and level of survival of medieval remains of the eastern and northern parts of the ringwork are not fully understood and these areas are not included in the scheduling.
Archaeological investigations in 2003-5 demonstrated the in situ survival of the foundations of the keep incorporated into the landscaped gardens set out in the 1930s and subsequently retained as part of the grounds of the Castle Keep apartment building. The keep measures 20m by 17.5m, with walls typically 4.7m thick standing to around 1m high. The centre of the keep forms a gravelled, sunken garden surrounded by raised beds and rockeries first set out in the 1930s, the outer face of the keep being largely buried beneath the surrounding ground surface.
To the S of the keep and the raised beds, there is a marked rise in the ground surface which has been identified as a further area of buried structural remains. To the SW of the keep, set right at the edge of the escarpment, there is a more pronounced mound that has been interpreted as the buried remains of a building. To the N of the keep, an evaluation trench identified the footings of a substantial wall at the top of the escarpment that has been interpreted as being the remains of an outer curtain wall.
Although the steep slope down to the river to the W lies beyond this wall line, the slope effectively formed part of the outer defences of the castle and is also considered to have a high potential for retaining in situ refuse deposits from the castle, preserving valuable information about medieval activity on the site. The southern rampart survives as a buried feature along the S side of the modern apartment buildings at the top of the river escarpment. The slope below, to the S, was also part of the defences of the castle, but has been developed and is therefore excluded from the scheduling.
Field Archaeology Specialists, 2003, “Wetherby Castle, Wetherby” (typescript report analysing documentary evidence for Wetherby Castle)
Northern Archaeological Associates 2003 “Scott Lane, Wetherby, West Yorkshrie Archaeological Evaluation”
Northern Archaeological Associates, 2005 “Castle Gate, Wetherby: Archaeological Monitoring, Recording and Assessment”
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