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Perched high up on a headland and towering over the popular seaside resort of Scarborough is the impressive stronghold of Scarborough Castle.
Although much of this huge fortress stands in ruins today, it has a long and significant history dating back 3000 years! It was once the greatest royal fortress in all of England.
This area and its elevated position on the dramatic Yorkshire coastline has long been used as a lookout and defence tower.
From being an Iron Age settlement, ancient Roman fortress, royal stronghold, a political chess piece in Civil Warfare and target practice in World War I.
Scarborough Castle has stood the test of time and been through it all.
If you’ve had enough of beach-combing on the bay, are looking to discover some history or are simply wanting to see some breathtaking views of the area; you must visit this highlight attraction!
Here’s a complete guide for this fairytale ruined castle with the fascinating story, highlights and secret spots to look out for.
The epic 3000 year history of Scarborough Castle!
You may want to sit back and grab a cup of tea as this castle has an immense amount of history to uncover!
Before anything resembling a castle was built on this promontory rock, it was used as an early Iron Age settlement.
Then, around the 4th century AD, Roman troops built a large fortified tower as a line of defence. It also acted as a lookout and was part of a set of signal stations, like beacons, along the coast.
Once it was abandoned in the 5th century, the area and the fort were then adopted by early Christians. They repurposed the station to contain a small chapel and cemetery on the headland.
Its story as a royal castle began in the middle of the 12th century. This is when a William le Gros, the Count of Aumâle, was appointed as the Earl of York by King Stephen in 1138.
With his newfound status, he began to create this stronghold to exert his political dominance in the area.
It wasn’t to last very long as when King Henry II took to the throne, he demanded that all royal castles were to be returned.
As Scarborough Castle was built on royal land, everything was submitted to the crown.
King Henry liked his new toy and saw great potential in it as a defence tower against the risings in the North. So, he started to make huge renovations to the castle.
In turn, a newer larger town was created at the bottom of the cliffs. He spent £650 on the work, which in those days was an enormous amount!
It was Henry who was responsible for the great tower that still stands today.
King John then decided to make even more improvements in the 13th century and spent over £2,000, which was more than any other castle in the kingdom at the time!
Middle ages and the Tudors
By the time King Henry III came to power, Scarborough Castle was one of the greatest royal fortresses in all of England! Even King Edward I held his court here and made it his royal lodgings.
Lord Percy and his wife were permitted to live in the castle from 1308 and over the course of 40 years, they built a bakehouse, brewhouse and kitchens.
The last monarch to live at the castle was Richard III in 1484. At the time, he was raising an army to stand against Henry Tudor who later became Henry VII.
Due to the heavy Plantagenet connections this castle had, the Tudors did little to protect it and it already showed signs of falling into disrepair in the Middle Ages.
However, it became embroiled in the Pilgrimage of Grace, a plot to overthrow Henry VIII.
This saw the constable Sir Ralph Eure besieged for showing loyalty to the king.
Also, a Thomas Stafford tried to raise a revolt against Queen Mary Tudor by taking over the castle but it failed miserably. Stafford and his accomplices were all executed.
Civil War and a Prison
During the English Civil War, the castle became a political chess piece for both the royalists and parliament.
It made a switch from parliament to a royalist base run by Sir Hugh Cholmley for two years and then finally parliament took over it again.
During the siege, the castle suffered significant damage. Once Charles I was imprisoned, the castle was meant to be destroyed. But, the town revolted against the decision and so it remained protected.
After that, the castle became a garrison and prison in Scarborough. Many prominent prisoners were held here from The Society of Friends or The Quakers, including its founder George Fox.
During the Jacobite Rebellions, a new cell was created in King John’s chamber block. It remained a jail until the middle of the 19th century.
The Shelling of Scarborough & Today
A few months after the war with Germany was announced in 1914, a disastrous event took place called The Shelling of Scarborough.
It saw three German warships head through the bay towards the town and they opened fire.
More than 500 shells descended on the castle, homes and the residents in 20 minutes. 17 people were killed and over 80 were severely wounded.
It was a callous attack on innocent people going about their normal routines and it naturally caused international outrage. Postmen, mothers, boy scouts all perished.
In turn, it was this that then kicked off the ‘Remember Scarborough!’ campaign.
It saw many men enlist in the army to rise up against the enemy. The castle saw significant damage as well with the Coastguards Lookout Tower being completely destroyed.
By the 1920s, it was owned by Ministry of Works who excavated most of the ruins. Ever since 1984, it’s been lovingly protected by English Heritage.
How did Scarborough castle get destroyed?
There were many factors that saw this castle fall into the ruin it is today. From Tudor neglect to the Civil War and the Great Siege of Scarborough all the way up to the Shelling of Scarborough in 1914.
Surprisingly, the most significant was the Great Siege of Scarborough in 1645. This was a five-month-long battle between parliament and the royalists who were stationed at the fort.
The Parliamentarians continuously bombarded the castle with cannons, guns and sent men to fight in bloody battles.
They used the largest canon in the country at the time, ironically called the “Canon Royal”, to shoot hundreds of 29 kg canon balls into the castle’s defences.
They pressed on relentlessly, destroying most of the keep which forced the royalists and Sir Hugh Cholmley to finally surrender.
Most of the walls of the great tower were completely destroyed plus many of the surrounding defence walls.
Is Scarborough Castle haunted?
A castle and area with this much history are bound to have a few spectres flying around but the most famous of these is the Ghost of Piers Gaveston at Scarborough Castle.
Piers Gaveston was appointed the Earl of Cornwall by Edward II and the two were extremely close friends. Much to the distaste of other royals in his court who detested Piers and thought him unworthy of the position!
When Edward crossed the English Channel to marry Isabella of France in 1308, he placed Piers Gaveston as his regent. Then, at his coronation, he was given the honorary role of holding the crown!
The nobles were outraged and demanded that he should be exiled.
However, Edward refused and Piers continued to bate his enemies like Thomas of Lancaster and the Earl of Warwick. He called them names like the Black Dog and Old Hog!
In 1312, the nobles revolted against Edward and he was forced to flee York in order to raise an army. Meanwhile, his friend Piers sought refuge in Scarborough Castle.
The nobles sieged the castle and took Piers as a prisoner. They then made a course for the Earl of Warwick’s castle. It was here, at Blacklow Hill, that Piers was sentenced to death and beheaded!
Although his death happened some two hundred miles away, it is still Scarborough Castle that Piers Gaveston likes to haunt.
Apparently, he tries to convince people to jump over the battlements to their untimely death! So, be on the lookout.
Reasons why you MUST visit Scarborough Castle today!
I know that the history of this fortress paints quite the picture of a ruined castle on the headland with barely anything here. But don’t worry, there is plenty of the castle that you can to see today that’s worth visiting!
In fact, even when you look up at the headland, you can see that the castle walls and battlements go on for miles and even down the cliff towards the lower town.
It’s a huge area with lots to see and do. Here are all the reasons why you MUST visit.
1. The Scarborough Castle views are breathtaking
Did you know that Scarborough Castle is the only place in town where you can see both the North and South Bays of Scarborough?
As you’re standing on the castle walls, you’ll be elevated at around 300 metres above sea level, so you’ll get incredible birds-eye panoramic views.
Spy on the beachcombers below, watch the seagulls chase the boats in the bay or lookout on the headland for invaders overseas just like the Romans and Royals did.
It will make you feel like you’re on top of the world.
If you’re a photographer, this is definitely a spot you will not want to miss capturing.
There are so many opportunities for good angles over the endless coastal views and also of the castle walls lining the cliffs too.
2. You can climb inside the old lookout tower and castle ruins
What I loved about Scarborough Castle was how much freedom there was to explore the ruins here.
Of course, you’re not allowed to climb on all the castle walls and follow them all the way down as that would be quite dangerous. But, there are a lot of sections which English Heritage have preserved to explore.
What’s left of the Castle Tower from the Great Siege is still open to the public and you can wander about the ruin, looking out over the coast.
Inside, there are also a few rooms and terraces to enjoy. As well as the tower, you can climb on top of some of the castle walls, to look out over the town.
You can also imagine the glory of the old ruined drawbridges and the cobbled courtyards in their heyday too.
Audio Tours: don’t forget to pick up an audio tour of the castle if you wanted to learn some fun stories, facts, and history!
3. Visit the Scarborough Castle exhibition
The Master Gunner’s House that was constructed in 1748, is now a fun and interactive exhibition which centres on the castles heritage and the area.
Here, you can see all sorts of artefacts and items that have been recovered through numerous excavations.
You’ll find tools and weapons used by prehistoric humans, including an in tact Bronze Age sword!
Also, fragments of pottery that have left behind from the Romans era and a range of paintings, photos and etchings of the castle through the ages.
The exhibition is free and included with your entry, so don’t miss out on discovering something new.
4. Sip coffee at the Master Gunner’s house
As well as the exhibition, the Master Gunner’s House has a delightful café with both indoor and outdoor seating. They serve up a great range of hot and cold drinks, snacks and some amazing homemade cakes as well!
I loved sitting outside on a sunny day here as you got an amazing view of the castle ruins and the sea!
Luckily, my visit coincided with a bank holiday weekend.
So, the castle was giving away their specially created mead for samples! It was utterly delicious and you can even buy a bottle to take home.
5. You can explore sixteen-acres of coastal headland
If you fancy bringing a picnic here, you’re more than welcome and there are sixteen acres of the headland to choose a spot! Or, you can take a walk to enjoy the views of the sea on both sides of the cliffs.
It’s a really popular spot for catching a glimpse of the local wildlife too and you should definitely have a look at their calendar to see what’s been spotted by the visitors and staff.
There have been regular sightings of foxes, voles, hedgehogs, deer and painted lady butterflies that continue to flutter about. But, the best things to see are the migratory birds in the area.
There are many gulls, red kites, kestrels, kittiwakes and even peregrine falcons that have been spotted here!
They are the fastest bird in the world, so grab your binoculars for a closer albeit quick look.
Make sure you look out for these secret spots!
This castle has many hidden secrets in its walls, some we will never ever find out!
But, there are a few hidden spots that you can uncover for yourself on your visit;
- A medieval toilet – How do you think soldiers went to the loo back in the day if they couldn’t leave their post? Go for a wee off the sides of course! If you climb up the castle walls you’ll be able to find an old medieval loo. It must have really stank and could you imagine being in the line of fire?!
- Two drawbridges – Did you know that Scarborough Castle has not one but two drawbridges that were used to both defend and enter the castle? Nowadays they have permanent paths to cross over the threshold, but you can still find the evidence of the old drawbridges being there!
- Our Lady’s Well & St Mary’s Chapel – If you explore the headland beyond the castle walls, you’ll come across the holy well that spurred on the small tunnel-like Chapel of St Mary’s or the Chapel of Our Lady here. It was originally created in the year 1000 AD. It stands within the remains of the old Roman signal station.
How much does it cost to go to Scarborough castle?
As Scarborough Castle is owned by English Heritage, there is a charge to visit which goes towards the upkeep and protection of this fortress.
Ticket prices for Scarborough Castle are £8.70 an adult, £5.20 a child and concessions are £7.90.
There are some family discount tickets available. Remember, if you are an English Heritage member, you can get in absolutely FREE and enjoy 10% discount in the shop and café.
Also, if you buy a York Pass, you can get entry included too. So, it makes a great day trip from the city.
How to get to Scarborough castle
As parking is limited around the area, it is best to walk up to the fort which is NO easy feat!
I walked from South Bay at the bottom and followed the trail up towards the castle on Scarborough Castle Hill.
Although the trail is mainly steep and flat pathways, there are some steps at the end which will take your breath away. The whole journey took me around 15 minutes from the bottom.
There is no bus stop outside Scarborough Castle itself, the nearest bus stop is near Castle Road Car Park.
Then, you’ll need to walk the rest of the way to the top!
Scarborough Castle parking
Scarborough Castle doesn’t have any dedicated parking for visitors or members. But, there is a pay and display car park outside of St Mary’s Parish Church opposite the entrance.
It’s a huge car park with plenty of overflow spaces on the grassland. I would highly recommend paying a visit to the church nearby while you’re here!
It was originally built in 1150 but suffered damaged during the Civil War like the castle.
In the graveyard, you can find the resting place of the literary giant, Anne Bronte.
Looking for more things to see in Scarborough?
I was always told that Scarborough was a little tacky, but this couldn’t be further from the truth! Sure, there’s plenty of arcades, funfairs and lights.
But, I had no idea just how much history was here to uncover. It’s the oldest seaside resort in England and there really was such a thing as the Scarborough Fair (yes, just like the Simon and Garfunkel song).
As well as the likes of this historic castle, it also had a spa where people would visit to ‘take the waters’.
Why not take a ride in style on one of their original Victorian funicular railways? It has the Rotunda, the UK’s first purpose-built museum, pirate ships where you can follow in the footsteps of Captain Cook.
Don’t forget to visit one of the nation’s favourite parks right here in the town.
The Oriental-themed Peasholm Park was originally built in 1912 and was based on the willow tea sets!
There is SO much to this place beyond the arcades, sweet shops, and beaches. You just need to dig a little deeper.
Where to stay in Scarborough
The tradition of taking the waters at Scarborough has been around for centuries.
Luckily today, we can take a much more modern approach. The Crown Spa Hotel was the first purpose-built hotel in England and it provides the perfect base for a few days of luxury and pampering.
They have a great selection of fresh comfy rooms and many of those are seaside facing.
It’s located high up on the cliffs, so you can get an incredible view of the castle, the beaches and beyond!
They have a glorious Victorian spa on-site or you can indulge in one of their scrumptious afternoon teas.