Scarborough Castle’s dramatic parade of English Kings

I spent a week in Scarborough recently visiting my close relative Henry Bell and one day we climbed up to the impressive remains of Scarborough Castle that still sit on the hill top over-looking Scarborough town and the North Sea.

Now Henry wasn’t the first Henry to visit this place because the first Henry here was the man who ordered it to be built. The first Henry here was King Henry II of England (1154-1189) who commissioned the stone castle here on the site of a wooden castle in 1157 when he moved to deprive over-powerful barons of their fortifications.

King Henry II’s tomb

Scarborough Castle, strategically placed,  became an important centre for the defence of Northern England against not just troublesome English barons but against the threat of invasion from the even more troublesome Scots and other enemies from across the water in mainland Europe. Henry II so valued his castle at Scarborough  that he honoured the town itself making it a royal borough.

King Henry II’s keep, the defensive and main dwelling for the castle,  is still standing and the remains can still show us how splendid it must have looked in its day.

Further fortifications and some more luxurious Medieval apartments were added by his son,  the notorious King John (1199 – 1216) who had also had problems with rebellious subjects like Robin Hood who, if he actually existed, was typical of the disappointed supporters of John’s warrior brother Richard I (1189-1199), the Lionheart,  who had always been much to busy doing chivalrous things abroad with his loyal follower the devoted wandering minstrel Blondel to worry about such boring things as strengthening his castles at home.

King John’s tomb

John’s son was another Henry,  named, rather unimaginatively, King Henry III (1216-1272) who shared his father’s interest in Scarborough and spent large amounts of money on the fortification and built the  two towered barbican gate.

This was Scarborough’s heyday when it was a famous international centre, prosperous through trade encouraged by its annual Scarborough Fair.

King Henry III’s tomb

After the old king’s death, King Henry’s III’s throne was passed to his son King Edward I (1272-1307) who held the royal court here in 1275 and 1307.

King Edward I’s tomb

Edward I also used the castle as a prison for all his Welsh prisoners after conquering Wales and bringing it under English rule.

His son, King Edward II (1307-1327) was made the first Prince of Wales, the title held ever since by the heir to the throne. He too recognised the place as a sturdy stronghold so he used it to imprison some of his Scottish enemies after the Scots attacked Scarborough in 1318.

King Edward II’s tomb

 Before that he had given the castle to his unpopular “favourite” and lover, the French knight, Piers Gaveston (c.1284 – 1312), once reigning regent of England, who came to live here thinking himself safe when King Edward’s detractors started to hunt him down.

When his enemies finally caught up with him, Piers Gaveston was safe enough behind the fortified walls in this the first and most famous siege of Scarborough Castle (1312). Unfortunately for Piers, he ran out of food and had to surrender so a group of noblemen who promised him a safe passage back to London and his protector the king but instead handed him over the Earl of Warwick or organized a trial of his piers and condemned Gaveston to death and summarily executed him at Blacklow Hill.

Interestingly, for all Scarborough no nonsense sensibilities, the love story of King Edward II and Piers Gaveston has been it’s most consistent gift to the arts. King Edward II’s love for Piers Gaveston, whether they were lovers or not, has been immortalised in plays by Christopher Marlowe (Edward II, 1593) and Berthold Brecht (Edward II, 1923), a film by Derek Jarman (Edward II, 1991) and a ballet by Derek Bintley (Edward II, 1995).

Edward II by Christopher Marlowe

Act the Second Scene IV

[Near Tynemouth Castle]


K. Edw. O tell me, Spencer, where is Gaveston?
Spen. I fear he is slain, my gracious lord.
K. Edw. No, here he comes; now let them spoil and kill.


Fly, fly, my lords, the earls have got the hold;
Take shipping and away to Scarborough;
Spencer and I will post away by land.
Gav. O stay, my lord, they will not injure you.
K. Edw. I will not trust them; Gaveston, away!
Gav. Farewell, my lord.
K. Edw. Lady, farewell.
Niece. Farewell, sweet uncle, till we meet again.
K. Edw. Farewell, sweet Gaveston; and farewell, niece.
Q. Isab. No farewell to poor Isabel thy queen?
K. Edw. Yes, yes, for Mortimer, your lover’s sake.

[Exeunt all but QUEEN ISABELLA.]

James Laurenson as Gaveston and Ian McKellan as Edward in Edward II by Christopher Marlowe (1593), BBC 1970

Edward II by Berthold Brecht (1923) by Circle X Theater Company, Los Angeles, USA, 2001

Stephen Waddington as Edward and Andrew Tiernan as Gaveston in Edward II, a film by Derek Jarman, 1991

Tyrone Singleton as Gaveston and Robert Tewsley as Edward in Edward II, a ballet by David Bintley (1995)

I wonder what Edward II’s son, King Edward III (1327 – 1377) would’ve have made of all this. When he inherited the throne, he concentrated on on rebuilding Scarborough’s  battlements and reinforcing the barbican. We can all be grateful though to his father,  whose  sad life and unpleasant death has inspired some challenging additions to World culture and which also marked Scarborough’s first appearance in the theatre.


King Edward III’s tomb

From then on, through the Hundred Years War and the Wars of the Roses, Scarborough Castle led a surprizingly sober life in spite of the importance of Yorkshire to the conflict between the royal houses of Lancaster and York.

The last English monarch to stay in the castle was another of English history’s notorious bad guys, King Richard III (1483-1485) who may not have been so bad after-all  if we are to believe recent archaeology. 

Richard III came here with his wife, Anne, after the loss of their infant child, in 1483. A  touch of rest and recoupment after a personal tragedy before the Tudor uprising of 1485 when Richard would die on the battlefield at Bosworth.

The victor, Henry Tudor, became King Henry VII (1485 – 1509) and his son, King Henry VIII (1509 – 1547) may never have visited Scarborough but his army certainly did when it defended the castle during the Catholic rebellion that threatened the throne in the so-called Pilgrimage of Grace (1536). An easier rebellion was quashed during Queen Mary I’s reign (1553-1558), when one Thomas Stafford, a Protestant rebel,  arrived in Scarborough from Dieppe with thirty men in 1557 and walked into the castle claiming that it was going to be given to Spain by “Bloody Mary” herself. Stafford managed to hold on to the castle for three days before he was captured by the Earl of Westmoreland and beheaded in the Tower of London a month later.

Apart from a wartime bombardment by two German warships during the First World War in 1914, the final drama involving Scarborough Castle occurred during the English Civil War when the castle changed hands between the Royalists and the Parliamentarians seven times between 1642 and 1649.  There was a particularly dramatic siege when the Royalists tried to defend the castle from the Parliamentarian artillery based in the churchyard of St Mary’s below. In the battle much of the catle was destroyed as was an entire 12th Century transept in St Mary’s church – the remains of which can still be seen.
After so much excitement, it’s not surprzing that Scarborough Castle entered a long period of decline as a venerable ruin with an interesting past.

It walls had ears, as they say, and if more of Scarborough Castle’s were still standing, we would all have plenty to listen to. When the sun sinks behind it, we can be forgiven for thinking that some of those dramatic events live on somewhere up there in the shadows.

Before leaving the castle, let’s hear it one more time from King Edward II and Piers Gaveston as imagined by Christopher Marlowe’s fevered brain. Here is an except from that 1970 BBC production with Ian Mckellen and James Laurenson as the doomed lovers:

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