1 Introduction

An extract from the Deanery of Doncaster Coningsborough Hic ubi Semi-Deum proles caput extulit Anses, In titulis quorum nobilis umbra manet. Ulitii Epist. Comiti de Leckou

Where the magnesian limestone meets the coal country, the principal seat of manufactures and population, stand the ruined castle and town of Coningsborough.

As might be expected, the surface of the country is broken and uneven. The hill on which the castle is erected rises almost perpendicularly from the Don, which is here, as the author of Ivanhoe describes it, a soft and gentle river. To the west is an eminence, less abrupt but of greater elevation, on which the church, and town are situated. Towards the east is fine amphitheatre of rock, sprinkled with vegetation, sweeping round some alluvial land, its eastern wing appearing to be lost in the woods of Sprotborough, which beautifully clothe the northern bank of the stream.

Just, indeed, is the remark of the author of Ivanhoe, who has thrown his enchantment over this place, that there are few more beautiful or striking scenes in England than are presented, by the vicinity of this ancient fortress. Another poet has described the appearance of the castle under peculiar circumstances in colours so vivid, as to excite the wish that his pencil had been more frequently employed in depicting the natural and topographical features of a district of which he is so distinguished an ornament.

” The morning was misty, picturesquely so, but It was not poetical enough to enjoy its varying and evanescent beauties, till we reached the old stone-built red-tiled village of Coningsborough1, partly situated on the slope of an opposite hill, and partly scattered along the high road. There the vapour had left the valley, through which the river meandered in light, and the broad slanting base of the castle mount was glowing with field and forest verdure. A little higher, the blue haze engirdled the wood to its very crown, out of which up rose the grey Saxon tower, like the apparition of what it had been seven hundred years ago, so delicately tinted and elevated in air, that it appeared not to rest upon the earth, but the eye gazed upon it as something never so seen before, and which could not be seen so long. It was the vision of a few seconds; suddenly changing from silvery whiteness to flat shade, without any relief – on the surface, as a turn of the road snatched us from the sunny to the sombre side, and presently it was no more. That wreck of a chivalrous age has stood, even as a ruin, for many generations, but such is the infinite vicissitude of glory and loveliness in landscape, that there is no hazard in saying, it never before presented, under any combination of light and shadow, precisely the same aspect as that which we beheld.” 2

The lover of the picturesque, the antiquary, and the naturalist may all be delighted at Coningsborough. On the walls of the ruined keep the parietaria grows in profusion. In the neighbouring woods are found the aira caryophylla, phyteuma orbicularis, hyoseris nigra, cerastium arvensis, ranunculus auricomus, astragalus glycyphillos, with the green and foetid hellebores, as I am informed in a valuable communication respecting the botany of this district.

The great interest of Coningsborough, however, arises from its castle, an edifice full of curiosity and mystery, from its connection with one if not more great questions in our national history; and its undoubted pretensions to have been the principal residence of the successive chiefs of the great house of Warren, and after them of the princes of the house of York.

From the conquest the history of this place is sufficiently clear from difficulties. But in respect of the period before the conquest it is necessary that we proceed in our historical investigation with great caution. After observing that there seems no reason to claim for Coningsborough any connection with our Roman affairs, I shall proceed to treat its early history in the way least liable to exception, setting before the reader, first, those truths respecting it of which there can be no dispute, and then leading him to matter of more doubtful character.

I. It is evident from the extract already given from the Norman survey that at the time of the conquest Coningsborough was the head of a very extensive fee. Twenty-eight towns in whole or in part acknowledged the lord of Coningsborough as their chief. It further appears that this fee. Had been consolidated in the Saxon times, and that in the peaceful days of the Confessor it had belonged to Harold the earl, to whom the Norman surveyors do not deign to give the title of king, though it was the same Harold, son of Godwin, who, on the death of the Confessor assumed the sovereignty.

II. At the time of the survey, Coningsborough belonged to William de Warren, the son in law of the Conqueror. It was given to him with the fee entire as Harold had possessed it. He was also, by descent from Herfastus, brother to Gunnora, wife of Richard duke of Normandy, allied in blood to the king, under whom he had a chief command at the battle of Hastings. He was therefore one of the most illustrious of the persons who accompanied the duke of Normandy in his conquest of England. Not only was Coningsborough and its fee given to him, but he had a mansion there which appears to have been his usual residence when in England. This is not to be collected from Domesday book, where is no mention of an aula.

William de Warren

But it may be inferred with a certainty little inferior to that which he appearance in that record of the words aula, castellum, or burgenses, would produce, from the following passage in the foundation charter of a monastery which in 1078 this earl erected at Lewes in Sussex:

ita quod duo hospitia mihi et heredibus meis ibi per annum retinui, unum in eundo in Everwicsire, et alterum in redeundo.



1 I supply- the name, meo periculo


2 Prose by a Poet, 11. 15.


The monks were to find him lodging as he went and returned to and from Yorkshire, that is, to his paternal seat in Normandy. It is a fair inference from this, that when in England his abode was in Yorkshire. But in 1078 he had nothing in Yorkshire but the Coningsborough fee, for Wakefield and its dependencies were given to the family afterwards.

III. With a confidence scarcely inferior it may be inferred that earl Harold his predecessor had a mansion here; for we may naturally expect that where so extensive a fee was consolidated there would be a mansion at the place which was accounted the head, especially as we find that within a few years after such a mansion is known to have existed.

IV. The consolidation of this fee was effected long before the time of Harold. This is established by very decisive evidence, and is very important in the course of this enquiry. In the testament of Wulfric Spott, the minister of king Ethelred, to which we have before had occasion to refer, occurs this passage.


Item do .AElfhelmo terras {Has apud Cunuzerbunh, dummodo ipse curet ut monachi [coil. de Burton] habeant quotannis tertiam partem piscium, et ipse dues partes.


It hence appears that Coningsborough belonged about the year 1000 to this great Saxon, and that it was given by him to Elfhelm, who seems to have been his son or brother, and who enjoyed by the same testament the inter Ribble et Mersey lands. But the more important inference is, that by Cunuzerbunh is not meant Coningsborough as that place may be contemplated apart from the fee, but that the lands forming the fee as described in Domesday book passed under that denomination. This appears by the mention of the fish. There could never have been any fisheries of consequence in the Don at Coningsborough, while in that part of the fee which lay about Hatfield there were very extensive fisheries, from which the tables of the monks in several monasteries were supplied. Mention is made in Domesday of twenty fisheries at Tudworth, rendering to the lord of Coningsborough a thousand eels each, which are without doubt the fisheries intended.

V. The foundation of a church at Coningsborough»is to be referred to a very early period. The architectural evidence is strong; but the historical is still stronger. We have a fabric which, in spite of repeated alterations, is still, as to its great features, Saxon, and still exhibiting proof that it was not an edifice designed for the inhabitants of some small and obscure manor, but where space was required, and expense not much regarded. We have also within it a very perfect Saxon tomb, classing in its sculptures with the crosses at Bakewell and Sandbach, and the sculptured stones at Dewsbury. But the church of Coningsborough is the mother of the three churches mentioned with it in the Domesday survey, for they are spoken of in a grant to the priory of Lewes, soon after the date of that survey, as appendicia to the church of Coningsborough; from which it is an obvious and natural inference, that, at the foundation of the church of Coningsborough, the whole of the fee formed but one great parish. On the whole the foundation of a church at Coningsborough can scarcely be referred to a period later than the time of king Alfred, and the church may be regarded as the elder daughter of the great mother of churches throughout the vale of the Don-Doncaster.

VI. The name is of great import in this investigation. Coningsborough is precisely equivalent to King´s-borough; like the Konigsberghs and Furstenberghs in Germany, and the Cesareae, Augusta; and EeBarrai of ancient times. The name of the ferry over the Don at the foot of the hill has conformed to modern usage, and is the King´s Ferry. All this points at some early connection with persons in whom the dignity inhered which is expressed by the word Coning or Kuninz. The question then arises at what period can Coningsborough have been in any peculiar manner connected with the kingly power of England, or of Northumbria, within the limits of which kingdom it was situated. Mr. Watson´s conjecture that it owes its appellation to the temporary possession of it by king Harold is wholly inadmissible, since it had evidently this appellation at least as early as the reign of king Ethelred. The same document which contains the notice of this fact, appears to negative the supposition that it was royal demesne during the reign of all our Saxon kings, being given as we have seen by Wulfric to Elfhelm. To what period then is the name and the royal connection to be referred? I answer, that on a full view of the facts already established in evidence, compared with the existing works here, not those of stone, but the earth-works, it can hardly be doubted that Wulfric had entered into possession of what had been a borough of the Northumbrian kings.

VII. In the chronicle of Peter Langtoft, which belongs however to the thirteenth century, Coningsborough is expressly mentioned as receiving king Egbert and his suite, who came to spend the Whitsuntide there:

Sone after the wyntere, when the somer bigan, The kyng and his meyne went to Burgh-Konan. It was on Witsonday.

Burgh-Konan is explained in the margin to be Konyngesburghe. There is no authority correlative with Langtoft to this fact; but it was not the manner of this writer to invent fictitious incidents; and nothing appears in this simple statement to tempt an historian, even one who writes in verse, from historical verity as it was presented to him in some older but lost authority. If Langtoft can be here admitted as evidence, we gain a most important position. We are not left to inferences, in which, however cautiously drawn, there may be error, but the fact is distinctly brought before us that early in the time of the first of the sole Saxon monarchs there were such edifices existing at Coningsborough

as were capable of receiving the king and his train of attendants; and that of consequence, in correspondence with the inference under the last head, they must have existed there in the time of the heptarchy.

VIII. The place is described as Caer Conan by Jeffery of Monmouth. He explains it, as a term then obsolete, by Cunungeburg, oppidum Caerconan quod nunc Cunungeburg appellatur. If this name ever really existed, for I do not now speak of the facts which are said to have taken place here, it classes with the early towns of which there is a catalogue appended to Nennius´work, and the foundation of Coningsborough is carried at least to an early period of the Saxon heptarchy.

IX. Coningsborough has traditionary claims to a high antiquity. It still shows a mound near the castle wall which is maintained by the current of tradition to be the tomb of Hengist. Supposing Langtoffs assertion that Egbert came to spend his Whitsuntide here to be merely his own invention, it proves that in the reign of Edward I. such traditions respecting Coningsborough were current as would afford some sanction to the fiction. Sup-posing all that Jeifery, in the reign of Stephen, relates of Coningsborough to be fiction, he was doubtless borne out by traditionary belief as to the main fact.

X. It will be perceived how, as we ascend beyond the time of Ethelred or Alfred, the evidence becomes of a more shadowy and unsubstantial character. Certain facts in the early part of this inquiry may be received with a confidence equal to that which we give to state papers and the most authentic documents respecting the transactions of times near our own day. But in respect of the period before their time, not only are the inferences liable to great uncertainty, but the documents from which they are drawn are themselves questionable. If we may place confidence in Jeffery, there was in the fifth century, that is before the Saxons had obtained a settlement in Britain, a fortress here, and it was the scene of some very memorable transactions.

Hengist and Ambrosius

Divested of a portion of the dramatic character which Jeffery has given to his narrative, the facts are these. Aurelius Ambrosius is made king by the Britons, then oppressed by the Saxon power. Hengist, with a large army prepares to fight with him in a held called Maisbeli, through which he knows that Ambrosius intends to pass. Ambrosius marches with his army thither, knowing that Hengist was prepared to meet him. A great battle is fought in that field, in which Eldol duke of Claudiocester distinguished himself on the side of Ambrosius. The Saxons are defeated, and Hengist flies to Caerconan now called Cunungeburg. Ambrosius pursues him, slays some of his troops in the pursuit, and makes slaves of others. I shall just observe upon this part of the narrative, that this account of the pursuit is scarcely consistent with the belief that by Maisbeli Jeffery intended those level lands on the left bank of the Don between Coningsborough and Mexborough, for if that had been the scene of the battle there would have been but a very short pursuit of the flying army. The historian proceeds: when Hengist saw that Ambrosius followed him, he would not enter the town, oppidum, but getting together his people in order, he prepared for a second battle. When Matthew of Westminster tells this same story, he makes an interval of two years between the first and second fight. In other respects Matthews´s narrative agrees with Jeffery´s, and he uses the very words of Jeffery. In another battle with Ambrosius the Saxons would have been successful had not a troop of Armoric horsemen arrived. Eldol and Hengist come to an encounter in single combat. Eldol takes Hengist by the nose-hole, nasale, of his helmet, and drags him from amongst his people, who are then entirely routed, and fly in all directions. Octa, the son of Hengist, flies to York; and Eosa his kinsman to Alud. Ambrosius having thus gained the victory, he took urbem Conanti, Coningsborough, and remained there three days. He ordered the dead to be buried, and the wounded to be taken care of. It next became a question what should be done with Hengist. Eldad bishop of Claudiocester, brother to Eldol, when he saw Hengist standing before the king, ordered the rest to be silent and spoke thus: “Though all should vote for the liberation of this man, yet would I cut him in pieces;” comparing himself to Samuel and Hengist to Agag. Upon this, Eldol took a sword, led him out of the city, and cut of his head. But Ambrosius, a mild and gentle man, ordered him to be decently buried, and a mound of earth to be raised over his body according to the custom of the Pagans. The history proceeds to relate how Ambrosius then led his army to York, when Octa immediately surrendered himself.

The question is, whether this can be taken as a portion of authentic history, unsupported as it is by any correlative evidence with that of Jeffery, for all other persons who have mentioned it appear to have only repeated what he has told. The year 489 is the period assigned to the death of Hengist. For the events of the fifth century we have scarcely any authority worth regarding beside the Saxon Chronicle and Bede. From the Chronicle we learn that Hengist and Horsa, sons of Whitgils, great-grandson of Woden, came into England A.D. 449. We have an account of various transactions in which one or both of them were engaged, bringing down their history to the year 473. From that time we hear no more of Hengist. There is not a word respecting the place or the manner of his death. When his history is dropped by the Chronicle, Hengist was engaged in active warfare with the Britons far from the kingdom of Kent; and, in near accordance with Jeffery, the year 488 is assigned as the date of the accession of Esc, successor of Hengist in the kingdom of Kent. The name of Ambrosius is not found in the Chronicle, but was known to Bede. In the sixteenth chapter of his first book we have what may be taken as a general relation of the events told with more particularity by the Monmouth historian. Bede´s account is, that the Britons recovering a little from what they had suffered from the Saxons, came out of their hiding places, and chose for their leader Ambrosius Aurelianus, a Roman, and, as Bede was informed, the sole survivor of the Roman inhabitants of Britain. Under his command the Britons gained a signal victory over the Saxons, and the war was continued between them with various success,

usgue ad annum obsessionis Badonicae montis,

which he fixes A. D. 492. This is the account given by Bede 1 We may wish that he had inserted one word more, and told us where Ambrosius obtained that signal victory. But we cannot but observe that in both these great authorities we have a correspondence with the narrative of Jeffery. Hence the great and hitherto undetermined question arises, has Jeffery, availing himself of the traditionary consequence of Coningsborough, filled up the outline presented him by Bede with inventions of his own? or are we to receive what he relates as matter of genuine history?

XI. Near the castle wall is a mound of earth, but now scarcely to be discerned, called Hengist´s Tomb, which is maintained to be the identical tumulus which Jeffery informs us was raised over the body of Hengist. This is no modern invention, for it is so denominated by Camden. If tradition have faithfully carried down the occasion of the throwing up this green mound, the question of the death of Hengist may be considered as settled. But it may be, that some person has led the people of Coningsborough to annex this name to the mound, having himself read of the event in the pages of Jeffery.

XII. Lastly, that unique remain, the keep of the castle, has been referred by an antiquary of great name to a period long before the time of Hengist. Mr. King, in his Munimenta Antiqua, refers it to the days of Cartismandua, and to artists working on Phoenician and Phrygian models. His recollections of the edifice are not always correct. He places his heathen idols in niches which a slight inspection may shew to have been intended for far other purposes. And his inferences are often very unsatisfactory. Buildings erected for defence, whether in Europe or Asia, must necessarily possess some common features. Nevertheless we owe much to Mr. King for having shewn us how to examine and describe a remarkable edifice such as this is. But, in respect of its age, it is impossible to enter the little chamber in the eastern buttress, without feeling that we are in a room which was consecrated to Christian devotion, and that therefore it could not have been erected before the light of Christianity had beamed upon our island. But there is something at Coningsborough of higher antiquity than the keep; and that is the earth-works which form the basis of the keep and of the walls by which the court-yard of the castle are surrounded. These works, when they are contemplated with every thing of masonry removed, are seen to be of the same construction with the works at Bradfield, Wincobank, Mexborough, and Laughton. There is an area approaching in form to an ellipse on a natural eminence, surrounded by a mound, and a conical tumulus near one of the foci. To the aera to which these works are to be referred, must be referred also what I would call the original castle of Coningsborough, an earthen fortress in which no hammer ever was raised. What that aera was has never yet been determined, but they may have been fortresses raised originally for the protection of the Northumbrian, or perhaps the Brigantian, frontier. And this, it may be observed, agrees well with the supposed early consequence of Coningsborough.

The age of the keep and the age of Coningsborough are two quite different questions. The structure of the keep is undoubtedly full of curiosity and wonder. By whomsoever designed and built it was one of the strangest conceptions which ever entered the mind of an architect. The architecture of the two chimney-pieces and of the chapel in one of the buttresses, is like that of the reign of Henry II. It might, if necessary, be referred to an earlier period, but none can deny that it resembles what appears in edifices which belong to that reign. 2 I add, and it is now for the first time brought to bear upon this curious question, that an endowment was settled upon the priest of a chapel within the castle by Hameline earl of Warren, half brother to king Henry II. He died in 1202.

I annex a minute description of the whole edifice from my own repeated personal examination.

1 Bede appears to have followed Gildas, who speaks of the successes of the Britons under Ambrosius Aurelianus, c. 25, innearly the same terms. He says nothing of Hengist by name, or of the scene of the victory which Ambrosius gained over the Saxons. We may observe, however, that the representation which Gildas gives of the transactions of those times agrees with Jeffery. He shows the Saxons successful till Ambrosius took the command, and gained a signal victory over them; after which followed alternate victory and defeat to the Britons.

2 In some of its details it bears a strikiig resemblance to the castle of Hedingham in Essex, particularly in the form of its loop-holes and windows, the position of its slender shafts, and the ornaments of their capitals. The erection of that castle has been referred to the first or second of the Veres Earls of Oxford.