3 Coningsborough Castle


The site is a natural eminence, of which the upper part, a level surface of three roods and two porches, is completely encircled by the outer wall. It is overlooked by a still higher hill on the west, but at too great a distance to be annoyed by such missiles as were in use at the time to which it may be referred. On that hill stand the church and town.

The valley between the two eminences was a deep ravine, made deeper by art. Across it a drawbridge appears to have been thrown. This led to the only entrance to the castle. On the north side is the river. The hill is there very steep and even precipitous; and the walls of the castle are placed so exactly on the very verge that it is exceedingly difficult to walk round the walls on that side, or to find between the castle and he river a position from which to obtain a north view of the keep. On the south and east, trenches have been cut round the base of the hill, which appear to have been originally intended to contain water. They are now nearly filled by portions of the outer wall which have rolled down into them. The sloping side of the hill, and the area within the walls, has been planted with elm and ash. The trees have attained a great size. They add to the picturesque beauty, without much injuring the original character of the scene.

The entrance to the castle area is by a winding way about ten feet wide, and carefully defended. When the area is gained we perceive at once the whole extent, and the keep is seen rising majestically at the further extremity. We now perceive that the wall has been broken down in several places. Vile also find that it was strengthened by several round towers, and that on the north side were several apartments. But with the exception of the keep, which we shall find to have been ill adapted to the purpose, there appears to have been no preparation for the residence of any considerable number of persons.

A more distinct idea of this area will be gained from the plan.

Near the keep is a sally-port of intricate construction. When once the area was gained, there was nothing to prevent the progress of the enemy to the foot of the keep. The height of the keep, or rather of what remains of it, for when perfect it must have risen above its present elevation, has been ascertained to be eighty-six feet. Its form is cylindrical, with six square buttresses accompanying it to its whole height. But in the lower part the walls diverge from the perpendicular, as do also the buttresses, which appear grappling the earth, like the strong fibres of the root of the oak, as if the pile was to be fixed to a spot from whence it was never to be removed.

The masonry of the keep differs materially from that of the other parts of the castle. Not only is the surface properly smoothed, and the stones accurately joined, but they are nicely squared, and the courses are perfectly distinct and regular. In the other parts, the surface is indeed smooth, but the stones are of all figures, and no care has been taken to preserve regularity or distinctness in the courses. There is the same attention to order in the interior of the keep; but the space between the inner and outer surface is filled with stones of all forms and sizes, and the mortar appears to have been poured into the irregular mass. The outer coat of squared masonry is in a high state of preservation. What injury it has sustained is chiefly in the basement story, and on the side which faces the west.

To the interior there is only one entrance. This is by a small door which faces the south-west, at a considerable height from the ground, being at the head of a flight of thirty-three stone steps. This door opens to a passage through the cylindrical part of the wall, which is here of the extraordinary thickness of fifteen feet. Over the door of entrance there is an arch, but there is also a transom beam, as if the architect was not aware of the power of the arch. This is one of Mr. King´s arguments for the high antiquity of the keep; but it is plain that the architect might only be intent on having a square-headed door, the usual form. The passage through the wall has a circular coved roof. On the right hand is a flight of wide steps which conduct to the next story. We pass directly into a principal apartment of the keep, and this without the intervention of any gate or door, a very remarkable circumstance.

I. On being introduced to this apartment we perceive that it is circular, contained by the circular wall of the keep, and the only apartment on his floor. We perceive also that the floors of the several apartments above it have been removed, and we see the heavens as through a circular tube. The diameter is twenty-two feet, and there are twenty courses of masonry to the lenchings of the next floor. We look for some contrivance for warming it, and find none. We look for some window or loop-hole by which light might be introduced, and find none. Not a ray could have entered, except that when the outer door was open its darkness might be made visible by what light could make its way through a narrow passage of fifteen feet in length. And it was probably for tl1e sake of the glimmering which might thus be obtained that the builder dispensed with the obvious convenience of having an inner door, which might have prevented this room from being exposed to every person who might enter the keep. Here is no niche, or anything which breaks the dead uniformity of the wall, in which, however, I observed on the west a fissure, the most serious in the whole edifice. It can have been nothing but a repository for stores.

Dismal as this apartment must have been, there was one still more dismal below. In the centre of the floor is a circular aperture, about six feet in diameter, through which we obtain a view of what we may call a cellar, if it may not more aptly be described as the dungeon of despair. This room is formed in that part of the keep where the walls diverge from the perpendicular, and the only admission to it is by the circular aperture just mentioned. Most inconvenient must such a mode of access have been, both as respects the mode of descending and the state of tl1e room from which the descent was made; and the architect, who was far from being unskilful, and wl1o, in whatever he did, had some design, might easily, if he had pleased, have contrived a more convenient communication.

This cellar is spacious. Its stone roof is coved. From what is the present level of the bottom to the springing of the cove, I counted twelve courses of masonry. But much stone and rubbish has fallen through the aperture, so that it is impossible to ascertain what was the depth. Nothing is to be seen but bare walls. It is said tl1at in the centre was a well. I would take the liberty to suggest to the duke of Leeds, the owner of this most curious remain, the propriety of clearing away the rubbish which rests upon the floor of this cellar. Something might perhaps be discovered.

II. It has been already observed, that on the right of the passage by which we enter there are steps which lead to the next apartment above. Of these there are twenty-five, which follow the curvature of the wall without any intermediate landing-place. The steps are of solid stone, the roof coved, and the passage {five or six feet in width. Light is admitted by a narrow loop-hole, and there is another at the landing-place, directly opposite to which is the door-way to the next apartment. The door is gone, as is all the wood-work in every part of the keep. But the staples for the hinges and bolts remain. Over it was a circular arch. The door opened outwards, and we enter the apartment down one step.

The room is circular, like the one below. The diameter is about two feet longer, the apartments widening as we ascend, by the setting in of the walls for the convenience of laying the floors. But beside the lenchings there are stone trusses all round the walls to support the ends of the beams of timber on which the floor was laid. These trusses all point to a centre, a circumstance laid hold of by Mr. King, who draws, from it a singular and, I fear, an improbable inference. He argues that these trusses could never have been intended to receive the ends of beams laid in the usual manner across the chamber, but shorter beams, radiating to a centre, where was a circular aperture, not unlike that in the floor of the room below; and that through a series of these apertures, in the centre of the floors of each successive apartment, some additional light was obtained to the room which we have first described. But as the building was circular, the trusses would of course point to a centre; and small indeed must the light have been which passed down a funnel of about seven feet diameter, and from a height of fifty or sixty feet. Nor was light the only element which the heavens would pour down such an opening. And surely most incommodious, if not dangerous, must such a succession of apertures have been. On these trusses and the lenching it is evident, however, that the floor rested: and here we are obliged to Mr. King for having drawn our attention to a peculiarity in the construction of the keep, namely, that in no part of it were the timbers let into the wall; so that all the wood-work might at any time be destroyed, even by fire, and no essential injury be done to the fabric. This apartment has twenty courses of masonry. Standing at the entrance, we behold nearly opposite, the door of egress to the story above. To this there was no access but by crossing the chamber.

This apartment has a noble fire-place. It is eight or nine feet wide, with a triple pillar on each side having capitals of a rude Ionic. The chimney-piece, twelve feet long, has a flat surface, and is composed of several stones fitted into each other by a kind of zigzag or dovetail work. Mr. King is mistaken in calling this one stone. He mistakes also a niche between the door and the fireplace for the shrine of an idol. There is a perforation, and a correspondent exit on the outside of the wall, which clearly shews that it has been a lavatory. These are between the doors on the right of the entrance.

On the left is the path to the door of egress. The floor being entirely removed, we walk along the lenching of the wall by the assistance of large nails, which are driven into it at suitable intervals. Passing along this narrow track, we soon come to a door-way. This opens to a flight of six steps, from which a short and winding passage conducts to a retiring-closet formed in one of the buttresses.

Light is here admitted through a loop-hole about three feet in height, five inches wide on the outside, and widening inwards through a wall five feet thick. There was no door except that at the foot of the stairs. Proceeding along the lenching, we next come to a little recess, or small chamber, formed in the circular part of the wall, and immediately over the door of entrance. This recess is open to the circular apartment. A stone bench runs round three of the sides. It seems that here the inhabitants of this den of greatness, as Mr. King calls the keep, might sometimes unbend in social converse, and sit to enjoy some of the common blessings of heaven; for here is the largest window in the whole structure, though small indeed, and it aifords a pleasant look-out towards Crook-hill and Clifton. This window has a contrivance for sliding a massive beam before it. It was the only entrance for light to what appears to have been the principal apartment.

III. The ascent to the next story is by a flight of thirty-four steps, with a loop-hole light, and another at the landing-place. The apartment at which we now arrive is like the last, but wider, for the reason before given. It has a tire-place, recess, and lavatory, differing little from those in the room below, except that the recess is much smaller. The door of egress is again placed nearly opposite to the entrance, and the access to it was by crossing the apartment; it is now by passing along the lenching.

The height at which we are now arrived is considerable; but I did not experience any of those apprehensions which it seems others have felt; and when I was last at Coningsborough not fewer than twenty or thirty persons were in the keep, men, women, and children, who walked with much unconcern along the narrow ledge. Walking along this ledge we soon arrive at a door-way leading to one of the most interesting parts of this curious fabric, a chapel or oratory, formed in the thickness of the wall and one of the buttresses; for our ancestors neglected not to make provision for the enjoyment of the comforts of religion, even in the straitest circumstances.

This apartment is an irregular hexagon, in length twelve feet. Its breadth in the middle is eight feet, and at each end six feet. The height is fifteen or sixteen feet. In its roof are two pairs of cross arches springing from six circular columns, with the mock Ionic capitals. Three of these are on the right, and three on the left; and from the two in the centre springs a fifth arch, which extends over the centre of the room. At this elevation there was less danger in permitting openings to be made in the wall. Here are therefore three lights. One opposite to the entrance is a loop-hole six feet in height, six inches wide without, but opening within to the width of thirty inches through a five-foot wall. At the opening of the light inward is an indented or zigzag circular arch springing from light cylindrical columns. This light is on the front of the buttress towards the east. The other two lights are on its sides, quatrefoils without, and circular within. These two apertures widen inward, like the one in front, but not like it evenly, the architect aiming to direct the light towards a particular part of the room.

This room is evidently an integral part of the original design. The architecture differs considerably from that of other parts of the edifice; but it is only a deviation from the castellate to the ecclesiastical style. It may be referred to the feeling of any one who has been accustomed to contemplate our early edifices, whether it can have been constructed but for a religious purpose, and with a Christian prepossession. Even the great advocate for the earliest date of this edifice is here startled at his own theory. But what puts the question, if question it really can be considered, out of all doubt is, that there are two piscinae in the sidewalls exactly in the position in which such niches are found; and though no altar remains, there are beneath the window where the altar must have stood, appearances which indicate that an altar, or something very like it, must once have stood there.

A door-way on the left of the entrance to the chapel leads to a small room lighted by a loop-hole. It appears to have been a kind of vestry. Here is nothing to be seen but a niche with a trefoil top.

IV. In the passage from the circular chamber just described is a winding irregular way to a second closet. The steps are here narrow and inconvenient, the walls at this elevation being much reduced in thickness by the widening of the apartments. At the head of this flight we are introduced to what has been a circular room, like those below, but the circular parts of the wall are broken down, and all which remains are the tops of the six buttresses, rising to about the height of nine feet above the level of the floor. In each of these buttresses is a hollow, not unlike an oven. In one of these are twelve small apertures, which may have been intended for the purpose of throwing down hot sand or water on the besiegers. Over the alcove, in one of the buttresses, has evidently been a small room, a portion of its window still remaining; and in another is a flight of steps, which may be supposed to have led to a watchman´s station in this the highest part of the castle. No trace of any roof remains.

Such is this far-famed keep, which has been perhaps more frequently the subject of the pen and of the pencil than any other remain of its order in the kingdom. Whatever may be thought of the aera, there can be little doubt respecting the purpose of its erection, which was evidently as a last retreat for the inhabitants of the castle, who here, if anywhere, must have found a fortress that was impregnable.

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