Yorkshire’s Historical Heritage

Travel Ideas

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Yorkshire is home to some of the UK’s best historic architecture including imposing castles, dramatic ruins and soaring abbeys. Its strategic position meant Yorkshire was worth defending so formidable castles dot the landscape and the county’s rich farmland meant it could support isolated monastic communities. So if you’re looking for some travel inspiration when you visit Yorkshire, we’ve put together a list of some of the county’s historical highlights…

Pontefract Castle


Once one of the most formidable castles in the country, Pontefract Castle is now little more than a ruin. Not much remains of the Great Gate, the mighty curtain walls and the impregnable keep but you can still see the lower levels of the Gascogne Tower where, it is rumoured, King Richard II spent his final days:

“Pomfret, Pomfret! O thou bloody prison, within the guilty closure of thy walls Richard the second here was hack’d to death” – Earl Rivers, Richard III by William Shakespeare.

During the 16th century, it was alleged that Henry VIII’s fifth wife, Catherine Howard, began her affair with Thomas Culpepper at Pontefract. When their indiscretions were discovered, Catherine payed with her head.

The castle is now managed by the local council and is free to enter. There are dungeon tours and family-friendly events throughout the year. The castle is located just a short walk from the town centre and also has a free car park nearby.

Scarborough Castle

More royal scandal at Scarborough Castle! During the reign of Edward II, his favourite advisor (and some say, his lover) Piers Gaveston sought safety within the castle walls after being hunted by rivals for the King’s favour. During negotiations, Piers was promised safe conduct to London but was ambushed, captured and executed during the journey.

Scarborough played a part in the Hundred Years War, the Pilgrimage of Grace, the English Civil War and even the First World War. During the German Navy’s raid on Britain’s east coast in December 1914, Scarborough was bombarded by over 500 shells, many of which were directed at the castle which suffered severe damage.
The ruins of the castle stand on a promontory between Scarborough’s north and south bay, giving great views across the town and out to the North Sea. There’s plenty of open space to enjoy a picnic and let the kids run riot; recreating sieges and battles of old.

Middleham Castle

Located on the edge of the Yorkshire Dales National Park, the imposing castle of Middleham dates back to the 12th century. Some of Britain’s best known Royal figures are linked with the castle including King Richard III, his brother George, Duke of Clarence and the powerful Richard Neville, 16th Earl of Warwick known as Warwick the Kingmaker.

Although still a ruin, the castle is more complete than many and you can climb to the top of the keep to enjoy spectacular views across the beautiful Yorkshire countryside. Most of its towering walls are still intact and give a good impression of the size and strength of medieval castles.

Clifford’s Tower

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One of the first castles to be built in Yorkshire, York Castle was originally built by William the Conqueror to subdue the important northern city. York was the capital of Northern England during the middle ages and the castle was used as a base by monarchs including Henry II and King John. The castle is notorious as the site of a horrific pogrom against York’s Jewish community resulting in the deaths of over 150 people.

Clifford’s Tower is all that remains of York Castle, a round keep on top of a large mound of earth. An explosion in the 17th century destroyed the tower interior leaving only the walls that remain to this day. A climb to the top of the tower gives great views across the city including York Minster and the racecourse.

Rievaulx Abbey

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Yorkshire’s vast acres of farmland supported several monastic communities who found peace and solace in the wilds of the countryside and grew rich on the back of the booming wool trade. Rievaulx was one of medieval England’s great religious houses and supported a large population of monks and lay brothers. Its location in the sheltered confines of the Rye valley suited the monk’s strict life of prayer and seclusion until 1538 when the abbey was seized by the Crown during the dissolution of the monasteries.

Its dramatic ruins are now an iconic attraction and visitors can still get an idea of how the abbey would have looked during its heyday. The monk’s dormitory, the refectory and the chapel are still accessible as well as outbuildings used for tanning and brewing; you can even visit the monk’s toilet block! Located just outside Helmsley, why not combine a trip to Rievaulx with a visit to Helmsley Castle which is also managed by English Heritage.

Fountains Abbey

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From the North York Moors to the Yorkshire Dales, Fountains Abbey is another great Cistercian monastery which was one of the wealthiest in the country until it suffered the same fate as Rievaulx, its land and buildings being sold off on Henry VIII’s orders in 1539.
The whole site including the surrounding parkland was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1986 and Fountains remains one of the most complete set of monastic buildings in the country.

Explore the Abbot’s house, the infirmary, cloisters, kitchens and cellars to get an idea of the huge scale of the site. The Porters Lodge includes an exhibition on the abbey’s history as well as displaying archaeological finds from around the site.

Whitby Abbey

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The imposing ruins of Whitby Abbey stand high above the town, looking out across the North Sea. This dramatic setting is said to have inspired Bram Stoker to write his classic novel Dracula and the author supposedly based the Count’s castle in Transylvania on the abbey itself. In the novel, Dracula, in the form of a great dog, comes ashore at Whitby and climbs the 199 steps up to the abbey.

Follow in his footsteps and ascend the steps for great views across the town and out to see before exploring the abbey’s Gothic ruins. There is a visitor centre with items on display from throughout the abbey’s history, lots of fun, family events and plenty of Dracula related goings on too! If you don’t fancy the punishing walk up the steps, the Whitby Town Tour bus stops just behind the abbey and there is also a car park nearby.

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