William I granted the Lordship of Holderness, which extended from the River Humber to Bridlington, to Drogo de la Beauvriére shortly after the Norman Conquest. Drogo had participated in the invasion, including fighting at the Battle of Hastings (1066), and had been granted these substantial Yorkshire estates as a reward. He raised Skipsea Castle to serve as an administrative centre, to control the nearby Saxon settlement at Cleeton and also to provide insurance against the threat of a Danish invasion. Skipsea, which means 'Isle of the Ships', was chosen because at the time there was a navigable watercourse from the coast enabling a harbour to be integrated into the castle. The site was also on a key nodal point as it controlled the main landward approach to the Humber peninsula by-passing the floodplains of the River Hull.
Skipsea Castle was an earth and timber motte-and-bailey fortification. The motte was exceptionally large as it made use of an existing Iron Age earthwork, most likely a burial mound, and was topped by a timber palisade, wooden tower and stone built gatehouse. The motte was surrounded by a wet ditch and beyond that a gravel bank, presumably topped with a timber palisade, encircled the complex. To the south of the motte was a kidney shaped Inner Bailey which probably hosted the high status buildings including the Great Hall. An Outer Bailey was located to the west and included warehouses, storerooms and workshops. The entire site was surrounded by substantial water features. Firstly a navigable watercourse ran inland from the sea and harbour facilities were built within the Outer Bailey placing the castle at the heart of all economic activity in the site. Secondly a small watercourse, Stream Dyke, was damned to create a freshwater mere. This would have provided a water source as well as a plentiful supply of fish for the site. A causeway linked the castle with Skipsea Church on the other side of the mere.
Drogo forfeited his estates to the Crown in 1087 when he supported the claim of Robert, Duke of Normandy to the English throne over that of William II. Skipsea was then granted to Odo, Count of Troyes but in 1095 he rebelled against the King prompting seizure once again. It was returned to his family in 1102 passing through his heirs thereafter. William le Gros, Odo’s grandson, inherited Skipsea in 1127 and he established a borough to the south of the castle.
By the start of the thirteenth century Skipsea was in decline. The small harbour was silting up which hampered economic prosperity. Around 1200 the Lords of Holderness moved their administrative centre south to Burstwick effectively relegating Skipsea to a remote and irrelevant backwater. In 1221 the then owner - William de Forz - quarrelled with Henry III's Government prompting instructions to burn the castle and there is no evidence it was ever rebuilt. This in turn led the borough to wither with a report of 1260 stating only three of the thirteen plots were occupied by burgesses. Skipsea never recovered and by the fourteenth century the castle grounds were being used as pasture for livestock, a role which has continued to this day. The mere was drained around 1720.
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Skipsea Castle consists of the earthworks of a motte-and-bailey fortification. The large motte, which was built on top of an Iron Age burial mound, is particularly impressive.
Skipsea Castle Layout. The castle consisted of the large motte alongside Inner and Outer Baileys. The site was surrounded by substantial water and was connected to sea via a navigable channel. A freshwater watercourse, Stream Dyke, was also dammed to create a mere which would have provided the castle with fresh water and supported a variety of fish. The water arrangements would also have enabled an effective waste management system.
Skipsea Castle. The castle's earthworks are hugely impressive. The Inner Bailey has been flattened but it was located in the field to the right. The flat ground to the left of the motte was the harbour whilst the earthworks to the left of the picture are the remains of the Outer Bailey.
Motte. The exceptionally large motte was originally an Iron Age man-made hill that was presumably a burial mound. Although smaller than the Bronze Age equivalent in Silbury in Wiltshire, the mound represents the largest surviving Iron Age example of such a structure. The Normans built a wet ditch around the mound and an outer rampart that was once topped with a timber palisade. Both these survive but are a fraction of the size of when they were originally constructed.
Outer Bailey. The castle's Outer Bailey incorporated the port and warehousing facilities ensuring all economic activity was done under the scrutiny of the constable.
Outer Bailey Rampart. The rampart of the Outer Bailey still stands to an impressive height.
Harbour. The inland harbour of the castle was enclosed within the castle. It consisted of Inner and Outer quays plus a boatyard.
Skipsea Castle is found in the small hamlet of Skipsea Brough on the B1249. There is a small parking area adjacent to the access onto the site. Occasionally cattle roam the field around the motte and they seemed unaccustomed to visitors - please take care!
Beeford Road, YO25 8TH
Although it is now over one mile from the sea, Skipsea Castle was originally built to serve as an inland harbour and administrative centre of the Lordship of Holderness. It was raised shortly after the Norman Conquest and occupied for around 150 years before it was destroyed by Henry III. There is no evidence it was ever rebuilt.