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Involvement of Scarborough Castle with William le Gros

William le Gros, 2nd Earl of Holderness, 3rd Earl of Albemarle (or Aumale), and Earl of York, (after 1138) was the most powerful baron of his time in the northern counties of England. 1 At the beginning of King Stephen's reign, William le Gros held the continental county of Aumale, almost the entire peninsula of Holderness, and considerable estates in Lincolnshire. King Stephen gave William great responsibilities and power in Yorkshire, after he won the battle of the Standard against King David of Scotland. William represented the king on the panel that chose the Archbishop of York, was given charge of the royal forests of Yorkshire, and was given the administrative power of the sheriff of Yorkshire. 2

As part of his bid to consolidate his rule of the North Riding, after becoming the Earl of York in 1138, William built a castle on the imposing and cliff-defended headland above Scarborough. What little we know about William's castle comes from the near-contemporary chronicler and monk William of Newburgh, who wrote between 1197 and 1199 about Scarborough. Newburgh apparently relied on eyewitnesses for his descriptions of Scarborough Castle. William le Gros, "observing [Scarborough] to be fitly suited for building a castle thereon, increased the natural strength of it by a costly work, enclosing all the plain upon the rock with a wall, and building a tower in the entrance." 3 We can conclude indirectly that William le Gros' keep was not made from stone, since Newburgh says about Henry's bid to restore order to the royal demesne only 20 years later: "But this tower was so decayed and fallen through age that King Henry II ordered a great and noble castle to be raised on the same site" 4 However, if William's fortress was made from wood with a timber palisade and ditch, it would explain how it degraded in 20 years, on a storm-tossed headland. Le Gros may have ruled the North Riding like a king, but he did not have the resources of a king. Nor for that matter would William have needed a stone keep during a time when the only castles made from stone had been built by William the Conquerer; a wooden palisade would have been ample protection. An alternative interpretation is that the decay is just an excuse, and Henry rebuilt the keep to emphasize the change of control. In either case some stones in the wall remain from William's time, but nothing of his keep.

During this early period the town was probably not around the castle but along the local waterway Damgeth or Damyot, which reaches the sea at the harbor south of the castle. But it is very likely that once there was a castle, houses were built right under it. See maps and bird's-eye views for maps of the town and harbor. From the time of William le Gros onward, Scarborough Castle has both dominated and protected the town and harbor.

It seems very probable that William had economic as well as political and military reasons for building Scarborough Castle. The east coast ports of England were part of an extensive trade network that encompassed both England and parts of the continent. Not only did William take a great interest in Scarborough but he also secured or built up other ports along the Yorkshire coast. At times William's rapid conquering of ports and castles in Yorkshire moved Stephen to command him to leave a specific town alone. William's wide-reaching ambitions in Yorkshire included building fortified residences near ports to control the resources of nearby forests and parks, and also controlling east coast trade. 5

William's great power in Yorkshire, that owed little to the crown, demonstrates why King Henry II spent so much time and effort to take local control away from the barons and put it back in the crown. William le Gros did not give up his power easily. William "hesitating a long while and boiling with indignation, at last, though sorely hurt submitted to his [King Henry II] power and very reluctantly resigned whatever of the royal domains he had possessed for many years, more especially that celebrated and noble castle of Scarborough." 6

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