The Castle has always had important royal as well as episcopal connections. Henry III, Edward I and his wife Margaret, Edward II and his wife Isabella, have all stayed here, the last on his way to disastrous defeat at the hands of the Scots led by Robert the Bruce at Bannockburn.
It was Archbishop John Kempe who built the Gatehouse, using the creamy-white stone from a quarry at Huddleston, owned by the Cathedral. The son of a Kentish gentleman, Kempe rose swiftly through political and religious ranks. Henry VI declared him to be "one of the wisest lords in the land". He rose to be Bishop of Rochester, then Chichester, London, and then Archbishop of York in 1425. He was proud of becoming a cardinal in 1439 and the Cardinal’s hat appears on several of the finely-carved stone shields over the archway. It is likely that he also built the range to the east as it is bonded in with the Gatehouse.
Cawood Castle was by now more palace than castle. Kempe’s successor, Archbishop George Neville celebrated his installation in grand style. John Leland described in every sumptuous detail the feast he threw. Provisions included 400 swans, 104 oxen, 2000 pigs and 4000 venison pasties! It was one of the most famous of all medieval feasts.
Thomas Wolsey became Archbishop of York in 1514, but never came to Cawood until 1530, when he had fallen from power and had to surrender all his offices except York. It was here that he was arrested by the Earl of Northumberland and turned back to the South where he died soon after.
Henry VIII stayed here for two days with his wife Catherine Howard. In her retinue was her lover, Thomas Culpeper who later caused her to be beheaded. Further royal intrigue occurred here in 1568 when the "Rising in the North" first plotted to bring back the Catholic religion and to replace Queen Elizabeth with Mary Queen of Scots. It ended with the execution of the Earls of Northumberland and Westmoreland and 400 of their followers at York.
During the Civil War, Cawood changed hands three times. The original garrison of Royalist troops mostly deserted when faced by 600 foot and cavalry soldiers in October 1642. But by June 1643 it had been recaptured by the Royalists, who held in for one year when it was retaken by Sir John Meldon for Parliament. At the end of the war. Parliament decided that Cawood, together with 7 other castles in the north should be "slighted" or made untenable. Most of the castle was demolished including the crenelated parapet on the Gatehouse.
The Gatehouse continued in use by the Archbishops of York as a local or ‘leet’ court, and towards the end of the 18th century, the second staircase was built to enable the judge to enter the court room by a different stair from the prisoners. In 1932, the courtroom was turned into a sitting room and during the Second World war it was used as an Officers’ Mess and also by the Home Guard. More recently it contained a full-sized billiard table, which was still there when the Landmark Trust finally acquired the Gatehouse in 1985.
To read more about the history of Cawood Castle please click here.