The History of Skipton
Skipton’s origins can be guessed from the Saxon root of the name: it meant sheep town, the place having been settled it is conjectured in the 7th century for sheep farming.
In William the Conqueror ’s 1086 Domesday Book surveying his new lands Skipton was noted as at least in part previously belonging to the Saxon Earl Edwin. But in 1066 the area was granted to the de Romille family. Robert de Romille built a wooden fortress there in about 1090, to defend the Normans against potential local unrest and actual Scottish incursions. The timber motte and bailey version having proved poor protection from the Scots was replaced with a stone keep not long afterwards. That same overlord also founded the church in Skipton.
With the stone keep promising security a market town grew around it, expanding to the point when in 1204 it was granted a charter by King John .
Skipton Castle was improved by the Clifford family in the 14th century; Robert Clifford having been granted the property in 1310 after its previous owner Thomas Earl of Lancaster was executed at Pontefract for his part in a rebellion against Edward II . Robert Clifford’s tenure was short-lived, however, as he perished at Bannockburn in 1314.
The Clifford family remained as Lords of Skipton for 500 years, and they produced some fascinating characters, among them John, 9th Lord Skipton, known as Butcher Clifford for his savagery at the Battle of Wakefield where legend has it he slew the Duke of York’s captured son in cold blood. The Butcher met his own end in a skirmish on the eve of the Battle of Towton the following year.
In 1548 Skipton’s grammar school was founded by William Ermysted, a Cannon of St Paul’s in London.
The ancient castle had its finest hour during the Civil War : it was the last Royalist stronghold in the North to surrender to Parliament, the resistance led by Sir John Mallory finally ending on December 20 1645 after three years of siege. Not surprisingly Cromwell ordered it ‘slighted’, i.e. made impossible to defend.
Unlike so many such ruined bastions Skipton was restored, by Lady Anne Clifford. She not only restored it, but improved it as a residence rather than a fortification. The yew tree standing in the conduit court she built still links us with her.
Skipton’s pastoral economy laid the foundations for its later significance as a textile manufacturing centre in the Industrial Revolution . High Mill, the first major manufactory in the town, was constructed in 1785, then powered by water but from 1825 driven by steam. It is a mark of Skipton’s economic importance that the first section of the Leeds - Liverpool canal to open was the stretch from the town to Bingley , in 1773 (although the fact that no locks were required also made it attractive to the developers). Lord Thanet, then owner of the castle and some quarries in the area, rapidly added a short branch to the canal to ease transport of his limestone.
The town benefitted from being sited on the great canal, but never developed as fully as many other Yorkshire and Lancashire mill towns did, and agriculture remained an important contributor to the local economy.
During the 20th century Skipton declined in industrial terms, but gained as a tourist destination. Some 20th century visitors, however, arrived in Skipton not of their own volition: Raikeswood Camp in the town held German POWs in WWI ; and outside Skipton Overdale Camp had the same function for Germans and Italians in the next conflict. Today, however, it is the beauty of the castle and the waterside which draws people to the Dales town.
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