Robert Clifford was born in 1274. He was the son of Isabella de Vieuxpont and Roger Clifford. The Cliffords were an old Norman family who took their name from their main seat in Herefordshire meaning that the Lords of Skipton were distantly related to Rosamond Clifford (Fair Rosamond) who was Henry I’s mistress. On his mother’s side – Isabella and her sister Idonea were coheirs to the lordship of Westmorland which, together with Edward I’s campaign to subdue Scotland, would ultimately change the marches upon which the Cliffords prowled.
Young Robert lost his father early so the vast lands (including Brough, Brougham and Appleby) that would one day be his passed into other hands for the time being. When he reached his majority Robert would spend years trying to regain property which had been stolen during his minority. He ultimately grew to maturity under the care of Edward I from whom he learned the art of warfare in North Wales before making a name for himself in Scotland. By 1297 he was responsible for Edward’s castles in Cumberland as well as taking part in the perennial border warfare of the period. The following year, according to Summerson, he became Keeper of Nottingham Castle and the justice in the royal forests north of the River Trent. That same year Edward I gave Robert Clifford Caerlaverock Castle and all the lands that belonged to Sir William Douglas as a reward for his work. On one hand this was very nice for Robert on the other hand the Douglas family were not best pleased. Edward’s grant triggered a feud between the Douglasses and the Cliffords that lasted for the next hundred years. It probably didn’t help that Robert’s actions in Dumfries and Annan were recorded in the Song of Caerlaverock. Clifford was undoubtedly a capable as well as loyal officer to the crown – it certainly helped him to build an extensive power base on which to build his family’s fortunes.
He attended Edward I until his death and from his appointment as Marshall of England by Edward II whom Clifford had served during the Prince of Wales’ time on campaign in Scotland. He didn’t hold the job for long. He also gave up his role of Justice and Keeper of Nottingham Castle. In October 1309 he was appointed keeper of the English West March with Carlisle as its headquarters, and was ordered to act as Warden of Scotland, with a force of 100 men-at-arms and 300 foot soldiers – so he probably didn’t have much time to sit around in Nottingham.
It was at about this time Robert came to an accommodation with his childless aunt (Idonea) which ultimately resulted in the Lordship of Westmorland being granted to him. Robert Clifford already held Brough Castle and Appleby and now he was granted Skipton Castle making him a force to be reckoned with in the north.
Unfortunately the business of the Scottish Wars of Independence were somewhat sidelined by Edward II’s relationship with Piers Gaveston. The King’s favourite was greedy for wealth and power. In October 1310, just as Clifford was building a substantial power base for himself in the north-west the king granted the Honour of Penrith to Gaveston – a bit of a fly in the ointment so far as Clifford was concerned but not sufficient to make him join with many of the other English barons who formed a commission against Edward II to reform the way in which Edward governed his household and the realm. The barons issued ordinances from which they gained the name Lords Ordainers. One of the ordinances made Edward II take back into royal custody all the land which he’d given away. This meant that Robert having gained Skipton was forced to return it to the crown. A bizarre game of pass the castle then followed in which Skipton was then handed back to Clifford. The reason behind this probably lies in the fact that Clifford had given his lands in Monmouth in exchange for the Honour of Skipton – so he wasn’t depriving the crown of its revenue. Clifford resumed his building work on the outer defences of the castle.
This uncertainty and his previous record for loyalty didn’t mean that Clifford wasn’t sympathetic to the demands of the Lords Ordainers. In 1312 he prevented Gaveston from receiving Scottish help, besieged him in Scarborough Castle and recovered royal jewels from Newcastle when they were abandoned by the king and his favourite. Later he acted as a go-between for the Earls of Lancaster and Warwick who sought a pardon when Edward II regained control of his realm. The earls received a pardon and so did Robert Clifford.
The pardons signaled a resumption of the Scottish War of Independence. In June 1314 Clifford was summoned to Berwick and the start of the campaign that ended in disaster for the English at Bannockburn. Clifford was killed in action. His body was taken to Carlisle and from there to Shap Abbey where he was buried.
Skipton Castle was about to face Scottish invasion and be plunged into civil war – life wasn’t going to be very restful for the Clifford family either.