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I have previously covered the Northumbrian Castles of Chillingham, Lindisfarne, Alnwick and Bamburgh so if you want to read basic accounts of these castles please refer back to my March and April entries of 2006. The new info I will be supplying on those castles is from additional research. This county will be covered in four parts due to the high volume of castles and entry size limitations. Please look in the newly expanded Northumberland photo album for photos of these castles !
– The Castle Lady
Alternatively referred to in the books as Northumbria, this border county to Scotland has long been considered ‘the castle county of England’ and with good reason. It may be the most fascinating, diverse and historically rich county you can visit within England’s borders. Today Northumberland’s boundaries enclose 398 square miles which includes wooded valleys and wide stretches of open moorland- and nearly 100 known castles! It appears to have been skipped over in the Iron Age but many of the fortified sites date back from Roman times and this county is also the home of Hadrian’s Wall which extends from Wallsend at Newcastle Upon Tyne into Cumberland at Birdoswald Roman Fort (nearby to Naworth Castle in Cumberland). Some of the fortress-type castles were occupied clear into the sixteenth century!
Its coastline was invaded by Vikings so it’s not unusual to find runic inscriptions on ancient landmarks found in the little picturesque villages which dot the valleys. It’s also now the host to National Parkland- from the undulating Cheviot Hills (the natural border between North England and Scotland ) to Hadrian’s Wall which is 60 miles south of the border.
One curiosity is the contrast between the English/Welsh border- which was embattled from the time of the Normans- and the English/Scottish border which was quiet until King Edward I’s reign ceased or at least by comparison this was true. Despite the lack of serious early skirmishes, during all periods, houses were fortified, towers were turned into keeps and new castles were built to replace older edifices. This continued as the approach of the Middle Ages came on and the border threat became a reality Feuding between certain families across the border hills continued for four hundred years which finally ended in 1707 with the Union of Parliament. However, the town of Berwick had special status as a free borough and was treated separately in Acts of Parliament until 1746.
Today there are a few old Roman forts and sites which have become Museums and are well worth the visits. Among them are Chesters Roman Fort which is a quarter of a mile from Chollerford, Corbridge which is a half mile northwest of the city, and Housesteads, three miles northeast of Bardon Mill. The before-mentioned Birdoswald is the last of official museums (eastward) which all ‘line’ Hadrian’s Wall. All are English Heritage sites so they are family-oriented and have much to offer to tourists and visitors. There is a Wall Path National Trail which extends past the wall into Cumbria (Cumberland) and it’s possible to walk or cycle along it (walking it affords you the opportunity to see it up close and personal ) but it’s best to get some official guidance before you take this on. Literature for this is available @
which I advise you to read before going. There are rules and regulations and important cautions to heed in order to proceed with this type of foray into North England’s greatest world heritage site!
In this entry I am going to cover every castle and manor house of note so that you can get a good overview of this richly historic county and discover why Northumberland is referred to as ‘castle country’. I do have a complete list available for anyone who would like to see it especially if you are doing a genealogical search. I do not involve myself in this particular type of venture save for knowing the royal lineage of most of the European royalty and sovereignty. If you are doing this kind of search please get in touch with your local genealogical society. They can help you much more than I can. For Mr. Parkinson who left the comment at my old entry on Featherstone Castle in 2006- You might want to pick up a copy of Reader’s Digest’s Tracing Your Family History.
Starting at the north easternmost corner, Berwick-upon-Tweed sits at the mouth of the river Tweed that divides two nations (England and Scotland) and made it strategically important as a massively fortified garrison. During the wars, between the 12th and 15th century, it changed hands fourteen times and was joined to England by 1482 upon its capture by Richard of Gloucester (not yet Richard the III ) although the possession by England was not yet official at that point Royal control for this strategic port was fierce and often involved incredible bloodshed. Edward I thoroughly sacked and slaughtered the town on March 30, 1296 just to gain back control from King John Balliol who had just signed a new treaty with France! It was the site of display of one of William Wallace’s arms after his execution on the fifth of August in 1305. (His body parts were sent to various parts of Great Britain after he was quartered.) Even today there is much consternation over whether Berwick should be rejoined to Scotland or remain a special, separate entity that it still is despite much talk in legislation. In a recent poll of the actual residents, 60% favored rejoining Scotland. Another interesting note is that Berwick Rangers F.C. and RFC (Rugby team ) both play in the Scottish Football League and the Scottish Rugby Union BT Premiership 3, respectively!
Berwick’s ramparts date from 1555 stretching for one and a half miles and are 23 feet thick ! (They were repaired in the late 18th century.) Berwick is distinguished by its three bridges which connect it with Tweedmouth, south of the estuary. The lowest has fifteen arches and was completed in 1634 in stone, the Royal Tweed of concrete in 1928 was recently restored and the railway’s Royal Border, which has 28 soaring arches, was completed in 1850. Much of this latter mentioned bridge was built from material which had originally belonged to the castle and if you check out the photo in the photo album of the Royal Border bridge you can make out the remains of the castle to its side. It has two sets of ramparts and the latter remains give walking visitors the most interesting view and circuit of the town which faces the river and not the sea.
The first walls were completed during Edward II’s reign and have almost disappeared. Then, in 1558, Elizabeth I fortified the town with an entirely unique ( for Britain ) Italianate design giving into a military emphasis which was the most expensive undertaking ( 128,648 pounds ! ) during her reign.
Nevertheless, only three of the projecting bastions, which are shaped like flat arrowheads, are still in evidence. A walk along the quay walls will enable you to view the most interesting buildings of the city, including the Classically-built Guildhall during the 1750s, Marygate, and Holy Trinity Church (built in 1650-52) , where the Wednesday and Saturday markets are held. In the 13th century Berwick was one of the most wealthy trading ports in Scotland, providing an annual income of L 2,190 which was the equivalent to one fourth of all customs revenues received in Scotland as a whole!
The barracks were built between 1717 and 1721 to keep soldiers out of the pubs with the design being attributed to Vanbrugh. Today they contain the King’s Own Scottish Borderers Regimental Museum, the town’s museum and art gallery, and By Beat of Drum, a history museum for the British infantrymen. The site of the old castle has been taken over by the railway bridge and a railway station- much like what occurred at Northampton. Nothing much remains of it.
Major castles line the coast of Northumberland with names you may recognize, Lindisfarne, Bamburgh, Dunstanburgh, Alnwick, Warkworth, Bothal and Tynemouth. The others encircle the inland border– Prudhoe, Newcastle, Langley, Haughton, Aydon, Belsay, Callaly, Harbottle and Norham. These are, of course, the accepted version of what most people think of as castles. A good portion of pele towers and castles and fortified homes with pele towers exist in Northumberland- more than in the rest of North England. Also, as I mentioned in my recent December 3rd entry on Durham, Bastels, such as the one close to Barnard Castle are rather common as they go, in Northumberland. A list from 1415 names all the castles of Northumberland of which many were of a pele ( pron. peel ) type which were basically a makeshift stone tower, a miniature keep so to speak, being a fortified house which were often longer, narrower or lower ( or all three ). The word bastels, which is from the French bastille, were towers and tower-houses common to both sides of the border. Smailholm Tower is one I described in an entry when I first started this blog which is in Scotland close by the border. However, bastels such as Akeld near Wooler (close to Chillingham Castle) Gatehouse in North Tynedale and The Hole in Redesdale have walls about five feet thick, compared with the usual ten in most towers. They wouldn’t be mistaken for the major castles although a few have features which are distinguishable enough to be listed. A plethora of bastles are particularly concentrated in Upper Tarsetdale. Gatehouse and Corbie Castle are typical examples of these and can be viewed in the Northumberland album near the bottom of the home page. This link will show you some beautiful other examples.
Cocklaw Tower is one bastel, near Chollerton in North Tynedale which is exceptional and may have been used as a prison because the tower itself was forty by fifty feet, entered through a door on the south side. It had fifteen feet thick walls and was built in large ashlars (blocks). A spiral staircase off the right of the entrance was built into the thickness of the wall and has a guardroom and a dungeon below. The only entrance to the dungeon was through a trapdoor. As a result even in the 16th century the border lairds and squires lived in these bastels as if the times were early medieval even though they were large land owners. Cocklaw was built by the Erringtons in the 15th century and was a family seat for two hundred years until they moved to Beaufront Castle which is closer to Hexham.
Due to its isolation it was not slighted or pillaged for stone although it is in a ruinous state. It has well survived the 19th and 20th centuries and still stands nearly 40 feet high. Much of the wood flooring has collapsed which has affected the ground floor’s vaulted ceiling putting it in a state of near collapse. Even so it is used for storage of farm machinery and livestock ! Talk about no respect !
Now Warkworth Castle is also a coastal edifice of note which has often been referred to as a late medieval fortress-palace. Only seven miles south of Alnwick, the original motte dated from the mid-12th century and the present-day 14th century castle sits on the same hill, an idyllic location, overlooking the River Coquet near Amble.
King David of Scotland’s son, Earl Henry, built the earliest works (motte and bailey) but it’s uncertain whether the Clavering, FitzRoger or FitzRichard family ( who were English ) created the great gateway and curtain wall with flanking towers in 1157 when Henry II recovered Warkworth to English possession. Its polygonal (multi-angular) keep with the outer bailey is a rather unique configuration and is the result of work done by the famous de Percys who built on it after it was granted to them in 1332 The Grey Mare’s Tail Tower which they built makes it distinguishable from other castles easily even from a great distance. Another unique feature is that its compartments are grouped around a square lantern turret which ingeniously collects rainwater, channels it into a tank in the basement and then distributes it to garderobes and basins.
Warkworth was often a pawn in a power struggle between the Percy family and the Crown. They were so powerful in possessions and their influence was so great that the reinstatement of Warkworth was normally eventually reinstated. However, when the sixth Earl Henry Percy died in 1537 he left the castle and all his possessions to Henry VIII and reinstatement thereafter created a conflict which came to a head when Queen Elizabeth took the throne. A general uprising of all the northern Earls against the Queen led to the execution of the 7th Earl Percy in 1572.
What you will see today at Warkworth is the restoration work done by Anthony Salvin in the 19th century on the keep, primarily. The outer walls are in ruin partially from being fired upon by Henry IV’s big cannons in 1405 and it was also partly dismantled for building materials elsewhere. In the words of Paul Johnson, the National Trust’s prodigious chronicler, " As a workmanlike late medieval fortress-palace, Warkworth is without equal." It is open for tours year round with the exception of Dec. 24-26 and Jan 1st.
Further south, between Morpeth and Ashington, by the River Wansbeck, Bothal Castle, was originally a Norman site. Much of a 14th century manor house remains in good condition and has been much more recently added to with great effect. Only the gate tower and parts of a curtain wall are still medieval. This private residence consists of a "walled enclosure with towers and buildings". The square gate tower is flanked by twin octagonal turrets and it appears to have been restored extremely well. The license to crenellate Bothal has been attributed to Sir Robert Bertram and to Sir Robert de Ogle in 1343. Just like Raby and Hylton Castles in Durham, Bothal also sports apotropaic figures along the "battlements". Alnwick Castle also has them although they were most likely placed in more recent years to effect. In medieval times they truly served the purpose of tromp l’oeil devices (i.e. to fool the eye ) and were in fact stone soldiers meant to baffle spies, making a castle look guarded or double guarded. It is currently under the ownership of the Cavendish family who are the Dukes of Portland.
Tynemouth Castle was intrinsic with the Benedictine Monastery which it encloses on the north pier of the River Tyne near Newcastle upon Tyne. The piers were constructed about mid-19th century after many lives had been claimed in the notorious Black Midden reef. The castle began as a simple earthwork enclosure on the prominent headland very close to the steep three-sided cliffs. Both the priory and castle are in ruins but the remains are late 13th century. Both were founded by the Earl of Northumberland in 1085 and were used as border fortresses for the monks during turbulence between England and Scotland. There is evidence that the priory dates back to the 7th century as a Saxon priory.
King Edward III considered this English Heritage castle to be the strongest in the northern marches. The castle’s remains are a little more impressive with a substantial gatehouse-tower and barbican which was built in the 1390s. The outer walls are five feet thick and rise three storeys and the great hall resided on the ground floor. It has definitely been determined to have been the largest castle in England- so much so that Henry VIII retained the site even when he abolished the monasteries starting in 1536.
At the end of Hadrian’s Wall stands Newcastle Castle which was started as a motte and wooden bailey by William the Conqueror’s eldest son, Robert Curthose in 1080. This was the site of a Roman fort a thousand years previous and the Tyne was originally bridged by the Romans as well. In the 12th century it was rebuilt in stone by Henry II in 1168 and Maurice the engineer ( Mauricius Caementarius ) built the rectangular keep which still stands. This great tower with its vaulted basement was restored mid-19th century and now is a museum. Newcastle was considered in the same class as Bamburgh, Richmond and Dover, all of which were built in stone about the same time. Today it is considered the best surviving example of a Norman keep.
The curtain walls were many sided, including postern gates with rectangular towers on either side. More buildings, erected inside, include the aisled great hall of 1210 which was taken down in 1809. A tower gatehouse, the Black Gate- which still stands- was built from 1247-50 on the western side of the castle site. This was the former chief entrance to the castle hall. When Newcastle’s town walls were put up in the middle of the 14th century the castle’s importance abated and was last garrisoned during the Civil War.
What can be visited currently is the keep which has two suites of royal apartments. A series of spiral staircases reach the renovated battlements which affords great views of the city of Newcastle and the Tyne River with its great looking bridges. Two of the original fireplaces still remain along with artifacts of great interest. The Black Gate also contains many ancient artifacts. Since you’re probably going to stick around for a day or so a look at St. Nicholas Cathedral, Bessie Surtees’ House and Earl Grey’s Monument of Grey St. will be worth a look and Newcastle’s nightlife is certainly on a par with London’s night scene.
Prudhoe Castle is east of Newcastle and is a motte castle started circa 1080 with an interesting configuration which is more or less a figure-eight design. From even a short distance it is a treat to look at with it’s ruined great tower keep, the massive curtain walls, the impressive gatehouse and ancient battlements. The keep is speculated to be the oldest in Northumberland and was built by the D’Umfravilles. When the de Percies took it over they found it unnecessary to add to its size. Their part was the gatehouse which has a magnificent oriel window (in this case a projecting- almost porch- window in which one can look out in safety) which is considered the earliest of its kind in England. It was built with a vaulted basement and a chapel on the first floor, as well. They also added a strong barbican in the mid-14th century which led to a drawbridge across the moat.
In Prudhoe’s case the motte was actually a natural spur on the south bank of the River Tyne, near a deep ravine on its south and east sides and had ditches to the south and west. The tower is almost square, three storeys high with 10 feet thick walls ( a normal standard ). Interestingly, the gatehouse and curtain wall are the most intact part of the castle as it was besieged only a few times- once in 1173 and a few years later by King William the Lion of Scotland.
In the 19th century the 2nd Duke of Northumberland built a manor house inside the walls right next to the castle. There is a small exhibition for visitors and a video presentation. This is an English Heritage site so its best to call for open times.
End of Part One
4 U !