Alnwick Castle sits only four miles off the north coast situated half-way between Berwick and Newcastle on seven acres by the Aln River. It is one of the best known castles in England besides Windsor with its most recent claim being that of the castle location which Harry Potter films were shot. After nearly 700 years of occupation and ownership of the Dukes of Northumberland it is a veritable "family day out treasure". Because it is the second largest inhabited castle in the country, it was once called the "Windsor of the North".
The castle’s earliest portions were built by an English baron by the name of Yves de Vescy in 1096. It was added to over the next hundred years until the current structure of the buildings was in place by the mid-12th century. It is one of the few early Norman fortresses to be built with a keep that is not square. Much of the original masonry from that period still exists within the curtain walls. (These are the comparatively low walls which surround the estate.) I have added a photo of the massive barbican which guards the front entrance of Alnwick in the Northumbria photo album. No single photo can do justice in showing off its magnificence- however there is one such photo of it in Plantagenet Somerset Fry’s definitive Castles book on pages 96 and 97.
The de Vescys garrisoned Alnwick through several sieges and periods of border turbulence. Alnwick resisted several attacks by William the Lion, the Scottish King, the first occurring in 1172 and when he tried again in 1174 he was captured there by English knights in a dense fog. Eustace de Vescy led the Barons’ Revolt in 1212, at which point the castle was ordered to be destroyed but somehow it was spared.
By the earliest part of the 14th century Alnwick was given into the charge of Anthony Bek who was the Bishop of Durham. The direct male line of the de Vescys was lost in the 1314 Battle of Bannockburn. The Percy family took possession of it in 1309 and thereafter carried out a reconstruction which contributed to its palatial appearance, inside and out. The first Lord Percy was responsible for rebuilding the keep and reconstructing the towers along the curtain walls. Henry’s son, the second Lord Percy, is responsible for the octagonal towers on either side of the keep’s entrance which date from 1350. The castle was Gothicized by Robert Adam (in the 1760s, as I previously mentioned two years ago) very much in the manner of Strawberry Hill (at Twickenham just outside of London) but most of his work has been removed. Around 1850 the 4th Duke of Northumberland spent 250,000 pounds for Salvin to do his prodigious work on the entrance-way and inner court, in addition to the inside work.
This castle houses three nationally important museums. The Regimental Museum of the Northumberland Fusiliers is in the Abbot’s Tower. In the Postern Tower, a permanent archaeological exhibition is said to be the finest collection in private quarters. The Percy Tenantry Volunteers also have an exhibition in the Constable’s Tower. They were formed during the Napoleonic threat in 1798 and were retired from duty by 1814. Some other attractions for castle visitors are the Percy State Coach, the dungeon and gun terrace.
The castle grounds were, of course, landscaped by Capability Brown in 1765. His work can still be seen in the magnificent walks surrounding and inside near the keep. It was allowed to degrade at some point but was replanted with major works being restored such as the Grand Cascade by the current Duchess. By 2002 the gardens and the surrounding forty acres of parkland were completely revived and the landscaping alone now receives half a million visitors per year!
The site of Bamburgh Castle, 20 miles south of Berwick, has been a stronghold and royal fortress and occupied as such before recorded history in Britain. It is supposed that originally it was kept by a British tribe. In 547 A.D. it was recognized as the seat of the Anglo-Saxon King, Ida the Flamethrower. Vikings raided the northeast coast for hundreds of years and Bamburgh’s location was an obvious placement along with the other "giants" I’ve mentioned ( Dunstanburgh, Lindisfarne). The Saxons were the enemies of King Arthur who fought to maintain British rule throughout the realm.
It has seen its fair share of history because it was occupied by the Normans by the 11th century and the Romans established a citadel there throughout their occupation and when they left there is evidence that shows it was used as a stronghold by a local chieftain. In the 7th century it came into the hands of Edwin of Northumbria, a Christian who brought Paul to the area to evangelize. When Edwin died, Oswald, the son of Ethelfrith (who was Edwin’s adversary) took possession of Bamburgh and made it possible for St Aiden to come to the area to establish a monastery (in 635) on the Holy Island, which is where Lindisfarne Castle and Lindisfarne Priory were built. (More about Lindisfarne later! )
This red sandstone castle which has been placed in a class with Richmond, Newcastle and Dover was thriving between 1095 and 1464 and was used as a coronation site by the Northumbrian kings. It was first attacked at the end of the 11th century by William II who used a siege-castle they called Malvoisin (the French word for Evil Neighbor ). William de Mowbray held the castle at the time of this siege and he was imprisoned after the taking of the castle for conspiring against the King. During the Wars of the Roses, this was the first English castle to be attacked as a Lancastrian stronghold by Edward IV. In 1464 the Earl of Warwick, acting on behalf of King Edward, declared to Sir Ralph Grey " We will besiege this castle seven years if necessary. For every gunshot which hurts a wall of the royal stronghold, a Lancastrian head will fall". Upon Ralph Grey’s refusal he sent the cannon which was made of brass, Dijon, flying right through Sir Grey’s own chamber, knocking him unconscious. The garrison immediately capitulated and when they revived Sir Ralph, he was taken to Doncaster in Yorkshire to be tried and hanged.
By the end of the middle Ages it fell into ruin and obscurity with only the keep remaining until the 1750s when Lord Crewe did his restorations of the original remains. Later, Lord Armstrong (whom I mentioned previously in 2006) took it over in 1894 and renovated it extensively turning it into a castle of "baronial" style. It is occupied by the Armstrong family to this day.
In addition to the castle itself, it houses several museums. Works of art are exhibited in the Great Hall along with suits of armor, medieval artifacts in the lower portions of the castle along with the Grace Darling Museum.
On a beautiful natural basalt promontory, further south and 8 miles northeast of Alnwick, Dunstanburgh Castle by comparison is in veritable ruins and has not been occupied for hundreds of years but there is still much to see. Dunstanburgh has been compared to Tantallon which is located in East Lothian in Scotland. It dominates over eleven acres and the large gatehouse remains were built in the 14th century. Because of its position on this peninsula, walls were not necessary on much of the perimeter it sits on. It cannot be approached closely by car so a good mile and a half walk over lush moorland must be navigated in order to access it. This view is one of Turner’s most famous paintings!
Thomas, Earl of Lancaster built this fortress after the English defeat at Bannockburn. Its position would have been formidable for a raiding Scots army if not impossible. Master Elias, who had worked under the tutelage of James of St. George, was the architect and mason so the main defenses were placed in the huge three-storey gatehouse on the southern side, which also contained the great hall on the second floor and other state apartments. It was modernized from 1380-1384 when the new head of the House of Lancaster- John of Gaunt- became lieutenant of the Scots Marches. It remained one of their principle fortresses in the north east until the Tudors came into power.
John’s work on Dunstanburgh consisted of closing up the entrance to the gatehouse with a stone wall with a forebuilding (which is now gone.) This building made it a residential keep for himself. You’ll see most of this work damaged because it was besieged during the Wars of the Roses- handiwork of the Yorkists. This English Heritage site is open year round with shorter hours between October and March
Lindisfarne Castle and Priory had their beginnings in the 16th century on Beblowe Crag which is on Holy Island a promontory situated off the northeast coast at Fenwick and Beal. The Irish monk St Aidan arrived at the location in 635 from the western Scotland island of Iona with the purpose of evangelizing England He founded a monastery originally on the island of Lindisfarne and it was the most important center for Christianity in England for quite some time. It’s placement couldn’t have been worse because they were defenseless against the 9th century Viking raids which one can imagine were especially cruel to the simple scholarly folks.
Later the Lindisfarne Priory was built by Benedictines in the 11th century on the site of St. Aidan’s former monastery. The ruins of the priory are intact enough to fascinate even the most hardened of tourists and make for a great day out for the family. There are many relics to see including the Lindisfarne Gospels which are richly illustrated portrayals of the Gospel stories. They are veritable masterpieces of the "Northumbrian Renaissance" which has left a permanent mark on Christian art and history writing. These were carried out under the direction and tutelage of Bishop Eadfrith around the year 700. Many other treasures which could have been saved were taken and plundered by the Vikings.
This island had never been fortified prior to the building of Lindisfarne Castle which Henry VIII was responsible for building starting in 1542 and was complete by 1550. Stone from the priory were used to build this basic fort and the church was used as its storehouse. This castle followed the examples which had been built similarly around Hull ( also ordered by Henry VIII) in that they were new kinds of bastions with curtain projections no longer making use of circular or curved towers, but solid angular structures revetted with earth and battered walls of stone, brick or even timber. These were considered the first modern forts in England. A similar but circular fort exists in Essex which is Harwich Redoubt Fort with the guns remaining.
Interestingly, it was never besieged but was briefly occupied by the Jacobins for only one night and it was kept in a state of readiness of defense until after the Napoleonic Wars after which the guns were removed. Because it was converted to a private residence in the 20th century there is much to see if you tour the castle now owned by the National Trust.
01289 389244 Priory 01289200
Both are part and parcel of the Farne Islands of which there are between 15 to 28 separate landmasses many of which are covered by the sea except during low tide. The highest is 100 ft above sea level. Several of the islands are wildlife sanctuaries attracting seals, puffins and many seabirds. For the adventurous, boat tours depart from Seahouses harbor and can only land on Staple and Inner Farne, the latter of which is the site of St. Cuthbert’s 14th century chapel.
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The person who pursues revenge should dig two graves.
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