Alnwick castle is another medieval fortress which has been little
studied. The Victorian statement that ‘The history of
Alnwick Castle may be read in its masonry' rather nicely sums up an
unhelpful disinterest in the historical reality of the site. Such
apathy is barely alleviated by Wikipedia which helpfully chimes in with
the ‘fact' that ‘Yves de Vescy, Baron of Alnwick, erected
the first parts of the castle in about 1096'. To support such a
notion there is absolutely zero evidence, although the original source
for this information may be apparent to the Latin reader.
Hopefully this article will throw some light on this neglected area of
history and correct some of the historical errors perpetrated on this
poor, much abused castle, whose modern elements are so beloved by
It is presumed that the castle was first built in the period of Norman
penetration into the North of England. This began in 1070 with
the Conqueror's great harrying
of the North. From then on penetration was spasmodic with Norman
occupations and Saxon revolts - the latter often in league with
Scandinavian and Scottish allies. Whether a castle existed or not
in 1093 when King Malcolm III of
Scotland was killed nearby is a moot point. Contemporary, or near
contemporary chronicles have merely this to say about the battle.
The fifth time he [King
Malcolm] invaded Northumbria with as large an army as he could collect
intending to bring upon it utter desolation, but he was cut off near
the River Aln with his eldest son, Edward, whom he had appointed heir
to the kingdom after him. His army either fell by the sword, or
those who escaped the sword were carried away by the inundation of the
rivers, which were then more than usually swollen by the winter
rains... Simeon Durham.
King Malcolm... gathered his army and travelled into England
raiding with greater folly than behoved him and then Robert [Mowbray]
the earl of the Northumbrians with his men, by surprise trapped and
killed him. Morel of Bamburgh, who was the earl's steward and
King Malcolm's godfather, killed him. With him was also killed
his son Edward.... Peterborough Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.
Malcolm King of Scots and his eldest son Edward, with many
others, were slain in Northumbria on 13 November. Florence
[In] winter he [King Malcolm] was killed by the men of Earl
Robert of Northumberland, rather through stratagem than by power.
William Malmesbury, Gesta Regum Anglorum.
No castle is mentioned in any of these more original accounts.
The alleged founding of the castle comes from a family tree of Eustace
Fitz John (d.1157) which was drawn up sometime in the year before 7
July 1315 (8 Edward II), ie some 222 years after the event. This
source correctly lists some of the descendants of Eustace and
contradicts no known better source. However, the ancestors given
for Eustace are rather less secure. Nothing else is known of
Gisbrit Tyson, who was alleged to have been killed with King Harold,
nor is anything known of his alleged son, William, who was
anachronistically and almost certainly wrongly said to have been
‘lord of the baronies of Alnwick and Malton'. According to
this tale the Conqueror gave to
Ivo Vescy, one of his knights, the daughter of William Tyson by whom he
had a daughter called Beatrice. She married Eustace Fitz John
(d.1157) inheriting the baronies of Alnwick and Malton. This
story can be confirmed only in so far as Ivo is recorded as holding
[East] Gilling in Rydale [south of Helmsley castle]
which he granted to St Mary's York, sometime before 1154.
Unfortunately this does little but muddy the water, as at Domesday East
Gilling belonged to Ralph Mortimer
(d.1118/36) the probable grandfather of Eustace Fitz John
(d.1157). That Eustace married Beatrice Vescy is confirmed by the
charter of their son, William Vescy (d.1183), made to Alnwick abbey for
his parents, Eustace Fitz John (d.1157) and Beatrice as well as her
father, Ivo Vescy (d.1086+). How much of the rest of the tale is
true is open to question. All that is certain is that Eustace was
operating in Cumberland by 1116 and that
Beatrice was dead by 1146 at the very latest when Eustace had married
Agnes Fitz William and received the lands of her father, William Fitz
Nigel, from Earl Ranulf of Chester (d.1153). Beatrice had
possibly died by 1135 as Eustace's son, William Vescy (d.1183), appears
to have been of age in 1157 when he succeeded his father. Malton
appears never to have been held by the alleged Tysons as it was a
property owned by the Crown and Count Robert of Mortain in 1086.
Apparently it was granted to Eustace by Henry I. Therefore there is currently no evidence as to who built Alnwick castle, or when.
Early in 1136 Alnwick castle was captured by King David of Scotland (1124-54). According to various chroniclers the king, cynically remembering his oath to King Henry I (d.1135), invaded the kingdom of England swiftly taking various garrisons in Cumberland and Northumberland, and advancing on Durham, while bypassing Bamburgh. During this campaign the northern border fortresses like Alnwick, Norham, Wark and Newcastle on Tyne all fell to David at this time. King Stephen, when he was staying at Oxford at the end of the festival of the Nativity, was told how:
"King David of the Scots, on pretence that he was coming with peaceful intent for the purpose of visiting you, has come to Carlisle and Newcastle
and stealthily taken both". To this the king is said to have
replied, "What he has taken by stealth, I will recover by victory" and
without delay the king moved forward his army, which was so mighty and
valiant and so numerous that none in England could be remembered like
it. However, King David met him at Durham and made a treaty with him restoring Newcastle, but retaining Carlisle with the king's consent. David did not do homage to King Stephen because he had previously, as the first of the laity, promised on oath to the Empress... to maintain her in possession of England after the death of King Henry I. However, Henry, the son of King David, did homage to King Stephen on which he was presented with the borough of Huntingdon by way of gift.
Other sources state that King Stephen came to Durham on 5 February and after 15 days received David in Newcastle castle where they made peace with David's son, Henry, paying homage to King Stephen at York for the honour of Huntingdon without Doncaster or Carlisle. Simultaneously the other castles, viz. Alnwick, Norham, Wark and Newcastle were returned to English control. Eustace Fitz John then went south with Earl Henry
(d.1152) to the Easter celebrations at Westminster. Here both
witnessed a royal document, although it should be noted that Eustace
was also the first witness of King David's
confirmation of Annandale to Robert Bruce in the period 1136 to
1138. This suggests a period when both kings were working in
harmony. Eustace in the same period was ordered by King Stephen
to right a wrong in Hetherslaw in favour of Durham priory. This
probably occurred early in 1136 for Stephen is said to have arrested
Eustace at the end of his visit to Durham in
February 1138. During this same period, before August 1138,
Eustace was again with King Stephen in southern England at Clarendon
when he witnessed his sister receiving Barking abbey. He was also
rather oddly informed after the bishop of Hereford that the king had
accepted the prebends given by the Lacys to the church of St Ouen in
Hereford. Possibly this was done after the death of Eustace's
elder brother, Pain Fitz John [Painscastle] on 10 July 1137.
Despite Eustace's defence of Bamburgh in 1136, when Alnwick castle and the rest of Northumberland fell to the Scots, in February 1138 King Stephen
forced Eustace to ‘resign his fortress of Bamburgh into the
king's hand'. The predictable result of this was that Eustace
joined the Scots and then attacked Bamburgh and did it great damage. The royalist Gesta Stephani thought that Eustace was an old and loyal friend of the King Henry I
and therefore to gain justice and favour as it seemed to him and
several others like him, took the opportunity of supporting the Empress. Another source states that in early May 1138:
Eustace Fitz John, one of the
barons of the king of England, who held a heavily fortified castle in
Northumberland called Alnwick, who had long secretly favoured the king
of Scots, now openly showing his perjury, threw off his allegiance to
his lawful sovereign... and with his whole strength gave his aid to the
Scots against the realm of England...
Eustace then marched south with his army joined with the Scots to
assault Yorkshire with the intention of turning his other castle of
Malton over to King David.
However their advance was ended at the battle of the Standard on 22
August 1138. This resulted in another treaty being negotiated in
April 1139 which granted both Northumberland and Cumberland
to Scottish control. Presumably at this point the northern
castles including Alnwick again changed hands. It was probably
around now that Eustace was granted 5 fees in the Scottish earldom of
Huntingdon to ensure his loyalty to the new regime. Other than
these sparse statements what actually occurred at Alnwick is obscure,
but it should be noted that Eustace was powerful enough, like Bishop
Henry of Winchester (d.1171), Prince Henry of Scotland (d.1152), Robert Stuteville (d.1186) and Brian Fitz Count (d.1147/51), to issue his own coins.
King David's death in 1153 at Carlisle was followed a year later by that of King Stephen at Dover.
Before this Eustace returned to royal service after the Treaty of
Wallingford in 1153. Around harvest time 1154, Eustace witnessed
his last charter for King Stephen at York.
That Eustace was still in favour with the Angevins is seen by Duke
Henry around the same time confirming the gifts made to William Vescy
(d.1183) by his father [Eustace Fitz John] and all his rights in
Normandy and England. Stephen's successor, Henry Fitz Empress
(d.1189) wished to turn the clock back to 1135 when his grandfather
died. He therefore required back from the Scottish king, David's
grandson, Malcolm IV (d.1165), the northern counties of England. Consequently in July 1157, King Malcolm surrendered Cumberland and Northumberland to the king when the 2 met at Peak castle. Eustace Fitz John, at least 63 years old, was finally killed in 1157 fighting against the Welsh in Henry II's Basingwick campaign.
The king, entering their
borders, after much opposition - through the nature and difficulties of
the country - met with a very inauspicious commencement to his designs;
for a portion of his army, proceeding incautiously through a wooded and
marshy district, was much endangered by falling into an ambush, which
the enemy had laid for him on his route, and where Eustace Fitz John, a
great and aged person, and highly renowned for wealth and wisdom, among
the noblest chiefs of England, together with Robert Courcy, a man of
equal rank, and many others, unfortunately perished.
With Eustace's death, King Henry II
recognised his baron's son, William Vescy (d.1183), as his heir when
William recorded himself as owing the king 100m (£66 13s
4d). William may have been sheriff of Northumberland for some
time and was certainly acting as such by September 1158 when he handed Henry II his first set of accounts from the county after its surrender by King Malcolm of Scotland. This had been agreed that year when King Henry II, with his army, met King Malcolm at Carlisle by 24 June and, after arguing with him, refused to make him a knight although he did knight, William the son King Stephen and lord of the eastern castle of Eye. However, this dispute did not lead to hostilities with the young and warlike King Malcolm (d.1165). On Malcolm's early death at the age of just 23, the Scottish kingdom passed to his younger brother, King William
(1165-1214). William had been earl of Northumberland until 1157
and he had every intention to retrieve this lost county. In the
meantime during 1165 and 1169 William Vescy (d.1183) rendered an aid on
20 knight's fees in Northumberland for 40m (£30). This
probably represented his barony of Alnwick.
In 1173, after failed negotiations with King Henry II (d.1189), King William (d.1214) threw in his lot with the rebels under the Young King Henry III
(d.1183). He had previously offered King Henry the service of
1,000 knights and 3,000 sergeants for ‘his lawful due...
Northumberland'. Henry's refusal of this generous offer resulted
in William leading Scottish armies south into England. After
attacking Carlisle and taking various Cumberland castles, William moved east and laid siege to Prudhoe castle.
There Robert Stuteville (d.1184), William Vescy (d.1183), Ranulf
Glanville (d.1190), Ralph Tilly, Bernard Balliol (d.1190) and Odinel
Umfraville (d.1182) with a large army allegedly of 400 knights moved
against him, forcing him to retire to Alnwick where he commenced
another siege of Vescy's castle. Here he made a classic mistake
in dividing his forces in the face of an enemy. He sent 2
divisions off to lay waste the neighbourhood and kept only a small
force at the siege. The northern English army, reinforced by 60
Yorkshire knights from the archbishop's fee and Roger Fitz Richard
who's church at Warkworth had been violated, marched from Newcastle
by night to come upon him by surprise at dawn on 12 July 1174.
The king and 500 knights, meantime awaiting the arrival of his main
host from their pillaging raid, stopped to dine before the
castle. Alerted by the English battle cries, King William
quickly armed and mounted, but was brought down in the first charge
and, pinned under his horse. There he was forced to yield to
Ranulf Glanville (d.1190). With their king fallen the rest
surrendered. With the king went Richard Comyn (d.1179), William
Mortimer (d.1187+), William D'Isle, Henry Revel, Ralph Vere, Jordan le
Fleming, Waltheof Fitz Baldwin of Biere and Richard Maluvel and many
others ‘who voluntarily allowed themselves to be made prisoners,
lest they might appear to have sanctioned the capture of their
lord'. Others, like Roger Mowbray (d.1188) and Adam Port of Kington (d.1214), fled. News of the action soon reached King Henry II (d.1189) that King William of Scots was captured and held in chains at Richmond.
As a consequence of his capture, the earldom of Huntingdon was
confiscated and Scotland made a vassal state of England with the 5
major castles, Edinburgh, Stirling, Roxburgh, Jedburgh and Berwick
being turned over to Henry II's garrisons who were to be paid from the
Scottish king's revenue. This was all enacted in the 8 December
1174 treaty of Falaise which also stipulated that many of the king's
barons should become Plantagenet hostages until the castles were
surrendered. This agreement made Alnwick castle a bit of a
backwater with Anglo-Scottish relations pretty much stable until the
disasters of the 1290s. In 1183 William Vescy died aged over 48,
and during the time before 29 September 1183, Adam Fitz Robert
accounted for an income of £39 16s 2d, though for how long this
was after William's death is unknown. Indeed the next year Adam
Carduil accounted for the lands of William Vescy which were not located
in Northumberland. This amounted to £23 11s 10d. He
also paid a farm of £130 7s 8d for the manors of the entire
honour for half a year. In 1185 Hugh Morwich accounted for
£317 13s 5d for the Vescy honour for 1½ years. The
implication of this was that Alnwick barony was worth some £260
per annum in the mid 1180s. In 1186 Hugh Morewich reported a farm
for the barony of £387 2d of which he had spent 17s 5d in
amending the houses in Alnwick castle. In 1187 chaplains were
paid 12s 3d by the Crown in both Malton and Alnwick castles for the
last 2 years.
The stability achieved between England and Scotland was increased by
the marriage of Eustace Vescy (d.1216) who came of age in 1190, to
Margaret Hythus (d.1218+), the illegitimate daughter of King William of Scotland
(d.1214) in 1193. Alnwick was probably the caput of the 12 fees
Eustace was respited tax on in Northumberland in 1212. The same
year it was recorded that Eustace owed 12 fees for his barony of
Alnwick and that he also held the vills of Budle, Spindelston and
Warner/Warren which Henry I had
given to Eustace Fitz John (d.1157), this Eustace's ancestor.
Vescy rebelled the same year and fled to Scotland, leaving Alnwick
castle to the king, who appointed Geoffrey Fitz Peter (d.14 October
1213) as custodian. On 27 May 1213, King John
ordered his castle of Alnwick destroyed, although by 18 July Eustace
was apparently partially reconciled to the king and on 15 September
1213 the king ordered Archdeacon E of Durham and Philip Oldcoats
(d.1221) to return to Eustace the cows and horses and arms they were
holding in Alnwick castle. On 5 November 1214, Vescy was ordered
by the pope to cease troubling King John.
This he didn't do, especially after the quashing of Magna Carta.
Consequently the king moved against Vescy, burning the vills of Mitford on 7 January, Alnwick on 9 January, Wark on 11 January and finally Roxburgh on 16 January, although the castles held. The only one to fall was Berwick castle on 15 January although John pushed as far north as Haddingham and Dunbar.
On 31 January 1216, Eustace's lands were in the king's hand.
Eustace Vescy died the same year, aged 47, shot through the head with a
crossbow bolt while attacking Barnard castle with his brother in law, King Alexander II of Scotland (d.1249).
Eustace Vescy, the brother in law of the king of Scots, at the siege of Barnard Castle,
while he went around the fortress on horseback in search of weaker
places, was slain by a crossbow bolt through the head while raising his
The barony of Alnwick was then committed to William Dunston and Ralph
Norwich, while the castle itself was given to the custody of Bishop
Richard Marisco of Durham (1217-26). Eustace's underage son,
William Vescy (d.1253), was given to the custody of Earl William
Marshall (d.1219). He came of age in 26 May 1226 when Constable
Everard Tyeis was ordered to turn Alnwick castle over to William Vescy
(d.1253) who had recently married a daughter of Earl William Longspey.
After William's death, his son, John Vescy (d.1289), took a reformist
stance in the Barons' War of 1263-67 and at the end of hostilities held
Alnwick castle against King Henry III (1216-72). Consequently Prince Edward (d.1307), after crushing resistance in the Isle of Ely
marched on Alnwick and took it. Edward then took John Vescy
(d.1289) to his father, the king, in London and asked mercy be granted
to him. King Henry consented for John to buy back Alnwick and his
lands under the terms of the Dictum of Kenilworth. This was one
of the last acts of the war.
Alnwick castle passed out of Vescy control with the failure of the main
Vescy line in 1297 when it was worth £475 9s 6½d pa.
Consequently on 17 August 1297, Bishop Anthony Bek was granted seisin
of the lands of William Vescy as he had been enfeoffed by William at
the king's licence. On the death of William's elder brother,
John, before 10 February 1289, this had been described as the castle of
Alnewick and its appurtenaces. At the time an inner and outer
gateway were mentioned, both defended by ditches and drawbridges.
After holding the fortress for 12 years Bek sold it to Henry Percy
before 26 October 1309.
By the end of September 1315, it was recorded that the manor and town
of Alnwick was held by Isabel, the widow of William Vescy, in dower,
but belonged to Henry (d.1352), the son and heir of Henry Percy
(d.1314) and that John (d.1345+) the son of Arnald Percy (d.1303+),
aged 30, was the next lawful heir of William Vescy of Kildare
(d.1295). On the death of Henry Percy before 10 October 1314, it
was recorded that he held Alnewyk castle, barony and manor in chief for the service of 3 knights and that his son was under age, being 13 years and 9 months.
In August 1327 King Robert Bruce (d.1329) crossed the frontier and besieged Henry Percy's well munitioned castle of Alnwick for a fortnight and then Warkworth and other Northumberland fortresses, but the attack concluded in a peace agreement where David (d.1371), King Robert's son, was married to King Edward II's
sister. According to the fourteenth century chronicle of Alnwick
abbey, Henry Percy (d.1352) was responsible for repairing the castle.
Possibly this was after a second attack on Alnwick and Warkworth launched by Bruce at the year's end.
After the rebellion of the Percys against Henry VI
(d.1413), Alnwick with their other castles were taken by the king in
1405 with only minimal resistance, the garrison of Alnwick stating they
would capitulate the moment Berwick
did. On 1 June 1434 Henry Percy (d.1455) was given permission to
strengthen and build a wall around his whole town of Alnwick and
machicolate and otherwise fortify it as a great part of the town had
recently been burned by the Scots with impunity.
The castle saw more fighting in the Wars of the Roses. In July
1461, after the Lancastrian defeat at the battle of Towton, Lord
William Hastings (d.1483), Ralph Gray and their men, besieged William
Tailboys (d.1464) in Alnwick castle. He surrendered it on being
offered free passage by the Earl Richard Neville of Warwick (d.1471)
for himself and his garrison with their lives, members, goods and
harnesses that September 1461. In reply Tailboys took the castle
back in November1461 and held it until July 1462 when William Hastings
and John Howard retook it. During October 1462, Queen Margaret
(d.1482), returned from France with 6,000 French soldiers. She
first took Bamburgh castle and then
besieged and took Alnwick in November, placing Lord Peter Breze, Lord
Hungerford and Robert Whittingham within the fortress, while the duke
of Somerset, the earl of Pembroke and Ralph Percy remained to defend Bamburgh. In December 1462 both castles and Dunstanburgh were besieged by Edward IV (d.1483). On Christmas eve both Bamburgh and Dunstanburgh surrendered on the garrisons being granted their lives and members. Richard Percy was given control of Dunstanburgh.
Alnwick held under Ralph Percy was relieved by a Scottish army under
Earl George Douglas of Angus and Peter Breze on 5 January which had
swept Warwick's siege away. However, the bulk of the garrison
withdrew with the Scots and what remained surrendered on 6 January
1643. The earl of Douglas died soon afterwards on 12 March 1473,
suggesting he had suffered dysentery on the campaign. John Astley
was then placed within Alnwick castle as Yorkist constable, but in
March 1463 was captured and the castle reverted to Lancaster under
Ralph Percy. Somerset and Tailboys were executed after the
Lancastrian defeat at Hexham on 15 May, while King Henry VI was
captured and his family fled to Scotland and France. Consequently
on 23 June 1464, Alnwick surrendered to the earl of Warwick due to the
threat of his siege guns which later smashed Bamburgh castle
into submission. With this Alnwick settled back into a more
peaceable condition under the Nevilles and from 1470 the Percys again.
Without any evidence it is alleged that the bulk of Alnwick castle,
viz, the barbican and gatehouse, Abbot's Tower, Falconer's Tower,
Armourer's Tower, the D towers of the shell keep, the octagonal towers
of the inner gateway and the curtain wall towers
were all built after 1309 and before 1400. To support this
widespread claim no evidence is ever brought forward other that such a
conclusion is patently obvious judging from the style of the masonry.
Of more use than wishful thinking is the 1567 survey carried out by George Clarkson for the Percys. This found that:
Alnwick castle is a very
ancient large beautiful and portly castle, situated on the south side
of the River Aln upon a little motte. The circuit thereof by
estimate about the walls 276 yards [828']; containing in itself 114
rods [1,881'], in the which is 3 principal wards. And in the
outer ward, where is the entry from the town, is a fair gatehouse
covered with lead with 2 pair of wooden gates and on either side is a
porter's lodge of 2 house height about which is now ruinous and in
decay by reason the floors of the upper house is decayed as well in
door mounts and joists as in boards and very necessary to be
repaired. Without which gates there is a very fair turnpike
double battlemented about with a pair of wood gates in the uttermost
part thereof. Between which turnpike and the great gates it seems
there has been a drawbridge, but it is now filled up and paved.
From the said gatehouse towards the north is a curtain wall of length
7½ roods [124'] and between it and a tower standing on the
north-west corner called the Abbot's Tower. And in the said
curtain wall on the inner part is a turret covered with free stone
which is upon the wall 2 houses high. The said tower called the
Abbot's Tower is of 3 house heights; the west house is the
Armoury. From the Abbot's Tower towards the east is another
curtain wall joining onto the wall of the donjon containing in length
24 rods [396'] and in the same as in the middle between it and the
donjon is 2 little garrets. From the easternmost garret having a
chamber, to the donjon, the said wall has no battlement to walk
upon. On the other part of the gatehouse towards the south is a
curtain wall of length 42 yards [126'] to a tower called the corner
tower. In the middle between the gatehouse and the said corner
tower is one garret in the wall; in the upper part whereof is a little
chamber; the nether part serving for a buttress to the wall.
Between the said corner
tower and the middle gatehouse, turning east, is a curtain wall of
length 70 yards [210'] in the which is 1 tower raised of 8 yards [24']
square of 3 houses height, called the Auditor's Tower. The
underhouse is a stable and the other houses 2 fair chambers covered
with lead and in good repair.
Within the said outer
curtain is one house of 2 house height, standing on the left hand at
the parting of the gate called the Checker House, the under houses
serving for lodgings, the upper house for the court house, covered with
slate and in good repair. And in the same court on the other hand
of the gate, standing north and south is another house for a stable of
2 house heights; though under part only serves for stables, the over
part thereof is to be lofted and serve for keeping of grain now newly
built. Another like house, a stable, stands on the right hand
between the gates east and west covered of late with slates and in good
The gatehouse tower for
the middle gate is a tower of 3 house height and in some part 4 house
height, on the left hand one strong prison and on the right a porter
lodge. All the houses above are lodgings, wherein is contained
hall, kitchen, buttery, pantry and lodging for a constable or other
gentlemen to keep house in. From the same tower is going a
curtain wall to the corner tower on the south-east part of length 117
yards [351'] in which is raised one tower at the end of the gardeners
of three house height and of length ...... yards square. Wherein
is on the ground a stable, the middle house for hay, the overmost a
chamber and betwixt the same, which is covered with lead and the said
corner tower is raised 2 little garrets in the wall; the nether parts
serve for buttresses to the wall; the other parts serve only for
privies and are covered with stone. The said corner tower is on
three parts round, the inner part square without wall, containing in
the round thereof 17 yards [51']. The same tower is raised no
higher than the battlement of the wall and is of 2 house height all
together in height and serves for a part of the curtain wall.
Between the same round
tower, turning towards the north-west to a tower called the Ravine
Tower is a curtain wall of 14 yards [42'] length; the same tower is
covered with lead, in good repair; the tower itself is so rent it is
like to fall; it is also of 3 house height; the nether serves for a
stable, the middle for a chamber and in decay without loft, the
overmost a chamber well repaired. The tower is in 3 parts round
and the fourth part square, containing in the whole 26 yards [78'].
Between the said tower
and a tower called Constable's Tower is a curtain wall of 30 yards
[90'] length. The said Constable's Tower is 3 parts round, the
fourth square containing 36 yards [108'] and is of 3 house heights; the
nether part serves for a buttery, the other 2 parts serve for 2 fair
lodgings and it is covered with lead which would partly be helped in
all other things it is in good repair.
Between the said tower
and the Postern Tower is a curtain wall containing 23 yards [69'] in
length and the same Postern Tower is raised 36 yards [108'] square and
is of 3 house height; the nether part serves for a through passing of
the postern; the other for 2 fair chambers. The same is now
covered with lead since my L entered and is in good repair. And
in the north-west corner of the said tower is raised a garret above the
battlement thereof and right over the gate of the said postern.
And from the said tower to the donjon there is a single curtain wall
without battlement of length....
Within the said inner
curtain, betwixt the said tower of the middle gate and said little four
squared tower towards the east is raised one house upon the curtain
wall, of 3 house height, well covered with lead and is of length 25
yards [75']; part therefore now serves for 2 stables for my lord's
horses; the other part for 2 gardeners. The same house in all
things is in good repair.
At the east end of the
said gardener is built one little house of 3 cooples and 1 gavill of
stone and joined upon the said little square tower and is covered with
slate needs in nothing but pointing with in which is one horsemill now
in decay and serves for nothing.
And a little from the
said house is there another 2 house of 2 house height and is of 4
coople of timber with 2 stone gavills, covered with slate and newly
pointed, which serves only for the keeping of hay. Towards the
east, joining to the said house is there a little garden, on the one
side enclosed with the said curtain wall and the others of a wall made
of stone; containing in length 12 yards [36']. And this garden is
kept by Ralph Graye, who has the fee of 20s by year for the same
besides the profit thereof. So that the lord is here charged with
more than needs; for the profit thereof would be sufficient for his
pains. And from the north-east corner of the said garden, right
over to the said ruinous tower in ancient time has been fair and trim
lodgings, where now be nothing; the stones thereof taken away and put
to other uses in the castle; the place now void would be a trim garden;
it joins upon the said Ravine (rovinte) Tower. In the south-east
part of the said curtain wall, with small changes, would be made a fair
banqueting house with a fair gallery, going from the same towards the
north of the said Ravine Tower.
There is near the said
curtain wall, which is betwixt the said Constable's Tower and Ravine
Tower, is built one fair chapel of 7 yards [21'] height and 7 yards
[21'] of breadth, covered with slate, the windows well glazed, in all
things well repaired, the sylong thereof only excepted. Betwixt
the said chapel and the said curtain wall is built one little house of
2 house height of length 8 yards [24']; the nether part thereof is
called the vestry (revestry); the other part thereof a chamber with a
stone chimney, wherein the lord and lady, with their children, commonly
used to hear the service; the same is covered with slate; the loft
thereof would be repaired.
And before the said
chapel door is one conduit set with stone and a chest (chiste) of lead;
which chiste is 3 yards [9'] in length and 18" broad; the cistern
thereof covered with lead; whereunto comes a goodly course of trim and
sweet water from one well called Howling Well in pipes of lead. The
same well covered with a house made of stone. And the water of
the same conduit runs in pipes of lead to the brew house only and
cannot be brought to have course to any other houses of office, but
such as are built and to be built without the donjon.
And betwixt the said
Constable's Tower and Postern Tower stands a fair brewhouse well
covered with slate and is in length 20 yards [60'], in breadth 9 yards
[27']; wherein there is a copper set in a furnace equipped (ekid) with
a crib (crybe - basket) of clapboard [small split pieces of oak
imported from Germany for use as barrel staves] which will hold liquor
for the brewing of 24 bolles of malt [ie about 1½ tons]; and in
the same brewhouse there is all manner of vessels to serve for brewing
of the said quantity of malt newly made and repaired. There would
be one appointed to keep the said crybe copper in the furnace.
All the said vessels for brewing with pipes and hogsheads pertaining to
the same, sweet; and the theight...
And joining upon the
said Postern Tower stands the bakehouse south and north; being in
length 15 yards [45']; in breadth 8 yards [24'], well covered with
slate. In the north end thereof there be 2 ovens and in the south
end one boultinge house well colleryd with wainscote, the window
thereof glazed and would be repaired. And to the south end of the
said bakehouse are built 2 houses covered with slate and of 2 house
height; the nether part serves for a slaughter house and a store house;
the over part of the one for a hayhouse, the other for chambers for the
launderers and are in length.... feet.
And joining upon the
west side of the said 2 houses is the site of the chaunterie house; and
the said storehouse and chambers above it did serve the priests for
their cellars and chambers and now nothing left but one wall going from
the said storehouse to the entry of the .... side of the donjon gate
which is in length 33 yards [99']. And the ground between the
wall, houses and donjon is used for a wood enclosure (garthe).
And from the west side of the said entry to the tower called the middle
ward is another small parcel of ground enclosed for a wood enclosure
with a little stone wall of 16 yards [48'] of length. And from
the said tower, called the middle ward, is a single curtain wall joined
to the said donjon of 21 yards [63'] in length.
The donjon is set of a
little moate made with men's hands and for the most part as it were
square. The circuit thereof measured by the brattishing contains
225 yards [675']. It is of a fair and pretty (pathe) building
with 7 round towers, 4 garrets. Betwixt the same garrets and
towers, lodgings; besides the gatehouse which is 2 towers of 4 house
height, is of stately buildings; and the other towers be all of 3 house
height and well covered with lead as is likewise the said gatehouse and
other lodgings. Round about the same donjon upon the said leads
is a trim walk and a fair prospect and in 6 parts thereof are passages
and entries to the same leads. In the which donjon is hall,
chambers and all other manner of houses of offices for the lord and his
train. The south side thereof serves for the lords and ladies
lodgings and underneath them the prison, porter lodge and wine cellar,
with the scullery. On the west side for chambers and
wardrobe. The north side chambers and lodgings. The east
side the hall, kitchen, chambers, pantry. Underneath the same
hall a marvelous fair vault which is the buttery, in length 17 yards
[51'], in breadth 6 yards [18']. And underneath the same kitchen
a larder and at the end of the said buttery a draw well of long time
not occupied. Within the same donjon is a proper little court
(coortinge) for the most part square and well paved with stone.
All the chambers and houses of office within the said donjon in good
repair and have in the same the implements, boards and bedsteads
pertaining thereunto ans appears by indenture. There is raised on
the west side of the said donjon one little square tower called the
Watchtower above the leads 14 yards [42'] wherein is placed for a
watchman to watch (ley) and a beaken to be set or hinge. For that
the north part of the donjon is the outermost part of the castle on
that side, it would be good the single curtain wall, which is built
from the donjon westward to the easternmost garret of the double
curtain wall were taken down and a double curtain wall made by the
ground of the moat of the said donjon from the said garret right over
to the corner of the said Postern Tower. The same should then be
a strength for that part of the castle and serve for divers other good
purposes; the length thereof is 70 yards [210'].
And because through
extreme winds the glass of the windows of this and other my lord's
castles and house here in this country do decay and waste, it were good
the whole lengths of every window at the departure of his lordship from
lying at any of his said castles and houses and during the time of his
lordship's absence or others lying in them, were taken down and laid up
in safety and at such time as other his lordship or any other should
lie at any of the said places, the same might then be set up of new
with small charges to his lordship where now the decay thereof shall be
very costly and chargeable to be repaired.
After 1750 the fortress was heavily restored by the first duke of
Northumberland when it was turned into a palace under the oversight of
James Prince and Robert Adams. It suffered a further period of
heavy restoration in the Victorian period under Anthony Salvin who
removed some of the pseudo-Gothic work. Finally, Capability Brown
filled the moat and landscaped the grounds.
Alnwick castle commands the crossing of the River Alne in a similar manner to how Norham and Wark guard the Tweed, Warkworth the Coquet, Morpeth and Mitford the Wansbeck and Newcastle the Tyne. The original fortress was large, apparently covering almost the same area as the current Georgian palace.
The first castle masonry seems to consist of well cut, almost square
blocks of the local yellow sandstone, while the later, allegedly
fourteenth century work consists of much larger stones well cut and
well laid, viz. the face of several towers, Clock, Constable, Middle
Gatetower, as well as the outer gatehouse and barbican. The
eighteenth and nineteenth century work appears well cut to almost
ashlar quality, but the stones are an intermixing of colours, viz.
various towers like Abbot's, Postern, Ravelin, Warder's and the bulk of
the inner ward. Even so these deductions are suspect and a full
review of all the masonry of the castle, coupled with archaeological
investigation is the only true way to proceed with discovering a
possibly correct chronology for the current palace and its fantastic
buildings. Before this can be done only a guess can be made here,
but thankfully a plan of 1650 survives which strengthens the 1567
survey. With these it is possible to discern what little of the
castle buildings are still vaguely original.
The entire castle is roughly pentagonal, pointing towards the east and
at its maximum extent about 430' north to south by 770' long at its
maximum. In 1650 it was still surrounded by a wet moat around the
2 outermost walls to the south and west as was the inner ward to all
directions but the north. This entire north front was covered by
the scarp down to the River Aln.
The castle originally appears to have been equipped with a large,
rectangular outer ditch surrounding the exposed 3 sides of the enceinte
of the outer and middle wards. The north side was covered by the
River Aln. The main approach to the castle seems to have always
been via the outer gatehouse and its famed barbican. The barbican
consists of 2 long walls with a gate, but no portcullis within between
2 turrets which rise to corbelled out small, square towers. This
may be somewhat similar to how the barbican at Abergavenny
may have been. It is noteworthy that the outer arch is Romanesque
and obviously modern, while the barbican inner arches are pointed early
English. The lack of any drawbridge paraphernalia may also
suggest the whole is largely rebuild since the traces of a drawbridge,
already destroyed, was recorded within the barbican in 1567.
At the east end of the barbican was a large twin towered gatehouse 50'
north to south by 45' east to west, with semi-octagonal towers like
those found at Carreg Cennen.
The west face of the gatehouse houses a Romanesque entrance arch, but
at its summit are the remains of a single apex stone of the original,
probably more pointed arch. The stonework above the arch is more
reminiscent of early Norman work throughout the castle, although at
first floor level where there is a replacement window to the
constable's chamber, the masonry is made of larger ashlar blocks.
The battlements appear modern as too does the portcullis groove, set
well forward in the Romanesque gate arch. To the rear in the
older masonry are 2 fishtailed crossbow loops.
The gatehouse gave entrance to a rectangular bailey about 380' from
north to south. Centrally in the east wall of this stood the
inner ward of which virtually nothing original now remains. The
gatehouse to the middle ward lay some 260' from the west curtain wall
of the outer ward.
To the north of the outer gatehouse ran a relatively thin curtain wall
which consists of typical early masonry, consisting of even courses of
small, well laid, stone. At the summit of the wall is a possibly
fourteenth century wallwalk totally rebuilt in the modern era.
Half way along this wall is a turret or garret as it is wrongly called
at Alnwick. A garret is a watchtower designed for long distance
viewing, obviously these low turrets overlooked by much of the castle
do not perform this function. Internally the lower portions of
this turret may be original although the Romanesque doorway is probably
late. There is an odd string course at first floor level and
probably a different medieval build above this, although the summit of
the tower and its external face are almost certainly late. The
curtain summits on either side are also certainly late and differ in
height. Externally the curtain north of the turret has a string
course which marks it out as different to its southern compatriot.
At the north-eastern extremity of the ward lies the remnants of the
eighteenth century rectangular Abbot's Tower. In 1650 this was D
shaped. The modern tower has a spiral vice in its north-east
corner and a rib vaulted basement set upon a twin sloping stepped
plinth. The multiple twin lights all appear modern, but a single
lancet to the south may be from the medieval build as may be the ground
floor crossbow loops which are simple slits. The battlements of
the tower and ‘garret' are definite modern additions. From
the tower an early thin, wallwalkless curtain ran back to the inner
enceinte of the keep, though all trace of this after the eighteenth
century Falconer's tower, has been destroyed by the later landscape
gardening. The fact that there is no access to the wallwalks from
the tower further indicates its very late provenance and again proves
the adage that you cannot definitively date structures by their design
Within the ward, north of the path leading from outer to the middle
gate was the ‘Checker House', later used as a court house for the
barony. To the south of the path were stables and storage which
were all cleared away in the eighteenth century.
To the south of the gatehouse the curtain has been destroyed and
replaced with eighteenth century work as the thinness of the wall and
total lack of wallwalk indicates. At the south-west corner of the
ward stands the Clock Tower, the outer portion of which standing to
first floor height would appear to be original. Some half way
along the southern enceinte of the outer ward stands the D shaped
Auditor's Tower. This had a twin stepped sloping plinth like the
Abbot's Tower and has been much ‘upgraded' and its battlements
renewed. In 1567 its lower storey was a stables - there is now no
way that a horse could enter the structure. Indeed the rear of
the tower is as obviously fake as the upper storeys at the front.
However a single long crossbow loop facing south from the tower in the
early masonry has some appearance of being original.
The south-east corner of the ward is filled with the large rectangular
gatehouse to the Middle ward. This is about 35' east to west by
65' north to south. The north-western corner of this is equipped
with a single D shaped projecting tower. In 1567 this contained a
prison in its basement. On the south side was a porter's lodge
joined to a thick south curtain of the outer ward, the inner face of
which has the small squared stones of early work. The upper
portions of the gatehouse are undoubtedly refaced at the least and the
medieval partial fourth floor has been removed. The 2 ground
floor loops to the west are also obviously modern as are all the
windows on this front. This gatehouse led into the middle ward
via a modern Romanesque gate passageway equipped with a portcullis.
Once through the gateway an irregular pentagonal ward is entered, some
230' north to south by 360' east to west at its maximum extent.
Some of the irregular walls to north and south, particularly those on
either side of the Constable's Tower and around the east turret [garret
in Alnwick parlance], appear to be original early work. However,
the rest is probably eighteenth century fabrication.
At the southern point of the ward is the 1854 Warder's Tower which
allows an entrance from the town via an irregular twin towered
gatehouse with Romanesque arches. Nothing of this build is
original, although the wall between it and the main ward gatehouse
appears as old as the middle gatehouse. Running east from the
Warder's Tower is a modern wall which morphs into the old style walling
which straddles the turret called the east garret. This has a
slightly different masonry style to the old wall on either side, but
above wallwalk level is totally modern. The internal Romanesque
doorway is also probably modern. Externally the lower portion of
the wall is built of good ashlar masonry that may well be medieval.
At the east apex of the site stands the eighteenth century
‘Ravine Tower', allegedly built from the remnants of the original
Ravine Tower which was D shaped and whose site seems now to be marked
by the gap called the Bloody Gap some 40' east of the modern
‘Ravine Tower'. The 2 window seats between this and the
modern ‘Ravine Tower' are likely the remains of an internal
building. The small turret between the Ravine and Constable's
Tower is now called Hotspur's Chair. Its masonry style suggests
it is older than the opposite ‘east garret'. Beyond this
the lower 10' of the internal curtain would appear to be original work,
but above this is later medieval work with a projecting string
course. Above this the battlements and wallwalk are, as ever,
The Constable's Tower is D shaped and its basement was once a buttery,
with lodgings on the upper 2 floors above. It is suggested that
the masons' marks in the upper 2 storeys of this tower make it
contemporary with parts of Dunstanburgh and Warkworth castles.
Clearly the basement and ground floor have the smaller stones of the
early work, although the external crossbow loops look strongly like
replicas, especially the upper storey ones. The triple stepped
base also looks suspect. Next to the tower are a flight of
replaced steps to the wallwalk. In the south-west corner is a
low, odd gabled stair turret.
Between the Constable's Tower and the Postern Tower to the west is
another small turret like Hotspur's Chair. The Postern Tower is
square and shows signs of being much altered in the eighteenth
century. All the loops within the tower are obviously modern,
although the inner postern gate and basement may be medieval. The
upper storey like the battlements and misplaced garret are undoubtedly
modern. Further there is no trace of the curtain running from the
tower to the inner ward. Instead there is a broad platform now
mounting cannon. This was made in the eighteenth century and
remodelled in the 1860s.
A variety of free standing buildings stood in this ward, including a
chapel facing the Constable and Ravine towers. This was 57' long,
21' wide and 21' high and was still in good condition as late as
1588. This together with a brewhouse and a bakehouse close to the
postern were removed when the castle was made into a palace.
The inner ward, often erroneously called the keep, apparently consisted
of a series of 7 towers with 4 garrets which were mostly demolished in
1764. These were set around a small enceinte of roughly 80'
diameter. This is now dominated by the 1854 Prudhoe Tower.
The Record, Caterer's and Water towers were built upon the line of the
destroyed curtain, leaving as the only surviving medieval parts of the
original inner enceinte the twin towered gatehouse to the south-east
and the D shaped tower at the N end of the hall to the east.
However it should be noted that the gatehouse seems to be more aligned
with the scarp running some 30' south of the current enceinte and that
the original enceinte may therefore have been somewhat larger.
The original moat has been filled in, but the surviving D shaped tower
and the general line of the enceinte stand on a definite rise of ground
of between 8' and 15' height.
The original gateway seems to have consisted of an internal rectangular
gatetower about 40' by 30' externally. To the north this had a
Romanesque arch with lozenge and zigzag mouldings. The 2 flanking
octagonal towers on the external face have obviously been added,
possibly in the thirteenth or fourteenth centuries. In 1567 these
were recorded as 4 storeys high. High up under the string course
of these are a series of stone escutcheons displaying the arms of
Tyson, Vescy, Clifford, Percy, Bohun, Plantagenet, Warenne, Arundel,
Umfraville and Fitz Walter. The 2 central shields display England
and France. As Henry Percy (d.1352) only married Idoine Clifford
a little before 1320 it suggests these date to well after this date,
although the lack of weathering suggests that they are Victorian
replacements. The entire structure was much rebuilt in the
eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Within the inner gatehouse,
behind the early gateway, is a recess in the wall which apparently once
housed a well.
Why not join me here and at other Northern
English castles this year? Please see the information on this and
similar tours at Scholarly Sojourns.
Paul Martin Remfry