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Ford and Etal

Northumberland Castles & Historic Sites

Bamburgh Castle © Barry Pells/

Alnwick, Bamburgh and Warkworth spring readily to mind when one thinks of castles in Northumberland.

But the ancient kingdom’s countryside was a prize asset for both the Scots and the English and consequently fortresses and pele towers pepper the county.

Although its rocky outcrop has been occupied since prehistoric times, Bamburgh Castle traces its history back at least 1,500 years to the time of the Anglo Saxons, becoming a royal centre by 547.

It was remodelled in Norman times before being restored and altered in the 18th century and then again at the end of the 1800s after it was bought by the first Lord Armstrong – whose descendants still own the castle.

Alnwick Castle, which has featured in Harry Potter films, is the home of the Dukes of Northumberland and its state rooms house fine furniture and paintings by Canaletto, Van Dyck and Titian.

It is now widely believed that Henry, son of David I of Scotland, built the first stone castle at Warkworth in 1139 upon becoming Earl of Northumberland. The castle still stands on a hill above the River Coquet and dominates everything around. It is home to the Duke of Northumberland’s Percy family of Shakespearean fame.

Of all the other castles in the county, Belsay is regarded as one of the most impressive. Although its early history is unclear, many historians now believe the tower was originally built round about 1370 with the de Middletons retaking the manor and estates from the de Strivelyns.

Although Edward I, who had been received at the de Middleton manor at Belsay 20 years earlier, visited the tower at Chillingham in 1298, permission to add crenellations was not granted until 1344 when Sir Thomas de Heton built the castle we know today with its dungeons and torture chamber.

The castle has been continuously owned by the family of the Earls Grey and their relations since the 1200s.

Warkworth Castle

Warkworth Castle © Barry Pells/

Iron Age and Roman finds suggest the site of Dunstanburgh Castle was first defended as an Iron Age fort before being taken over by the Romans. The 14thcentury castle stands on a basalt crag more than 100ft high at the coast near Craster.

Excavations in the mid-1970s and early 1980s altered the accepted view that Edlingham Castle near Alnwick, a complex ruin with defensive features spanning the 13th and 15th centuries, was “nothing more than an ordinary tower house”.

Excavated footings and walls show that the tower was only one part of a small but complicated fortified manor or castle.

The castle at Prudhoe in the Tyne Valley is first mentioned in connection with William the Lion, who besieged the fortification unsuccessfully in 1173 to 1174.

The remains that stand today are those of a formidable castle built by the Umfravilles but which was in the hands of the Percys from the 14th century onwards.

The castle is an important example of the type which had a free standing keep in the inner bailey and an outer bailey with a gatehouse. It has formed a dramatic backdrop to films.

Lindisfarne Castle

Lindisfarne Castle

Many visitors to Northumberland associate the Holy Isle of Lindisfarne with the priory, but there is also a castle. Originally a Tudor fort, the building, on top of a rocky crag and accessible by the causeway at low tide only, was converted into a private house in 1903 and is now in the hands of the National Trust.

However, the priory, a holy site since 635, remains a place of pilgrimage today. It was the site of one of the most important early centres of Christianity in Anglo-Saxon England and is where the monk Eadfrid created the magnificent illuminated Lindisfarne Gospels, in 698.

Other holy sites of note include Brinkburn Priory, which was founded around 1135 as a house for Augustinian canons, and Hexham Abbey on whose site there has been a church for more than 1,300 years, since Queen Etheldreda made a grant of lands to Wilfrid, Bishop of York, in about 674. Of Wilfrid’s abbey, the Saxon crypt and apse still remain.

There have been many battles of historical significance in the county, but three of the most notable are the Battle of Heavenfield in about 635, the Battle of Otterburn in 1388 and the Battle of Flodden in 1513.

Today there are few clues, save a wooden cross erected in the 1930s, to the historical significance of the battle that took place between Northumbrians and an invading Welsh army at Heavenfield near Chollerford, north of Hexham and in the shadow of Hadrian’s Wall.

The Northumbrian king Oswald had to summon an army at short notice after returning from a 17-year exile in Western Scotland and legend has it that he was visited on the eve of battle by St Columba, who told him that he would win.

Bede regarded the battle as key to the survival of Christianity in the ancient Kingdom of Northumbria and Britain as a whole as Oswald used his victory to reunify the Kingdom of Northumbria – which had been split into two rival kingdoms – and invited monks from Iona to set up a monastery at Lindisfarne.

From there, the new religion of Christianity gradually took hold across the entire country.

The remains of Otterburn Castle now form part of the Otterburn Tower Hotel

In 1388, Harry Hotspur, son of the Earl of Northumberland, was in pursuit of Scots leader James Douglas through the Northumberland countryside after a series of border raids.

Douglas retreated to Otterburn and was in deep trouble as the sun set. However, as the battle raged on in darkness, the English could not use their archers and the Scots gained the upper hand in vicious hand-to-hand fighting.

By morning Hotspur’s English army was on the run. Some 1,800 of them were captured or killed. Douglas, the architect of this famous Scottish victory, was also killed in the battle.

The battle site a mile from the centre of Otterburn, marked by a cross and information board, looks much today as it did almost 700 years ago.

Today the wildlife-rich farm and moorland at Flodden, eight miles west of Wooler, is quiet but for birdsong. But in 1513, it was the site of a bloody and fierce battle between the English and the French-funded Scottish Army led by King James IV.

It is the most important battle to be fought on Northumbrian soil, and resulted in a decisive victory for Henry VIII and his English army who completely outfought their Scottish opponents.

For the Scots, Flodden was a national disaster. At the end of that drizzly September day almost 500 years ago, 10,000 – including King James, 12 earls, 15 lords, many clan chiefs and an archbishop – lay dead.

Flodden has a wider historical significance. It is described as Britain’s last true mediaeval battle and it was the first battle in the British Isles where artillery played a major part – ushering in a new era of warfare.

A monument, erected in 1910, is easily reached from Branxton village by following the road past St Paul’s Church. There is a small car park and a clearly marked and signposted battlefield trail.

Etal Castle

Etal Castle

Two of the county’s castles – Etal and Norham – are mentioned in many accounts of the battle.

Fortified in 1341 by Robert Manners to protect it from Scottish raiders, Etal Castle fell to the invading army of 30,000 Scots led by James IV and although the massive walls of the 12th century Norham Castle had proven impenetrable during many sieges in 400 years as a military stronghold, the castle fell quickly and was largely destroyed when stormed by the Scots.

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