ALNWICK CASTLE, NE66 1NQ
WHAT IS THERE TO SEE?
Like nearby Bamburgh, Alnwick Castle looks impressive but what is visible is largely the product of the Victorian era. Some parts are older though and the configuration of the castle is built upon the medieval structure that stood here. The Malcolm III monument and the only surviving part of the medieval town walls, Bondgate, are nearby.
1. After his capture after the second Battle of Alnwick (1174), William I (the Lion) of Scotland was taken in chains to the partially completed Royal castle at Newcastle before being moved onto Falaise in Normandy.
2. Henry de Percy, the first member of that family to own Alnwick Castle, was a direct descendant from William de Percy. He was one of the Norman magnates that had supported William I (the Conqueror) in his invasion and conquest of England. Having been left behind in the invasion to secure Normandy in William’s absence, he arrived in England in 1067 and had been rewarded for his support with lands in Yorkshire, Lincolnshire and later in Sussex.
3. The four castles at Alnwick, Bamburgh, Dunstanburgh and Warkworth were key to the control of the Eastern March. During the Wars of the Roses these castles were critical to the Lancastrian cause as they allowed reinforcements and/or support to arrive from Scotland and provide a safe enclave for forces to land from the continent.
4. The Percy family moved their main residence from Alnwick to the lavishly rebuilt Warkworth Castle in the mid-fifteenth century.
5. Alnwick Castle has found fame (and many tourists) due to featuring in the Harry Potter series of films. Its film and TV credits also include Elizabeth (1998), Blackadder (1983) and Ivanhoe (1997).
The death of William I (the Conqueror) in 1087 resulted in dispute over the succession to the throne; his eldest son Robert had succeeded him in Normandy whilst his next younger son, William Rufus, had become King William II of England. Between 1087-91, whilst the two brothers vied for power, Malcolm III of Scotland attempted to assert his claim over Northumbria. An invasion in 1091 was defused by the arrival of a large English army headed by William himself, but in 1093 Malcolm attacked again besieged Alnwick Castle in November of that year. His main English opponent was Robert de Mowbray, Earl of Northumbria who deployed from Bamburgh Castle to counter the Scottish incursion. He had insufficient forces to oppose the Scots directly in the field but nevertheless, on the 13 November 1093, mounted a surprise attack on the forces besieging Alnwick. Although the battle was a relatively small event, it resulted in the death of both Malcolm and his immediate heir. Scotland descended into Civil War as multiple claimants to the throne emerged effectively immediate Scottish claims on Northumberland.
Dispute over the ownership of Cumbria and Northumberland was still ongoing in the late twelfth century. In 1172 William I (the Lion) of Scotland sought to reclaim both whilst Henry II of England was distracted with troubles in Normandy. William invaded northern England but failed to gain the initiative; an initial assault on the partially built Newcastle Castle failed as did attacks on Alnwick and Prudhoe Castles. He attacked again with a larger force the following year and again tried to take Prudhoe Castle. That castle successfully withstood the assault and, rather than lay siege, William moved his forces onto Alnwick Castle. Here he laid siege to the castle but, with his forces dispersed, exposed himself to an attack by a small force of English Knights led by Ranulf de Glanvill. Finding the Scottish King with just a small bodyguard to protect him, they attacked and overwhelmed him - William was taken prisoner. After this humiliation no subsequent Scottish monarchs attempted to reclaim either Cumbria or Northumberland and the (present day) border was formally established in 1237 at the Treaty of York.
Alnwick Town Walls. The only substantive above ground remains from Alnwick Town Walls, which were built in the early fifteenth century, is Bondgate.
Malcolm III Monument
William the Lion Plaque
Bondgate (Town Walls)
Notes: The castle is easily found at the centre of Alnwick. The Malcolm III monument can be found behind a gate on the B6341. There is a lay-by with sufficient parking for several cars just before a roundabout - park there and the gate can be found between the lay-by and the roundabout. The William the Lion plaque is found just before the entrance to Hulne Park. Be careful you don’t miss it - the plaque is behind some railings on the left side of the road as you approach the Gatehouse that marks the entrance to the park.
A border fortress guarding a key route into Scotland, Alnwick Castle witnessed regular conflict between the two nations including pitched battles that saw the death of Malcolm III and the capture of William the Lion. In addition the castle’s rich history saw participation in events linked with the Anarchy and the Wars of the Roses.
HISTORY OF ALNWICK CASTLE
The history of Alnwick and its Castle are intertwined with the story of Northumbria. This land, which originally stretched from the Forth in the north to the River Tyne in south, was hotly contested between successive English and Scottish monarchs and the mighty fortress at Alnwick - along with the two battles fought nearby - were ultimately the product of this dispute.
In AD 927 the kingdom of Northumbria was incorporated into England under King Athelstan. At this time Scotland itself was a disparate place with no single language or clear Scottish identity. But under Malcolm II of Scotland cohesion was increased; after defeating Eadulf, Earl of Northumbria in battle in 1018 he obtained control of all territory north of the River Tweed. The split territory fuelled aspirations on both sides to reclaim the entirety of Northumbria.
The First Castle
The requirement for a strong defence of the north wasn't lost on William I (the Conqueror). The pre-conquest Anglo-Saxon owner of Alnwick - Bisbright Tisonne - was dispossessed with the area granted to a Gilbert de Tesson (also referenced as Tyson) who had been William's standard bearer at the Battle of Hastings. He built a small timber castle on the site to establish control over the Great North Road, a major route north/south, at the point where it bridged the River Aln.
First Battle Alnwick (1093)
In 1093 Alnwick Castle was besieged by a Scottish force under Malcolm III. The siege however was short when an English force under Robert de Mowbray, Earl of Northumbria attacked the King. In this first Battle of Alnwick Malcolm was killed. See further information right - the First Battle of Alnwick (1093).
Yves de Vescy
Perhaps in thanks for his support during the Scottish invasion, Gilbert de Tesson joined Robert de Mowbray in rebellion against William II; the attempt failed and Tesson was dispossessed. In 1096 William II granted his lands and titles to Yves de Vescy and he enhanced/rebuilt the castle. Constructed on a naturally strong site, surrounded on three sides by steep slopes, he built an earth and timber motte-and-bailey structure. The two baileys he added to the east and west of the motte directly influenced all further building work at the castle. His son (William) and grandson (Eustace) continued the building work including initially rebuilding in stone.
When Henry I died in 1135 the succession was contested between his daughter, Queen Matilda, and his nephew, King Stephen. England descended into the Civil War known as the Anarchy and David, King of Scotland, sought to exploit it. Stephen was crowned King on Christmas Day 1135 and in response David commenced several years of incursions into northern England nominally in support of Matilda. David's dominance over the north was further strengthen as he enhanced his border fortress at Carlisle Castle and, in 1141, obtained effective control of the Bishopric of Durham. His ambitions came to an end though at the Battle of the Standard (1138), fought at Cowton Moor near Northallerton, where his forces were defeated. Nevertheless Northumberland remained in Scottish hands and, for a period, the River Tees marked the border. In 1157 Henry II re-took Northumberland into English hands.
Second Battle of Alnwick (1174)
In 1174 the second Battle of Alnwick was fought in vicinity of the castle. William I (the Lion) of Scotland besieged the castle but was ambushed by a small force of English Knights and captured. See further information right - Second Battle of Alnwick (1174).
Throughout the twelfth and thirteenth centuries Alnwick Castle remained in the hands of the Vescy family. In 1215 the then owner, Eustace de Vescy, was appointed as one of the Barons assigned to enforce Magna Carta. This, coupled with his homage to Alexander II of Scotland, led him into conflict with King John who assaulted and burnt the castle. John's timely death in 1216 led to the family returning to Royal favour but when John de Vescy gave his support to the rebel cause during the Second Barons War he temporarily forfeited the castle. Throughout Alnwick Castle remained defensible - in 1297 it repulsed at attack by William Wallace who, fresh from his victory at of Stirling Bridge (1297), was seeking to take the war to the English. When the male line of the de Vescy family died out in 1297 the property was granted to Anthony Bek, Bishop of Durham.
In 1309 the castle was purchased by the Percy family, Earls and later Dukes of Northumberland. The first owner, Henry de Percy, was already a significant and powerful landowner and he immediately started the conversion of the castle into something befitting his status. He enhanced the fortifications significant with the centrepiece being the re-building of the Keep. In 1314 he rode north with Edward II to relieve Stirling Castle in the campaign that culminated in the English rout at the Battle of Bannockburn. Henry was captured and ransomed by the Scottish forces and, whilst he returned to Alnwick, he died the same year.
War on the Border
The years following Bannockburn were difficult for Northumberland - Robert the Bruce led his army into the county trying to compel England to recognise the independence of Scotland. The weak and ineffectual Government of Edward II was unable to bring them to heel and though the Earl of Warwick compelled Edward III to sign a peace treaty of 1328, the young King soon asserted himself and resumed the war. Throughout Alnwick was critical for the local populace as a safe haven as well as a fortress guarding the eastern March. In 1346 Alnwick’s then owner, Henry Percy, led the English Right wing at the Battle of Neville’s Cross where King David II was defeated and captured.
In 1399 Henry Bolingbroke, with the support of the Percy family, deposed Richard II and became Henry IV. The Earl soon came into conflict with the new King though and was defeated by him at the Battle of Shrewsbury (1403) before being besieged within Alnwick castle. The castle ultimately surrendered, under threat of cannon fire, and was confiscated. It was only returned to the family in 1413 by Henry V.
Scottish attacks into Northumberland continued - Alnwick was attacked and burnt in 1424. After successful lobbying to King Henry VI, Alnwick was granted a licence to build Town Walls in 1433 - one of only two towns in Northumberland to do so (the other was Berwick). It took a significant period to raise funds however and it wasn't until the 1470s that construction of the Wall was properly funded and underway - perhaps prompted by another Scottish attack on the town in 1448.
War of the Roses
During the Wars of the Roses the Percy family supported the Lancastrian side and Alnwick Castle was one of four castles that was key to controlling the eastern March enabling reinforcements and support from Scotland. The castle surrendered to the Yorkists after the decisive victory of Edward IV at the Battle of Towton (1461) but changed hands regularly; it was held by Lancastrian supporters from December 1461 to July 1462, from autumn 1462 to January 1463 and finally from May 1463 to June 1464. In 1469 it was restored to the Percy family.
Union of the Crowns
Following the death of Elizabeth I in 1603, the crowns of England and Scotland were united with James VI of Scotland succeeding to the English throne. Whilst Alnwick town prospered from the increased trade this union brought along the Great North Road, the castle's role as a border stronghold had become superfluous. Furthermore it had ceased to be the main residence of Percy family in the mid-fifteenth century and was largely abandoned. Likewise the Town Wall became redundant at this time and was subsequently dismantled for its stone with only the former East Gate (now known as Bondgate Tower) surviving due to its occasional use as a prison.
The importance of Alnwick was enhanced in the 1750s when Sir Hugh Smithson, Duke of Northumberland adopted the castle as his main residence. He commissioned James Paine and later Robert Adam to remodelled the castle into a Gothic style stately home. By the mid-nineteenth century though their work was poorly regarded and the fourth Duke commissioned further changes that removed many of the alterations whilst concurrently transforming the structure into the Victorian ideal of a medieval castle.