Elsdon Castle was a motte-and-bailey fortification built in the late eleventh century to dominate the pre-Conquest administrative centre of Redesdale and was occupied for around 200 years before it was superseded by Harbottle Castle. By the early fifteenth century a pele tower had been built at Elsdon and this evolved into a substantial Tower House.
Robert de Umfraville, Lord of Tours and Vian was granted the Lordship of Redesdale in July 1076 by William I. Located on the main overland route between Newcastle and Edinburgh, Elsdon was already a substantial settlement prior the Norman Conquest and seems to have served as the capital of Redesdale. Accordingly Robert built a castle on the site to control the region and to secure the territory against the Scots.
Elsdon Castle was originally an earth and timber motte-and-bailey fortification. The motte was built on top of a natural spur which enhanced its prominence and provided strong natural defences on the western side due to the steep scarp down to the Elsdon Burn. A substantial ringwork rampart, over 40 metres in diameter, was built on top of the motte further enhancing its appearance and would have been augmented by a timber palisade. The bailey was built to the north of the motte in a broadly rectangular configuration and protected on all sides by a ditch and an extensive rampart. Whilst there is no evidence the castle's defences were ever rebuilt in stone, it is likely some buildings (perhaps the hall) were at least partially stone structures and this is evidenced by the discovery, in the eighteenth century, of Roman masonry. It is likely this was transported from High Rochester Roman Fort, some 7 miles north-west, suggesting this was used to provide the ready supply of dressed stone.
Little is known about the later history of the castle and it is possible it went out of use during the mid-twelfth century when Northumblerand was overrun by the Scots who took advantage of the ongoing Civil War (1139-53) in England. When Henry II ascended to the English throne he took back control of the northern lands and in 1157 granted Odinel de Umfraville new territory on which he built Harbottle Castle. This then became the main Umfraville seat and either Elsdon was not recommissioned or it became a minor residence. Certainly Elsdon Castle had gone out of use no later than the mid-thirteenth century for no reference was made to the site when the estate of Gilbert de Umfraville was being processed following his death in 1245.
Elsdon Tower was built upon a different site from the castle on the summit of a spur of land overlooking the Elsdon Burn. It was originally constructed as a pele tower and was probably built by the Umfraville family for use by the local Parish Priest. It was certainly in existence by 1415 when it was named as 'Turris de Ellysden' in a local record. Such Pele Towers were designed to be places of refuge in time of emergency, although the structure would also have doubled as permanent accommodation, but other residential and domestic functions - namely the hall and service functions - would have been hosted in external and unprotected buildings. This changed when the structure was converted into a Tower House in the sixteenth century.
The enhanced tower consisted of a four storey structure plus an attic. The ground floor was a vaulted chamber for stores and kitchen, the first floor a hall whilst the upper levels provided accommodation. A newel stair provided access to the upper levels. During the seventeenth century the top three floors were reduced to just two to enable increased headroom and the windows, previously small for security reasons, were substantially enlarged. Further modifications followed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as the structure was regularly altered to improve the living accommodation and prettify the structure. The Tower continued to be used as a rectory until 1961 and thereafter was converted into a private residence.
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Elsdon Castle is the best preserved motte-and-bailey fortification in Northumberland. The earthworks are open to the public and an interpretation panel provides a basic overview of the site. Elsdon Tower House, which can be seen from the castle, is a private residence with no public access.
Elsdon Castle. The earthworks of the castle are extremely impressive. Elsdon Tower can be seen to the upper right of the photo on the other side of Elsdon Burn.
Elsdon Tower. The Tower House evolved from a late fourteenth/early fifteenth century Pele Tower. It was used as a residence for the Parish Priest for much of its history. Today it is a private residence.
Elsdon Motte. The motte still dominates the site.
Bailey. The bailey was enclosed by a significant rampart that would have been topped with a timber palisade.
Elsdon Castle and Tower House are found in the village of the same name on the B6341. There is a small car park just off the main road within an short walk of the castle earthworks.