A small Manor House that was later upgraded into a more substantial fortification, Etal Castle was the scene of border feuding. A more serious assault came in 1513 when the vast army of James IV captured and burnt it immediately prior to the Scottish defeat at the Battle of Flodden.
Etal was a small manorial holding within the Baronry of Wooler which stretched from the Cheviot Hills to the east coast. The area had been occupied by the Normans during the reign of Henry I and was granted to Robert Muschamp. He would have been accompanied by various retainers, including Norman Knights, who would have helped him maintain control over this lawless border region in exchange for sub-tenancy of parcels of land within. The names of these Knights are unknown but by 1180, Etal was in the possession of Robert Manners. It seems likely that his family had been granted the manor as a result of service rendered to the wider Barony.
Given the proximity to the border, the Manners family almost certainly erected a rudimentary fortification on the site, most probably some form of timber hall surrounded by a wooden palisade. Towards the end of the thirteenth century the hall was rebuilt in stone as an unfortified Manor House. The structure was clearly relatively grand as it was chosen by the Archbishop of York as his accommodation during his progress in the north.
No record of the castle's involvement in the Wars of Scottish Independence have survived although the then owner - Sir Robert Manners - likely served in the Royal army during the reigns of both Edward I and Edward II. It is also probable the Etal estate suffered from the Scottish raids into Northumberland which followed the English rout at Bannockburn in 1314. This turbulence in the border region was probably what prompted the Heron family to seek a licence to crenellate their home at nearby Ford in 1338. Edward III granted their request which saw Ford rebuilt into an impressive castle. It may well have been rivalry with this family, as much as the threat from the Scots, that prompted Robert Manners to seek his own licence to crenellate. Edward III granted this in 1341 but, unlike Ford Castle, the upgrades to Etal were relatively conservative. They were initially limited to a conversion of existing Manor House into a Tower. A survey of 1355 described the castle as a 'fortalice', a term used to describe a lightly defended castle. Work continued under Robert's son, John, with the stone curtain wall and gatehouse added before 1368 at which time a survey described Etal as a proper castle. At least one tower was built to augment the curtain wall.
Etal Castle was inherited by John Manners, great grandson of the original Tower builder. He became embroiled in a bitter feud with the Heron family of nearby Ford Castle which escalated dramatically on 20 January 1428 when William Heron, son and heir of the Lord of Ford, died in a skirmish at Etal. In the subsequent investigation, led by the church, it was eventually agreed that John would pay 250 marks compensation to William's widow and pay for 500 masses for his soul. The feud did not end here though and escalated as more border families became embroiled in the dispute. By the time it came to an end, following the murder of John Manners and his eldest son in 1438, the value of both Ford and Etal estates had plummeted. John was followed by his second son, Robert Manners, who rebuilt his family's fortunes through service to Sir Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland. However, his loyalty to that family meant he sided with the Lancastrians during the Wars of the Roses and was killed at the Battle of Towton (1461).
In the late fifteenth century the Manners family relocated to Rutland leaving a Constable, John Collingwood, in charge of Etal. He was still responsible for the castle in 1513 when it was attacked by an invading Scottish army under James IV acting in support of Louis XII of France who was under increasing pressure from Henry VIII's military campaigns on the continent. With an army perhaps as large as 60,000 men strong, supported by extensive artillery, he quickly reduced the key border strongholds at Norham and Wark castles. In contrast to those fortifications, Etal was a much weaker structure that was never intended to withstand an assault by such a large and well equipped force. Unsurprisingly, after a short bombardment, the castle was surrendered. However, Scottish control did not last long as Thomas Howard, Earl of Surrey mustered a northern army at Alnwick Castle and decisively defeated the Scots at the Battle of Flodden (1513). Etal was retaken and acted as a secure facility to store the captured Scottish artillery.
Etal was returned to the Manners family after the battle but, with Norham badly damaged, it was used by Crown Officers in their duties on the border. By this stage the castle was no longer lived in by the family and was starved of funding prompting the Crown to purchase it outright in 1547 (although the Collingwood family remained as hereditary Constables). In 1549, during the increased border tensions associated with the Rough Wooing, a force of 100 horsemen and 200 infantry were recorded there but thereafter it was seemingly neglected. With the union of the Crowns in 1603, the need for the castle to fulfil any military role became superfluous. It passed through various owners in the subsequent decades including a Scot named Robert Carr in 1636. His support for the Royalist cause during the Wars of Three Kingdoms saw him forfeit Etal but it was restored to him when Charles II became King in 1660. The castle was eventually abandoned as a residence in 1748 in favour of a nearby Manor House and thereafter was allowed to drift into ruin.
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Etal Castle is a ruined manorial fortification. The remains include a Tower House and Gatehouse along with fragments of the curtain wall. There is also a small museum with details of the Battle of Flodden.
Etal Castle Layout. The castle was basically an enclosure fortification occupying a rectangular footprint. The Tower and Gatehouse dominated the north-west and south-east corners.
Gatehouse. This structure dates from the mid-fourteenth century. The cannons were salvaged from the Royal George which capsized off Spithead in August 1756.
Tower House. The earliest element of the castle was the Tower House - a rare English example of a structure common in Scotland.
South-West Tower. The south-west tower protected the vulnerable angle of the curtain wall. It was later incorporated into a house.
Gatehouse. The gatehouse viewed from inside the fortification.