Henry II granted the lands around Harbottle to Odinel de Umfraville around 1157. The English King was keen to secure the area against the expansionist Scots who, at this time, sought to claim dominion over Northumbria. Accordingly the grant was made on the condition Umfraville raised a castle. Work started on an earth and timber motte-and-bailey around 1160 and this eventually became the main residence for the Umfravilles and replaced their earlier fortification at Elsdon Castle. The family later rose to become the Barons of Prudhoe and the largest landowners in Northumberland.
In 1173 King William the Lion of Scotland joined the rebellion of Henry the Young King. The following year William mounted a major assault into northern England attacking and capturing Harbottle Castle. However, William was defeated and captured at the Second Battle of Alnwick (1174) ending his campaign and Harbottle was subsequently returned into English hands. The castle's defences were enhanced in the years that followed including construction of a stone Keep and curtain wall.
Harbottle Castle was attacked again at the outbreak of the First War of Scottish Independence in 1296. A large force operating on behalf of the Scottish King, John Balliol, attacked the castle but the upgraded defences proved adequate and it withstood the assault. The Scottish defeat at the First Battle of Dunbar (1296) saw the English initially gain the upper hand in the war but in 1306 Robert the Bruce rebelled and started a campaign that culminated in the defeat of a Royal army at Bannockburn. This decisive battle led to Bruce starting raids into northern England in an attempt to force Edward II to accept Scottish Independence. As part of this campaign Harbottle was attacked and captured in 1318. Bruce's forces slighted the castle to prevent further military use by the English.
Edward II was overthrown in 1327 and replaced by his son, Edward III. He re-started the wars with Scotland and in 1336 re-built Harbottle Castle as a secure base to control a key border route. English interest soon shifted to the continent however and, following the defeat and capture of David II of Scotland at the Battle of Neville's Cross (1346), the immediate need for border fortresses temporarily declined. Harbottle was neglected and by 1351 was described as ruinous. However, the general lawlessness of the border region led to the castle being restored towards the end of the fourteenth century enabling it to be used as a secure base for the Wardens of the Middle March - magnates charged with keeping law and order.
In 1515 Henry VIII of England granted political asylum to his sister, Margaret Tudor, and assigned Harbottle Castle as her residence. She was the widow of James IV of Scotland who had been killed at the Battle of Flodden (1513). Margaret had been appointed as Regent of Scotland but political manoeuvres saw her deposed by John Stewart, Duke of Albany. By keeping her at Harbottle, she remained close enough to continue to influence Scottish politics. In 1524 she was able to re-enter Scotland and enable her son, James V, to end the Regency and become King in his own right.
The last major upgrades to Harbottle Castle were made between 1541 and 1551. With the Union of the Crowns in 1603 though, such border fortresses became superfluous. James I (VI of Scotland) granted the castle to George Home, Lord Treasurer of Scotland in 1605 but he had little use for it and stripped material and masonry from the structure to support other projects. Harbottle Castle fell into ruin and was never repaired.
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Harbottle Castle survives as substantial earthworks with some masonry sections including portions of the shell Keep and the Inner Bailey curtain wall.
Motte and Inner Bailey. The motte was surrounded by two baileys. The Inner Bailey, to the west, was the main enclosure and was protected with substantial stone defences. The castle may have occupied the site of an earlier (possibly Iron Age) fortification.
Shell Keep. Fragments of the shell Keep survive including modifications for artillery dating from the sixteenth century.
Inner Bailey Curtain Wall. This substantial wall separated the Inner and Outer Baileys.
Harbottle Castle was built by the Umfraville family to assist in securing the border against Scottish expansionism. The castle was attacked on numerous occasions prompting regular upgrades which converted it into a substantial fortress. During the reign of Henry VIII it became the residence of Margaret Tudor, dowager Queen of Scotland, during the troubled minority of James V.
Harbottle Castle is not sign-posted but can easily be found to the immediate west of Harbottle village. There is a small car park for visitors.