Built by the Bishops of Durham and later developed into a formidable border fortress, Norham Castle commanded a strategically important position overlooking a crossing point over the River Tweed. It was captured by the Scots on several occasions including by James IV just before his defeat and death at the Battle of Flodden (1513).
Norham Castle was built in 1121 by Ranulph Flambard, Bishop of Durham to protect the extensive land owned by the church in the region. The original structure was a ringwork and bailey fortification. The Inner Ward (the ring) was enclosed by a substantial earth bank topped with a timber palisade which protected a two-storey stone building, most probably the Bishop's ceremonial hall. The Outer ward (the bailey) enclosed an irregular shaped area to the south and west.
The castle was situated on a hill overlooking a major fording point over the River Tweed which marked the eastern border between England and Scotland. Unsurprisingly, given its strategic location, it was regularly attacked by Scottish forces. The first strikes came during the reign of King David who sought to capitalise from the civil war raging in England - known as the Anarchy - between King Stephen and Queen Matilda. David nominally supported Matilda and attacked Northumberland in 1136 capturing Norham Castle in the process. It was soon returned to the Bishop of Durham but David attacked it again in 1138 totally destroying the structure. However, the Scottish King's defeat at the Battle of the Standard (1138) curbed his ambitions in the north.
The Anarchy was ultimately settled with the succession of Matilda's son, Henry II, in 1154. During the war Henry had promised David that Cumbria and Northumberland would remain Scottish if he was crowned King. However, his overriding priority after his coronation was to restore the much depleted power of the English monarchy. In 1157 he turned his attention northwards to recover lands lost during his predecessor's reign. Key to this was the rebuilding of Norham Castle which was done by Hugh de Puiset, Bishop of Durham at the direction of the King. Work started in 1157 and was a substantial upgrade. Most notably the Great Tower was built on top of the remains of the former ceremonial hall whilst the Gatehouses of both the Inner and Outer Wards were also rebuilt in stone. These modifications converted Norham into a formidable fortress and, along with Berwick and Wark castles, it would become one of the primary line of fortifications protecting the narrow neck of land that marked the eastern stretch of the Anglo-Scottish border. A second line of defences - secured by Bamburgh, Chillingham, Etal and Ford castles - provided defence in depth.
The upgrades to Norham Castle clearly proved effective as the fortification was by-passed by William the Lion during his ill-fated attack in 1174 which ended with his defeat and capture at the Second Battle of Alnwick. However, further modifications were made by King John between 1208 and 1212 as he sought to deter Scottish aggression as his regime destabilised in England. His plan failed for Alexander II led Scottish forces south in 1215 in support of the rebel Barons fighting King John. Norham Castle was besieged for forty days but resisted all attempts to take it whilst Alexander was driven back the following year by an English campaign which included the sacking of Berwick. The eventual peace – the Treaty of Birgham – was signed at Norham in 1219.
Throughout the thirteenth century Norham Castle was one of the most prominent English held fortress on the border (Berwick Castle was held by the Scottish during this period) and accordingly was used for periodic diplomatic functions. Specifically in May 1291, Anthony Beck, Bishop of Durham hosted Edward I here on his way north to arbitrate the succession to the Scottish throne. Although the final judgement was made by the King at Berwick, it was at Norham where his chosen candidate - John Balliol - paid homage to Edward I as feudal overlord of Scotland.
Edward I's increasing demands on his new vassal, led to the First War of Scottish Independence. Although the English initially held the upper hand, the rebellion of Robert Bruce in 1306 and death of Edward I in 1307 saw an upturn in Scottish fortunes. Over the subsequent years English strongholds in Scotland were reduced one by one and in 1311 and 1312 Robert invaded Northumberland attempting to force the English to negotiate. On each occasion Norham was by-passed as its defences were deemed to be too strong. In 1314 the English Government, headed by Edward II, finally responded to Bruce's provocation and marched north to relieve Stirling Castle only to be routed at the Battle of Bannockburn. This humiliating defeat, which destroyed much of the English war machine, led to further raids into Northern England in the years that followed. Norham now became a target and was subjected to a near year-long siege in 1318. Although the Outer Ward was briefly taken by the attackers, the Inner Ward held firm and the garrison repelled the Scots in just a few days. The Scottish tried again in 1319, this time maintaining their siege for seven months, and again in 1322 - on both occasions the castle remained in English hands. However a further attack in 1327 was more successful - Norham finally fell but it was returned to the Bishop of Durham the following year as part of the Treaty of Northampton (1328) which ended the First War of Independence.
The Second War of Scottish Independence broke out in 1332 but Norham saw little action. Early in the conflict Edward III captured Berwick-upon-Tweed and defeated a Scottish army at the Battle of Halidon Hill (1333) which collectively deflected any attack on Norham. Briefly resurgent in the 1340s, the defeat of David II at the Battle of Neville’s Cross (1346) saw Scotland suffer a further period of occupation and attacks from English forces. The war ended in 1357 and Norham continued to enjoy a period of relative peace. Nevertheless significant upgrades were made to the castle in the early fifteenth century including rebuilding the West Gate in 1408 and the Great Tower in 1422.
During the Wars of the Roses Norham was held by Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland in his role as Warden of the Eastern March. He supported the Lancastrian cause with his northern fortresses - centred on Alnwick and including Norham - remaining loyal to Henry VI even after his overthrow by Edward of York (Edward IV) after the Battle of Towton (1461). Norham was eventually surrendered to the Yorkist commander Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick in 1464 – the castle once again having become a key strategic outpost following the ceding of Berwick, by the Lancastrian regime, to the Scots in 1461. This led to further upgrades at Norham, once again the primary border fortress, with a surviving record from 1480 noting the installation of artillery at the castle. In 1482 Richard, Duke of Gloucester (later Richard III) re-took Berwick.
The Yorkist regime fell to Henry Tudor at the Battle of Bosworth Field (1485) and Norham once again saw action as the Scots attempted to destabilise the Tudor regime. In 1497 the castle was besieged by them in support of Perkin Warbeck, who styled himself as one of the 'Princes in the Tower’ and was a pretender to the English throne. Extensive damage was done to the castle by Mons Meg, the great Scottish siege gun, but the castle did not fall.
Norham underwent extensive repairs following the 1497 attack but was devastated again within just a few years when the Scots once more invaded under James IV. As King since 1488, he had been an effective monarch who had promoted Anglo-Scottish relations - he was married to Henry VIII’s sister, Margaret Tudor. However, he was also faithful to his treaty commitments with France so this successful and peace-loving King reluctantly took to arms and crossed into England with a huge army – some accounts suggest that it was as large as 60,000 men. The Outer Ward fell in just two days and, following a fierce bombardment that demolished part of the Great Tower, the castle surrendered. But the victory was fleeting - on 9 September 1513 James was defeated and killed at the Battle of Flodden. Norham was returned to Thomas Ruthall, Bishop of Durham and extensive repairs made. The Great Tower was restored by 1515 and Clapham's Tower, augmenting the Inner Ward's defences, was added at this time. Casemated guns were installed covering the fording point over the River Tweed.
Norhamshire, including the castle, reverted to the Crown in 1559 when Cuthbert Tunstall, Bishop of Durham refused to take the Oath of Supremacy. A survey of 1561 recorded the structure in a poor state of repair and recommended the construction of an entirely new fortification. This was never actioned and in 1596 Elizabeth I flatly refused further funding to maintain the castle. Her death in 1603 led to James VI of Scotland also becoming James I of England at which point Norham ceased to have any military utility. The castle drifted into ruin passing through many private owners before being taken into State care in 1923.
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Norham Castle survives as substantial ruins of a once formidable border fortress and is arguably the most impressive fortification in Northumberland. The highlight is the Great Tower which still stands to an impressive height.
Norham Castle Layout. The castle was started as an earth and timber ringwork fort and retained its original layout when it was rebuilt in stone. The Great Tower was started, on the foundations of an earlier stone hall, in the early twelfth century. The West Gate provided access for the bulk of the castle’s use but the Sheep Gate was added in the sixteenth century modifications. The Inner Moat was flooded by water from an aqueduct in the fifteenth century.
River Tweed. Norham was situated on a hill overlooking a key crossing point over the River Tweed, the geographical boundary between England and Scotland.
Great Tower. The north face of the Great Tower has collapsed. This was the wall that bore the brunt of the 1513 bombardment and, although rebuilt following the assault, the work was clearly not completed to the same standard as the earlier medieval construction.
Artillery. The artillery emplacements at Norham Castle overlooked the River Tweed.
Mons Meg. The great Scottish siege gun was used against Norham Castle in the 1497 attack. It is now on display in Edinburgh Castle.