Prudhoe Castle was built in the late eleventh century to prevent Scottish expansionism. It withstood two sieges led by William the Lion and later resisted further attacks during the Wars of Independence ultimately becoming the only castle in Northumberland never to be taken by force by a Scottish army. Originally owned by the Umfraville family, it was purchased by the Percys in 1381.
Northumberland was originally part of the vast Kingdom of Northumbria which stretched from the River Humber to the River Forth. As both England and Scotland matured as nations, they vied for control of this territory. King Athelstan annexed it and downgraded it into an Earldom in AD 927 but Malcolm II of Scotland conquered the northern half of it after his victory at the Battle of Carham (1018). This remained the situation at the time of the Norman Conquest of England but successive Scottish Kings sought to recover the lands to the south of the River Tweed that remained in English hands. In 1093 Malcolm III invaded northern England but was defeated and killed at the First Battle of Alnwick. Thereafter William II of England sought to establish permanent control over the region by granting land to key supporters as part of a barony. Prudhoe was one of twenty-one such baronies created within Northumberland and was granted to Robert d'Umfraville. Furthermore, to ensure his barons could secure their new territories, in 1095 the King authorised his barons to construct nine castles across Northumberland: Alnwick, Bothal, Mitford, Morpeth, Prudhoe, Styford, Wark, Warkworth and Wooler.
Prudhoe Castle was built upon a steeply sided mound overlooking the point where one of the principal north-south routes crossed the River Tyne. It was initially raised as a ringwork fort; a dry ditch surrounded the site whilst the rampart consisted of an earth bank topped with a timber palisade. Additional ditches provided enhanced defences on the west and south where the scarping of the mound was less pronounced. Soon after construction the timber gatehouse was rebuilt in stone.
In 1135 Henry I of England died without leaving a male heir. A protracted period of civil war, known as the Anarchy, followed as the two claimants - Stephen and Matilda - vied for the throne. The situation was exploited by King David I of Scotland who used the coronation of Stephen as an excuse to invade northern England in support of Matilda. Whilst he was defeated at the Battle of the Standard (1138), Stephen needed to buy peace in the north and granted control of Cumbria and Northumberland to the Scottish King. The northern barons, including the Umfraville family, retained their estates but now attended the Scottish Court.
The Anarchy ended with the accession of Henry II who immediately set about restoring Royal authority after years of internal warfare. In 1157 he seized back control of Northumberland and the then owner of Prudhoe Castle, Odinel d'Umfraville, supported the English King. This outraged the Scots but they lacked the resources to challenge Henry who was now the head of a vast continental empire which gave him access to unrivalled military power. However, in 1165 William IV (known as 'the Lion' due to his banner) succeeded to the Scottish throne and immediately sought to recover the territories. He broached the subject with Henry in 1166 but was rebuffed. He then approached Louis VII of France, a bitter rival of the English King, in the hope of acquiring support for his claim but his efforts came to nothing. William then shifted his hopes onto Henry's heir, Henry the Young King. When the latter rebelled against his father in 1173, William enthusiastically participated by leading an invasion force into Northumberland. Given the perceived betrayal of the Scottish court by Odinel d'Umfraville, Prudhoe was specifically targeted in the attack. The castle was besieged by the Royal army but refused to surrender and ultimately William withdrew.
The Scots invaded Northumberland again in 1174. This time William had recruited additional French and Flemish mercenaries swelling his army to around 80,000 strong. Prudhoe Castle was besieged and the Scots laid waste to the surrounding area. Unable to take the castle, William moved on to besiege Alnwick Castle where he was defeated and captured at the Second Battle of Alnwick (1174). For his part in resisting the Scottish incursion, Odinel d'Umfraville was rewarded by Henry II. It was perhaps this prize money that funded the rebuilding of Prudhoe Castle in stone starting with the Great Keep. By 1200 the curtain wall and Great Hall had also been rebuilt. The completed castle consisted of Inner and Outer Wards.
The latter half of the thirteenth century saw an extended period of peace in the border region enabling the Umfraville family to thrive. They acquired numerous other estates and Gilbert d'Umfraville acquired the title Earl of Angus. However, the peace was shattered by the outbreak of the First War of Scottish Independence in 1296. Initially the conflict was predominantly confined to Scotland but in 1314 Robert the Bruce achieved a decisive victory at the Battle of Bannockburn. With his army destroyed, Edward II lost the ability to defend the northern counties and this was ruthlessly exploited by Bruce. He raided into northern England on multiple occasions attempting to force Edward II to recognise an independent Scotland. The defences at Prudhoe Castle were kept in good order during this time and it was garrisoned by 40 men-at-arms and 80 horsemen. Nevertheless, these forces were unable to prevent Scottish raids on the surrounding area and the value of the Prudhoe estate was severely diminished as its tenant farmers saw their plots laid to waste.
In 1381 the castle was purchased by Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland. The Percy family were descendants of William de Percy, a Norman Knight who had supported William I in his invasion of England. William de Percy had stayed behind to secure Normandy in the King’s absence but arrived in England in 1067 and was rewarded with substantial lands in Yorkshire centred on caputs in Leconfield, Topcliffe and Spofforth. By the fourteenth century the family had expanded these landholdings significantly and in 1309 brought Alnwick Castle to serve as their caput. By the end of the fourteenth century they were at the zenith of their power and the purchase of Prudhoe Castle was part of their domination of the north. However, in 1403 and 1405 the family rebelled against Henry IV. Prudhoe Castle was confiscated and granted to the King's brother - John, Duke of Lancaster.
Prudhoe Castle was garrisoned for the Lancastrian cause during the Wars of the Roses. However, it was seized by the Yorkist Edward IV in 1464 as he attempted to sever the link between the pro-Lancastrian forces in Scotland and northern England. The castle was restored to the Percy family in 1470. They retained their estates after the accession of Henry VII in 1485 and served the new administration in a variety of official positions. However, in 1536 Sir Thomas Percy supported the Pilgrimage of Grace, a major rebellion against Henry VIII and his religious reforms, and he used Prudhoe Castle as a base of operations. In 1569 another member of the family - Thomas Percy, Earl of Northumberland - joined the Rising of the North against the protestant Elizabeth I with the aim of replacing her with the Catholic Mary, Queen of Scots. After this uprising the Percy family were evicted from their northern castles and forced to live in the south although they continued to earn income from their estates.
The absence of a resident magnate hastened the decline at Prudhoe and the castle drifted into ruin especially as its border fortress role ceased to have any relevance after the Union of the Crowns of England and Scotland in 1603. By the seventeenth century Civil War, it was no longer defendable although numerous residential upgrades continued to be made. In the early nineteenth century a Gothic style Manor house was constructed between the Inner and Outer Wards.
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Prudhoe Castle consists of the remains of a small but strong border fortress. Its imposing position is hidden by the extensive woodland that engulfs the site but the visitor can still get a broad appreciation of the castle's dominant position overlooking the river and the Saxon era settlement at Ovingham.
Prudhoe Castle Layout. The castle was built upon a natural mound with steep natural scarps on the north and west sides. It was divided into Inner and Outer Wards.
The Barbican. The barbican was added around 1350.
Gatehouse. The base of this structure is the oldest part of the castle dating from the late eleventh/early twelfth century.
Outer Ward. The Outer Bailey hosted both the Great Hall and the ancillary buildings such as kitchen, brewhouse and bakehouse.
East Tower. Built in 1200 but modified and stylised in the late eighteenth century.
Manor House. The two storey manor house was constructed in the early nineteenth century straddling the original divide between Inner and Outer Wards.
Keep. Even in its ruined state, the Keep still towers over the rest of the castle. This structure was started in the late twelfth century by Odinel d'Umfraville and extensively modified during the fourteenth century.
South Tower. The curtain wll was built circa-1200 to replace an earlier earth and timber rampart. It was rebuilt in the 1330s complete with two large round towers.
Ovingham. The settlement at Ovingham pre-dated the castle as evidenced by the church tower (seen above) which dates from the tenth century AD. Prudhoe town emerged after the castle was built and grew up along the road to the south of the castle.