Tynemouth Castle was an enclosure fortification built around an existing Priory. The fortification re-used the earthworks of earlier defences and evolved into one of the strongest fortifications in northern England. The Priory was suppressed by Henry VIII and the site was then adapted into an artillery fortification to defend access into the River Tyne.
The headland at Tynemouth juts out into the North Sea and has strong natural defences on the north, east and south sides. As its name suggests, it overlooks the mouth of the River Tyne, once a key means of movement far inshore. It was probably occupied in prehistoric times although the earliest known settlement dates from the Iron Age (800 BC to AD 43). At this time it was occupied by members of the Votadini tribe. When the Romans arrived in the area in the latter half of the first century AD, the river became a crucial means of resupplying the forts along the Tyne-Solway isthmus (later the line of Hadrian's Wall) and Arbeia Roman Fort was established to serve as a logistical hub. Despite this militarisation of the area, the headland at Tynemouth seems to have continued in use with remains of circular huts on the site securely dated to the second century AD.
The Monastery / First Castle
At some point during the sixth or seventh century AD a monastery was founded at Tynemouth although whether it was located on the headland itself is unknown. The monastery was one of a series of similar sites founded at coastal locations to facilitate the spread of Christianity across the north of England; Jarrow, Lindisfarne, Wearmouth and Whitby were all founded at this time. A church building did exist on the headland by AD 792 as King Osred II of Northumbria was buried there in that year. However, the coastal location meant the site suffered during the ninth century when the east coast came under increasing attacks from the Vikings. These raids saw Tynemouth abandoned circa-AD 875.
It is not certain when the monastery at Tynemouth was re-occupied but it was functional again by the mid-eleventh century as records show that Tostig, Earl of Northumberland was hosted there. However, it wasn’t just Vikings that attacked the site. Following his invasion of England and subsequent resistance in the north, William I came north with his army. In what became known as the Harrying of the North the monastery was destroyed. It was re-established later in the eleventh century under the jurisdiction of the Bishop of Durham.
In 1090 William II granted Robert de Mowbray the title of Earl of Northumberland. The King was keen to secure his northern territories with reliable Norman magnates to contain Scottish expansionism. However Robert's appointment fettered the Bishop of Durham, who held quasi-Regal authority in the north, and the two magnates were soon at loggerheads. Robert seized Tynemouth, ejected the monks and granted it to the Benedictine Abbey at St Albans who established a daughter house on the site. Concurrently Robert may have built an earth and timber motte-and-bailey castle to guard the landward neck of the headland.
Tynemouth prospered under Robert’s patronage. Following the first Battle of Alnwick (1093), where Robert defeated and killed Malcolm III of Scotland, the body of the Scottish King was interned at the Priory greatly enhancing its status (although it was later exhumed and sent to Dunfermline Abbey for reburial). However, Robert rebelled against William II in 1095 and sought sanctuary at Tynemouth. After a six week siege he was dragged out of the church and imprisoned.
Although there had been an earlier structure on the site, the ruins of Tynemouth Priory (left) seen today dated from circa-1090. A motte-and-bailey castle (right) may have been built at the same time.
Tynemouth Priory flourished during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries despite trade disputes with nearby Newcastle and failure to achieve independence from St Albans. Accordingly when the First War of Scottish Independence started in 1296, the Priory sought Royal permission to fortify the site as a safeguard against any raids. The walls enclosed the entire level summit of the headland and were augmented by several towers. The fortification proved a prudent move as, although the war started well for the English, the Scots won a decisive victory at the Battle of Bannockburn (1314). In the years that followed, Robert the Bruce led numerous raids into northern England attempting to force recognition of an independent Scotland. The fortifications around the Priory were strengthened at this time and a garrison installed. These measures proved sufficient to deter attack and Tynemouth emerged from the war unscathed.
The headland's fortifications were upgraded again in the fourteenth century. The Whitley Tower, built to overlooking the north beach below the headland, was built at this time and in 1349 the castle was described as one of the strongest fortresses in the border region. Later in the same century enhancements were funded by John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster and Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland. The Gatehouse was built as part of these upgrades.
Tynemouth Priory finally achieved independence from St Albans in the 1520s with the help of Henry VIII's chief minister, Cardinal Wolsey. However, within a decade Henry VIII declared himself (rather than the Pope) head of the Church of England and started plundering its valuable estates. In 1536 his commissioners brought charges against the Prior and seized control of the headland. His actions against the church caused international outcry and led to fears of invasion from France and/or Spain prompting the building of a huge swathe of coastal defences. Newcastle, with its valuable trade in iron and coal plus its extensive shipyards, warranted protection especially due to its proximity to the border given Scotland’s alliance with France.
The defences of the River Tyne were assessed by a large team of engineers led by Sir Richard Lee (who later designed the Berwick-upon-Tweed town walls). They proposed elaborate defences, including large angled bastions, but the upgrades that were eventually implemented were relatively conservative. The landward curtain wall was rebuilt as a stone fronted, earth bank and gun ports were cut into the southern curtain wall for artillery. Spanish Battery was also established on the ground to the south of the castle directly overlooking the Tyne estuary.
The site of Spanish Battery as viewed from Tynemouth Castle.
Upon the outbreak of the seventeenth century Civil War, Tynemouth was fortified by the Royalists. Nearby Newcastle was also in their hands and was a crucial strategic asset due to its coal supplies and port facilities. Tynemouth, which commanded the northern bank at the mouth of the River Tyne, was a key part of its defence particularly as the navy was in Parliament's control. Spanish Battery was enhanced at this time. The Royalist defeat at the Battle of Marston Moor led to Parliament becoming dominant in the north and both Newcastle and Tynemouth surrendered in October 1644. Tynemouth was briefly re-occupied by Royalist forces in 1648 during the Second Civil War but was swiftly neutralised following a night attack launched by Sir Arthur Hesilrige, the Parliamentary military commander of Newcastle.
Tynemouth continued to be garrisoned for coastal defence purposes after the war. The defences were refurbished in 1663 and a new Governor’s House built. A new facility, Clifford's Fort, was built at the mouth of the Tyne in 1672 and this became the mainstay of the river defences. Nevertheless, Spanish Battery was maintained on the headland and a further battery, at South Shields, was also established.
Tynemouth was extensively re-fortified in the 1880s in light of the emerging threat from Germany. A submarine minefield was installed along the river mouth which was controlled from Clifford's Fort. The headland defences were also upgraded with two 6-inch breach loading guns, two 12-pounder quick firing guns and one 9.2-inch gun. Searchlights were also installed to illuminate the river. These defences remained in place throughout World War I and were augmented by additional defences following devastating German naval attacks on Hartlepool, Scarborough and Whitby in December 1914. On the headland anti-aircraft guns were installed to counter the new Zeppelin threat whilst 12-inch anti-ship guns were installed at two new facilities - Robert's Battery and Kitchener Battery.
Although Tynemouth's defences were placed in reserve in 1918, they were reactivated upon the outbreak of World War II. The defences then consisted of one 9.2inch Breach Loading gun and two 6-inch guns; all directed by radar equipped fire control posts. In 1956 coastal defence was disbanded and the castle placed into State care..
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Tynemouth Castle was an enclosure fortification built around a Priory. The remains consist of a ruined curtain wall and Priory, a fourteenth century gatehouse plus a variety of nineteenth and twentieth century coastal defence fortifications.
Tynemouth Castle Layout. The site occupied the entire headland and, from 1296 onwards, was enclosed by a curtain wall. A motte-and-bailey castle may have been established in the south-west corner in the 1090s.
The Mount. The landward approach to the headland was protected by a large earth bank, possibly part of Iron Age defences. However, recent re-assessment suggests the earthwork may have been part of a motte-and-bailey fortification built by Robert de Mowbray.
Gatehouse. The gatehouse was started in 1390 and replaced an earlier structure. It was fronted by a barbican. The accommodation within was clearly intended for a high status occupant and it is likely the main purpose of the gatehouse was to provide a guest suite for visiting dignitaries. As part of the nineteenth century modifications a large timber framed structure was built over the remains of the gatehouse to provide additional accommodation for the garrison. This was removed when the site was decommissioned.
Curtain Wall. The curtain wall around the headland was built after 1296 and regularly upgraded.
Whitley Tower. The Whitley Tower was added in the early fourteenth century. The tower is best viewed from the beach.
Priory Church. A church had been built on the headland by AD 792 as King Osred II of Northumbria was buried there in that year. However, the ruined church seen today was started in 1090 by Robert de Mowbray, Earl of Northumberland. It was substantially rebuilt between 1190 and 1210.
Tynemouth Castle and Priory Church.
Gun Batteries. Artillery was installed at Tynemouth for coastal defence purposes in the 1540s with the construction of Spanish Battery. This was upgraded during the civil war and Napoleonic Wars. However, between 1891 and 1905 the battery was demolished and replaced with new concrete emplacements that were fronted with earth banks to absorb enemy artillery fire. The construction of these batteries meant the castle's eastern curtain wall was completely demolished.
6-inch Battery. One of two emplacements for 6-inch guns constructed in 1902. The gun on display is a Mark XXIII.
Tynemouth Piers. The piers were built between 1854 and 1890.