Belsay Castle was built by the Middleton family in the late fourteenth or early fifteenth century in response to the border raiding that blighted Northumberland at this time. Significant modifications were made in 1614 and 1711 but the castle was replaced by a new mansion, built in the Greek Revival style, in the early nineteenth century.
The first fortification at Belsay was an Iron Age hillfort constructed upon a spur of high ground known as Bantam Hill. This was an oval shaped enclosure protected by double rampart and a ditch. The fort was accessed via a single entrance on the south side. Little is known about the site or the extent of its occupation with records remaining silent on the area until 1270 when the manor of Belsay, which was originally known as Beleshou, was in the possession Richard de Middleton, Lord Chancellor. His family retained the estate until 1317 when the then owner - Gilbert de Middleton - raised a private army to deal with the threat posed by Robert the Bruce who, having won a decisive victory at the Battle of Bannockburn (1314), was raiding into England with impunity. However, Gilbert's army went far beyond countering the Scottish threat and extorted money from the Bishop of Durham and raided into Yorkshire. Gilbert was captured and duly hung, drawn and quartered whilst Belsay was confiscated. The estate passed through several owners before returning to the Middleton family in 1391. Belsay Castle was raised at this time by John Middleton.
Belsay Castle was a three storey tower constructed from squared stone with ashlar detail. The ground floor consisted of a tunnel vaulted kitchen, complete with a large fireplace, and a spiral staircase provided access to the levels above. The first floor was dominated by the Great Hall whilst the upper level provided high status accommodation and seemingly included a small chapel. The tower served as the centrepiece of the manorial estate and also provided a secure refuge. It is likely it was built as an extension of an existing manorial house which is evidenced by (now blocked) doors in the first and second floors that would have led directly into an attached building.
Belsay Castle was modified in 1614 by Thomas Middleton who added a Jacobean range on the west side of the tower probably replacing the earlier manor house. A further wing was added adjoining this house circa-1711 and walled gardens were laid out in front of the castle.
The Belsay estate was inherited by Sir Charles Monck in 1795 and it was he who built a new mansion to replace the old castle. Inspired by his travels on the continent, the new home was built in the Greek Revival style. Work started in 1806 and continued for over a decade as Charles insisted upon the highest standards and ensured appropriate attention to every minor detail. The family moved into their new residence on Christmas Day 1817 leaving Belsay Castle unoccupied. Without regular care and maintenance the castle quickly fell into disrepair and by 1843 parts of the structure were ruinous. However, a reprieve came for Belsay Castle in 1872 when Sir Arthur Middleton set about restoring the structure. The 1711 wing was demolished and the manorial house was partially rebuilt so it could be used as a dower house whilst the tower itself was restored in 1897.
The Belsay estate was occupied by the military during the Second World War and this hiatus in care led to a marked deterioration. Although returned to the Middleton family in 1945, they lacked the funds to restore the property or maintain the staff required for management of the estate. In 1962 the then owner, Sir Stephen Middleton, moved into a smaller house nearby leaving both the old castle and the mansion house empty. Both of these were transferred into State ownership in 1980 and the site is now in the care of English Heritage.
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Belsay Castle is a late fourteenth century tower house that was significantly expanded in the seventeenth century. The mansion that replaced it, built in a Greek Revival style, is the centrepiece of the venue and the two sites are connected by an outstanding garden that was created from the quarries that supplied the stone for both buildings. A nearby Iron Age hillfort, on Bantam Hill to the west of the castle, is on private property and not open to the public
Belsay Castle. The castle is a tower house which has been significantly expanded over the years but is now ruinous. The interior can be explored including the Great Hall (seen right) which would originally have been a lavishly decorated room with tapestries and cloth drapings whilst the ceiling would have been decorated with elaborate walls paintings. Traces of these remain visible.
Belsay Hall. The hall was built from 1795 to 1817 and replaced the castle as the residence for the Middleton family.
Quarry Garden. A landscaped garden has been established in the grounds between the new hall and the castle.
Belsay Hall and Castle are part of a combined estate which is a major tourist attraction run by English Heritage. The entrance to the site is well sign-posted and found off the A696 just over ten miles north-west from Newcastle-upon-Tyne. There is a central car park which is followed by a short walk through the Quarry Garden to the ruins of Belsay Castle.
Belsay Hall / Car Park