Castle of the Week 36 – Alnwick Castle

The pictures of Alnwick Castle in Northumberland may look very familiar to you as it has frequently been used as a film set, most recently as the external view of Hogwarts in Harry Potter & the Philosopher’s Stone. It also featured prominently in Robin Hood – Prince of Thieves, Blackadder I and The Fast Show. However, as well as being a film set, it is also the family home of the Percy family who have been important throughout English history and it is the second largest inhabited castle in England after Windsor. It has a very long, illustrious and busy history so this article can only scratch the surface. Anyone wanting to read further about the castle and the family should have a look at the official Alnwick Castle site.

Alnwick Castle (pronounced ‘Annick’) is in the north-east of England, very close to the Scottish border, and has been owned by the Percy family, the Earls, later Dukes of Northumberland, since 1309. Prior to that it is believed that William I gave the area to Gilbert de Tesson, his standard bearer at the Battle of Hastings, who may have built a wooden castle on the site.

The first mention found of Alnwick Castle was in 1096 when Yves de Vescy became the first Baron of Alnwick after de Tesson’s unsuccessful rebellion against William II. His castle was described as ‘very strongly fortified’ and the shape of the castle we see today is virtually the same as the castle he built. He built a circular keep made up of several towers surrounding a courtyard with two outer baileys. Much of the masonry from the time can still be seen in the curtain walls. Yves de Vescy supported Empress Matilda against King Stephen and later joined with David, King of Scotland, surrendering the castle to him in 1138 before defeat in battle against the English later that year. At the end of the war he swore loyalty to Stephen and was given further lands in Yorkshire.

In 1172 and 1174 it was besieged by the Scots but successfully defended on both occasions and, during the latter the Scottish King, William the Lion, was captured. In 1212 the then owner of Alnwick, Eustace de Vescy, was one of the ringleaders in the revolt against King John. He fled to Scotland and John ordered the castle to be destroyed but his orders were not carried out. After a reconciliation, the King stayed at Alnwick several times. However, in 1215, Eustace was one of the twenty-five barons who forced John to sign the Magna Carta. King John’s army set fire to the town and part of the castle was destroyed too.

In 1265, during the Civil War between Simon de Montfort and Henry III, the Baron John de Vescy chose the wrong side and had both the castle and Barony removed from him. He seized the castle back but was besieged by Prince Edward and had to surrender. After payment of a fine, the castle was restored to him.

Towards the end of the 13th century the cross-border conflicts between Scotland and England worsened and in 1297 William Wallace invaded Northumberland but was unsuccessful in trying to take the castle. The last de Vescy died that year and the castle was initially placed in the care of the Bishop of Durham until it was sold in 1309 to Henry Percy who became the first Lord of Alnwick.

The Percy family was already powerful and the acquisition of Alnwick made them even more so. Henry immediately started to restore the castle. He left the general shape the same but rebuilt most of it including the reconstruction of the keep as seven semi-circular towers and rebuilding most of the towers in the curtain wall. One of these semi-circular towers remains as does the Middle Gateway between the two baileys, many of the towers and much of the curtain wall. His son continued his work building, in 1350, the two octagonal towers on either side of the entrance to the keep. For the next few years, the castle was once again at the centre of the wars between the Scots and the English.

During the early 15th century, the Percy family had some major disagreements with Henry IV, despite having placed him on the throne. In 1403 the castle was besieged, along with their other castles but when the King threatened to use cannons they surrendered so as not to destroy the building. The next year the Earl again fought against the King who advanced northwards with a large army. He took several of the Earl’s castles but Alnwick wouldn’t surrender so he continued to Berwick. On his way back Alnwick surrendered to him, again because of the threat of cannons. The estates were returned to the family in 1414.

The battles with the Scots continued and in 1424 the castle was besieged and burnt by them. For the next thirty years the Earl invaded Scotland every so often and, in return, the Scots would invade his castle. In 1440 the Barbican was built, separated from the main gatehouse by a ditch and drawbridge. It contains two heavy doors and a portcullis. In 1448 the castle was once again burned by the Scots.

The estates were confiscated during the Wars of the Roses when the Earl took the Lancastrian side. Possession of the castle went backwards and forwards between the two sides during the 1460s with many sieges and attacks. Finally the Yorkists took it over then surrendered it to Henry VI. In 1469 Edward IV returned the honours and estates to the young son of the 3rd Earl.

At the end of the 17th century the Northumberland line became extinct and the castle was owned by the Duke of Somerset through marriage to the Northumberland heiress. The castle was much decayed and was no longer lived in by the family. In the 1720s parts were restored so that it could be lived in and the family started living there again for the first time in 100 years.

In 1750 when the 1st Duke of Northumberland was created he restored the entire castle to a liveable state. Much of this work was done by the famous Robert Adam and his work is still visible in the Gothic exterior, the fine ceilings and fireplaces and also the life-size stone figures guarding the battlements. At the same time, the grounds were landscaped by Capability Brown.

One further restoration took place about a century later. The 4th Duke decided that the castle would be more imposing with a central high tower in the keep, dominating all the others. He also removed a lot of Adam’s alterations in order to restore the original medieval appearance.

In 1885, the Record Tower in the Inner Bailey was found to be unsafe so it was restored in the style of the 14th century which sadly meant the destruction of an Adam ceiling. At the beginning of the 20th century, the moat was redug and garages built in the stable yard. During the 2nd World War, Newcastle High School for Girls was evacuated to and occupied part of the castle.

Now you can visit the castle and marvel at the forboding Gothic buildings which are furnished comfortably in the Italian Renaissance style with a collection of Meissen china and paintings by van Dyck, Canaletto and Titian.

Write-up provided by GillB. Pictures courtesy of Jayhawk.


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