Castle of the Week 66 – Norham Castle

Standing on one side of the River Tweed in Northumberland, Norham Castle is the northernmost fortification in England, and another castle with a turbulent history. The ruins of the keep and surrounding walls are all that remains of the former chief border stronghold of the Prince Bishops of Durham.

The site guarded the main fording point over the river and as a result of its elevated position, the view from the top of the keep allowed an impressive view. Sir Walter Scott described it in his poem as ‘the most dangerous place in Britain’. The legacy of the Border Wars in particular supports this, with frequent and bloody skirmishes between the English and the Scots resulting in Northumberland having more fortifications built than any other English county.

The castle today comprises of a walled oval ringwork separated by a ditch 9 metres deep and 23 metres wide. The site was isolated from the adjoining ground to the south and east by a ditch 30 metres wide, but only the southeast part survives. The curtain wall is between 2.3 –3.4 metres thick and up to 9.1 metres high.

Ranulph Flambard, then Bishop of Durham, originally raised a motte and bailey-style construction here in 1121, the wooden tower and palisade walling more or less where the newer stone structure lies today. Norham was to be a link in the chain of defences known as the ‘Border Fortresses’. Fifteen years after it was built though, David, King of Scotland took the castle. It was eventually returned to its owner, but it wasn’t long before war broke out once more and this time David razed the castle to the ground. 1157 saw Henry II retook all the lands in England previously granted to the Scots, with Northumberland being the principle county. Bamburgh, Newcastle and Wark-Upon-Tweed were remodelled in stone, and Norham followed suit in 1158 with Richard of Wolviston, a local builder, designing and overseeing the construction of the keep and curtain walls.

Over the following 400 years, Norham changed hands a number of times and witnessed some of the most intense warfare of the time. In 1215 the castle was besieged (without success) for forty days by Alexander, King of Scotland. In 1318 the Scots blockaded Norham for a whole year and a second siege of seven months in the following year was equally unsuccessful. In 1497 Norham saw its first assault by artillery when the Scots, led by King James IV, an enthusiastic artilleryman, pounded the castle without success. Then, in 1513, James IV invaded England in the campaign which led to the disaster of Flodden. Armed with the cannon known as ‘Mon’s Meg’ (now on permanent display at Edinburgh Castle), Norham was soon in ruins. Mon’s Meg was just too much for Norham, or any other castle, to withstand.

The advent of heavy artillery such as Mon’s Meg saw a radical change in the use of castles across England, Wales and Scotland. It became evident that the once mighty structures were finally succumbed. Cannon like these were able to smash through walls and roofs with huge cannonballs never seen before. Mon’s Meg weighed in at over 6 tonnes and was able to launch cannonballs weighing up to 330 lbs (150kg).

After the defeat of the Scots at the Battle of Flodden, an immediate start was made to rebuild the castle once more by Bishop Thomas Ruthall, who in fact dismantled his castle at Middleham, Yorkshire, to provide materials for the job. By 1521 Norham was regarded as ‘impregnable’ yet the glory era of Norham only lasted some twenty years. It fell into decay and by 1559 it was taken over by the Crown. Whilst one part of the keep still carried cannon, the other half had collapsed and in 1571 and 1580 respectively, the captain of the castle wrote that ‘no man can dwell here’ and ‘if speedy remedy be not had it will fall flat to the ground’. No remedy was forthcoming, the castle once more changing hands many times but no repair work was carried out. Norham remains to this day, in the eyes of many, as the ‘Queen of Border Fortresses’, despite the ruinous state.

Write-up by Sulis.