A change from defence to home comfort at tower

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Cockle Park Tower was built as a pele tower, round about the year 1500. Roland Bibby, in a series of articles in Northumbriana, numbers 11-15, 1977-79, puts it later rather than earlier, not before 1517.

Meanwhile, some 200 miles away, a battle took place in 1485 near the Leicestershire village of Market Bosworth. The Battle of Bosworth Field marks the end of the medieval period in English history, the beginning of the Tudor dynasty, and with it the beginning of modern England.

Henry VII’s firm rule persuaded the gentry and nobility to abandon their castles for houses. But the ongoing threat of border raids meant that little changed in the North. It is not surprising, therefore, that Cockle Park Tower should be regarded as late medieval, even if it was built after 1485.

Bibby shows that the whole of the existing building was built for defence. The walls of the ground floor are 5ft thick, and 4ft on the first floor. The medieval staircase has loops commanding the entrance and the eastern walls, and it's likely that something similar existed on the west side.

Tudor-style windows with mullions were at some point inserted into the walls of the southern wing. The style suggests a 16th century date, when the danger from the Scots was still real. Bibby suggests, however, that these large windows may date from as late as the early 1600s, when the last Lord Ogle had died and the Tower was occupied by his surviving female relatives. The ladies might well have been willing to trade a little security for a greater degree of comfort.

The house became divided into two. Stout brick walls at every level separated the lighter and more civilised southern wing from the still medieval north wing.

After this, the first and second floors of the north wing could only be entered from the original spiral stone staircase on the east front. Access to it is barred nowadays on safety grounds, but you can still see into it.

The corresponding floors of the south wing could, likewise, only be approached from a new staircase built onto the west front. It has steps of timber, not stone, which again marks a decisive move away from defence.

The ground floor, however, still had interconnecting access between the two sides. The north end now became the service wing, with food cooked in the medieval ground floor kitchen and carried through to the gentry in the south wing.

Other than the outer walls, no medieval features survive in the south wing. We now, therefore, look at some of the surviving features in the north wing.

Both plans have east at the top and north to the left.

In Plan B, the main entrance is at B12. B6-9 is a huge kitchen fireplace, with a loop (small window) at B5 and an oven at B3.

B25 is the later staircase wing, with wooden stairs.

B27 is an outside stair leading to a modern entrance on the first floor. Leaving this aside, we move on to the second floor, shown in Plan D.

At this level, the two halves of the building are completely separate. Bibby observed that the dividing wall, D16, was plastered on the south side, but rough and unplastered to the north.

When he saw it, the main room on the north side, D15, had a hole in the floor and was derelict.

We cannot recover the whole of the medieval plan, but it appears that, even then, D15 was probably a private room for one or more members of the Ogle family.

It shows, as Bibby says, “traces of former comfort and elegance”, and may have served as both a solar (drawing room) and a bedroom.

Being at a height above the ground, it was possible to dispense with loops and have a full-sized window, D11, with fine Perpendicular tracery. This window was removed to Bothal Castle in 1830, and is shown blocked up in Bibby’s plan, but it has since been restored in replica and is now much as it would have been in medieval times.

It faces north, but has a window seat and might have been a pleasant place to be on a hot summer’s day. It also, however, gives access to a garderobe, D12, a combination of a toilet and a place to keep your clothes. The idea was that the smell would keep the fleas away.

There used to be a fine castellated fireplace at D7, but that too was removed to Bothal in 1830.

It all looks very rough, and one has to imagine what this room might have been like when it was more elegant and comfortable. We, therefore, conclude with a picture of a recreated medieval room at the Keep in the castle of Newcastle.

Acknowledgments: The Tower is not open to the public and I am grateful to Mr David Watson, Farm Manager at Cockle Park, for a conducted tour of the interior. The quotations and diagrams from the late Roland Bibby’s series in Northumbriana appear by kind permission of Mrs Kim Bibby-Wilson.

The Early Christian Landscape of the Wansbeck Valley, 48 pages, illustrated, is a study of the Anglo-Saxon church in Northumberland. Available at Morpeth TIC, Newgate News and T&G Allan, or email rhcu@btinternet.com, price £6 post free.