The castles, peles, towers and bastles

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Castle Morpeth is rich in castles and pele towers. Morpeth has two castles, and the Courthouse, which many mistake for one. Our other castles are at Mitford and Bothal. Widdrington, once so famous, is now only a low mound in a field.

Fortified manor houses were the residences of important, but not noble proprietors. They’re not common in Northumberland, but tower houses, which are, are the same thing, built vertically instead of horizontally.

A castle served several different purposes; it was the lord’s residence, from which he controlled his territory, his defence in case of attack, and the place where he held his baronial courts and where his officials came to report.

Belsay, though called a castle, is really a very large tower house. The towers at Cockle Park and Cresswell are also impressive, and like Belsay have the feeling of castles. Longhorsley Tower is another, but its windows, inserted later, give it a very domestic appearance. The cellars at Wallington are actually the ground floor of a former tower house, and Stanton Old Hall (now Gardens and Nursery) has a fireplace on an outside wall, which once warmed a now-vanished pele tower.

Peles are defended farmhouses — as distinct from manor houses — but again built vertically. The vicar’s pele at Ponteland has been nicely restored and landscaped, but looks stark with its big, unglazed openings. Much more appealing is The Blackbird, which was once either a pele or a fortified house.

Bastles were heavily fortified farm houses for people below the level of gentry, and are usually smaller than pele towers. On the whole, Castle Morpeth is not bastle country, but Pevsner says that Widdrington House at Stamfordham, behind the Bay Horse, was a bastle house originally.

After the Conquest in 1066, Northumbria proved almost ungovernable. William the Conqueror built a powerful castle at Durham to protect his Norman bishops, and in 1080 his eldest son Robert Curthose built the New Castle to control the land north of the Tyne. One or two baronies were established, probably by William II, but the settlement of Northumberland only really dates from the accession of Henry I in 1100.

A Norman baron held his barony from the king in return for supplying a specified number of fully equipped knights for 40 days a year. He then sub-let parts of it on the same terms, which led to lands being held for the service of fractions of a knight. These were usually commuted for a cash sum.

One of the obligations of a tenant-in-chief was to keep the peace in his barony, which in any case was essential for the baron’s own security in the early days. The Normans could build them very quickly, with timber palisades and buildings on top of the mound, or motte, and others in the courtyard, or bailey, below.

A castle served several different purposes; it was the lord’s residence, from which he controlled his territory, his defence in case of attack, and the place where he held his baronial courts and where his officials came to report.

Initially, he would have only his own retainers to help him keep order in the barony and defend it from attack. But once a peaceful relationship had been established between him and his serfs and free tenants, he could call on a much larger body of fighting men, albeit not professional soldiers, in case of need. His serfs and tenants were the Territorial Army of the day. He might then rebuild his first castle in stone, or abandon it for a better site.

William De Merley was an officer in the service of Geoffrey de Mowbray, Bishop of Coutances. He was almost certainly the first baron of Morpeth, and Ha’ Hill — probably built in about 1080, the same year as the New Castle on the Tyne — was his motte and bailey.

William’s grandson, Roger De Merley I, founded Morpeth about 100 years later. His great-grandson, Roger II, confirmed the privileges already given to his free burgesses of Morpeth, and in 1200 obtained a market charter from King John.

Meanwhile, Ha’ Hill had been at least partly been rebuilt in stone. It was probably abandoned after King John destroyed it in 1216, and it was probably Roger II who built the new one on its present site, south of the Postern Burn.

Northumbria had never been completely assimilated into the Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of England, and William I allowed it to remain as a semi-independent earldom. But a succession of rebellions and murders caused him to place it under a royal sheriff, the same as in the old established counties. Even then, the process wasn’t complete. Whereas the southern and midland counties of England were divided into hundreds or wapentakes, the four northern were not, and it was not until the mid-13th century that a system of wards was put in place.

At first there were only three wards in Northumberland. In 1256 we have: “Balliva (bailiff) inter tynam et coket”, “balliva de Northecoket” and “ballliva de Tyndal.” The Coquet was obviously an important boundary, and later documents express the same idea differently, for example “australi de coket”, south of the Coquet.

This three-part division of the county lasted for some purposes until 1293. But alongside it, in a document of 1275, we have: “Warda de Glendale”, “Warda de Hammaburg” (i.e. Bamburgh), “Warda de kokedal”, “Warda de Tindale”, and “Tyne et Coket”, which covered everything south of the Coquet, except Tynedale. Finally, in 1297, we get: “ward’ inter Tynam et Wanspick” and “ward’ inter Wanspick et Coket.”

After Henry VII banned the barons from having private armies, these wards became the basis of the muster rolls for the County Militia.

The two wards south of the Coquet eventually became respectively Castle Ward and Morpeth Ward, Castle Ward being so named because it centred on the royal fortress at Newcastle. It ran from Heddon-on-the-Wall to Tynemouth, and except for the episcopal estate of Bedlingtonshire, took in everything between Tyne and Wansbeck.

In 1400, Newcastle became a “county of itself”, and therefore a separate entity. But the castle remained in Castle Ward, which for convenience was split into two Divisions, Castle Ward East and West.

The New Poor Law was implemented in Northumberland in 1837. The Poor Law Unions did not follow the old boundaries, but did keep the old names. The union to the west of Newcastle corresponded sufficiently well with Castle Ward West, that it was called Castle Ward Union, with its workhouse in Ponteland.

When rural districts were created in 1894, Castle Ward Union became Castle Ward Rural District, though without Newburn and Gosforth, which became urban districts. With local government reorganisation in 1974, the most populous part of Castle Ward RD went into Newcastle, while the more rural portion, including Ponteland and Heddon, went in with Morpeth Borough and Morpeth RD. People in Morpeth and Castle Ward were equally attached to their old names so there was naturally some debate over what to call the new district. They ended up with Castle Morpeth.

So where was the castle in Castle Morpeth? Why, in Newcastle of course.