A tale of two castles – and their occupants

Warkworth, the outer bailey and keep. Picture by Roger Hawkins.
Warkworth, the outer bailey and keep. Picture by Roger Hawkins.

Warkworth Castle dates from 1139, or after, when the King of Scotland’s son became Earl of Northumberland.

The gatehouse, Carrickfergus Tower and some of the walls are circa 1200.

The very large arrow slits were for crossbows, or arblasts, a formidable weapon that shot steel bolts. The gatehouse itself was defended with a drawbridge, portcullis and inner gate.

Inside, the large open space is the outer bailey. The tunnel in the middle ground gives access to the inner bailey beyond. It goes under what was meant to be a magnificent collegiate church, but it was never completed.

The principal living accommodation of a medieval castle was provided in the bailey, not in the keep. The remains of a complete suite of accommodation, with kitchen, buttery, great hall, private rooms, chapel, etc, survive in the southeast corner of the outer bailey.

The Lion Tower, visible on the left in our picture, was the main entrance to the great hall.

This, then, was a true medieval castle, built for defence, but with ample living accommodation. It was twice besieged by the Scots in 1327, but did not fall.

Warkworth came into the possession of the Percys in 1345, and its most dramatic feature, the keep, was built in about 1400 by Henry Percy, 1st Earl of Northumberland.

It stands on the motte of an earlier keep, parts of which are still visible in the masonry of the lower levels.

Despite its martial appearance, it has almost no military features. You have to climb a stair to reach the entrance, but the portcullis slot at the top is a bit of Victorian make-believe.

It is, in fact, a nobleman’s residence, with kitchen, great hall, etc, all cleverly fitted into the shape of a fortified central tower.

Not surprisingly, Warkworth was the Percys’ favourite residence in Northumberland, Alnwick being more military.

After they rebelled against Henry IV in 1403, Warkworth was sufficiently strong for the Earl’s 14-year old son (Hotspur being dead by then) to refuse to surrender it to the king.

In 1405, the Earl rebelled again. This time, Henry IV came fully equipped with cannon, as well as more traditional siege engines. The castle might have held out for a long time, but after a few shots from Henry’s guns, the garrison surrendered.

The Percys were troublesome subjects, and the castle passed in and out of their control. In 1570, following another rebellion, the warden of the March, Sir John Forster, commenced its demolition. It is no longer habitable, but survives as a well maintained ruin.

Morpeth Castle consists only of the gatehouse, wall and moat. It was the second castle, the first one being on Ha’ Hill.

It is thought to have been built in the mid-1200s following the destruction of the old castle by King John in 1216, and originally had a central tower or keep.

The gatehouse was added in about 1350. As with the keep at Warkworth, appearances are deceptive. It was not built for defence. The corners, for instance, where the gatehouse projects out from the wall, are vulnerable and undefended.

Morpeth Castle figures little in history until the 16th century. That it did so at all was largely because of the Tudor monarchy’s distrust of the Percys. It was the headquarters of the wardens of the Middle March and, as such, was administrative building, nobleman’s residence and prison, all combined. The present kitchen, pictured, was once the court room.

From November 1515 to April 1516 Queen Margaret of Scotland, Henry VIII’s sister, stayed there after fleeing from her adopted country.

In 1535 violent cattle thief Cokes Charlton escaped when the castle was broken into by his fellow thieves.

In 1547 the Earl of Huntley, a state prisoner, escaped by means of a cunning plan. An accomplice came secretly to Morpeth with two good horses. The Earl, while playing cards with his jailor, gave his hand to a servant as if to answer the call of nature and quietly made his escape.

It came under siege only once, in 1644, when stone-built castles were already obsolete. It was occupied for Parliament by Colonel Somerville, who strengthened it by piling up earth against the gate.

The siege was led by the Earl of Montrose. After a failed first attempt, Montrose brought up cannon; his gunners aimed at the tops of the walls, causing deadly fragments of stone to fly amongst the defenders.

Somerville’s men begged him to surrender. After a bullet went through his hat, grazing his head, he did so.

Montrose gave them generous terms and treated them to a dinner, no doubt at the town’s expense, before they marched home.

The gatehouse is still habitable. It was restored in the 1860s for Lord Carlisle’s agent, and later occupied by Charles Alderson, solicitor.

Morpeth Borough Council bought it in 1946, and leased it to private tenants. It has been owned since 1988 by the Landmark Trust, which maintains it as a holiday flat.