Morpeth in the Middle Ages – and a Royal visitor calls

Newminster Abbey
Newminster Abbey

WE have followed the fortunes of Morpeth and Bedlington up to AD 1200 and now glance briefly at the rest of the middle ages.

Nothing of note happened at Bedlington for another 600 years. This is not to say that nothing happened. James Raine, the author of History and Antiquities of North Durham, was librarian to the dean and chapter of Durham Cathedral. He possessed many records relating to Bedlington, and remarks that the copyhold books in particular ‘afford much curious information’. Residents of Bedlington might yet find something of interest in the ‘curious information’ that Raine didn’t see fit to include.

Much more happened at Morpeth. Here William de Merley built his castle, he and his descendants lived and administered their estates, here founded Newminster Abbey, laid out their town and established their market, and all by 1200.

Ninety or so years later, the building of Chantry Bridge confirmed Morpeth as the best place to cross the River Wansbeck. Fords and ferries have little appeal when you can walk over a bridge. Its seigneurial role declined under the Greystokes. But, like the de Merleys before them, the Greystokes eventually failed of a male heir and Elizabeth Greystock inherited her family’s lands and titles. Her husband was Thomas, Lord Dacre of Gilsland, otherwise known as Lord Dacre of the North, a loyal servant of the Tudor monarchy.

Morpeth twice received Henry VII’s eldest daughter, Queen Margaret. Her first visit was in July 1503, when she travelled north in great state for her marriage to James IV of Scotland. She was 13 years of age.

Accompanying her was John Younge, Somerset Herald, who wrote an account of the journey. You can judge each town’s importance by how long she stayed. From Northallerton she went to Darlington, where she rested one night. On the 20th she proceeded to Durham and spent three days as guest of the Bishop, leaving for Newcastle on the 24th.

The mayor received her on the bridge and accompanied her to her lodging at the house of the Austin Friars, now Holy Jesus Hospital. She stayed in Newcastle the whole of the following day when the Earl of Northumberland gave a huge banquet that went on until midnight. Also, says Younge, “To the said Newe Castell cam the lord Dacre of the North, acompayned of many gentylmen, honestly apoynted, and hys folks arrayed in his liveray.”

Dacre was in a difficult position. His ancestral lands were in Cumberland, where he was Deputy Warden of the West March; but the King also made him Warden of the Middle March, which ran from Tynedale to the Aln. Henry Algernon Percy, the fifth earl (later called the Magnificent) was the natural leader of society in Northumberland, but Henry did not trust him. He made him Warden-General of the Marches, but this was merely a ceremonial honour for the duration of Margaret’s journey into Scotland.

Both men were rich, and both were amongst the glittering cavalcade that escorted the princess from Richmond Palace. But although Dacre owned the barony of Morpeth in right of his wife, and held the liberties of Hexham and Redesdale, this was Percy territory, and the local gentry resented him as an intruder.

The princess set off again on the 26th: “Haff a mylle owt of the said towne was Sir Humphrey Lysle and the prior of Bryngburn, well apoynted and well horst, to the nombre of xx horsys. Their folks arayed in their liveray. And a mylle from the said towne was in ordre the scheryffe of Northumberlaund, Syr Rawff Evers, in company of many other gentylmen, varey well apoynted, their folks clothed in their liveray, well monted. And with them were many honest folks of the contre, with spers and bowes, in jackets, to the nombre of two hondred horsys.

“With the sam fayr company, was the said quene conveyed to Morpath, and by the towne passed in fayr ordre, where there was much people; and so sche went to the abbay, where sche was well receyved by the abbot and religyous invested, at the gatt of the church, with the cross.”

After staying the night at Newminster, ‘the quene departed from Morpath, after the custom before, to goo to Alnewyke, a place of th’erle of Northumberland, And in haff of the way cam before hyr, maister Henry Gray, esquier, well appointed. In his company many other gentylmen, and his folks well monted and arrayed in his liveray, to the nombre of a hundred horsys’.

Margaret’s husband, James IV, was killed at Flodden in 1513. She became regent for her infant son, James V, but forfeited it by remarrying. Turbulent events followed and in 1515, heavily pregnant, she crossed into England. Lord Dacre lodged her in Harbottle Castle, where her daughter was born in October. It was a difficult birth. Margaret nearly died. In November, still very ill, she was brought to Morpeth Castle in a litter. She recovered sufficiently to visit Hexham, and eventually left for London in April 1516.

Younge wrote of this visit: “Never saw I a baron’s house better trimmed in all my life … The hall and chambers with the newest device of tapestry. … His cupboard all of gilt plate with a great cup of fine gold … the board’s end served all with silver vessels, lacking no manner of victual and wildfowl to be put on them.”

Afterwards, although Dacre did reside occasionally during the 1520s, Morpeth Castle was used mainly as a prison. It wasn’t very secure. In 1535 a gang from Tynedale broke in and released Cokes Charlton, ‘the most notable thief in that country.’

In 1547 the Earl of Huntley, a state prisoner, made an even more daring escape. In his History of Scotland, Bishop Lesley tells how George Kar, a borderer who knew all the tracks and ways, came secretly to Morpeth leading two good horses. It was foggy, and as ‘the erle playit at the cartis with his keparis … he raise and past to the wyndock of the chalmer’. Seeing Kar’s signal, ‘he chansed opinlie to say thir wordis, quhilkis he suddantlie repented thaireftir: ‘Ane mirk nycht, ane wearie knycht, ane wilsum way, and knowis not quahair to go, God be my gyd’. Sir Rauf Avane, his kepar … inquired at the erle quhat he meaned be these wordis’.

Huntley told him it was an old Scots’ saying, attributed to the Earl of Morton as he lay dying. He resumed his game, but shortly gave his hand to someone else ‘as it wer to do sum necesser effaris of his awin’. He and a servant escaped by a back door and got safe to Scotland.

Morpeth was never again the lord’s chief residence after Roger de Merley III’s death in 1266. But in 1553 Queen Mary rewarded William Lord Dacre by making Morpeth a parliamentary borough, sending two members to Parliament. As a result, Morpeth became a uniquely valuable part of the Dacre and later Howard estates, and remained so until late in the 19th Century.