The tale of a tower that out-lived successors

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Cresswell Tower was a fortified house, not a castle. When you go there, however, it feels like a castle. It’s only when you compare it with Alnwick, Bamburgh or Dunstanburgh that you realise how modest it really is.

It was built in the late 14th or early 15th century, in or about the reigns of Richard II (1377-99) or Henry IV (1399-1413.) England and France were in a state of ongoing hostility — sometimes war, sometimes truce, but never peace. The Scots were allied to the French, and had their own quarrel with the English. Scots and English alike raided across the border without regard for the state of affairs between France and England.

In response, Richard II mounted an expedition into Scotland in 1385, and Henry IV in 1400. Then, in the spring and summer of 1402, a large Scottish raiding party — though actually an army, including several of the Scottish nobility — entered Northumberland and seized large amounts of booty with little opposition. In September they were caught at Homildon Hill in their retreat, and defeated by Sir Henry Percy (‘Harry Hotspur’) and George Dunbar, the disaffected Earl of March.

The need for a tower is self-evident. Even so, we have no record of the Tower seeing any kind of action.

A manor house stood alongside, but separate from it in medieval times. It was demolished in 1749 and replaced with a modern mansion house. This was demolished when Cresswell Hall was built in the early 19th century. All that remains of the first manor house is a fine stone carving of the mid-12th century, probably from a chapel. Of the mansion house, only the ornamental doorway survives, and then only as part of the field wall. All that’s left of Cresswell Hall is the stable block and arcade, both ruinous. In short, the old Tower has outlived all of its successors.

The original entrance was at first-floor level, but nowadays you enter through the basement. The main level seems like one large room, but used to be divided into two by the medieval equivalent of a lath and plaster wall. With barely 6ft of headroom, it was clearly designed for comfort in a small space — rather like a caravan, in fact.

Of the mansion house, only the ornamental doorway survives, and then only as part of the field wall. All that’s left of Cresswell Hall is the stable block and arcade, both ruinous. In short, the old Tower has outlived all of its successors.

The western part was the family’s solar or private quarters. It has a fireplace, a nicely finished cupboard recess, and a private garderobe.

Polite euphemisms for what is properly a latrine go back a long way, though ‘garderobe’ is actually correct; clothes were kept there so that the smell of ammonia kept the fleas away.

This one, however, has too little room for clothes. You enter by the pointed doorway, turn left, and there it is. No doubt it will have a replica wooden seat when the Tower has been renovated, but for now there is just a stone pedestal and a long drop. This goes down through the wall, but another one, at the level of the wall walk, went down only a little way before discharging to the outside wall.

Nearby are two large corbels. If they supported the second floor, they must have had a large beam on top as a spacer. If not, there would have been no headroom at all, and it would have cut off the top of the garderobe doorway.

The eastern part was larger and was probably the kitchen. It has a bigger fireplace, and a drain next to it for slops. Also windows, cupboard recesses, and two blocked doorways in the north wall. One, which you can see in the bird’s-eye view of the main level, looks like a fireplace, but isn’t.

The second floor had windows and cupboards, but no fireplaces. Peter Ryder detected traces of a partition, but the two rooms so created might have been further subdivided.

A winding stone staircase takes you up to the roof walk. One side is accessible, and has fine views of the village and coast. There is a medieval turret at the north east corner, but the battlements are of the 18th century. And although no trace of the roof survives, Hodgson’s drawing shows a pitched, or possibly hipped, roof.

The Tower was not the family’s residence. That was the freestanding manor house. The 18th century mansion house, however, was connected to it by two separate doorways, the one leading into the solar being much lower.

The Tower stands about 50ft above sea level, with gently rising ground behind it, and, were it not for trees, would have excellent views in every direction. You can see it from the lower part of the village. Roads used to go direct to it from the coast, but it now has a boundary wall in front, and a ploughed field in front of that, so it can only be approached through Cresswell Towers Holiday Park.

The owners, Messrs Hoseason’s, have offered the Tower to Cresswell Parish Council for £1. But it wants £750,000 worth of work doing to it.

Work began when a band of volunteers, all over retirement age, set about clearing the ruin. It was a daunting task. Large stones lay on the ground round the building that vandals pushed off in the 1950s and 1960s. The inside, which has been roofless since, had a thick layer of soil with shrubs and whole trees growing in it. All of this had to be laboriously lifted out, and the tidy state of the building now, albeit with plants in the nooks and crannies, is a tribute to their dedication.

Sources: The best account of the building is by Peter Ryder, in Archaeologia Aeliana for 2003. For those on the Internet, search Cresswell Pele Tower,pdf’ for an excellent article by the historian Barry Mead.