Turn the page
Picturesque England
Turn the page

Alnwick Castle


LNWICK is a very noble and perfect specimen of the castles of the feudal ages, and is linked with many historical memories of the great house of Percy. It stands on a fine elevation rising gradually from the river Alne, the open banks of which are turfed, and in excellent order. "The architect," says Hutchinson, "has strictly preserved the whole mode and ornaments of the original. The battlements are crowded with effigies, according to the taste of the Normans, in whose time it underwent a principal reparation. These represent men in the act of defence, wielding such arms as were then used. Some of them are disposed with great propriety. The guard of one of the gateways is in the act of throwing down a mighty stone on the heads of the assailants. 1 The building is of a beautiful freestone in chiselled work. Its form is singular, being composed of a cluster of semi-circular and angular bastions. I cannot, without the ichnography of the place, give the reader a more competent idea of its figure than by comparing it to a section of the clustered Saxon pillar in our cathedrals. The edifice stands in a spacious area, which at the time of its greatest strength, I presume, totally surrounded it, defended by a complete circumvallation and a moat; otherwise the principal part of the fortress would have lain unguarded by any outwork except a moat. At present the front is open to the north-east, and the wall, having towers at proper intervals, shuts it in on the other quarters."

The barbican, or principal entrance from the town, is a huge tower of enormous thickness and strength, once protected by three massive iron-studded gates; the places for which are still to be seen in the walls.

Entering by this gateway we come suddenly upon a splendid scene; on the great castle, surrounded by five semi-circular towers adorned with pinnacles and battlements. Then the second and third courts are entered, through great massive towers, till we reach the inner court, that is in the very centre of the fortress.

These courts are all carpeted with green turf, except this centre one. In the middle of the second court is a lion with his paw on a ball - a copy of one of the lions of St. Mark at Venice.

The inner court is square, with the corners cut off, and on the wall opposite to the entrance are medallion portraits of the first Duke and Duchess of Northumberland. Near the gateway are the old wheel and axle that worked the great well, with the figure of a pilgrim blessing the waters. Within the gateway we enter an octagonal tower, where, beneath the floor and covered with its iron grate, is the dungeon. It is eleven feet deep, and air and light are only admitted through the grating. There are two other dungeons in the court; one used to contain a force pump to throw water to the top of the castle; the other is not used at all. This is the oldest part of the castle, dating, it is believed, from early in the twelfth century, and was probably built by Eustace de Vesci, who erected the first great castle of Alnwick.

An idea may be formed of the scale of Alnwick when we say that it includes within its outer walls five acres of land, and that its walls are flanked by sixteen towers, many of which retain their ancient names and original uses. These are the Great or Outer Gate; the Garner or Avener's Tower, the Water Tower, containing the cistern, the Caterers' Tower, behind which are the Kitchens, 2 the Middle Ward, the Auditor's Tower, the Guard House, the East Garret, the Records' Tower, where the archives of the barony are kept, the Ravine Tower, or Hotspur's Chair, the Constable's Tower, the Postern Door or Sallyport, the Armourer's Tower, the Falconer's Tower, the Abbot's Tower and the West Garret.

The Prudoe Tower, entirely rebuilt by the fourth duke, is the most striking and largest of the towers. In it are the private apartments of the ducal family; they consist of a suite of spacious and handsome rooms, of which the principal are the saloon, dining room, breakfast room and chapel. The chapel is very richly decorated, and has windows painted with the family escutch eons. Three clustered pilasters branch out palm-like from each side of the chapel, and in each of the panels of the walls is an armorial shield. A tomb of white marble is in the recess of the east window; it is that of Elizabeth Percy, Duchess of Northumberland, daughter and heiress of Algernon, Duke of Somerset.

This is not the old chapel that stood between the Ravine and the Constable's Towers; that became so dilapidated that in 1764 Hugh, Duke of Northumberland, was obliged to remove both it and the Exchequer. Its place is now occupied by a much more recent erection - the Prudoe Tower.

The Abbot's Tower was erected by Henry Percy, first Lord of Alnwick. Its basement has a vaulted roof, semi-circular, with massive rills. Tradition says that this tower was a place of refuge for the abbots of the adjoining monastery when in danger from the Scots.

The Auditor's Tower stood where the present auditor holds his courts; a modern entrance has been made here towards Barniside.

The Constable's Tower is now the Armoury. In the upper apartments oŁ the tower are arms for 1500 men, formerly the Percy tenantry. In the under apartment is the ancient armour.

Hotspur's Chair is the name given to a recess in the Ravine Tower, where, tradition says, brave Harry Percy used to sit and watch his troops exercising in the yard below; from hence also he could see the approaching enemy, and take measures for their reception.

The Bloody Gap is between the Ravine and Record Towers. Its extent is plainly to be distinguished in the present day, by the differences in the masonry that repaired it from the walls. It was a breach in the wall made by the Scots, during the Border wars, when, according to tradition, three hundred Scots fell within the breach, vainly endeavouring to effect an entrance. Many arrows have been found in the adjacent walls, so placed as to lead to the supposition that they were aimed at the invading Scots from the keep and the opposite battlements.

The scenery surrounding Alnwick is beautiful. From the castle terrace we gaze on broad green meadows, distant hills and exquisite woodlands, and beyond the town and above it rise lofty hills, and wide moorlands, making one think of moss-troopers and border forays. At one place we find the memorial of the capture of a Scottish king (William the Lion); in another, a cross which marks the spot where sudden destruction came to an earlier one, Malcolm III.

It was in the reign of William Rufus that the most memorable siege of Alnwick Castle took place, by the Scots Under Malcolm III.; it was gallantly defended by Mowbray, Earl of Northumberland; but famine set in and the garrison were on the point of surrendering, when a private soldier undertook their deliverance. He rode forth armed, carrying the keys of the castle dangling from his lance, and presented himself before the king in suppliant attitude, as if to deliver up the keys. Malcolm advanced to take them, and the trooper speared him to the heart. The monarch fell dead instantly, and in the confusion that ensued, the soldier sprang upon his horse, dashed through the swollen river, and reached a place of safety. Prince Edward, the king's eldest son, advancing rashly to avenge his father's death, fell mortally wounded by the English. The name of the soldier who performed this treacherous but bold act was Hammond, and the spot where he swam the river is still called "Hammond's Ford." There was once an absurd story that "Piercy" was the name given to this soldier, and that he was founder of the family; but the Percy family had long been famous previous to this period.

The glamour of the Percy name is over Alnwick, its castle, and the surrounding country. Their valour defended the Borders, and kept the Scottish ravagers in check. Otterburn, Homildown, Shrewsbury, and many other battles heard the Percy war-cry, and were (in all but the last instance) won by their valour.

Shakspeare has immortalised Hotspur, the brave truthful soldier, and history tells us of many another heroic or deeply interesting Percy. After Hotspur came those who fought and fell for the Red Rose, one at the battle of St. Alban's, the other at Towton. The fourth earl was at Bosworth Field; the fifth at the Battle of the Spurs, under Henry VIII. Then came that injured earl, who tenderly loved Anne Boleyn, and was probably loved by her in return. But the act of Wolsey (which Anne never forgave) and the evil passion of the king severed them. He died not long after she had perished on the block, it may be of a broken heart. He was childless.

His successor, yet more unfortunate, joined in the "Rising of the North," and expiated his offence on the block. His brother and successor, who must have detested Elizabeth, could not conceal his feeling about her; moreover, he was devoted to Mary Queen of Scots, and the Queen of England's jealousy being roused, she sent him to the Tower, where he died; either murdered or killed by his own hand.

The ninth earl was also imprisoned in the Tower for sixteen years for his adherence to Roman Catholicism, and through suspicion that he was acquainted with the Gunpowder Plot, or had been a secret participator in it. He became, whilst secluded in that fatal fortress, the friend of his fellow-prisoner Raleigh, with whom his lofty intellect fitted him to associate.

In the woods opposite to the castle, near the north road, is the cross, marking the spot where Malcolm Canmore fell by the hand of Hammond. The park in this direction is very extensive and extremely picturesque, with deep woodlands, lofty hills covered with purple heath, mossy dells and hanging copses, through which trickle and sing the clear and rapid waters of the Alne.

The grounds skirting the river and the park are fenced in with a stone wall ten miles round; in them are beautiful remains of the abbeys of Alnwick and Hulne.

Brislee Tower

To the left, amongst the woods, rises the Tower of Brislee. It appears a mere pillar at a distance, and is seen very far off, for it is ninety feet high, and is ascended within by 129 steps. It was built by a duke of Northumberland, in 1762, from his own design, as the inscription on it informs us:-

"Circumspice - Ego omnia ista sum dimensus. Mea sunt ordines; mea descriptio. Multa etiam istarum arborum mea manu satae."

The approach to the pillar is through dark and solitary woods, and ascends higher and higher, till a range of cliffs is reached, and a cave by which stands the stone figure of a venerable hermit. This cave is called the Cave of the Nine Year Old. Close by it lies the Moss-troopers' Field - a memory of old days.

Leaving the forest, a cottage appears, and a guide who shows the tower. The view from the top of it is magnificent; ocean and coast stretch before us, and we perceive the Staple and Ferne Isles, Holy Island, the castles of Bamborough and Dunstanborough, Alnmouth and Warkworth, the Cheviots, Flodden Field, and the blue summits of the Teviotdale hills. Beneath lie Alnwick and the ruins of Hulne Abbey, beyond the river, flanked with woody glens, and with a background of moorland hills, crowned by dark and ancient firs.

The home of the Percies is indeed one of the treasures of our England; for it unites us with the past, not as a ruin does, but as a habitable and splendid dwelling in which generations of a noble race have lived for centuries; and we feel the connecting link between the England of the old times and the England of to-day, whenever our eyes rest on the stately towers of Alnwick.

The Duke of Northumberland nominates the bailiff of Alnwick as constable of the castle, and deputies from the adjacent townships attend him during the ceremony of proclaiming the July fair, and keep watch and ward at the castle during the remainder of the night.

Turn the page
Picturesque England
Turn the page
Picturesque England - Matthew Spong 2004