The first thing we did to celebrate my degree result – apart from popping fizzy wine corks, of course – was to go to a castle. As we were in Northumberland at the time we had plenty to choose from, so we went to my favourite: the striking example of medieval architecture that is Warkworth Castle. It was the right choice, as I’ve always felt particularly comfortable wandering around this northern stonghold, and there’s a reason for that. During the late Middle Ages this beautiful bastion was owned and developed by the Percy family, the most powerful nobles in Northern England. But despite Warkworth not being their biggest and best castle, it was their favourite residence. The family’s fluid loyalties and rebellions against kings, however, meant that their hold on their beloved home could be precarious, and at one point they only kept it thanks to the blagging talents of a teenage boy.
Constructed around 1200, Warkworth Castle’s impressive gatehouse offered
effective protection from attackers and double-glazing salesmen
The first mention of Warkworth itself appears in the eighth century when it was referred to as Werceworde, meaning ‘the homestead of Werce’. In 737 the land was granted to the monastery of Lindisfarne by King Ceowulf of Northumbria when he threw in the kingly towel, took holy orders and joined the monastic community on Holy Island. Occupying a naturally defensible site on a loop in the River Coquet near the Northumbrian coast, the first mention of the castle comes in the middle of the twelfth century when it was granted by Henry II, along with the manor of Warkworth, to one Roger fitz Eustace. Roger was a wealthy baron with estates throughout the kingdom, but it seems he didn’t think much of the king’s gift. Believing the ditches and earthworks to be ‘feeble’ he didn’t bother defending it during an invasion by the Scottish king in 1173, and the following year he left the poor residents to their grisly fate when Warkworth was sacked by the earl of Fife.
It appears that Roger’s son took a greater interest in Warkworth, as it’s believed that he established the present castle between 1199 and 1214, following the classic motte and bailey design. The revamp must have been substantial because it earned the praise of the thirteenth century chronicler Matthew Paris, who described it as ‘a noble castle’. But it was during the later middle ages that the castle came into the hands of the family who would elevate it to the pinnacle of its medieval glory.
Not such ‘feeble’ ditches and earthworks now…
From strength to strength: the oddly named ‘Grey Mare’s Tail Tower’ was erected in the 1290s
as part of the curtain wall, and features unusual double-storey arrow loops
In 1328, Edward III gave Warkworth to Lord Henry Percy, whose family were fast establishing themselves as the most important nobles in northern England. In 1309 the Percys had purchased the prized barony and castle at Alnwick, which was to be their main seat of power. But despite Alnwick’s superiority with its greater prestige and extensive estates the rising dynasty preferred their comparatively cosy residence at Warkworth. So over the next century and a half the Percys gave the castle two palatial makeovers, displaying the family’s status through a level of architectural sophistication and elegance unprecedented in Northumberland. The first of these focused on the Great Tower, built by a later Henry Percy (1341-1408) after he was created the first earl of Northumberland, making him the first prominent landowner in the North to receive a noble title.
Henry Percy, first earl of Northumberland, who built the Great Tower
Constructed in the shape of a cross with four polygonal wings projecting from a central block, the new keep was raised upon the old mound. The outer walls were adorned with sculptures of angels holding shields, while from the north side a huge Percy lion – the imposing dynastic emblem – stared down at the town’s main street. Crowned with battlements and turrets that sadly are no more, the first earl’s new great tower proudly dominated the surrounding area. Inside was a labyrinth of rooms, passageways and staircases servicing the earl’s great hall and his comfortable accommodation. It was all going so well, but then Henry fell out with the king.
Warkworth’s Great Tower dominates the castle, and the town
The Percy lion watches over the town’s high street from the north side
Relaxing in the keep’s chapel after all the hard academic slog
The earl’s wine cellar – I was particularly interested in that!
In 1397 King Richard II upset Henry by elevating his rival in the North, Ralph Neville, to another new earldom, so he and his son, the famed warrior Harry ‘Hotspur’, sided with the king’s own rival, his cousin Henry Bolingbroke. They actively helped to depose Richard, putting Bolingbroke on the throne instead as Henry IV. But after the honeymoon period with the new king had worn off, arguments over money saw relations with the crown go sour again, so the Percys began plotting treason once more. Launching themselves into open rebellion, earl Henry was marching to meet his son when he heard that Hotspur had been killed at the Battle of Shrewsbury, so the earl fled back to Warkworth where he was arrested and his property forfeited. However, the officials sent to take over the castle hadn’t reckoned on the creative quick-thinking of Percy’s 14-year-old son. Sorry about his father’s rebellion, he said, but he himself was a loyal subject – honest. Furthermore, he explained, he couldn’t possibly surrender Warkworth because he didn’t have at his disposal the ceremonial paraphernalia required to formally cede the castle to the king. Amazingly, this brazen bluff worked, and with Henry IV engrossed in other domestic issues he was unable to enforce his seizure orders. In the end he gave up trying, and in 1404 he restored the earl to his lands, so the Percys hung on to the castle.
Good looking, fearless in battle and hot tempered, Henry, or Harry ‘Hotspur’ Percy
died before he could inherit the Northumbrian earldom
The great stair in the entrance hall of the Great Tower
A labyrinth of intact passageways and rooms evoke a sense of the castle’s
great medieval past
Full marks to Percy junior for his ingenuity, but no points to his father, who hadn’t learned his lesson from the brush with Henry IV. Only the following year the earl joined another conspiracy against the king, but this time no sweet-talking teenager could placate the angry monarch, who gathered an army and marched north. Henry fled to Scotland and after Warkworth’s garrison swiftly surrendered, the king took the castle and got to try out the comforts of the great tower for himself.
Fireplaces and windows in the great chamber give us glimpses
into the earl’s comfortable accommodation
The keep’s chapel lies between the great hall and the earl’s chamber
The buttery and pantry serviced the adjacent first floor great hall
An added bonus: this charming rock cut building was a votive ‘Hermitage’ chapel added by Henry Percy,
the first earl, probably at the time of the Great Tower’s construction around 1400.
A short walk from the castle, the chapel is reached by boat across the river
The atmospheric interior of the Hermitage rock-cut chapel
The Wars of the Roses saw Warkworth occupied by both the Lancastrian and Yorkist sides, and successive earls came and went as the fortunes of war determined their fates. Eventually, in 1470, King Edward IV restored the earldom of Northumberland to another Henry Percy (1449-1489). This Henry, the fourth earl, undertook the second great building phase at the castle when he completely remodelled the bailey buildings. Around 1480, he built a grand new hall range with an elaborate entrance tower, a great hall, kitchens and service rooms and a suite of luxury private accommodation. But ultimately all the earl’s grand designs did him little favour, because his poor judgement at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485 led to his doom. Tasked with leading the rear guard of Richard III’s army, he refused to commit his troops. This failure in duty allowed Henry Tudor to win the day, and although the earl survived the battle his betrayal of Richard meant that Henry found himself held widely in contempt in the north. In 1489, after his own household abandoned him, he was murdered by an angry mob.
The entrance to the fourth earl’s late fifteenth century hall range, the Lion tower, sports
the Percy lion and associated family heraldic devices
Looking across the remains of fourth earl’s new hall range from the kitchens to the great hall
and his private rooms beyond
Not much remains of the fourth earl’s revamped bailey buildings, although it’s not quite certain what happened. The castle played its part for Charles I during the civil war before being garrisoned for the other side in 1648, and one claim is that parts of the castle were demolished by the parliamentarians. But the first earl’s great tower miraculously survived, and although shorn of its roof and battlements today, and thanks to a degree of restoration in the 1850s, it still stands in splendour, its largely intact rooms making Warkworth a magnet for castle lovers. It’s a treat to wander around the great tower’s complex interior and to rub shoulders with the Percys. And with such a rare chance to experience their favourite home, perhaps in some way as they did, it was the perfect place for a newly qualified medieval historian to celebrate her success.
…now, back to that wine cellar…