I haven’t been in the blogsphere much recently, for which I apologise, but I’ve been completely preoccupied with preparing our house for market. We’re making a big move this year, and this has taken up most of my attention for the past six months and will probably continue to do so for a while yet. So at a time when most people are booking their annual holiday, in the few spare moments I’ve had, I’ve been looking back on our wonderful fortnight in Northumberland last year as we’re unlikely to get a proper break in 2022. My memories of one castle visit strike a particular chord just now, as it involved one of the most badly timed house moves in history…
Aydon Castle near Corbridge in Northumberland as it is today.
Tucked away in a quiet Northumberland woodland around a mile from the historic little town of Corbridge, Aydon Castle is a remarkably intact and largely unaltered example of thirteenth century baronial architecture. It’s believed that the name Aydon is associated with age and peace, deriving from the Old English words for ‘hay’ and ‘pasture’. Whether it fully deserves it’s high-status title of a ‘castle’, however, is debatable, as records more often than not refer to it as a ‘hall’ and it was originally planned as a manor house. Either way, this place is a rare treat for any history buff, and a joy to explore.
Inside the castle’s curtain wall, Aydon’s many intact rooms wait to be explored…
What was most likely originally a wooden residence was bought by a Suffolk landowner, Hugh de Raymes sometime between 1284 and 1296 when the previous owner sold his share of the Northumbrian dual barony of Bolam, of which Aydon was a part. When Hugh died in 1295, his son, Robert, decided the North had more appeal. At the time the county had been mostly at peace for over seventy years, so Robert left Suffolk and moved to Aydon where he built himself a posh new residence.
The inner courtyard with stairs leading to the entrance to the hall, with a glimpse of the decorative battlements above.
Being near the Scottish-English border, in 1305 Robert managed to secure a royal ‘licence to crenellate’ from King Edward I, meaning he was allowed to add battlements, towers and other fortifications to turn his grand design into a castle. As was the case at Aydon, these licences were often granted after the work had been done, but they nevertheless gave the king a sense of retaining control over who had castles and where within his lands. Robert had earned his castle, having fought for the king in his Scottish campaigns of 1297 and 1298, and with any resistance to English rule all but collapsing in 1304, he would have felt secure in his new home and ready for a good rest from the conflicts north of the border. So in 1305, licence in hand, Robert must have felt rather pleased with himself, settling into his upgraded high-status home where he could enjoy his new lordship in a beautiful and peaceful county. He had carved out a place for himself within the Northumbrian gentry by buying more lands at Aydon and nearby Dilston, and had married the daughter of an important local family. The future must have seemed bright, and life sweet. But sadly for Robert, it was all about to go horribly wrong…
When life was sweet: the impressive great hall at Aydon.
Looking through the doorway from the hall to Robert de Raymes’s ‘Solar’, or private apartments.
The lord’s private chamber, or solar, with its original fireplace, albeit on the opposite wall today having been moved in the sixteenth century. The room was once divided by a partition wall for greater privacy.
Below the lord’s chamber is his downstairs solar, also with its original fireplace dating from c1300.
The very next year, on 25th March 1306, Robert the Bruce seized the Scottish throne, and in 1307 Edward I died en route to fight the newly enthroned rival to his royal authority. After decades of relative peace, all hell broke out in the northern English counties. The Scots drove the English out, raiding time and again over the border, burning and looting English lands as they went. Aydon’s new defenses were put to the test in 1311 and 1312 when the Bruce personally led his forces to sack Corbridge and the surrounding area. The castle may have kept the enemy at bay at first, but another raid in 1315 while Robert de Raymes was away resulted in disaster. The commander left in charge, Hugh de Gales, clearly didn’t trust the fortifications in the face of an invading Scottish army, as he meekly surrendered, allowing the castle to be burnt and pillaged. But this was far from the last of the troubles Aydon was to endure.
A house being looted by soldiers as depicted in a medieval manuscript.
Two years later, it was the turn of the English to cause havoc, and following his surrender of Aydon in 1315 the castle was seized by none other than Hugh de Gales himself. He and his followers staged a repeat of the previous Scottish attack, burning the place and, according to poor Robert, carrying off ‘the timber and other goods and chattels, namely linen and woollen cloths, gold, silver, hangings, gold brooches and household utensils to the value of £200’.
With the sheer devastation wrought by the Scots and the widespread unrest, the Northumbrian government collapsed and anarchy ruled, from which the county never fully recovered for the remainder of the Middle Ages. By the time of Robert’s death in 1324, his northern manors of Bolam, Shortflatt and Aydon were all ruined and worthless. Nevertheless, the northern folk were a hardy lot, and after the turbulent reign of Edward II (1307-1327) Northumbrian society clawed its way back and Robert managed to remain an important figure in his adopted county. His son, Robert de Raymes II, took on the family baton, involving himself in commerce and trade and becoming sheriff of the county in 1347. But despite his successes, an attack of a different kind claimed his life when he died of Black Death in 1349. Three sons succeeded him, but it was the youngest, Nicholas, who is the most notable of all. Although he proved to be the most successful member of the de Raymes family, Nicholas was also a medieval rogue and could easily be described an original dodgy geezer…
Aydon’s defensive curtain wall and the remaining base of a mid-fourteenth century tower to the right.
Despite being well connected with powerful friends, Nicholas de Raymes seemed to court trouble. Prone to disorder and debt, he showed loyalty to King Edward III by going to war in France in 1355 and 1359, but back at home in 1363 he found himself on the wrong side of the law as an accessory to the murder of John Coupland, an unpopular but important royal official. Languishing in prison for several years, he only succeeded to Aydon Castle in 1376, some twelve years after the death of his older brother. Nicholas was prosecuted for debt several times. On one occasion, despite being appointed – rather unwisely – as receiver for the Northumbrian landowner Henry Delaval, he was mysteriously unable to account for the funds he had received. He was sued by the prior of Carlisle, rector of Corbridge, for £50 probably for unpaid tithes, and as if this wasn’t enough, in 1380 someone saw fit to employ Nicholas as the king’s escheator in the north, a prominent financial office with the responsibility of reclaiming lands from deceased subjects for the crown. Again, unsurprisingly, funds went missing, which Nicholas could never quite explain.
This second kitchen built at Aydon by Robert de Raymes was larger than the original, and was probably added when he realised he was going to need more men to take to the impending war with Scotland, and to defend his new home. The room was divided into two as shown by the split level floor, with the lower room used for food preparation while the dishes were cooked over a large fireplace at the back of the higher section.
The spacious vaulted stone stores underneath Robert’s second kitchen, with a characteristic early fourteenth century ‘shouldered’ arch at the end.
But Nicholas could always count on his friends. As a great pal of Henry Percy, first Earl of Northumberland, he always managed to wriggle out of these tight spots. Percy was the most powerful man in the North, and Nicholas knew this. Around the 1370s, he took thirty men to Scotland to back the earl in battle, and thanks to this support, their friendship and to Nicholas’s uncanny gift of the gab, the de Raymes family thrived. The man himself represented Northumberland in Parliament, became a Justice of the Peace, chamberlain of Berwick and keeper of Roxburgh Castle before going on embassy to Scotland in 1390. Before his death in 1394, he even secured an excellent marriage for his son, Robert, to the daughter of a highly influential noble, Sir Robert Ogle, leaving the family’s fortunes once again looking bright.
A fine-looking tower projects from the curtain wall, looking every bit the classic lordly accommodation. But in fact, it’s the loos!
As for Aydon Castle itself, fortune was not so kind. Possibly for security reasons, Nicholas had increasingly based himself at another of his Northumbrian residences at Shortflatt. Aydon was leased to tenants, but by 1450 it was referred to as ‘a ruinous castle’, perhaps having fallen victim to the brief but violent Anglo-Scottish war of 1448-9. Nicholas’s descendants fared no better than their old home, the family status declining through the loss of local offices and a lack of good marriages. Eventually, Aydon was traded for an estate closer to Shortflatt by Nicholas’s great, great grandson, and the caslte passed out of the de Raymes family, later to be converted into a farmhouse in the seventeenth century. As a more humble-status dwelling, Aydon was occupied until 1966, but a wander around it’s charming walls and halls today is to see it largely as it was in its original state as a fortified medieval manor, as Robert de Raymes’s pride and joy before its swift and untimely fall.
Making myself at home in Robert’s great hall…
I’m really enjoying looking back through the memories of our 2021 Northumbrian escape, and to be reminded of all the great stories the county has to tell from its vast array of medieval sites, castles and characters. But one thing I can say is that I hope we have more luck with our house move than poor old Robert de Raymes did when he had his bright idea of leaving Suffolk to move north to a better life at Aydon Castle…