Medieval Castles > Castles England > Alnwick Castle

Alnwick Castle


Alnwick CastleLocation: Alnwick, Northumberland, England

Built in: 1096

History
Alnwick is built on the summit of the southern bank of the Aln, on a plateau of five acres of ground, walled round with strong fortifications, defended by sixteen towers, and divided into two large courtyards, with the Keep in the midst.

The Keep is polygonal in form, faced by nine towers, and is built round a third, or inner court. We have the northern side of the second court­yard, with the Round (or Record) Tower; next to that is the abutment, called the Ravine Tower, in whose recess is the stone seat called 'Hotspur's Chair', and between which and the Record Tower is 'the Bloody Gap', - a name given to that part of the curtain-wall from a breach being there made by the Scots during some Border war, in a vain effort to capture the castle. Three hundred Scots are said to have fallen there, and the extent of 'the Bloody Gap' is plainly to be discerned from the variations in the masonry.

We then come to the Constable's Tower, and the Postern Tower, or Sally Port, and then to the Keep itself, which was protected by a low curtain-wall, carried in a semicircle to the Armourer's Tower and the Falconer's Tower. These are the two towers lately swept away (together with their curtain-wall) in order to accommodate the arrangements consequent 'upon the erection of the Prudhoe Tower, for which also the two north-western round towers of the Keep were also destroyed.

One of these towers contains the ancient banqueting-hall of the Percies; and the successive sacrifice of these four towers with their many interesting evidences of feudal times, in order that the modern Italian interior of the castle might not be interfered with, has raised a storm of discussion among such distinguished architects as Scott, Cockerell, Donaldson, Godwin, Pocock, Ferguson, and Salvin, under whom the recently completed works have been carried out, chiefly from the designs of Commendatore Canina.

These works have been hailed with applause, and hailed upon with disapprobation. It is an example of one of those Sir Roger de Coverley cases, where much may be said on both sides. In the last six years these works have magically transformed the interior of the feudal castle of the chival­rous Earls of Northumberland (much debased, it is true, by Batty-Langley and Strawberry-Hill Gothic) into a Roman palazzo, with the most gorgeous and costly decorations of the Renaissance.

For six years have two hundred work­men been employed in these alterations; much has been done at Rome, and much on the spot, especially by the twenty-seven native wood-carvers. There are no shams in the decorations; the ceilings and cornices are carved, and not cast or moulded: the walnut and maple-woods are what they pretend to be; and, to such an extent has this Ruskinism 'conscientiousness of art' been carried that, in this age of papier-mache, carton-pierre, gutta-percha, and the like, there are several miles of the egg-ornament laboriously carved by hand, while a door panel has occupied its carver four months, and a shutter-panel, a twelvemonth.

This modern sumptuousness of decoration is a remarkable contrast to that peculiar species of economy imposed upon the proud Percies of three centuries back, when Clarksoil's report (in 1567) advised the taking out of the glass win­dows whenever my lord and his friends were not there, and laying them up in safety until their return, justifying this economical act by the 'decaye and waste' of the windows 'throwe extreme winds.'

Next to these now destroyed Armourer's and Falconer's Towers, comes the Abbot's Tower (the large corner one), where the abbot had apartments, whenever choice or neces­sity caused him to leave his abbey, snugly situated down in the wooded valley by the river-side. Beyond this is seen the West Garret, and the outer of 'Utter Ward,' with its square and octagonal towers, and its advanced barbican, forming a picturesque mass of great size and strength, and a noble entrance to a noble castle.

Walking along the parapets from the Round Tower, we pass East Garret. Beginning at the left hand, we first come to the Guard House, and the Auditor's Tower, which flank the southern gate. The south wall is then continued to the Middle Ward, which, as being the second great entrance to the castle, is a building of great size and strength. Over it was the chapel, approached from the library, a noble room that occupied the greater part of this block of building but which has now been converted into the private apartments of the Duke and Duchess.

This block of building divides the two courtyards, and is terminated in the Keep, whose two semi-octagonal towers were added, in advance, to the old square Norman tower, by the second Lord Percy, about the year 1350­.

A series of escutcheons on the upper part of the towers helps us to the date of their erection; and though we know not their architect, we have full proof that he did his work well, for the towers have not needed repairs up to this day, and even a rector's legal adviser would experience some difficulty in awarding dilapidations. The moat and draw­bridge that guarded the entrance to the Keep have long since passed away; but, at the time of my visit, a field­piece, backed up by a pyramidal pile of cannon balls, did harmless duty on either side of the gateway, and playfully menaced the Auditor's Tower and the Guard House on the opposite side of the courtyard.

The ground-floor of the octagonal towers of the Keep is lighted by long arrow slits that admit a thin wedge of light to the wine-cellar, on the left hand, and to the chief dun­geon, on the right. Each of the lodges at the various gates was furnished with dungeons; but this was the chief dun­geon for the State offenders. Its size is eleven feet four inches, by ten feet four inches. In the floor is an iron grating, over a pit; and, a light being lowered into this for the depth of eleven feet, discloses a horrible grave (worthy of Naples and the dark ages) nine feet by eight, into which the wretched prisoner was lowered, or shot like a sack of coals.

Let us thank Heaven that such a place can now only be shown as a curiosity. The breakfast-room was over the gateway: we see one of its windows over the mound of the Keep. The windows in the first round tower, and the windows in the flat wall to the left, lighted the old dining-room. The next round tower contained the old drawing-room whose interior shape was that of the ace of clubs. A portion of the low curtain-wall is seen at the base of the Keep mound; and then, immediately on the right is the postern tower, or sally-port.

In the lower part was a laboratory; in the upper part, a collection of old armour, and a museum of miscellaneous antiquities; Roman remains; small cannon, used at the first invention of gun­powder; and the old standard bushel of Northumberland, and a chain of several links, that could be bound around an arm, like an iron chain, and was carved out of a solid block of stone.

Let us now pass between those two great octagonal towers, and up the long dark tunnel that will lead us into the heart of the Keep, the third, or inner court; the carriages rattle under that dark archway with a peculiar dull sound, for its pavement is of wood, as is also the pavement of the inner court. It is a polygon, having nine sides of various dimensions, besides other little angles, and it is about a hundred feet across from the one side to the other; and, as it is. walled in with high towers on every side, it has some­what of a well-like aspect.

Its two great architectural and antiquarian curiosities are the Saxon (or Norman, if you are a great stickler for this point) mouldings on the inner face of the archway, presenting a great diversity of enrichments and the old draw-well, for the use of the castle during a siege. This is built in the thickness of the wall, with three pointed arches, surmounted by one large discharging arch, on the point of which is a humorous-looking corbel, sup­porting the figure of a priest, who is in the attitude of blessing the water.
The old axle, with its pegged hand­wheels, still remains, and this interesting draw-well has not been interfered with in the recent alterations, though the aspect of the Inner Court has been altered by the addition of the covered drive.

The limits of this paper do not allow me to say more of Alnwick Castle, or to touch upon the varied events that have befallen it and its owners, from those early Percy days when

in the Conqueror's fleet
Lord William shipp'd his powers,


(as one of the family has told us in his ballad of the Hermit of Warkworth) down to those later times of handsome Hugh Smithson, the London apothecary, and his descendants, when, as the American poet Halleck sings in that ballad, which is not so well known (in its entirety) as it deserves to be :

The present representatives
Of Hotspur and his gentle Kate,
Are some half-dozen serving-men,
In the drab coats of William Penn


who will bow you

From donjon vault, to turret wall,
For ten-and-sixpence sterling.


I have not space to dwell upon these matters, although there is very much to interest us in the records of the Castle and its owners, and much for salient anecdote and gossip, not only as to the people but also their manners and customs. As, for example, that curious manuscript book, dated 1512, which tells us how the fifth Earl and his family lived; they had fresh meat from Midsummer to Michaelmas, and salt meat for all the rest of the year; how the servants rarely had anything else than salt meat, with few or no veg­etables (the roast beef of Old England being a mere Jack­o'-Lantern to them); how my lord and lady had no sheets to their bed, and only washed their tablecloths once a month ; how they rose at six, breakfasted at seven on a quart of beer, a quart of wine, two pieces of salt fish, six red her­rings, four white herrings, and a dish of sprats half a chyne of mutton and a chyne of boiled beef being added on flesh days; how they dined at ten and supped at four, and went to bed at nine; how there were only two cooks, with two assist­ants to provide for a household of two hundred and twenty­three, and how. the head cook was so great a monarch that when he gives an order for the making of mustard it bears this preamble: 'It seemeth good to us and our council;' how the players at Christmas had twenty-pence for every play, and the rockers in the nursery had as many shillings each year; how, in the winter, only a peck of coals were allowed for each fire, and no fires after Lady-day, except half-fires for my lord and lady, and the nursery.

There is all this, and very much more, that is both curious and interesting, but space, and not material, fails me. Nor can I speak of the out-of-door lions of Alnwick, the park, the gardens, the model farm, the Duchess's dairy, the ruins of Alnwick Abbey, down in the sequestered dell by the river, the ruins of Hulne Abbey upon the slope of the hill over against the Castle Brislee Tower, a Strawberry-hill erection eighty feet high, called by Mr. Walter White ' an elegant structure'; but, in my humble opinion, a very hideous affair, and a fit companion to Kew Pagoda; and more useful than ornamental, for the summit commands a glorious view;-the monument to commemorate the capture of William the Lion, and the cross to commemorate the death of King Malcolm.

It bears the following in­scriptions: 11 Malcolm III, King of Scotland, besieging Aliiwick Castle, was slain here, Nov. XIII, an. MXCIII. K. Malcolm's cross, decayed by time, was restored by his descendant, Eliz. Dutchess of Northumberland, MDCCLXXIV" It is distant about three-quarters of a mile from the castle, on the opposite side of the river; but, from what the ancient chartulary of Alnwick Abbey says,, the spot where Malcolm died was two or three hundred yards nearer to the castle, where Malcolm's Well now is. Malcolm was ravaging Northumberland with fire and sword, and, in due course, laid siege to Alnwick, which was stoutly defended by Moroll of Bamburgh.

When the garrison could hold out no longer, a certain man rode forth to Malcolm, bearing the keys of the castle tied to the end of his spear, and presented himself in a suppliant posture, as being come to surrender up possession. Malcolm advanced to receive the keys, when the soldier pierced him with a mortal wound, and, dashing through the swollen river, escaped by the fleetness of his horse. Malcolm dropped dead; a panic arose among the Scots, and the desperate defenders of Alnwick made a successful sortie, and put their enemy to the rout.

Prince Edward, Malcolm's eldest son, received mortal wounds in this fight. The old Abbey chronicle says that the soldier's name was Hammond, and the place where he swam the river was called 'Ham­mond's Ford.' But Hector Boetius has improved the story into a legend, and says the soldier's name was Mowbray, and that he pierced Malcolm through the eye, and from that circumstance acquired the name of Pierce­eye, and became the founder of the proud family of Percy, Earls of Northumberland. A very pretty legend, but somewhat damaged by obtrusive facts, especially by that fact that the ancestor of the family was that William de Percy, of the town of Percy in Lower Normandy, who was one of the Norman chieftains who came over with the Conqueror, and whose name is recorded in the rolls of Battle Abbey.