A stronghold on the Anglo-Scottish Borders

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Etal Castle is one of many strongholds that dot the borderlands between England and Scotland. This was always a fractious frontier and over the centuries armies from both nations criss-crossed the border laying waste to the land about. This turmoil and lawlessness gave birth to the famous Border Reivers.

Raiding and criminality in the borders became a way of life from around 1290, right up until the joining of the crowns in 1603 when law and order was ruthlessly restored at the end of a rope. From that point in time the international border ceased to exist, as the English and Scottish crowns were unified under a single Scottish King, James VI/I, who ruled his newly established joint realm from London.

So how did all this mayhem and brigandage come about? In 1286 the Scottish King, Alexander III, died in a tragic accident whilst on his way to his new young wife's bed during a raging storm. The Kings sudden death was catastrophic for Scotland and it left the kingdom in utter chaos. 

The only heir to the throne, his infant grand-daughter, Margaret, known as the 'Maid of Morway', died in 1290 and a power struggle for the crown erupted. This constitutional crisis began three hundred years of conflict and invasion, as the English crown tried to gain control of Scotland and make Scots kings pay homage to the English king.

Sir Robert Manners

Etal Castle was originally founded by the Manners family in the late twelfth century as a manor, when Norman control of the north was strengthened and entrenched. The castle itself was constructed in the early fourteenth century by Sir Robert Manners. He was a member of the Anglo-Norman aristocracy who had ruled England since the conquest of 1066, and who continue to be the biggest landowners in England to this day. 

Etal Castle is situated in a very strategic position adjacent to a ford over the river Till, which in turn feeds into the river Tweed. The Tweed forms the natural border between England and Scotland, except where it runs through Berwick Upon Tweed, a town that was once one of the most important conurbations in Scotland until it was finally lost to the English in 1482. It was a devastating loss to the Scottish economy and its exports of wool to the continent.

The original manor, having been constructed at a time of relative peace in the Borders, was by the fourteenth century becoming vulnerable to attack by roving bands of Scottish raiders. In 1341 a license to fortify his dwelling was granted by the English King and Sir Robert added curtain walls, corner towers and a strong gatehouse. This greatly enhanced the protection of Etal Castle and provided a secure base for the Manners family.

Flodden Field

The year 1513 was one of national tragedy for Scotland. After many raids and provocations by the English against Scotland, King James IV crossed the border with an army estimated to contain around 60,000 – 100,000 men. As the great army crossed into England it took various border strongholds, one of which was Etal Castle. It was surrendered without a fight as although it had been fortified and afforded protection against raid and attack, its walls were no match for the heavy cannon of the Scottish army.

The Scots were utterly defeated at the Battle of Flodden on the 9th September 1513. This battle took place just outside the village of Branxton, which is very close to the location of Etal Castle. In all around 10,000 Scotsmen fell at Flodden, including King James IV, twelve earls, thirteen barons, five heirs to titles, three bishops and two abbots. The cream of Scotland's nobility had been wiped out at a stroke. It was a devastating blow from which Scotland was never truly to recover.

Following the defeat of the Scots, Etal Castle returned intact to the Manners family. After 1603 the castle lost its strategic importance and it gradually began to fall into a state of disrepair. As the years of neglect took their toll the castle was finally abandoned as a residence in the eighteenth century. Its owners relocated to a new and far more comfortable manor in the adjoining village.

Today Etal Castle is a grade one listed building and a scheduled ancient monument. It is owned by English Heritage and is open to the public. I visited the castle on the 5th July 2012 and found it to be a very interesting place indeed, especially given its illuminating exhibition in respect to the Battle of Flodden. Don’t forget to visit Flodden battlefield whilst in the area, as it is incredibly well preserved and worth a visit.

September 9th 2013 will be the five hundredth anniversary of the battle, and there are expected to be commemorative events happening at the battlefield to mark the occasion.

Above are some photographs I took at Etal Castle. Please click the thumbnails for the larger images.

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©Copyright - James of Glencarr