Castle is a majestic and imposing ruin set high above the river Tweed on
the English side of the border with Scotland, about seven miles from
Berwick-upon-Tweed. It gained much fame and recognition in the early 19th
century when it became a favourite subject of the painter J.M.W Turner. It
seemed to have had a magnetic attraction for him and drew him back many
castle was originally built in 1121 by Ranulf Flambard, the Bishop of
Durham, for the express purpose of protecting the Bishops lands in
Northumberland from any pillaging and rampaging Scots. In 1136, King David
I of Scotland invaded England and the newly constructed castle fell to his
forces. It was handed back soon after but fell again in 1138 during
another Scots invasion. The border was nothing but lively in the 12th
century and the poor castle garrison must have been getting pretty sick of
the sight of turbulent Scotsmen.
invasion of 1138 caused much damage to the structure of the castle and it
remained in a sorry state until after 1153, when it was renovated and
repaired by Hugh de Puiset, Bishop of Durham. In 1174 Hugh supported a
rebellion against the English King Henry II, which also drew in King
William the Lion of Scotland.
de Puiset’s support of the rebels cost him Norham Castle and it became
the property of the crown. It was certainly a valuable trophy. The castle
was administered by a constable on behalf of the crown and manned by royal
soldiers. Two years after Hugh’s death it was restored to his successor,
Philip of Poitou. When Philip died in 1208 the castle once again reverted
to royal control.
of the Scots
the early 13th century the now royal castle was kept well
maintained and strongly garrisoned. This was just as well because in 1215
the castle was besieged by King Alexander II of Scotland for a period of
forty days. The Scots were unable to take the castle and the siege ended.
In 1217, Norham Castle was restored to the possession of the Bishopric of
I, King of England, nicknamed ‘longshanks’ due to his height, and also
later known as the ‘Hammer of the Scots’ visited the castle many times
during the latter part of the 13th century. In 1292, John Balliol, King of
Scotland, paid homage to him at the castle. In 1296 in response to the
newly enacted Scots alliance with France, seen by Edward as a threat and a
provocation, and the Scots subsequent attack on Carlisle, he invaded
Scotland in order to take control of the country.
was a bloodthirsty campaign, one of the opening acts being the taking of
Berwick-upon-Tweed where over 7,000 of the towns inhabitants were brutally
massacred. It was said at the time that the streets literally ran with
blood. During Edward’s campaign across the border his queen, Marguerite
of France, remained safely installed at Norham.
14th century brought yet more strife and turbulence on the
border with the Scots invading Northumberland on several occasions, but
not all of these incursions involved an attack upon Norham Castle. Notably
in 1318, Robert the Bruce laid siege to the castle for almost a year but
did not succeed in taking possession of it, as the defences were just too
strong. The Scottish army did however succeed in occupying the outer ward
for three days but were then driven out by the English garrison.
Scots were back again the following year with the aim once again of taking
the castle. They laid siege for seven months but once again failed in
their attempt to take the castle. Norham was proving to be a real thorn in
the side of the Scots. They attempted another siege in 1322 and once again
were unsuccessful in their hostile endeavours. Finally in 1327 the Scots
were able to storm the castle but they did not hold it for long. Peace
broke out and the castle was returned to the control of the Bishop of
Durham, a move that was good for the conclusion of hostilities, but a poor
one strategically given the castles commanding position on the border.
the late Middle Ages
first half of the 15th century saw relative peace and
tranquillity along the border but given the often fractious relations
between England and Scotland, such peace and serenity was too good to
last. Despite the long period of stability the defences of Norham Castle
were rigorously maintained, a wise precaution to be sure.
next action the castle saw did not involve the Scots but rival factions of
Englishmen. The Wars of the Roses 1455 – 1487 saw the houses of York and
Lancaster vie for the crown and the castle changed hands a couple of
times, once through the garrison changing sides. After the conclusion of
this civil conflict, Bishop Foxe of Durham had the castles defences
strengthened. This proved to be a very good decision as in 1497; the
castle was once again besieged by a Scottish army led by James IV.
siege was only to last for a period of two weeks as an English army
arrived to drive off the Scots. The castle had been damaged by Scottish
artillery and these new offensive weapons were to negate the strengths of
the traditional castle. Straight masonry walls were no match for the
firepower of gunpowder driven projectiles. After the rout of the Scots
army, the castle was repaired.
twilight of Norham Castle
the 15th century drew to a close and the 16th
century arrived, momentous political events were in the air. In 1513 James
IV of Scotland, despite earnest advice not to do so, invaded England with
an army that has been estimated as being 60,000 – 100,000 strong. He
laid siege to Norham Castle and pounded it with heavy artillery for seven
days. His army took the outer ward, after which the English garrison
surrendered. The defences were no match for the Scots artillery and most
of the walls had already been destroyed by that point.
ruined castle was not to remain in Scottish hands for long. At the
momentous battle of Flodden Field on 9th September 1513, King
James IV and the flower of the Scottish aristocracy were slaughtered,
along with an estimated 10,000 soldiers of the Scottish army. It is
perhaps the blackest day in the history of Scotland and had ramifications
that echoed down the following centuries.
few years later, Bishop Thomas Ruthall of Durham inspected the castle and
began restoration work. This continued until 1521. From that point on the
castle was kept in a good state of repair and was well maintained. There
was still general lawlessness along the border, this being the height of
the ‘riding times’ of the Border Reivers, but no significant national
conflicts occurred with Scotland.
the century progressed it became obvious that Queen Elizabeth I of England
was never going to produce an heir, and that her obvious successor would
be King James VI of Scotland. There was now no reason for any conflict
between the English and Scots, the nobles were already positioning
themselves for a new reality, and the significance of Norham as a fortress
waned. The castle garrison was much reduced and no repairs were
undertaken. By the end of the century the castle had fallen into an
advanced state of disrepair. At the joining of the crowns in 1603, the
castle lost any remaining defensive significance.
Castle as a romantic ruin
previously mentioned, Norham Castle became a favourite subject of the
famous painter J.M.W Turner. He painted it at least seven times and seemed
to have a great attraction to the ruins set high above the river Tweed.
the castle is operated by English Heritage and is a Grade 1 listed
Scheduled Ancient Monument. It is open to the public and entry is free, so
it provides an inexpensive day out for the family. There is a visitor
centre on site. On a fine summers day Norham Castle is a wonderful place
to spend some time and enjoy a relaxed picnic in a stunning environment. I
highly recommend a visit.
The site is large and one never feels confined or hemmed in by fellow visitors. There is parking at the site but it is rather restricted. I was last at the castle on 5th July 2012 and was certainly extremely lucky with the weather, given the generally terrible summer with its heavy rain and flooding. Above are some images of the castle I took that sunny day.
©Copyright - James of Glencarr