An English stronghold on the Anglo-Scottish Borders

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Norham 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 times.

The 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.

The 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.

Hugh 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.

Hammer of the Scots

During 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 Durham.

Edward 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.

It 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.


The 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.

The 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.

Into the late Middle Ages

The 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.

The 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.

This 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.

The twilight of Norham Castle

As 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.

The 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.

A 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.

As 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.

Norham Castle as a romantic ruin

As 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.

Today 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.

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©Copyright - James of Glencarr