Alnwick has been dubbed the Windsor of the North: I’m not sure who coined the phrase, but it’s obviously to do with the fact that Alnwick has the second largest lived-in castle in England – after Windsor of course, so how does it really compare to Her Majesty’s home down south?
Alnwick (pronounced Annick) is a pleasant market town of around 8,000 inhabitants situated some 5 miles inland from the Northumberland coast, and about half way between Newcastle-upon-Tyne and Berwick-upon-Tweed.
The main attraction is without doubt the magnificent castle, but after arriving in Alnwick, you might want to do the same as we did, and get to know a little bit more about the town which lies next to the River Aln first. It’s not very far to walk, and it will help put everything into perspective, especially where the Percy family are concerned, who are not only inextricably linked with Northumberland, but have lived in the castle for over 700 years.
To make things easier I’ve marked the trail we took on the Google map above. Our starting point was the Greenwell Road car park (1) which is not only easy to find, but also convenient, as it’s close to the Bondgate Tower (2).
The tower was one of four built in the 15th century to allow entry into the walled town, and is the only original gate remaining. It was built in 1452 by Henry Percy, the 2nd Earl of Northumberland and son of Harry Hotspur, who I’ll be discussing in a bit more detail shortly. This connection has earned the tower the alternative name (wrongly in my opinion) the Hotspur Gate. Above the entrance you might just be able to make out a lion which is the Percy family emblem.
If you walk through the gate into Bondgate Within, and then left into Market Street, you’ll find Market Place on the right-hand side (3). We took a morning coffee break at Melvyn’s Café, where I had the chance to read up a bit more about the Percy family.
I’m sure you wouldn’t thank me for delving too deeply into the family history, but you wouldn’t thank me for not telling you something about one of the most powerful families in medieval England either.
William de Percy was the first member of the family to set foot on English soil when he came over from Perci in Normandy just after the Conquest in 1067. He held land in Yorkshire on behalf of William I, but it was Henry de Percy who acquired the barony and castle of Alnwick from the Bishop of Durham in 1309.
The new owner of the castle wasn’t the first member of the Percy family to be named Henry – and he certainly wasn’t the last. The next three Dukes were all called Henry, but the 4th Duke also became the 1st Earl of Northumberland after Richard II’s coronation in 1377.
Not everyone who lived in Alnwick was a duke or an earl though: A weekly market has been held here for the last 800 years, and right outside Melvyn’s Café is the Market Cross where locals could hear the latest proclamation being made while they were shopping for ingredients to make their next Pan Haggerty or whatever. The steps are medieval, but the original medieval cross was replaced in the 19th century.
There were no proclamations being delivered or produce being sold today, so we walked across the square and took a passageway that led back out into Bondgate Within, where we turned left and continued on into Narrowgate. At the junction with Pottergate, almost opposite the Dirty Bottles pub, is a 14ft bronze statue which was commissioned to commemorate 700 years of the Percy family in Alnwick (4).
Unveiled in 2010, the statue represents the 1st Earl of Northumberland’s son, and there are no prizes for guessing what his name was. In England, the name Henry is often changed to Harry, and has been used as a slang term since medieval times. Even today, the second son of Prince Charles is called Harry rather than his birth name of Henry. The Earl’s son also had another name – Hotspur – and if you’ve been paying attention, you’ll remember that I mentioned Harry Hotspur’s name when talking about the Bondgate Tower.
As you may have probably gathered by now, Harry Hotspur is the most illustrious member of the Percy family. He was born in 1364 at Alnwick Castle, but you’re probably wondering how he got the nickname Hotspur, and even if you’re not, I’m going to tell you anyway. He was knighted by King Edward III, and earned a distinguished reputation on the battlefields of Europe, but it was the Scots who gave him the nickname due to his impulsive behaviour in battle. Perhaps he might best be described as hot-headed, and I suppose it was inevitable that he would end his days on a battlefield somewhere.
That somewhere was Shrewsbury, where on 21st July 1403 he took on King Henry IV’s army – and lost. Ironically, Hotspur had supported the Lancastrian Henry in his fight against Richard II to become King of England, but fell out after land that he was promised was given to a rival. The intrigue surrounding the events, and Hotspur himself, fascinated William Shakespeare so much that he wrote about it in his play Henry IV, Part 1.
I would imagine there are some football fans out there who might also be wondering if there’s a connection between the North London football club and Harry Hotspur – and the answer is yes, or at least up to a point. Tottenham Hotspur’s ground is still at White Hart Lane in Haringey, an area that used to belong to the Percy family, and is still remembered in the adjacent council ward and estate of Northumberland Park.
You may remember me saying that there were four towers built around the town wall, and that Bondgate was the only original one left, but if you look up Pottergate you’ll see another one that replaced the original Pottergate Tower in 1768. It was built in a pseudo-gothic style with a lanthorn on the top, not unlike the one on Newcastle Cathedral, but it got damaged in a storm in 1812 and was never replaced. If you really like its present appearance, you may be interested to know that it’s now let out as holiday accommodation. The other two towers incidentally were the Clayport Tower and Narrowgate Tower, which was located at the top of Narrowgate next to the castle entrance, and where we were heading for next (5).
Alnwick Castle is everything a good castle should be: It looks like a proper castle, it has an amazing history, and is still lived in by the same family who have been part of that history since medieval times.
It’s not a coincidence that Northumberland has more castles than any other county in England. Its border with Scotland made it an area hotly contested by the medieval kings of England and Scotland, and the borderline was constantly changing.
Alnwick’s location meant that it was no stranger to battles between the two sides, and on 10th November 1093, the Scottish King, Malcolm III, was killed at the Battle of Alnwick. Under the circumstances, it’s hardly surprising therefore that it became necessary to build some form of defence for the town, and so it was decided to build a fortress on a natural bluff overlooking the River Aln.
In 1096 Yves de Vescy, the Baron of Alnwick, set about building a typical Norman Motte and Bailey castle, the layout of which, can still be recognised in the form of the Outer Bailey, Inner Bailey and Keep. By the time King David I of Scotland captured it in 1136, the castle was much stronger, but he was forced to hand it back again when he signed a peace treaty with King Stephen of England. All this was well before it came into the Percy family’s hands of course.
John de Vesey, a descendant of Yves de Vescy, was underage when he inherited the family’s estates and they were put under the guardianship of Antony Bek, the dodgy Bishop of Durham, who, as I mentioned earlier, sold them to Henry Percy in 1309.
The castle Henry bought was now made of stone, but it was still quite a modest affair and so he started work on rebuilding it. Although he never lived to see the end result, Alnwick was to become one of the Border Country’s most important fortresses, and as you enter the castle and into the Outer Bailey, you’ll soon be able to see why. The Keep lies directly ahead, but if you look back, you’ll see the Curtain Wall and its Watch Towers with the Barbican in the centre.
By following the path around to the north-west corner, you’ll come to the Abbot’s Tower (which now houses the Fusiliers Museum of Northumberland) and the Falconer’s Tower.
Next to the Falconer’s Tower is The Gun Terrace with views down to the river and the Lion Bridge. This bridge, which was built around 1770, is adorned with the famous Percy Lion. If you fancy a walk along the riverside, I can definitely recommend it, but I warn you, it’s quite a stiff walk back up to the town.
The castle may have been quite a fortress but it didn’t only have to fight off the Scots, it was embroiled in the Wars of the Roses too, and if you remember, our friend Hotspur got his fingers burnt being on the side of the House of Lancaster one minute and then the House of York the next.
Between 1462 and 1464 the castle changed sides no less than five times, but eventually ended up in the 4th Earl’s hands who was a supporter of the House of York.
You could write a book about the history of the Percys and their castle, and I’ve no doubt that somebody has, but for the purposes of this blog I’ll just say that in the 200 years following Hotspur’s death only two of the Earls died naturally – of the others, three were killed in battle, two executed, and two were murdered.
Like many castles, as the need for it to be used as a fortress declined, then the use of it as a stately home increased, and that’s what The Keep is used for today. As you can imagine, this is the most impressive part of the castle, but unfortunately photography is not permitted inside, and the best I can give you is a picture of the Octagonal Towers that lead into the Keep.
The State Rooms are sumptuous to say the least. They’ve had several makeovers, the latest being created in Victorian times by Luigi Canina in the Italianate style, so that will at least give you some idea of what they look like now. The Saloon, Drawing Room, and Dining Room are fabulously ornate with some exceptional pieces of furniture, paintings, and china, but my favourite was the incredible library. I like libraries, and I’ve seen some wonderful examples in stately homes up and down the country, but I think that this one has to be one of the best I’ve seen.
Over the centuries some of the original parts of the castle have disappeared, and some have been added, but it’s still essentially how it looked in the 14th century. The Inner Bailey has another Curtain Wall and some more towers including the Postern and Constable Towers, but it was now time to head for the Courtyard where we could have some refreshment, and find out a bit more on what the current owner is up to.
Before I go any further, I have to admit that understanding family trees have never been my strong point, and the Percy family tree hasn’t made it any easier. The Earldom of Northumberland (after several creations) effectively died out when Josceline, the 11th Earl, died without a male heir in 1670, but just to confuse things, he wasn’t actually the last Earl. I don’t think I’ll make any new blogging friends if I explain how Northumberland reverted to a Duchy, which is probably just as well because I’m not sure I fully understand it anyway. Suffice it to say that the present incumbent at Alnwick Castle is Ralph George Algernon Percy 12th Duke of Northumberland, who has lived here with his wife since 1995.
The Duchess has been involved in a project of her own, namely the Alnwick Garden. It’s been described as the most ambitious new garden to be created in Britain since the end of WWII and is reputed to be costing something like £42million. What this means of course, is that there’s an extra charge for visiting it – and quite a hefty one at that. I haven’t visited the garden so I can’t comment on whether it justifies the entrance fee. I’m assuming that it does as long as you treat it as a separate day out.
After our pitstop at the Courtyard, we had a quick look at the Percy State Coach in the adjacent Coach House and then headed back towards the car. We took the shortest route this time through Bow Alley, (6) which means walking back down Narrowgate and taking the turning opposite Pottergate. The alley leads directly into the lower end of Greenwell Road and the car park (7).
So, is Alnwick really the Windsor of the North? Well, yes and no really. A northern town is usually quite different to a southern town and the difference between Alnwick and Windsor is no exception. As for the castle, although the Percys have been a very influential family, they’re not royalty, and their castle is, understandably, not as majestic as Queen Elizabeth’s.
If I’m being honest, I think there are other castles in Northumberland that have more charm, but I can’t think of any that have more history, and every visitor to this part of the country should include it on their list of places to see. After all, the history of the remarkable Percy family and their magnificent castle is also a part of England’s history too.