Alnwick Castle, like all of England, has history; let us give you some of its flavor. We’ll begin some 3 decades after the Norman Conquest, before the Castle was built. The city of Alnwick lay within the region of overlapping claims by English and Scottish kings; as a result, this area was the site of frequent raids. In about 1096, in response to these raids, the English Baron Vescy built the first part of Alnwick Castle on a natural bluff guarding a road that crossed the River Aln. The castle was captured by King David I of Scotland in 1139, but was reclaimed (along with the rest of Northumberland) in 1157 by King Henry II of England. In 1172, and again in 1174, it was besieged by the Scottish King, William the Lion, but in the second siege he spread his army too thin and was captured by English knights. Some 50 years later the Scottish kings signed the Treaty of York, formally abandoning their claims to the region, and establishing Scotland’s current border. However, the area was still considered a great source of plunder, and Scottish raids continued. In 1309 the castle was purchased by Baron Percy, who began construction resulting in the castle pretty much as it appears today. He built an extensive outer bailey with a series of strong towers, a middle gateway to an inner bailey, also with towers, and added semi-circular towers to the keep, making it a
major fortress along the Anglo-Scottish border. The garrison in 1314 consisted of 3 knights, 38 fully armed soldiers and 40 mounted troups. The castle balanced military requirements with the family’s residential needs, and became the template for castle renovations in the 1300’s.
The castle became a focal point in the War of the Roses (1455 – 1487), changing hands 5 times between 1462 and 1464, but it ultimately ended up back in Percy hands. However, the 7th Earl of Northumberland, Thomas Percy, loyal to the Catholic Church, was a leader in an unsuccessful effort to restore Mary Queen of Scots to the throne and was beheaded for treason in 1572. After his death, the castle was uninhabited and fell into decay; the Italian Canaletto’s romantic view of the castle, painted in 1752, barely masks its forlorn state of crumbling, cracked, and plant-infested walls. Fortunately, in 1750 a descendant of the Percys, Elizabeth Seymour, and her husband the Duke of Northumberland inherited the castle and decided to make it their principal country seat. Famous architects including Robert Adam whom we met earlier (“Harewood mansion, near Leeds”, Dec 11, 2014) were hired to transform a medieval castle into a modern (Gothic) palace. Parts were torn down and rebuilt, a chapel was added, and the interior of the keep was completely transformed (state rooms, grand staircase, etc. were added). Finally, in the 1850’s the Fourth Duke (Algernon) replaced many of the Gothic decorations with the finest Victorian vision of an opulent Italianate style, and this is the castle one sees today.
Before we show off this castle, let us mention that there is recent history here too, of the cinema type. The Castle is picturesque, and has been the site of many movies, including Becket (Peter O’Toole, Richard Burton), Mary Queen of Scots (Vanessa Redgrave), Ivanhoe (Anthony Andrews, Sam Neill), Robin Hood- Prince of Thieves (Kevin Costner), Elizabeth (Cate Blanchett, Joeseh Finnes), Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (you know the actors) and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.
So let’s see it! As shown in the first picture below, you must admit the entrance looks pretty imposing. Actually this current entrance is not the original main gate that led to the outer bailey; instead, as you pass through this gate what you see ahead of you is … another
gate! That gate ahead of you (with imposing towers) goes directly into the keep. And if you turned to your right, you would be looking at the inner bailey – quite a large area for stables, growing crops, etc. Does it look familiar? It’s Harry Potter’s quidditch field, of course.
The entrance to the keep looks impressive (below), but we’ll get to it later. We turn to the left and proceed through the “Middle Gateway”, arriving in an even larger open space, the
outer bailey. In that last picture above, we’ve walked across the outer bailey and are looking back at the keep, with the Middle Gateway on the far right.
The pictures below show Alnwick’s original main gatehouse that led into the outer bailey. This gatehouse is Alnwick Castle’s most distinctive military feature, the barbican. Believed to have been built in the 1300’s, the gatehouse front was built with ditch, counterpoised
drawbridge, and outer tower and gate, which lead to … another gate! It would have been a deadly arrangement. Invaders who managed to make it through the first gate would have entered a narrow, high-walled, roofless area with another barred gate ahead, and no place to hide. The defenders on the walkways above, protected by the tower walls, would have had easy targets. You might recognize this gate as the one that the Weasley family car flies through in the Harry Potter series. The outer bailey is also where Ron and Harry fly the family car into the Whomping Willow tree, which was situated to the left of this picture.
Now, into the keep! It’s the oldest part of the castle, some of it dating from 1096 (but remember it was extensively
renovated in 1750). The pictures below look back toward the entrance to the keep, an
archway from the early 1100’s decorated with Norman chevrons. It is picturesque!
Alnwick Castle is only open to the public in the summer – and then, only some of the rooms in the keep’s palace can be seen. Like the Harewood estate in the earlier blog noted above (“Harewood mansion, near Leeds”), Alnwick Castle is a privately-owned home – in this case, home of the current Duke of Northumberland. There are a bunch of public tours offered at the castle, but we only had time to take 2, one being this palace tour, the other the Harry Potter tour (of course). The palace was renovated in Italianate style, and although the official website says a large amount of Robert Adam’s Gothic work survives, none of it is in the rooms shown to the public. A bigger “alas” is that no photos were allowed! So we bought their Alnwick Castle book and took pictures from it, just to give you an idea (once again) of how the English aristocracy lived – and lives. Below are some rooms and details ….
Posh, we would say. Maybe over-the-top? But we’re not finished. Oh no. Throughout we’re talking major flaunt by wealthy people collecting art for 10 or so generations. Our favorite piece of furniture is this ebony (!) cabinet from the drawing room (ahem – one of
a pair …) made in 1683 for Louis XIV’s Versailles. I wish I could have taken pictures! That’s a picture from the book. Those panels you see? The designs are made from inlaid semi-precious stones. They are jaw-droppingly spectacular.
We should also mention the (plentiful) paintings by Van Dyck, Turner, and a slew of incredibly famous Italians, examples below. Museum curators would drool.
After finishing our tour of the keep, we went to see the Percy coach. The first picture is my picture of the coach (it was outside the keep), the second picture is from the book. The coach was built to transport the Third (Percy) Duke as King George IV’s personal
representative to the coronation of Charles X in France in 1825. It was last used for the wedding of Lady Melissa Percy, youngest daughter of the current Duke of Northumberland, in 2013. Gosh, why didn’t we think of using something like that, instead of Ginger arriving for our wedding in the family car? Yup, if you’ve got it, flaunt it.
I’ll finish with Alnwick Garden, originally part of the Castle grounds. The gardens started with Elizabeth Seymour in 1752, and have undergone centuries of development (how do you get such a beautiful lawn? Start by rolling it for 2oo years …). The latest update of the gardens was begun by the current (12th) Duchess of Northumberland in 2001. She decided to “do it right” and create a garden for all seasons. Some of the best garden
designers in England and Europe were hired, a charitable trust was created, and the Duke and Duchess donated a great deal of money and the 42 acres on which the gardens sit. We visited in September. The hillside of ornamental cherry trees was not in bloom, but the meandering garden still had some flowers and a slightly bombastic charm. The ornamental section was ordinary but nice.
Pretty birds had the run of the place.
On the grounds of the Garden, off to the side, is a beguiling and intriguing place to explore. High up in the treetops, amid wobbly rope bridges and wooden walkways, is an enormous treehouse with a small shopping area that included a fancy restaurant and a funky laid-back bar. It was a delightful way to end a very long day!
Next stop, Bamburgh Castle.