Northumberland is one of the most beautiful and peaceful counties in England. But its tranquillity belies a dark and violent past.
Situated on the English-Scottish border, it was both part of the frontier of the Roman Empire and at the centre of the Anglo-Scottish Wars between the 14th and 16th centuries.
Here we celebrate Northumberland’s turbulent history through its buildings and monuments.
Stretching 73 miles from Wallsend in North Tyneside to Bowness-on-Solway, much of Hadrian’s Wall is located in Northumberland. Built on the orders of Emperor Hadrian in AD 122, the structure took six years to complete and formed the northern frontier of the Roman Empire.
There were 80 small forts (known as milecastles) placed at regular intervals along the wall and 17 larger forts. They housed garrisons of Roman soldiers, responsible for defending the Roman Empire from the tribes to the north.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987, large sections of Hadrian’s Wall still snake through the Northumberland countryside. The remains of some of the forts are still visible.
At Housesteads Fort, which used to be home to 800 soldiers, you can explore the remains of the barracks block, hospital, and commander’s house, as well as the best-preserved Roman toilets in Britain.
Over at Chesters Roman Fort, meanwhile, visitors can experience the spectacular bathhouse, where soldiers enjoyed relaxing hot, cold and steam baths after a hard day’s work defending the empire.
Northumberland has more castles than any other county in England, a legacy of the county’s troubled past such as the Anglo-Scottish War. While many of these have gone, Northumberland boasts some spectacular castles, especially along the coastline.
Built on a remote headland and set against the backdrop of the North Sea, Dunstanburgh Castle resembles something out of a fairy tale.
The castle was constructed by the powerful Earl Thomas of Lancaster between 1313 and 1322 as a secure refuge and a bold symbol of his opposition to his first cousin, King Edward II.
Lancaster was openly hostile towards the king, and in 1321 led a rebellion against him deep into south England. When this failed, Lancaster fled for Dunstanburgh Castle. He wasn’t able to reach it in time and was executed for treason in 1322. The castle passed to the crown and eventually ended up in the hands of John of Gaunt, who added further fortifications in the 1380s to keep out the Scots.
In 1345, ownership of Warkworth Castle passed to the powerful Percy family. Its most famous member was Sir Henry Percy, the eldest son of the first Earl of Northumberland. More commonly known as Harry Hotspur, he played a key role in the Anglo-Scottish War leading a series of devastating attacks across the border.
The Percy family also owned the magnificent Alnwick Castle, which was purchased by Hotspur’s great-great-grandfather in 1309. 700 years and many modifications later, it remains the family home today. Harry Potter fans will recognise it as the grounds of Hogwarts in the first two film adaptations.
Medieval and post-medieval Northumberland was a lawless place. Its people lived in constant fear of raids by ruthless robber clans known as border reivers. To protect themselves and their livestock, locals in the 16th and 17th centuries built small fortified farmhouses known as ‘bastles’.
Whereas castles were often constructed as ostentatious displays of power, these were modest functional buildings, with metre-thick walls and tiny windows. Usually, there were two storeys; the livestock would be housed on the ground floor, while the family would live on a floor above (accessed by a ladder).
Bastles are only found in Northumberland, Cumbria and the Scottish Borders. There are around 200 in Northumberland, which are mainly located in remote areas of the countryside. The best known of these is Black Middens Bastle house, which is managed by English Heritage as a visitor attraction.
No tour of Northumberland’s troubled history would be complete without a look at some of its battlefields.
In August 1388, James, Earl of Douglas led a raid into Northumberland as part of the ongoing skirmishes of the Anglo-Scottish War. As they returned northwards after raiding much of the countryside further south, the Scots stopped at Otterburn where Henry Percy (Hotspur) led his English army into attack.
Hotspur launched a flanking attack with part of his force, hoping to panic the Scots into fleeing straight into the main body of troops under Hotspur himself. But rather than taking flight, the Scots launched a surprise counter-attack on Hotspur’s men. Fighting continued through the night. Eventually, the Scots won, although Douglas himself was killed. On the English side, Hotspur and 21 other knights were captured, and over 1,000 died.
The Battle of Flodden Field took place on 9 September 1513, during the reign of Henry VIII. England was at war with France and King James IV of Scotland decided to invade northern England in support of the French. There were several minor skirmishes but the Battle of Flodden was the decisive battle, with the English emerging victorious.
After the battle, 10,000 Scottish victims lay dead on the battlefield, including many noblemen and even King James himself. It’s said that every great family in Scotland mourned the loss of someone at the Battle of Flodden.
A Grade-II listed memorial was erected at the battlefield in 1910 to commemorate those who died at Flodden. The simple inscription reads: “To the brave of both nations”.
Written by Chris Collett.
The role of Historic England
Many of the beautiful old buildings and monuments mentioned are protected as listed buildings or scheduled monuments. You can find out more about them from the National Heritage List for England.