Ruins reveal a tale of ancient rivalries

Environment Editor Tony Henderson visits a village of castle and crag.

Environment Editor Tony Henderson visits a village of castle and crag.

History has been harsher on some Northumbrian castles than others.

Today, what is left of Harbottle Castle stands as a picturesque ruin on a long spur of land above the River Coquet.

"It was once a very big castle," says James Crow, senior lecturer at Newcastle University who led digs on the site, commissioned by Northumberland National Park, over two years from 1997.

In the 14th Century, a barbican, or outer defensive structure guarding the entrance to a castle, was built along with a drawbridge and was likely to have been modelled on Alnwick Castle.

It probably demonstrates the rivalry between the two castles as the power bases for the Umfravilles at Harbottle and the Percys at Alnwick.

Harbottle was a sufficiently important fortress in 1515 to be chosen to accommodate Margaret Tudor, who was the widow of James IV of Scotland and the sister of Henry VIII.

She arrived at Harbottle to give birth to her daughter, also Margaret, who grew up to be grandmother of James VI of Scotland and James I of England and Scotland.

It is said that Margaret Tudor brought 22 gowns of gold and silk with her, and sent to Edinburgh for more.

Harbottle was strategically placed to control movement through Coquetdale to and from Scotland, and into Redesdale.

Such a raised platform over a river could well have been a fortified site before the building of the castle.

Indeed, the name Harbottle may be derived from here-botl, meaning army building.

After the Norman invasion, land in Northumberland was granted to the Umfravilles, whose had castles at Prudhoe and Elsdon.

By 1157 it was recorded that the Umfravilles were at Harbottle. The territory was granted so that it could be defended from "enemies and wolves."

In 1174 Harbottle failed its first test when it was taken by the Scottish King William the Lion after he had failed at Carlisle and Prudhoe castles.

He quickly lost Harbottle when he was captured at Alnwick. Harbottle performed better in 1296, when it resisted another siege, but in 1318 it was captured by Robert the Bruce.

No doubt not wishing to have to repeat the feat, he ordered demolition work on the castle.

The 1990s digs produced good evidence that the whole of the outer wall of the castle had been knocked down and toppled into the castle ditch, making Harbottle half the fortress it had been.

But Harbottle was the subject of major rebuilding in the 14th and 15th Centuries as a key defence against the Scots and Reivers.

The castle passed to the Tailbois family. But William Tailbois chose the wrong side in the Wars of the Roses and was executed after the Battle of Hexham in 1464, and the castle was forfeit.

The vulnerability of castles to gunpowder and artillery had been demonstrated by the Scottish King James IV, who had successfully employed the weapons against the castles at Wark, Ford, Etal and Chillingham before being killed in the rout of the Battle of Flodden in 1513.

Around 25 years later Henry VIII began building artillery fortifications and Harbottle was supplied with gun ports, some of which survive today.

"It is one of the major examples of re-fortification using artillery," says James Crow.

After the Union of the Crowns in 1603, the castle became redundant and in 1635 it was acquired by the Widdrington family.

Edward Widdrington built a house in the village, which he called Harbottle Castle, and mostly used stone from the original.

Circumstances had come full circle since the 1990s excavations showed that some of the stone for the rebuilding of the castle had come from the nunnery at nearby Holystone.

"There had to be the will to maintain the castle and in order to do that it would have taken a huge investment," says James.

"If nobody was willing to do that at Harbottle, the castle's days were numbered."

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