Keys to the Past

Local History

Alnwick (Northumberland)

Alnwick Castle (Copyright © Don Brownlow).
Alnwick Castle (Copyright © Don Brownlow).

The market town of Alnwick is one of Northumberland's most attractive towns. It sits on the gently rising ground, overlooking the valley of the River Aln. The town is dominated by the huge castle belonging to the Dukes of Northumberland. It is of such importance that the town is sometimes called the `Windsor of the North'. Despite this highly visible survival from the Middle Ages the earliest remains in the area date to a much earlier period.

The earliest evidence for people living in the area of Alnwick is a Neolithic leaf-shaped arrowhead. This may have been lost during a hunting trip. However this is the only evidence from this period. In the Bronze Age we have more plentiful evidence for occupation in the area. A number of Bronze Age burials are known from the area. Stone-lined graves have been found, and fragments of a rare Bronze Age ring were found in 1850 near to the railway station. Although several burials from this period have been found, no traces of any settlements have been recovered. In contrast the remains of several Iron Age homesteads have been found, such as Alnwick Moor Camp, where traces of its surrounding stone ramparts can still be seen.

Although a Roman coin has been found close to the River Aln, to the north of the castle the settlement of Alnwick probably did not develop until the Anglo-Saxon period. The name of the town means `settlement by the Aln' and probably developed at this time, though it is not recorded until about 1160. It has been suggested that the town grew up at the point where a number of early trackways crossed the river, though no evidence of Anglo-Saxon occupation is known from Alnwick.

The site was given to the Norman lord Gilbert de Tesson following the Norman Conquest, and it is probable that he built a castle, probably a simple motte and bailey structure. When he joined a rebellion against the English king, William Rufus, he was forced to give up his lands to Yvo de Vescy, who began to build Alnwick castle in 1096. In 1172 and 1174 the king of Scotland, William the Lion, besieged the castle. In the second siege the English ambushed William's forces and the king was captured. A monument commemorates the spot where this battle took place. The castle continued to be the focus of warfare and conflict in the region and in 1297 it fought off an attack from William `Braveheart' Wallace. The following year the last surviving member of the De Vescy family died, and the castle was put in the care of the Bishop of Durham who sold it to Henry Percy in 1309.

This was the beginning of the long association of the Percy family and Alnwick castle. They were responsible for a great amount of building at this period and added many towers and a great hall to the castle. The town also became increasingly developed under the Percys. In 1494 they built walls around the town. These acted as a further defence against raiding from Scotland. Little survives except Bondgate Tower, which was heavily rebuilt in the 18th century. There were also a number of medieval churches in the town including the church of St Michael and a medieval chantry. As well as these high status buildings the medieval town contained many domestic shops and houses arranged in long, narrow burgage plots along the Market Place and the surrounding streets.

In the 16th and 17th centuries the Earls of Northumberland ceased to live in the castle, and it fell into disrepair. However, Algernon, 7th Duke of Somerset, one of the descendants of the Earls of Northumberland, whose line died out in 1670, returned to Alnwick Castle in the early 18th century. He was the first family member to live there for over a century. In the mid-18th century his son, the first Duke of Northumberland began a major project to restore the castle. The famous architect Robert Adam was employed, and the castle was developed in a Gothick style. Many new windows were added and stone statues placed on the outside of the buildings. In the 18th and 19th centuries the parks and gardens surrounding the castle were also developed and were landscape to make them more ornamental.

The town also developed further in this period. Areas between medieval developments were infilled with later buildings. The town was important as a staging point on the Great North Road, and there were many inns, such as the White Swan and the Old Cross Inn, which would have provided food and drink for travellers. In the 19th century there was much development south of Green Batt. Many shops along the Market Place were also greatly altered with new frontages added. The town was home to many small industries. Textiles and leather were important. There was a fulling mill and a dye house near Walkergate, and a number of tanneries elsewhere in the town. Other industries included rope making and a fishing tackle works, which is still in existence to this day.

To this day Alnwick is still dominated by the castle, which is now a major tourist attraction. It is also the centre of the extensive estates of the Duchy of Northumberland. The gardens at the castle are being renovated using many local companies, and will bring more visitors into the town. The castle has even been used as a film set appearing in many films, such as Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone and Elizabeth.

Reference number:N12982

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Please note that this information has been compiled from a number of different sources. Durham County Council and Northumberland County Council can accept no responsibility for any inaccuracy contained therein. If you wish to use/copy any of the images, please ensure that you read the Copyright information provided.