Built just thirty years after the Norman Conquest, Alnwick Castle tops a hill, now overlooking a peaceful pastoral landscape designed by Capability Brown. In Corwin’s time, the castle of the deVesci family stood as a bulwark of safety in a tumultuous land. Built to guard the English border against Scottish attack, the Scots took it in 1136, but it reverted to English rule in 1157 by order of Henry II. In 1173, and again in 1174, the Scottish king William the Lion laid siege to it, intending to take it back. He was captured and imprisoned by the English. Henry II, a rather assertive monarch, retaliated by invading Scotland and taking 10 castles. He then went on to write the Treaty Falais, which mandated English occupation of those castles at Scottish expense, effectively taking control of southern Scotland.
His son and heir, Richard Lionheart, had other plans. He sold those rights back to the Scottish crown in order to fund his Crusade.
Meanwhile, back in Alnwick, Eustace deVesci, its Lord, loyal to the British Crown, married Margaret, half-sister of Alexander II, King of Scotland, William the Lion’s illegitimate daughter. He later joined Richard Lionheart’s crusade. (There is no historical record of his having stiffed the village blacksmith on his way out the door, however.) Decades later, he stood as a guarantor of the Magna Carta.
Still, peace eluded the area. Border Reivers, aka thieves and cattle rustlers, roamed this somewhat impoverished piece of real estate. Northumberland lies a bit too far north for most agriculture, and desperate people do desperate things.
Eventually, the deVesci line became extinct, and the Percy family purchased the castle in 1309. The Percy family’s record of service to England is second to none. The first English Percy came to England with William the Conqueror and died on the First Crusade. Four generations on, Earl Richard de Percy was named one of the 25 barons charged with overseeing the provisions of the Magna Carta. The list continues through 4th Earl Harry Hotspur, a battle veteran at age eight, knighted for valor at age 11, subject of Shakespeare’s play Henry IV, and George 9th Duke, who died in World War II. Percys have served as generals and Lord High Admiral, governess to Queen Victoria, (Charlotte Florentia, wife of the Third Duke) and have served on the Medical Research Council.
Along the way, they found the time to amass a collection of family portraits by Gainsborough, Canalletto, Titian and other masters, the vast quantities of porcelain on display in the dining room, the Aubusson tapestries that line the chapel, and a two-story library full of rare books. In addition, they improved the castle, (The first Duchess had the curtain wall torn down and the River Aln move 100 feet east so she could enjoy the view.) They benefited the local community, and excavated artifacts from sites as distant as Egypt and Pompeii and as near as their own moat. Algernon, 4th Duke, a patron of the lifeboat movement, set up a weather station in the library with information reported daily to help insure the safety of local fishermen. When he decided to refurbish the castle in the style of the Italian Renaissance, rather than import Italian craftsmen, he brought master carver Anton Leon Bulletti to Alnwick to supervise the work and established a school of woodcarving to train local workers to produce the ornately carved doors, shutters and ceiling panels.
I visited the castle in 2005 and can vouch for all this. You can tour the formal dining room, drawing room, and library, where along with objects of historic and artistic importance, one sees subtle reminders that this is a private residence: the flat screen TV tucked in an alcove in the library, a Simpsons chess set in the drawing room, thirty feet from one of the ebony cabinets made for Louis XIV. (Yes, Homer is king and Marge is queen. Those Simpsons.)
Tours of the grounds begin every 40 minutes starting at 10:30 AM. The last starts at 3:40. Be sure to explore on your own—two museums are within the castle grounds. The Antiquities Museum in the Postern Tower, opened to the public in 1826, is devoted to archaeology. It holds specimens ranging from mosaics from Pompeii to fragments of prehistoric Northumbrian Rock Art and Hadrian‘s Wall.
While more extensive collections of Roman artifacts are displayed at other museums, the Duke’s Museum gives the best overview of the archaeology of Hadrian’s Wall. Each of the excavated Roman forts has an on-site display devoted to the individuals who studied and cataloged it, but here you will find the threads tied into a more complete narrative.
The Fusiliers of Northumberland Museum is in the Abbot’s Tower. In addition, the Constable’s Tower exhibits equipment belonging to the Percy Tenantry Volunteers, who served during the Napoleonic Wars; the dungeon in the 14th century South Tower holds a moaning waxworks prisoner; and there is a small display of antique transportation devices ranging from the ducal coach to bicycles, sedan chairs, and a wheelchair near the café.
If you have children, be sure to take them to The Knight’s School, where they can dress in medieval garb and participate in activities designed to teach them about the realities of medieval life. (Parental supervision required.) And by all means visit the courtyard. You may recognize it from the scene in the first Harry Potter film, where Harry learns the rudiments of Quiddich.
Directions at www.alnwickcastle.com
Open April through October (Give or take a day or two. Check the website.)
Hours: Grounds 10 am-5:30 pm, Castle 11 am- 5:30 pm
Last admission 4:15 pm
At the Gate Prices (10% discount for online pre-registration)
Adult – £15.00
Concession (e.g. student, pensioner) – £12.75
Child (aged 6 – 15) – £7.20
Child under 5 years and under – free
Must be accompanied by a paying adult.
For group rates please telephone 01665 511350