Friday, 21 March 2014

Castles for courses

Of course, there are castles, and castles. Small castles at the business end of things, like Harbottle in Northumberland, only 5 kilometres from the border with Scotland, had few amenities. The name Hirbottle was first recorded in the thirteenth century, and probably derives from the Anglo-Saxon here-botl which means ‘army building.’ The castle towers over the major medieval highway into Scotland - Clennell Street - making it a point of strategic as well as tactical importance. The stone keep on the motte and the East and West bailey are surrounded by a curtain wall, and it was very much a working front-line castle. When Queen Margaret of Scotland gave birth to her daughter Meg Douglas here in 1515, there were hardly any women present to tend her.

Warkworth is a castle of a different kind. It began life as most castles did, with a walled enclosure and a shell keep on top of the motte. This was replaced about 1380 by a great tower of cut stone in which the service, public and withdrawing chambers are lit by different forms of window, and the earl’s bedroom is marked externally by a sculpture of a rampant lion, the heraldic emblem of the family. It was almost certainly designed by John Lewyn, who worked on Durham Cathedral in 1353 and was responsible for the great kitchen with its fine star vault. In 1368 Lewyn worked on Bamburgh Castle, and probably oversaw the erection of the Neville screen in the Cathedral in 1380. The screen was designed and built in London from Caen stone and shipped to Durham via Newcastle, and probably gave Lewyn the idea for the decorative crown of the great tower and watch tower at Warkworth.

The tower forms a Greek cross with four polygonal wings radiating from the central block. (In simple terms, imagine a small square surrounded by a larger square. Then visualise four small squares projecting outwards, one from each of the four sides of the larger square.) It was planned using a unit of measurement sometimes called a rod, a pole or a perch – 16 feet six inches.

In 1471 Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland, ordered another re-organisation. Splendid porch towers were built over the hall and great chamber, the one over the hall bearing the modern and ancient arms of the family. The masons involved had also worked on York Minster. Work was interrupted by the murder of the earl in 1489. It seems the earl’s decision not to commit to the Battle of Bosworth until a winner had emerged so disgusted his household that they abandoned him to a mob during a tax riot.

For more information and plans that show the complexity of the building, try the website: Warkworth

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