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Interesting Alnwick
Some interesting stuff about Alnwick

A supplement to those other history pages.

Most scholars believe that the origins of Alnwick as a settlement go back to approximately 600AD. For many centuries before and after, the major settlement in the lower basin of the Aln river would be Lesbury (near where Alnmouth railway station is now). As late as the 12th century, Alnwick was ecclesiastically dependant upon Lesbury.

It is recognised that Alnwick Castle has stood upon the banks of the River Aln in Northumberland for nearly nine hundred years, in one form or another. However its history goes back further -- bronze instruments and Roman coins have been dug up, and Claudius Ptolemy (the 2nd century Egyptian geographer) referred to the river, which he thought of as the only one between Forth and Wear. The town of Alauna which he mentions by it could have been either Alnmouth or Alnwick.

According to the Alnwick Abbey Chronicle, a high-born Anglian called Bisbright Tisonne held Alnwick long before the Norman Conquest. He was dispossessed by King William I who gave his lands to Gilbert de Tesson (or Tyson), allegedly the kings standard bearer at the battle of Hastings. This similarity in names puts some doubt upon the truth of this transfer, but Gilbert Tyson was real enough and held Alnwick until 1096. The Scottish King Malcolm III was killed just to the north of Alnwick in 1093, by Arkle Moreal (Earl Robert de Mowbrays commander at Bamburgh), and Moreal was rewarded with a manor at Old Bewick. This generosity probably spurred Tysons support for Mowbray in his struggle with English King William II, but unfortunately led to Tyson losing all of his properties.

The king selected Ivo de Vescy, a Norman nobleman, to become the first Baron of Alnwick, liable to provide twelve knights for the Kings service when required. Vescy built a motte and bailey castle on a mound above the river, and died there in 1134.

Vescys only offspring, Beatrix, married Eustace fitz (son of) John, an energetic builder. He surrounded the earth and timber stronghold with stone walls, then levelled the mound and constructed a keep of stone towers around a central courtyard (this complex represents the current Castle area). Bits of the curtain wall are still standing today. He died in 1157 and his son William reverted to being known as Baron de Vescy. William helped set Alnmouth on its way to becoming Alnwicks port.

Another Eustace succeeded in 1184 (he was one of the 25 barons appointed to enforce King Johns observance of Magna Carta). His homage to Scottish King Alexander II appears to mark a long line of ill fortune for the holders of Alnwick -- King John set his castle alight.

Two generations later, Baron John Vescy managed to forfeit the Castle for fighting King Henry III in 1265. It was returned to him before he died in 1285, and his brother William succeeded. William died in 1297, leaving only one son known as William de Vescy of Kildare, who was illegitimate, and thus could not claim title or property. The boy was however left manors in Yorkshire and Lincolnshire, and Alnwick was granted unconditionally to Anthony Bek, Bishop of Durham.

In 1309, Lord Henry Percy bought the barony from the bishop, and started the Percy-Alnwick connection. Henry was a descendant of William de Percy who had come to England with William the Conqueror in 1066, and had been awarded large estates in south and central England. He also had at least two large Scottish estates, having assisted King Edward I during his struggles with William Wallace. The Percy family originated in west Normandy, in a village called Percee (or "forest glade").

The new Baron rebuilt the castle to make it a stronghold of 14th century durability and fortitude.

The principal seat of the Percys was actually Warkworth until 1576 (apparently Alnwick Castle was not as luxurious as Warkworth Castle!). During this time Alnwick was used mainly as the march wardens headquarters.

Alnwick town itself was continually burst into by Scottish invaders, until a licence to enclose it was issued in 1433. It sported four gates, each guarded by a tower. The Clayport (outside the video shop !) and the Bailiffgate (by the castle) have both gone. The Pottergate (since rebuilt) and the Bondgate/Hotspur Tower remain.

Hulne Priory was founded by Ralph Fresborn, a young Northumbrian soldier. During the crusades Fresborn had visited the monastery on Mount Carmel (in what is now north-west Israel), and had taken vows and remained there. On a later Crusade, William de Vescy had found him there and persuaded him to return to England and start a sister monastery. Vescy allowed him to choose his site, and apparently the resemblance of Brizlee Hill to Mount Carmel was considerable in Fresborn selecting the existing Hulne site.

From Fresborns initial work in 1242, the priory grew and prospered. A library of over a hundred manuscripts was built up over the years. A wall was built around the priory, and in 1488 this was complemented by a tower (a gift from Henry Percy, the 4th Earl).

Around 1726, while a mason was clearing the earth from a rock in Hulne Park, he discovered twenty brass sword blades and sixteen spear heads lying about 18 inches below the surface, covered only by soil.  Digging about a foot lower nearby, he found forty-two brass wedges or chisels, with a ring near the thicker end (probably stone-cutting chisels).  The majority of these were seized by the Duke of Somerset's steward.  Strangely, a little above this location, the rough numbers "1115" were deeply cut into the rock.

So few brass chisels have ever been found in Britain that this was and is a major find, and yet one that very few locals know of.  The Romans had ceased using brass for weaponry before they arrived in Britain, and it seems that these could have been from Ancient Britons.  In fact, similar brass weapons were found in barrows on Salisbury plain, near Avesbury and Stonehenge ...


During the early part of the 18th century, with the English crown worried by the prospect of Jacobite risings, Swiss militia were placed in the town for protection. They were not well-received (mainly because they offered to switch sides for a penny more a day, but also because they were eating the townspeople out of house and home!), and eventually left to the towns relief.


The Bondgate Tower divides the Bondgate Within (inside the walls) from the Bondgate Without (outside). It is generally taken that "Bond" derives from "bondager", a female outworker married to a farm labourer (after the plague, due to a shortage of farm labour, men in tied cottages were forced to supply several weeks of unpaid labour to their landowner -- usually the women undertook this unpaid work, or indeed slavery).


Bull baiting was amongst one of the more unpleasant "pastimes". Cock fighting was "practised" between Christmas and Easter ; there were at least a dozen cock pits around Alnwick, the largest being close to the Pottergate Tower.


One of the more interesting aspects of the Percy family's influence on English history is demonstrated by the following:

The 6th Earl, Henry Algernon, fell deeply in love with the young Anne Boleyn, but retreated when Henry VIII became infatuated with her. However when the King tired of Boleyn, he tried to persuade the Earl to admit he had been the queens lover, and that he had made a contract to marry her.

Either of these would have been enough to condemn the queen. The Earl however made an oath before archbishops to say that there had been no promise, no contract and no relationship.

It is often argued that if the Earl had only agreed with the King then Englands break with Rome would never have been necessary, and may well have never occurred.  In fact, the Earls gesture was futile: Anne Boleyn was beheaded for charges of adultery and incest.

This is an ongoing project -- feel free to send in ANY interesting (but NOT well-known) info on Alnwick, to
This is the tale of a hermit who lived in squalid conditions close to the Castle during the time of the plague. He killed and butchered animals in the street, and when children disappeared (or rapes occurred) he was often blamed, although never brought to account. (Indeed, one young rape victim had her tongue cut out).

When he died, the men sent to bury his body found the foul-smelling, stiff corpse wedged in a chair, staring into the distance. His bones were broken to force him into a coffin, and he was buried (to some consternation) in a churchyard.

Several days later, just before dawn, the church sexton tripped over an empty coffin. Soldiers with torches found the hermits grave was empty -- the body had gone. Later that morning the body was found propped against a tree some distance away. To prevent a reoccurrence of this, he was re-buried, with a pile of stones atop his coffin.

A run of ill luck was blamed on this man : the plague entered the town walls; a blacksmith was found on the moors with his throat slit; a child disappeared. Finally the body was dug up and the hermit buried once more, well beyond the bounds of Alnwick Town.

Of course, local hysteria had it that the dead man stalked the streets in his shroud, or that he changed form to a black cat and leapt down onto passers-by to sink his teeth into their necks. Some suggested that he had forced his way out of the coffin for a second time, and was even then digging his way upwards through the soil and stones.

It seems that some people will do anything to get a drink ...


Charles Hindley described Alnwick at the close of the 18th century:
  "Alnwick had made little or no progress in sanitary reforms. The streets offered but few attractions; they were badly paved, and the flagging of the footpaths was in a wretched condition; they were lighted at nights by a few lamps of an antiquated description.  At this time many of the feudal customs were in great repute. The stocks, bull-baiting, cock-fighting, the kicking of football in the open streets, were always sure to draw together a gazing throng. At nights the streets were considerably enlivened by the strains of the borough waits."
It would appear that little has changed !