Norham Castle

Has been described as a Certain Timber Castle (Motte Ringwork), and also as a Certain Masonry Castle, and also as a Certain Palace (Bishop), and also as a Certain Artillery Fort

There are masonry ruins/remnants remains

NameNorham Castle
Alternative NamesNortham; Norrham; Ubbanford
Historic CountryNorthumberland
Modern AuthorityNorthumberland
1974 AuthorityNorthumberland
Civil ParishHorncliffe

Norham Castle is a well-documented example of a 12th century tower keep castle which remained in use till the end of the 16th century. It was one of the strongest castles in the north of England and part of its importance lies in its role in the wars between England and Scotland and its associations with the Prince Bishops of Durham. Not only are its standing remains in a good state of preservation, but a wide range of ancillary features survive as buried remains within its three wards. The monument comprises two areas which together include the remains of the tower keep castle at Norham. The remains are incorporated within three enclosures or wards, each bounded by earthwork defences. The inner ward is the site of the earliest castle and includes a natural mound, protected on the south side by a 20m wide ditch measuring up to 10m deep, and on the north side, by its own steep gradient and the River Tweed. During the 12th century, a large square stone keep was built within this enclosure and was complete by 1174. At about the same time a curtain wall was constructed round the perimeter. These structures are believed to have replaced an earlier timber keep and palisade since records indicate that there was a castle here as early as 1121. The foundations of the 12th century curtain remain, but as the wall was rebuilt several times, the one standing today is largely 16th century. Similarly the buildings which line its inner face and include the bishop's hall and numerous service buildings, are also 16th century and overlie similar buildings of an earlier date which include at least two halls or residences, namely the 12th century hall of Bishop Hugh Puisset and the late 13th century hall of Bishop Antony Bek. The keep, originally three storeys high, was largely reconstructed between 1422 and 1425 when two floors were added above the second storey, necessitating the heightening of the walls and the insertion of a central supporting wall

The lower floors too were divided by crosswalls, showing that the keep was of the rarer kind known as a hall keep. Originally, access from outside was to the first floor only via an external stair. In the 15th century, however, a forebuilding was added containing a spiral stair that led to all floors and onto the roof. An annexe was also added to the south east wall in the 15th century and in the 16th century, the north half of the keep fell out of use following sacking and burning in 1513. The inner ward was reached via a drawbridge across the inner moat. This led to a gateway that was first constructed in the 12th century but has been rebuilt several times. The gate was also protected by a barbican or fortified approach. Also during the 12th century, the outer ward was constructed to the south of the inner ward. This crescent shaped enclosure is also bounded by a deep defensive ditch which, on the south west side, has been partially disrupted by the modern road from Norham to Berwick upon Tweed. An original 12th century curtain wall can be seen above the ditch along the east side of the outer ward, crossing the ditch round the inner ward and joining the wall of the keep. At its east end the outer ward ditch branches northward round the base of the inner ward and southward to enclose the third ward which lies to the south east. This third enclosure appears not to have been defended by more than its ditch, which encircled it completely and rejoined the outer ward ditch below the south gate. Because it does not contain any stone defensive works, the third ward is interpreted as a subsidiary enclosure which will retain the buried remains of features such as corrals for livestock and horses. Aside from the 12th century remains along its east side, there is as yet no evidence that the outer ward was protected by a curtain wall until the 13th century. Along the south side are fragments of the 13th century arches which originally supported the wall and were, themselves, buried within an earth rampart. The remains of two round-fronted bastions of a similar date also survive, west of the south or Sheep Gate which was built in the early 13th century. East of this gate are two more bastions which are believed also to have originated in the 13th century. Both however were remodelled in the 16th century and the one nearest the gate was converted to a cottage in the 18th century. The one furthest from the gate includes well-preserved 16th century gun-ports, and similar adaptations for artillery were made to the bastions west of the gate. The gate itself was also altered in the 16th century though now only its earlier lower part remains standing. The curtain round the north side of the outer ward is also largely 16th century but appears to have replaced an earlier wall whose remains can be seen crossing the ditch round the inner ward at its north end. The later wall survives to a great height and its lower part includes three casements or recesses containing gun-ports. At its western end, the wall ends at the barbican protecting the west or Marmion's Gate. The gate was built in the 12th century but went out of use in the 14th century when it was walled up. In the 15th century it was replaced by a new gate and the barbican was added. Access was via a drawbridge whose pit survives beneath the modern bridge. In addition to its defensive features, the outer ward was the site of numerous ancillary buildings. These will have included workshops, lodgings for the castle garrison and stables, and the remains of these will survive as buried features. A number of ancillary features survive as standing remains and can be identified; for example, the chapel at the north end of the inner ditch, and a lean-to building south of the west gate, constructed in 1492 as a workshop and ox-shed. Also in the inner ditch are the remains of a watering and washing place constructed by Bishop Fox in 1495, in addition to a stone conduit at the east end of the ditch, intended to supply it with water from nearby Mill Burn. Although currently situated in Northumberland, Norham was formerly part of the County Palatine of Durham; an area in which the Prince Bishops of Durham enjoyed the rights and privileges which, elsewhere in the kingdom, were exercised by the king. Norham Castle was the chief stronghold and administrative centre of the principality and, in normal circumstances, was governed by a constable appointed by the bishop. At other times, for example during a national emergency or if the king had reason to doubt the loyalty of the bishop, the Crown took possession of the castle and the king appointed his own man and garrison. The rights of the bishops were such, however, that once the threat was past, the castle had to be restored and could not be claimed forfeit to the Crown. This situation was not changed until 1559 when, together with Holy Island, Norham was alienated from the see of Durham and reserved by the Crown. The castle of 1121 was built by Bishop Ranulf Flambard. In 1136 and 1138 it was captured by King David I of Scotland, and, in the latter siege, its fortifications destroyed. During the second half of the 12th century, the inner ward was rebuilt in stone by Bishop Hugh Puisset. This work is thought to have been finished by 1174 since, in that year, Puisset was forced to surrender the castle to Henry II and it remained in royal hands till 1197. Between 1208 and 1217 it was again under the king's control, during which time, in 1214, it withstood a 40 day siege by Alexander II of Scotland. By 1237, England was at peace with Scotland and remained so throughout most of 13th century so that Norham was retained by the bishops. During the latter part of that century, Bishop Antony Bek strengthened the castle with the latest developments of military architecture, and such was its reputation, that it was not attacked in 1311 and 1312 when Robert de Brus invaded England. In 1314, and again in 1315, it was surrendered to Edward II to be used as a royal power base, and in the ensuing war against Scotland it was twice besieged by de Brus; for nearly a year in 1318 and for seven months in 1319. Each time it endured and was not attacked again until 1322, again unsuccessfully. In 1327, however, the Scots took it by storm and it was restored to the bishop only after a temporary peace was signed between England and Scotland in March of that year. The castle was not attacked during the conflict that arose from de Brus's death in 1329 which ended with the complete defeat of the Scots at the battle of Neville's Cross in 1346. During the relative peace of the next hundred years, the castle underwent repairs and alterations that made it more comfortable to live in. During the Wars of the Roses it was initially held for Edward IV and in 1463 was unsuccessfully besieged for 18 days by the Lancastrian forces of Henry VI. In 1464 however, it changed sides and was only retaken by the Yorkists following the Lancastrian defeats at Hedgeley Moor and Hexham. During the latter part of the 15th century it was strengthened and supplied with artillery and munitions by Edward IV, Richard III and Bishop Fox, who succeeded to the see of Durham in 1494. In 1497 it was again unsuccessfully besieged, this time by James IV of Scotland in support of the pretender, Perkin Warbeck. Afterwards its fortifications were repaired and new buildings were added, and the castle was thought to be impregnable. But in 1513, during war between England and France, the outer ward fell to a two day long bombardment by the artillery of James IV, France's ally, and the inner ward was forced to surrender when it ran out of ammunition. Three weeks later, the castle was back in English hands due to the defeat of the Scots at Flodden. All that remained standing, however, was the keep and part of the west wall, and the work of rebuilding and furnishing the castle with artillery continued throughout the first half of the 16th century. After 1550 however, no further work appears to have been carried out and the castle was allowed to decay, even after its alienation to the Crown in 1559. Elizabeth I resolutely refused to allocate money for its repair, and with her death in 1603 and the union of the Scottish and English crowns, the castle effectively ceased to have any function. It was purchased by George Home, Earl of Dunbar and since then has had numerous owners. It has been in State care since 1923 and is also a Grade I Listed Building. (Scheduling Report)

The annal for 854 in the Historia Regum Anglorum makes it clear that Ubbanford was an early name for Norham (Aird 1998, 24), perhaps a corruption of “Upper” ford, indicating the site of an ancient fording point on the river Tweed (Tomlinson 1888, 550); the name has also been interpreted as meaning Ubben?s ford (Beckensall 1992, 39). The position of this ancient ford is unknown, but a ford (HER 2267) marked across the Tweed at Blount Island on the first edition Ordnance Survey map may have older origins. (Northumberland Extensive Urban Survey)

Gatehouse Comments

If this was the upper ford of the Tweed then Norham may well have been a significant market (serving the local area and the important and early monastery at Norham) before 1121 and the castle may have been founded as much to control this market as to control the ford although it clearly function mainly as the administrative centre for the Bishop of Durham's Norhamshire fife.

- Philip Davis

This site is a scheduled monument protected by law

This is a Grade 1 listed building protected by law

Historic England Scheduled Monument Number
Historic England Listed Building number(s)
Images Of England
Historic England (PastScape) Defra or Monument number(s)
County Historic Environment Record
OS Map Grid ReferenceNT906475
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Copyright Ryan Davison All Rights Reserved
Copyright Ryan Davison All Rights Reserved
Copyright Ryan Davison All Rights Reserved
Photo by Philip Davis All Rights Reserved
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Photo by Philip Davis All Rights Reserved
Photo by Philip Davis All Rights Reserved
Photo by Philip Davis All Rights Reserved
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Guide Books

  • Saunders, Andrew, 1998, Norham Castle, Northumberland (London: English Heritage)
  • Blair, C.H.H. and Honeyman, H.L., 1985, Norham Castle, Northumberland (London: English Heritage)
  • Blair, C.H.H. and Honeyman, H.L., 1966, Norham Castle (HMSO)
  • Blair, C.H.H. and Honeyman, H.L., 1936, Norham Castle (HMSO)
  • Jerningham, H.E.H., 1883, Norham Castle (Edinburgh)

Primary Sources

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