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Warkworth Castle
County Durham, England

[Tuesday - 10/25/94] The magnificent eight-towered keep of Warkworth Castle stands on its hill above the River Coquet, dominating all around it. A large and complex stronghold, it was home to the Percy family who at times wielded more power in the North than the King himself. Most famous of them all was Harry Hotspur (Sir Henry Percy), immortalized in Northumbrian ballads and Shakespeare's Henry IV, several scenes of which were set at Warkworth. He dominated the Borders in the 15th century with his father, the Earl of Northumberland, and fought off the Scots on behalf of the King before being instrumental in the removal of Richard II from the throne. As headquarters and home to the region's most powerful family, Warkworth needed to be an impressive castle and it remains so to this day.

The castle is the most splendid ruin of its type in Northumberland. It has not been extensively restored as were the castles of Bamburgh and Alnwick. The first fortification on the site was probably in 1139, with a curtain wall added in the early 13th C. The castle came into the hands of the Percys in 1332 and remained theirs for some 600 years. They significantly upgraded the fortifications. In addition to the redoubtable Lion Tower, with the Percy coat of arms etched in relief, Warkworth boasts a magnificent keep, noted for its huge 'picture' windows.

Not only does Warkworth Castle demonstrate the evolution of castle-building in Britain, it is also significant in the annals of British history. Prized by the kings of England for its strategic location and powerful grandeur, Warkworth gives enduring testimony to the rigorous persistence of the British nobility despite assault on all fronts, itself a noble structure still emanating the energy of its proud past.

Although the documented history of Warkworth is vague for the first centuries of occupation at the site, it is known that the territory around the castle and the associated church of St. Lawrence were presented to the monks of nearby Holy Island by the king of Northumbria, Ceolwulf, in 737. However, during the next two centuries, the region was the site of almost constant warfare, with savage attacks by the Vikings, who slaughtered uncounted souls and ravaged the land.

The last king of Northumbria, Osbert, apparently stole back the estates at Warkworth from the monks, and the land remained in the possession of the kings until the Norman invasion so abruptly ended their rule.

The first real mention of a castle at Warkworth is in 1158, when it was called "Werceworde," and was granted to an individual known as Roger, Son of Richard by the English King Henry II, as a reward for his dedicated service against a Welsh rebellion. Roger was also granted the "honour" of Clavering, from which his descendants took their name.

It was during Roger's tenure that one of the bloodiest events in Warkworth's history took place: William the Lion "the sometime Earl of Northumberland and Lord of Warkworth" besieged the castle, and, after gathering all the citizens of the area into the church, slaughtered them mercilessly. Roger, Son of Richard retreated to a castle at Newcastle-on-Tyne, where he died in 1177, his castle at Warkworth remaining in the hands of the monarchy.

In 1199 King John bestowed the estate and castle at Warkworth to Roger's son, Robert. Robert spent much time and money on the castle, refortifying it and adding the great gatehouse and the Carrickfergus Tower, as well as other buildings in the bailey. He may also have added a great tower atop the motte, but it was later supplanted by Warkworth's monumental and unique keep. Upon Robert's death in 1214, the castle was inherited by his son, John, who soon became embroiled in the barons' rebellion against King John. Luckily, Warkworth was not embattled but was one of the spoils of victory the barons demanded when King John signed the Great Charter in 1215.

John's heirs continued the valiant tradition at Warkworth and remained loyal to their king. In gratitude and of necessity, Kings Edward I and II fortified the castle and garrisoned several soldiers there in the 14th century, expecting trouble from the Scots. Finally, in August 1327, the Scots besieged Warkworth Castle. Although initially defeated, by the end of the year Robert the Bruce led another army into Northern England, and again laid siege to the mighty castle. The castle withstood the attack with little damage and, in 1328, a peace treaty was signed by the Scots and England.

Just four years later, the last male heir to the Clavering family died and Warkworth reverted to the monarchy. Soon, the castle entered its most controversial period, as the infamous Percy family, lords of Alnwick, was granted possession. The Percies were given charge of the borderlands between England and the Scots, whose rebellious streak had not been quelled with the treaty of 1328. Warkworth's position was of great strategic value to the Percies, and they focused much effort on strengthening the castle.

During the late 1300's, Henry, the third Percy to control Warkworth, and his son, Hotspur, spent a lot of time at the castle, not only remodelling it into the great fortress we see today, but also plotting their actions against King Henry IV. Ironically, they had earlier battled loyally to see Henry reach the throne. Warkworth received the brunt of the king's anger against the Percies, when in 1405 he led an onslaught against the fortress and forced its surrender after seven cannon bombardments pummelled the walls.

For the next 250 years, the Percies lost and regained ownership of the castle many times, and the stronghold was maintained in fairly fine condition. Poor choices and supporting the wrong individuals led to the deaths of several of Percy earls, including Thomas, the 7th Earl, who was sold by the Scots to Queen Elizabeth I in the early 1570's. The unimpressed queen had Thomas beheaded in 1572.

Henry Percy, the 8th Earl of Northumberland, regained the castle in 1574. But, like his predecessor, Henry made the wrong choice and was imprisoned in the Tower of London for high treason, dying there in 1585. His son, another Henry, also chose the wrong path, and, due to his involvement in the Guy Fawkes plot against Parliament, lost his claim to Warkworth Castle. Warkworth Castle was soon granted to Sir Ralph Grey, who unfortunately had no use for the fortress and allowed it to fall into ruin. By 1608 it was recorded "in great decaye, the hall cleane downe, and nothing left by walles: the kitchen, great chamber, chapell and some other rooms very ruinous." Dismayed at the sad state of this once-proud structure, James I obtained ownership of Warkworth in 1618, but it is unclear if he made much effort to restore it to its former grandeur.

Warkworth further deteriorated during the Jacobite Risings and, in 1649, the soldiers of the Commonwealth assaulted the site one last time. Joscelin, the last Percy Earl at the castle, leased out the site, and in 1672 his widow allowed the structure to be quarried for building material.

This incredible fortress withstood the plunder of its less-violent besiegers but fell into a state of profound ruin. It was only in the mid-19th century, when the historic value of ruins was recognized and appreciated, that Algernon, the 4th Duke of Northumberland, renovated the wonderful keep, making it partly habitable and preserving the ruins from further destruction. In 1922, Warkworth Castle was granted to the Commissioners of Works and in 1984 placed under the care of English Heritage, who maintains the impressive remains for us to enjoy and explore during our pilgrimage!

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