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Built to keep Scots out King Henry II ordered construction

Harbottle Castle – History

Harbottle Castle in Northumberland National Park by David Taylor.

The ruins of Harbottle Castle, which was a base from which to keep the Scots out of England. Photo by David Taylor.

The village of Harbottle lies in Alwinton Parish, some 12.5km from Rothbury and 5km south of the Scottish Border. The castle occupies a central ridge on the broad valley floor of the River Coquet, and the modern village lies immediately south of the castle.

The name Hirbottle was first recorded in the 13th century, but it is thought that it derives from the Ango-Saxon here-botl, which means ‘army building’ and might refer to an earlier, pre-Norman structue on the site.

Harbottle Castle occupies a good defensive site on a plateau-like ridge. It is bounded on its western and southern sides by a steep-sided and deep moat, and on the north and east sides it is defended by naturally steep, riverside slopes. It towers over the major medieval highway into Scotland – Clennell Street – thus making it a point of strategic as well as tactical importance.

Main Components:

The castle consists of three main elements:

  1. The Motte or castle mound
  2. The East Bailey or enclosed courtyard
  3. The West Bailey or enclosed courtyard

All are bounded by the outer curtain wall of the castle. The Motte is dominated by a stone keep or tower of various periods of construction, while the Bailey area is kidney-shaped and divided into two by a wall running north/south that originally terminated in a tower at its northern end.

At the southern end of this wall is a gateway – initially excavated in the 1930s by Newcastle architect and building historian Herbert Honeyman. There was an outer gate house at main eastern entrance in the eastern bailey.


A castle first occupied the site from c.1157 when Henry II ordered Odinel de Umfraville to build a ‘strong castle’ at Harbottle. This was probably a simple motte and bailey enclosure, and was to form part of a chain of such sites built against the ‘auld enemy’ – Scotland. The castle certainly saw plenty of action in the early period of its history:

In 1174, the castle was surrendered to a Scots force during the invasion of northern England by William the Lion. After this, in the 13th century, a stone keep was built, surrounded by two stone walls.

In 1296, this structure withstood attack by John Balliol’s supporters, only to fall again in 1318 to the army of Robert the Bruce. Subsequently, the castle was de-commissioned and then reinstated, and after 1436 it became the headquarters for the Warden of the Middle March – the wildest sector of the Scottish Border.

In the reigns of Henry VII and VIII, Harbottle underwent surveys and repairs and it became the base for Sir Thomas Dacre, the Warden of the West March, when the reivers of Redesdale were reported as being worse than the Scots.

In 1515, it was the birth place of Margaret Lennox, grandmother of James VI of Scotland (later James I of England) and cousin of Henry VIII. By 1537 however, Harbottle ‘…was not fit for the keeper of Redesdale to live in, so decayed were the roofs and floors’.

At the Dissolution of the Monasteries, stone was brought from Brinkburn Priory and Holystone Nunnery to repair the castle, though it still lacked a kitchen, hall and brewhouse in 1550.

The site was re-garrisoned by 1563. In little more than 40 years, in 1604, it was referred to as ‘an old castle much decayed’. After this time, the site served as a ready quarry for building materials for developments within the village.

Excavations and Surveys

Stargazing in Northumberland National Park.

Harbottle Castle is also an excellent place to view the Park’s outstanding dark skies.

The first recorded archaeological excavations were by Herbert Honeyman in the 1930s. Unfortuantely, Honeyman’s original documentation does not survive, though his work was reported on by Madeleine Hope-Dodds (1940) in The History of Northumberland vol. 15 and by Hunter Blair in 1935 in The History of the Berwickshire Naturalists Club vol. 28.

Honeyman examined the inner bailey, including the cross wall gatehouse and its associated postern gate (a bit like a modern side or back gate on a house), the north tower of the cross wall; the fore building to the keep and the keep itself. This work seems to have been largely a rubble clearing exercise.

The site was surveyed by the then Royal Commission on Historic Monuments (England) in 1990 and the structural evidence assessed by local building historian Peter Ryder in 1992. In 1997, a programme of conservation and excavation was started by the Northumberland National Park Authority, in partnership with English Heritage and Newcastle University.

The initial stages of this research saw the site resurveyed using ground penetrating radar, in an attempt to identify earlier earthworks and ditches. While no obvious earlier features were identified, this work did provide important results for the understanding of the development of the castle.

The profile of the eastern ditch of the eastern (outer) bailey was clearly defined to a depth of 3m below the causeway which was the main access to the medieval borough of Harbottle. The survey indicates that this causeway was a later insertion at the entrance and may relate to a period when the outer bailey was no longer defended.

The GPR survey also showed that the outer ditch of the castle fortifications had been revetted in stone. Work on the top of the motte also identified the course of the outer wall of the keep and also the presence of internal structures arranged around what seems to be a small ‘courtyard’ on the top of the motte.

In 1998 –1999 excavations were carried out on the middle gate and the cross wall and also on the motte. These were directed by James Crow of the Department of Archaeology, Newcastle University. This work showed the complex nature of the building sequence on the site.

Summary Of The Excavtion Results By Phases

The stone cross wall between inner and outer baileys (eastern and western) was constructed and the earlier, simple gateway was buried beneath the visible gatehouse remains (pre-1200).

A stone gatehouse with a 10.30 m long side wall (2.30m wide) with a portcullis and a gate passage 3.05m wide was constructed. The gate passage is set asymmetrically within the full width of gatehouse to respect existing buildings within the inner bailey and also because of the deep ditch to the south. (13th century).

A narrow cross wall with a postern was shown to abut the gatehouse on the south side and is structurally later than it. This wall runs across the ditch at the base of the motte and up its northern side. (13th century).

Major alterations were subsequently made to the gateway including removal of buttresses, the addition of counterpoise drawbridge with two draw bridge pits and a Barbican (an outer defensive building, in front of the main gateway) (14th century).

The drawbridge was abandoned and the related pits were filled in. These were then crossed by two phases of road surface. A further cobbled surface was constructed on north side of drawbridge pit, parallel with front gate. (15th century)

A range of buildings was constructed against the outer face of the gatehouse and the cross wall. there was much re-use of  masonry, and it is thought that this activty may represent a period of structural decay. The gate passage continued in use. (16th/17th century).

The gate was finally demolished and the interior of the gate passage was filled with rubble. A narrow blocking wall was constructed across and over the portcullis jambs.

The site was an important Tudor fortress and Henry VIII began a programme of re-fortification with artillery in 1539. The artillery works on the motte (the round gun ports) probably date to this period. There were limited excavations on these in 1999.

A much fuller discussion of the work at Harbottle Castle can be found in J. Crow, 2004. Harbottle Castle. Excavation and Survey. In P. Frodsham (ed.) Archaeology in Northumberland National Park. C.B.A. Resarch Report, 136, 246-261.

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