The Building History of Elsdon Tower and House
Whilst most of the older published sources (e.g. Parker 1853, 201-2) ascribe the tower a 14th century date, an examination of its form and fabric, and a comparison with other Northumberland towers, suggests that this is unlikely. Whilst the 1415 list shows that there was a rectorial tower here, it is unlikely that it is the present building, although there is one feature - the recently re-opened doorway at first-floor level, which may be of 15th century date. Its awkward relationship withe the present fabric - it is difficult to see how the door which it contained could have opened within the closet into which it now opens - suggests that it is a remnant, apparently in situ, of an older building of quite different form.
The majority of the earlier (i.e. later 14th and 15th century) towers in Northumberland, or at least in the southern half of the county, appear to have served as solar towers to attached hall blocks (cf Corbridge Low Hall, East Shaftoe, Halton, Shortflatt, Welton,and almost certainly Belsay). The medieval tower at Elsdon may have been a solar tower of precisely this type; it is possible that the doorway in question gave access to an adjacent tower block. However the tower in its present form is clearly an example of a solitary tower, more in the Scottish tradition, with a machicolation above the entrance proving there was no adjacent hall block. Such solitary towers are almost always of 'late' date (i.e. 16th century), as at Burradon and Copeland Castle.
The fabric of the tower, rubble with elongate roughly-shaped quoins, is quite consistent with this date, suggesting that the earlier building must have been virtually rebuilt, and perhaps entirely re-faced. The present external wall fabric is similar to that seen in many strong houses and bastles, eg Woodhouses Bastle of 1602; by contrast most 14th and 15th century towers are constructed of squared stone laid in quite regular courses (e.g. Hepple Tower). Apart from the above-mentioned doorway, all the other ancient architectural features of the tower are very plain - simple square-headed openings with chamfered surrounds - and could well fit with a date in the second half of the 16th century.
The tower, as rebuilt, would appear to have originally had three floors, and perhaps a caphouse. The basement would be used for stabling or storage, with the principal living apartment or hall on the first floor, perhaps provided with a fireplace at its west end, and a garderobe on the south.
The second floor would house the owner's private apartments, or solar; at roof level there may have been a caphouse, perhaps with a room for a watchman (cf Shortflatt Tower). The fact that the original window in the east end of the basement is set so much higher up the wall than that in the west end suggests that the latter face of the tower must have been enclosed within some form of defensible enclosure, any evidence of which has been erased by two centuries of gardening and landscaping.
The earlier post-medieval alterations to the tower are not easy to interpret in detail. Within a century or so of the rebuilding of the tower in its present form an additional floor was inserted, technically within the caphouse. Hodgson's account of 'two low rooms' above the second floor appears to refer to this insertion (there is no evidence for the provision of any further doorway at this level from the newel stair).
Each 'room' is said to have been divided in four chambers, which must have been rather cramped. The rather confused structural evidence of the east end of the caphouse is not easy to interpret, but the fact that the wall clearly post-dates the remains of the original stair-head doorway, and yet apparently contains sockets for a roof pre-dating the present one, suggests either that the original caphouse was a secondary feature, or that there was an earlier rebuilding prior to the late 18th century changes.
The present second-floor arrangements probably date to the Rev Dutens' occupation; their Gothick decoration suggests a date in the 1780s or 1790s, and is an interesting example of antiquarian response to an ancient building, calling to mind the rather better-quality plasterwork of 1778-9 in the medieval tower at Hulne Friary, associated with the 'improvement' of this site by Robert Adam and Capability Brown. It seems likely that the caphouse was more or less completely rebuilt at this time; the heightened sections of the parapets, and their heraldic panels, may be of the same date; 19th century antiquaries clearly believed the southern panel to be a genuine medieval feature, but this would seem open to doubt (it does show a greater degree of weathering to that on the north, although this could be explained by physical factors).
It is to Singleton's more wide ranging reconstruction that we owe the present form of the house; the interest in antique heraldry was clearly maintained (if not a little overdone) in the plasterwork of the new entrance vestibule, and on the first floor of the tower. This first floor decoration has been ascribed to Dutens (Pevsner et al 2001, 268) but it seems more likely to be later, as Hodgson's account makes it clear that prior to Singleton this floor served as kitchen and servants' quarters, unlikely candidates for heraldic decoration.
As already outlined, the remodelling and extension of the ranges attached to the tower seems to have taken place in several phases during both Dutens' and Singleton's occupancy.