Elsdon : Potential for Further Research
Elsdon is perhaps the most classic village in the Northumberland National Park, laid out around a broad green containing a historic church, and dominated by a impressive tower and large earthwork castle. Indeed Elsdon could be said to lie at the very heart of the Park. It was accorded a chapter to itself in an earlier guide to the National Park (Conzen 1969) and was described by George Trevelyan, in a typically eloquent essay (1931), as the ‘spiritual capital’ of that older territory, the Middle Marches.
It has been suggested recently that the earthworks bounding the inner ward and the bailey of the Norman castle represent an economical adaption of much earlier Iron Age hillfort defences (Welfare et al. 1999, 58-9; Welfare 2002, 77).
Evidence for the early medieval period is slender, but the combination of placename evidence, Elsdon’s role as a parochial centre, the dedication of that parish church to St Cuthbert and the Umfravilles’ selection of the site for one of their castles, suggests that it may already have served as the capital of a substantial upland estate prior to the Norman Conquest.
The castle was probably abandoned at a relatively early stage, perhaps by the end of the 12th century, a victim of the spiralling cost of castle-building technology with the transition from timber to stone, which saw the Umfravilles choose to concentrate their resources on Prudhoe and Harbottle.
Had the castle not been abandoned when it was, Elsdon might well have acquired the status of a baronial borough, like the comparable settlement below the walls of Harbottle Castle, the Umfravilles’ other upland fortress. As it was, it gained two weekly markets and two annual fairs (partly as a result of rivalry between two branches of the Umfraville family), making it for a long time the commercial capital of Redesdale, a status it only lost to Otterburn as result of changes to the main communications routes through Redesdalein the early 19th century.
The earliest detailed map evidence, in the form of the 1731 enclosure map for Elsdon Common, shows the village had broadly similar form to that seen today. This map also shows the pattern of field systems the corridors leading out from the green to the upland common and the ad hoc enclosures made previously in that common. Much of this field system survives as relict landscape of ridge and furrow earthworks and field banks. There is considerable potential for involving the local community in mapping and analysing this field system in more detail using basic field survey techniques to build on the historic map and aerial photographic system.
Although a tower house is recorded at Elsdon in the hands of the rector in a list of Border defences in 1415, the extant fabric of the towerhouse appears to be virtually all 16th century in date (see Ryder, The Medieval Buildings…. above), implying very substantial reconstruction. The tower certainly continued to house the rector in the 18th century and right up until 1961, but further confusion is engendered by a reference to last Umfraville lord of Redesdale, ‘Robin Mend-market’ (Sir Robert Umfraville), making arrangements in 1432 to rebuild his castles at Harbottle, Otterburn and Elsdon.
Whilst the towerhouse has received quite detailed examination, partly in conjunction with the recent renovation of the building, there does not appear to be any recent account or analysis of Elsdon church available, as Elsdon was not covered by any of the later volumes of the Northumberland County History. Elsdon church is a complex fabric with evidence of extensive later medieval rebuilding, some of it perhaps occasioned by damage around the time of the nearby battle of Otterburn in 1388. A description and phasing is provided here (see The Medieval Buildings . . . above), but the building would clearly merit more intensive study.
The surviving fabric of the buildings around the green – some of which exhibit a degree of architectural pretension – coupled with anecdotal evidence of trade brought by Scottish carters and drovers, suggests that Elsdon experienced a modest degree of prosperity in the 18th and early 19th centuries, based on its position on the developing turnpike network and the cross-border droveways. The disparaging comments of the Rev. Dodgson and even John Hodgson should be treated with caution in this instance.
With three substantial medieval monuments, a host of other features of interest, surrounded by an extensive well-preserved ridge and furrow field system, Elsdon is clearly a site of major significance within the National Park. It deserves to be the focus of a detailed, long-term study, using a full range of investigative techniques. This is merited not only for the intrinsic interest of Elsdon as a place, but also for the contribution that such a study would make to our understanding of the history of Redesdale as a whole, and upland Northumberland in general.