Harbottle And The Impact Of Border Warfare : 1300 - 1600
The defence of the border did become an major issue during the reign of Henry II, at the time Harbottle Castle was either first constructed or perhaps first rebuilt, at least partially, in stone. However for most of the 12th and 13th centuries, Anglo-Scottish relations were on the whole good, particularly under Henry I, when the Umfraville liberty was probably first created, and after 1237 when the status of Northumbria was finally settled.
At these times it is likely that the imposition of baronial authority and firm policing in the uplands were seen as more relevant roles for strongholds like Harbottle Castle. Order does appear to have been effectively imposed in Redesdale and Coquetdale during in this period. This long period of peace and prosperity undoubtedly provides the context for the foundation and growth of the borough community below the castle.
The period after 1300 witnessed prolonged periods of warfare between the two countries, beginning with Edward I's attempt to conquer Scotland. Moreover this warfare gradually undermined the maintenance of local law and order so that by the 15th and 16th centuries the problems of local policing were increasingly absorbing the attention of the officers of the Middle March in their headquarters at Harbottle. Equally disastrous for the maintenance of order in the Northumbrian liberties was the weak lordship which was a side-effect of the prolonged warfare.
This was especially severe in Tynedale which had formerly been held by the Scottish kings and now went through a rapid succession of largely absentee landowners. In a franchise like Tynedale or Redesdale this was especially problematic since the enforcement of law and order depended on the initiative of the lord, rather than on permanent royal officials such as the sheriff or justices of eyre.
The fortunes of the Umfraville lineage declined during these years as a result of the loss of their Scottish lands, the large debts incurred trying to recover them and a series of expensive widow's dowers (Tuck 1971, 32-33; 1985, 49-50; 1986, 7-8, 11-2). After the last earl of Angus, Gilbert III, had transferred the most important part of his estate, the barony of Prudhoe, to the Percies on his death in 1381 (Tuck 1986, 11-2), the Umfravilles were reduced to the level of little more than local gentry, and this may have affected their ability to maintain order.
However they were at least present in the valley for much of the time and the long distinguished service of Sir Robert de Umfraville on the border, during the early 15th century provided an important stabilising factor. After 1436, however, when Umfraville line was extinguished and the liberty of Redesdale with its base at Harbottle came into the possession of the Tailbois lineage, Redesdale too will have suffered from largely absentee lordship. Increasingly the burden of providing both border defence and rural policing fell on the crown in the 15th-16th centuries, as the castle's two roles had merged into one overiding concern. This was finally formalised in 1546 when Henry VIII took the Redesdale liberty, including Harbottle, into the crown's hands, exchanging it for other lands with the sister and heir of lord Tailbois, Elizabeth, wife of Thomas Wymbysche of Lincolnshire (NCH XV (1940), 476).
The fortunes of Harbottle in the later medieval era was thus affected by a combination of the fortunes of war and the fate of its baronial proprietors as well as wider social and economic conditions, not to mention climatic fluctuations and epidemiological characteristics. One has only to compare the immense sums poured into the modernisation of the strongholds of Alnwick and Warkworth by the Percies, or Raby, by the Nevilles, the new magnate lineages which established themselves on the Border in the 14th century at the expense of the long-established lordships like the Umfravilles, to realise how much the fate of Harbottle was tied in with that of its lords.
Whilst all Northumberland's boroughs experienced declining fortunes in the 14th and 15th centuries, boroughs in the western parts of the county, like Harbottle, experienced greater relative decline than Newcastle, Morpeth and Alnwick, strung out along the Great North Road in the coastal plain (Lomas 1996, 88, 93).
Harbottle was directly involved in Border warfare on several occasions. The castle was besieged and taken by William the Lion in 1174 (Benedict i, 65), During the first Scottish War of Independence, it was assaulted on only two occasions, in 1296, unsuccessfully (Hemingburgh 277; Holinshed Chron. ii, 299; Cal. Close Rolls 1288-96, 493), and in 1318, when it was taken by Bruce (Chron. de Lanercost 235; Chron. de Melsa ii, 335; Scalachronica 60). These events doubtless caused considerable damage and disruption in the adjacent borough and neighbouring villages, as the Scottish forces plundered the area roundabout for provisions, but they were relatively rare events and probably less important in the long run than a number of other factors.
For much of the 14th century the castle was apparently in a state of disrepair, as a result of its capture by Robert the Bruce in 1318 (Chron. de Lanercost 235; Chron. de Melsa ii, 335; Scalachronica 60). Some of the buildings may have been rendered habitable, but it is likely the defences were in poor condition - derelict or dismantled. In 1335/36, Gilbert de Umfraville III reported that the damage to the castle was still so severe that there was not a single building (meson) in which prisoners, taken in the franchise of Redesdale, could be securely kept, as they had from time immemorial.
This probably signifies that none of the mural towers or the keep was sound enough to use as for the purpose. However Harbottle probably served as a base for military operations by Sir Robert de Umfraville in 1399 and 1400 (cf. Hodgson 1827, 48-9; Ridpath 1848, 254), suggesting the castle was serviceable by this stage (Rushworth & Carlton 1998, 43). Sir Robert was certainly authorised to carry out repair work in 1432 (Cal. Pat. Rolls. 1429-36, 219, 328), and by 1438, after the castle had passed into Tailbois' ownership, the keep ('dungeon') was fit to house the constable, Roger Widdrington, and his household (Northumb. & Durham Deeds, 222, no.8). Thereafter a royal garrison was maintained in the castle and essential repairs were occasionally carried out. Work at the king's expense was in progress in 1519, for example (Colvin et al. 1975, 253). Expenditure on such repairs, on the maintenance of the castle garrison and the salaries of the Border officialdom - constables, keepers of Redesdale and Wardens of the Middle March periodically resident - may have provided some boost to the prosperity of the community at Harbottle.
A fascinating glimpse of the role of Harbottle as the headquarters of the Middle March is provided by the records preserved at the Public Record Office. These have been collated in the multiple volumes of the Letters and Papers of the reign of Henry VIII (LP Hen VIII) and the Calendar of State Papers (Cal SP), covering the reigns of Henry's successors, and in the two volume Calendar of Border Papers (CBP) assembled by Bain in 1894/96.
A synopsis and discussion of this material particularly as it relates to the the history of Harbottle Castle is provided by Rushworth & Carlton (1998). Whereas the Border Papers cover the period between 1560-1603 and concern many exchanges relating directly to the castle rather than correspondence sent from it, which is the main focus of the State Papers series. Particularly significant is the material relating to the tenure of Lord Dacre, lieutenant of the East and Middle Marches and keeper of Redesdale and Tynedale between 1509-25, which accounts for the bulk of the 52 pieces of correspondence signed from Harbottle amongst the State Papers. The majority of Dacre's letters concern Scottish political affairs, rather than Border policing and it is evident that Dacre saw himself and his office as central to policy making in the Borders.
Repeated repair and reconstruction programmes are recorded at Harbottle Castle during the 16th century, in 1519, 1546-51 and 1568. By 1538 it is described as, "the chief strength of the Border of the Middle Marches, which is not habitable" (LP Hen VIII). The subsequent programme which began in 1546 probably involved the castle's reconstruction as an artillery fortress. Little work appears to have been carried out after 1568, however, and the extensive fabric rapidly decayed. Moreover security throughout the Border districts seems to have worsened as Elizabeth's reign progressed, with survey after survey proclaiming the need for more troops and repairs. In this context, Ellis (1995a & b), has highlighted the impact on Border security of Tudor reforms within provincial government, from 1534 onwards.
These were aimed at creating an increasingly centralised government and more accountable periphery, by replacing the militarily powerful, Border magnates with a loyal 'service aristocracy' drawn from the local gentry. Whilst this policy may well have served the interests of the Tudor state, it failed to address the problems of maintaining security in the borders, which powerful magnates, like Dacre, alone had been able to provide, by relying upon their own tenantry to make up the deficiencies in royal garrisons and fortresses and implementing coordinated policies to sustain and expand that tenantry as far as possible (Ellis 1995a, 89-106).
This was particularly necessary because the government proved increasingly unwilling to furnish substantial sums for garrisons and fortifications on any but a very sporadic basis (Colvin et al. 1982, 610-3). In the last analysis it seems that, however many appeals and reports they received from their officials on the border, court centred politicians had great difficulty in understanding the different realities and requirements of the border society. This tension underlies the history of Harbottle and its environs throughout the mid-late 16th Century.