Thirlwall Castle

Life in Northumberland between 1300 and 1600 was dangerous and unstable. Cross-border raids between England and Scotland were common. Peace and stability was replaced by violence and intimidation, robbery and ransom. As fear and uncertainty gripped the area, important families protected themselves against attack by building strong defensible homes, like the one at Thirlwaall

Originally built in the 12th century, and later strengthened using stones from nearby Hadrian’s Wall, Thirwall Castle began to fall into disrepair in the 17th century. The site is protected by Grade I listed building and Scheduled Ancient Monument status. In 1999, Northumberland National Park Authority acquired a 99-year lease on Thirlwall Castle and 10 hectares of adjacent woodland. Find out more by downloading our Thirlwall Castle leaflet.

The history of Thirlwall Castle

In the 1330s, John Thirlwall built a stronghold that provided protection for his family and descendants for the next 300 years. The site chosen was a sheltered, wooded bank of the Tipalt Burn surrounded by hill-top positions that could warn of impending raids.

All the materials that were needed lay close by – timber, water and neatly dressed sandstone blocks which had been quarried by the Romans to build Hadrian’s Wall.

 

Defending against raids

Other families were also building similar defensive castles in the area. These strongholds became an essential element in the defence of the English Border against Scottish raids. Several generations of Thirlwall’s survived the border raids and prospered. When Lionel Thirlwall died in 1586, he left a comfortable endowment to his wide and each of his eight children. His will lists many domestic items as well as farm livestock and crops.

After the Union of the Scottish and English Crowns in 1603, more peaceful conditions developed and border strongholds became redundant. The Thirlwall Castle Estate was sold to the Earl of Carlisle in 1748 for £4,000. The Earl was interested only in the land and allowed the Castle to fall into gradual decay. In the 18th century the crumbling ruins of Thirlwall Castle began to attract the attention of artists and historians who were interested in it because of its links to Hadrian’s Wall.

Myth and Legend

Baron John returned from distant wars with great spoils, amongst which was a table of solid gold guarded by a hideous dwarf whose pitch-coloured skin proclaimed his exotic origins.

After many raids made by envious Border and Scottish Chiefs eager to seize the treasure for themselves, the castle was finally taken by the Scots and most of its defenders killed. But when the Scots battered down the door of the chamber where the table had been kept, it had vanished along with its guardian the dwarf.

One of the Scots then claimed that he had seen the Black Dwarf staggering under the weight of the table to the castle well. The Dwarf flung the table down the well shaft and leapt in after it, magically sealing the well after him.

Legend has it that he remains there still, guarding his table in some underground cavern far below Thirlwall Castle’s foundations. He is under the influence of a spell which can only be removed by the only son of a widow.

Secret tunnel

During the restoration of Blenkinsopp Castle, an entrance to a secret passage was found in the north-west corner. It is supposed that this passage connected Blenkinsopp Castle to Thirlwall Castle, a mile and a half distant; this passage was to allow a means of escape should either castle be captured by some enemy.

The legend of Blenkinsopp surrounds the White Lady, the foreign bride of Bryan de Blenkinsopp. She hid her dowry of treasure from him at the end of a tunnel beneath the castle.

This led to Bryan de Blenkinsopp leaving home, never to return. It is said that the remorseful lady cannot rest and mourns over the chest of gold. Her spirit will be able to rest only when someone follows her to the vault and removes the treasure.

Getting there

Car

From the A1, follow the A69 to the B630 in Northumberland, which is the turn-off for Greenhead.

Bus

The Hadrian’s Wall Bus takes you to Greenhead.

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