How Many Castles in Northumberland? +Top 8 To Visit

The wonderfully diverse landscapes of Northumberland provide a feeling of unspoiled natural beauty. However, this historic old English county’s location has placed it front and center of conflict down the centuries. The result is a paradise for castle lovers, but just how many castles does Northumberland have?

There are over 70 castles dotted around Northumberland (source), the most of any English county. They vary from earthen mounds with remnants of ruins to fully restored medieval fortresses. Some like Alnwick and Bamburgh are still inhabited today.

From Romans, Normans, Vikings, and Scots, the locals in Northumberland have long been in the firing line of invading forces. In this article, I shall look at why the county’s location gave rise to so many castles. I shall then explore a few of the most spectacular and important castles in Northumberland.

Bamburgh Castle, Northumberland
Bamburgh Castle

The Ancient Kingdom of Northumbria

Northumberland is the most northerly of the English counties. It strikes the visitor as a wonderfully tranquil region, ideal for long walks in wild, open spaces.

However, for much of its history, Northumberland has been witness to invasion, raids, and conflict. Romans, Angles, Danes, Scots, and Normans have all left their mark on the region.

The ancient kingdom of Northumbria once covered more land than its modern-day equivalent. Northumbria means land north of Humber, from where the county once stretched up to the Firth of Forth in Scotland.

The one constant in Northumberland’s existence has always been the North Sea on its eastern flank.

Wherever you look you will see reminders of its history. Northumberland hosts the longest stretch of the Roman-built Hadrian’s wall.

This defensive fortification made from stone marked Rome’s northwestern frontier. It was built to defend their forces against attack from the Picts of Scotland.

Whereas the Romans built an impressive 73-mile wall as a defensive fortification, castles would become the fortification of choice.

Why There Are So Many Castles in Northumberland

Northumberland’s location as a border county to Scotland set the grounds for why so many castles were built in this one county. Historic disputes between England and Scotland saw Northumberland often take the brunt of any conflict.

While basic forts had long been used as defensive structures, the Normans took it up another level with their castles. As they extended their influence further north during the 11th century they brought their castles to Northumberland.

However, the rate of castle building intensified significantly in Northumberland from the 14th century.

This resulted from the disputes that began during this time between the English and the Scots. For the next 300 years, the two rivals were at loggerheads, resulting in the Border Wars.

There were frequent skirmishes between English and Scottish forces along the border. The table below lists some of the major battles which took place between the ‘auld enemies’ on Northumberland soil.

Otterburn5th August1388
Homildon Hill14th September1402
Yeavering22nd July1415
Flodden9th September1513
Newburn28th August1640

Northumberland was of strategic importance and castles were built to defend the region. The larger and more imposing the fortress, the more powerful the family within.

Historic family names such as the Percys and the Nevilles were among the castle occupiers of Northumberland.

A County of Castles

Not all the castles built in Northumberland have survived.

Yet the 70-plus that remain are a treasure trove of interest to historians and those who just enjoy wandering around these historic sites.

Some of the castles are earthen mounds dotted with the remains of walls long gone. Others may be ruins, but still have significant structures in place.

Some are small fortified tower homes, while the most celebrated are the huge medieval fortress castles that dominate the landscape around them.

The following are eight of the most spectacular or strategically important of Northumberland’s abundance of castles.

1. Bamburgh Castle

Bamburgh Castle is one of the iconic sights of Northumberland. Perched up high, overlooking the sand below and out over the north sea, it is somehow wild, rugged, and romantic all in one.

The location has been a defensive site for thousands of years, with a castle sitting on top of the rocky outcrop for 1,400 years.

Bamburgh Castle was the seat of the Northumbrian kings and withstood raids by Viking forces. However, the castle we recognize today started to take shape under Norman ownership.

It was a strategic outpost, one from where the Normans could launch raids into neighboring Scotland and suppress any northern dissent to their conquest of England.

The castle has held high-value Scottish prisoners within its walls.

However, it also played host to several English monarchs, including Henry III, Edward I, and Edward II. During the Wars of the Roses, Bamburgh became the first castle to fall to gunpowder in England when under attack from Yorkist forces.

Bamburgh later began to fall into disrepair. Today, Bamburgh is owned by the Armstrong family who live in the castle. Over £1 million was spent on its restoration, with the castle open to the public for visits.

This video gives you a virtual tour of the castle’s impressive King’s Hall.

2. Lindisfarne Castle

Just along the coast from Bamburgh is Holy Island, a place of Christian pilgrimage since the seventh century.

Lindisfarne Castle is perched upon a volcanic plug called Beblowe Crag on the island and visiting requires some careful planning. The island is connected to the mainland by a causeway and access is therefore dictated by tide times.

Although the island and its monastery suffered at the hands of the Vikings (source), the castle was not built until the mid-1500s. Its purpose was to house a garrison to help protect against incursion into the north by the Scots. Once the threat lessened, the castle began to fall into disrepair.

In 1901, Edward Hudson, owner of the magazine Country Life, set about renovating the castle into a plush Edwardian country house.

Since 1944, Lindisfarne Castle and its lovely gardens have been looked after by the National Trust.

3. Chillingham Castle

If you like all things paranormal, this is the castle for you. Chillingham Castle is reputed to be the most haunted castle in the country.

The eeriest reported apparition was the ‘blue boy’ who haunted one of the bedrooms. During renovations in the 1920s, a body of a young boy was found on the spot where the ghostly apparition was seen.

Chillingham is a majestic medieval structure built in the 13th century as a stronghold, before becoming a fortified castle by the middle of the 14th century. The castle has seen plenty of military action and was a key strategic fortification during the border wars.

The castle was temporarily in the hands of the Scots in 1513 and was badly damaged during the Pilgrimage of the Grace rebellion in 1536.

Chillingham Castle has always been in the hands of the Grey family. Today’s descendants still use the castle as a residence, living alongside the ghosts.

Chillingham Castle, Northumberland
Chillingham Castle

4. Warkworth Castle

This is another Northumberland fortification that was replaced by a stone castle during the time of the Normans. A dominant structure overlooking the small village of Warkworth, it became the home of the powerful Percy family.

Warkworth Castle is a great example of intricate medieval castle design. The Great Tower was added by Henry Earl, the first earl of Northumberland in the latter part of the 14th century.

Designed in the shape of a cross and decorated with royal sculptures, it was three stories high. Warkworth was a strategic stronghold in the Anglo-Scottish wars. The tower was an ideal lookout point.

In 1922, guardianship of the castle was handed to the Office of Works by the 8th Duke of Northumberland.

It is now maintained and run by English Heritage who stage family events that help bring the castle back to life.

It is also worthwhile strolling the half mile up the river to the Hermitage. This is a private chapel carved into the rock face for the first Earl of Northumberland.

5. Alnwick Castle

We stay with the Percy family, as they also owned the majestic Alnwick Castle.

Indeed, they have been the guardians of the castle for over 800 years. The current Duke of Northumberland has the honor of residing in what is the second-largest inhabited castle in the UK.

Alnwick Castle also had its beginnings in Norman design. Construction started toward the end of the 11th century. Just 30 km from the Scottish border, the castle was built to project Norman power and protect the northern border.

Henry Percy bought the castle in 1309 and set about converting it further into a true border castle stronghold.

If you experience a feeling of Deja vu when you first see Alnwick Castle, you have likely seen a Harry Potter film. The castle was used as a set for the first two Harry Potter films.

The outer bailey is where you saw the young wizard learn the arts of broom flying as well as the rules of Quidditch.

Alnwick Castle has also been used as a location for over 40 TV shows and films, including Downton Abbey.

The following video takes a look at Alnwick Castle as a TV and movie location.

6. Aydon Castle

Aydon Castle is worth a mention as it offers the chance to look around a fairly unaltered 13th–century manor house. The house was originally built without any fortifications by the merchant Robert de Reymes.

However, this changed after the Anglo-Scottish wars broke out.

The castle has not had an easy ride. The Scots burnt the property in 1315 before it was seized by English rebels two years later. Go forward three decades and Aydon Castle was back in the hands of Scottish raiders.

However, since then very few changes have been made to the fortified manor. It offers a great opportunity to see what life was like near the border in the 14th century. This woodland secluded castle contains original features, including a fireplace dating back to the 13th century.

The castle is now understandably classed as a grade I listed building and is looked after by English Heritage.

7. Dunstanburgh Castle

This is another evocative fortress located on the Northumbrian coast. The crumbling towers still manage to awe, sat on a headland with the waves from the North Sea crashing around beneath. Remote and windswept, the castle ruins seem to make it even more atmospheric.

Dunstanburgh Castle was built between 1313 and 1322 by the highly ambitious Earl Thomas of Lancaster. The earl was executed in 1322 after being a major player in a revolt against Edward II.

The castle was again center stage during the War of the Roses when it was twice besieged by Yorkist forces. The Yorkists managed to take the castle, but the castle walls took some significant damage in the meantime.

As is often the case, once the threat of war receded the upkeep of a castle declined. This was so for Dunstanburgh which began to fall into disrepair.

However, the evocative ruins became a subject for the painter JMW Turner after he first visited the site in 1797. Dunstanburgh has continued to attract visitors to this raw setting ever since.

Dunstanburgh Castle, Northumberland
Dunstanburgh Castle

8. Prudhoe Castle

Prudhoe Castle deserves recognition as it was the only castle in Northumberland not to fall into Scottish hands at some point in time. The castle was one of a series built along the River Tyne to prevent a Scottish invasion across the river.

The stone castle was constructed in the 12th century, replacing a previous motte and bailey design. The castle was originally owned by the Anglo-Norman Umfraville family. When their family line died out, the castle was taken over by our old friends the Percys.

The House of Percy rented out Prudhoe Castle. Once the castle stopped being used as a residence in the 17th century, it followed a familiar theme and fell into disrepair.

Fortunately, the 2nd Duke of Northumberland carried out a significant restoration project early in the 19th century. This included building a Georgian mansion within the grounds.

Prudhoe Castle is now maintained by English Heritage. While parts of the walls are incomplete, they are still atmospheric, sheltering the Georgian mansion within.