The Wansbeck Norman Frontier

The River Wansbeck and its tributaries play host to some impressive medieval structures. There remains, from sea to source, a castle at Bothal, at Morpeth a gatehouse to a castle, and the motte of an earlier defensive structure, the ruins of a castle at Mitford and the other earthwork remains of other defences and villages at Bolam, South Middleton and Hartburn.

Just a little to the South of the Wansbeck in the valley of the River Blyth there are many stately homes and they are usually built on the site of medieval, defensible pele towers: Belsay, Capheaton, Blagdon and Matfen for example. These were demolished to make way for stately homes when times became less turbulent in the 17th century.

Although some stately homes were built on sites along the River Wansbeck valley, such as Wallington and Mitford, they were not exactly on the site of these castles. The structures at Bothal, Morpeth and Mitford can definitely be described as castles, although they were not quite the size of the mighty Alnwick and Warkworth, which came at a later date.

So, why the abundance of baronial centres and castles along the line of the Wansbeck? Richard Lomas in "North-East England in the Middle Ages has suggested that the River Wansbeck may have been the first frontier line when the Normans began to inhabit and directly rule Northumberland after the Conquest. The sites were strategically important, being on major routes and crossing points of the river. The geography of the sites also offered some natural defence and building materials.

Medieval defensive sites on the along the Wansbeck valley. Click to enlarge.
To view stand-alone interactive map click here



[This is a piece from an earlier blogpost introducing the conquest in Northumberland which serves a similar purpose here.]

William I tried to rule Northumberland by a continuation of native and then Norman earls after 1066. They were often murdered. The policy was not working. There was a succession of rebellions and uprisings which had to be brutally put down by William leaving the county in a desperately impoverished state. After William de Mowbray's rebellion in 1090 William II (Rufus) suppressed the earldom and granted the lands of Northumberland to his Norman followers as had been the case in the southern counties which had featured in Domesday Book.

Before Walcher was made Bishop of Durham in 1071 there had been no Normans settled north of the Tees. Newcastle was created in 1080 to guard a river crossing by the Normans when returning south after suppressing a revolt.

The king imposed the feudal system whereby he installed his great magnates (barons) in strategic places from which to build a castle and control the surrounding area. These were termed baronies. The lands of a barony could be separate parcels held over a wide area. These were self-contained agricultural areas with a village at the centre called a township. The centre of a barony, where the lord was based, was known as the caput. The barons held direct from the king as tenants-in-chief in return for military service and loyalty. The barons often granted the distant townships to lesser Normans (knights) also in return for military service.

Historians often say there were three estates in medieval society: those who fight, the dukes, earls and barons of which there were 21 in Northumberland in 1166, the knights, esquires and gentlemen of which 64 in Northumberland 1166; those who prey and interceded on behalf of the souls of the workers and fighters, there being many types of monastic orders often providing hospitals and shelter for travellers; and those who work, most often unfree bondmen, bound to the their lord owing services for their land but as a community being mostly allowed to manage their own affairs. The lord didn't want the inconvenience of looking after the peasants but as a fighter it was his duty to protect. This feudalism declined over time with military service being commuted for rent payments and more of the workers becoming paid fighters when necessary. In fact by the time the baronies and townships were being established in the North-East this was already happening..

The evidence is patchy as to the creation of these baronies. William I (Rufus) was said to have invested Guy de Baliol with Bywell barony in 1093. Possibly at the same time Morpeth, Mitford, Bolam and Callerton were also created. Richard Lomas states:

"It seems sensible to conclude that on both sides of the Tyne some enfeoffement of Normans took place between the death of William I (1087) and the accession of Henry I (1100) although it extended no further North than the line of the Wansbeck."

Henry I probably created 15 baronies including Bothal, Whalton and Mitford.

Roland Bibby has said:

"The early (Rufus) baronies were closely linked to the castle at Newcastle. The greatest of the new baronies was granted to Guy de Baliol and it consisted of the estate represented by the parish of Bywell St Peter, great forest tracts and the townships of Bothal, Woodhorn, Newbiggin and Cresswell.
The new baron of Bywell had to provide constantly thirty men for the garrison at Newcastle while the other barons had to provide 26 in all with the exception of those at Morpeth and Bolam and were obliged to build and maintain houses within the bailey of the new castle. Thus Rufus anchored his Norman barons to his royal fortress and maintained its garrison."

Barony - Township

Bywell - Holywell, Bothal Woodhorn Newbiggin
Whalton - Horton, Burradon, Hartford
Morpeth - Shotton, Plessey, Longbenton, Killingworth, Blagdon, Weetslade
Bolam - Cowpen, Bebside, Hartford
Ellingham - Hartley, Cramlington
Callerton - Seaton Delaval
Tynemouthshire - Earsdon, Backworth, Seghill, Murton, Whitley, Preston, Monkseaton
Bedlingtonshire - Choppington, Cambois, Sleekburn, Netherton, Bedlington


A Tour of the Sites along the Wansbeck

This early motte and bailey castle is now in ruins, although it remains an impressive site as you turn off the beaten track and head into the small, hidden, leafy and picturesque village of Mitford . The earthworks of the mound and defensive ditches tower above the village and although it can be visited it is not a tourist attraction. Only fragments remain. What is now most visible from the road is the remains of a shell keep standing almost to full height. It is a steep climb. No path or stairs have been constructed and at the height of summer the interior is all but impassable due to nettles. It is, however, an important, and perhaps, overlooked monument having a rare survival of a pentagonal tower and shell keep.

Mitford Castle remains. Shell keep to left of photo.

Mitford Castle.Looking South over bailey curtain wall from shell keep.

Fragment of bailey curtain wall beside bastion looking South.

Mitford Castle water storage and occasional dungeons in main tower

The origin of Mitford is unclear until 1166 when it is confirmed the owner is Richard Bertram, who also comes into possession of Bothal, further downstream on the Wansbeck. Mitford barony consisted of Mitford, Meldon, Ponteland and Felton townships. It was granted borough status, therefore having some autonomy to run its own affairs, at the same time as the building of the castle. A market charter was granted in 1157. In the 15th century 28 dwellings existed in the village. Archaeologists think this may be the first crossing point of the Wansbeck created by the Normans, predating Morpeth. In the 1930s CH Hunter-Blair investigated the development of the castle. HL Honeyman recorded an archaeological excavation which was undertaken there in 1938 which further added to our knowledge of the castle's history. Hunter Blair began his piece with a description of early castles in Northumberland:

"They stand for an organization of feudal service in which the defence of the private castle was at least as important as the provision of knights for the kings armies. It is now universally recognized that moated mounds (O.F. motte ) with attached baileys surrounded by ditches and ramparts of earth represent the fortified houses, of Norman barons—the greater tenants holding in chief of the king by knight service—of the century succeeding the Conquest.
 These private strongholds, to which the rather vague name of castle was given, originated in France about the middle of the tenth century, they passed thence to Normandy, were brought into England by the Norman friends of the Confessor, and after the introduction of feudalism spread rapidly over the country . The name castle was, however, also used to describe the less developed defensive works of lesser men. Some were only earthwork enclosures like that within which the lords of Bolam later built their stone tower.
Many of these smaller works have no recorded history and their shape alone relates them to the castle type of earthwork; they may have been only temporary structures, hastily thrown up for a special purpose and soon thereafter deserted. Those of the developed mound and bailey type, on the contrary, bear evidence of careful siting and of forethought and deliberation in planning as if for more permanent use. The mound varied greatly in height and size, but it was always surrounded by a defensive ditch, or sometimes a wet moat, which also cut it off from the bailey, suggesting that its lord sought protection not-only from foes without but also from possible attack from his retainers within.
The castle was normally of oblong shape, forming as it were the figure 8, the mound making the smaller upper circle. The residence of the lord, often of very elaborate construction, was built of wood upon the summit of the mound, within a stout stockade of timber and connected with the bailey by a flying bridge over the ditch defended both at top and bottom by a fortified gateway. The quarters for the garrison, storehouses, stables, etc., were in the bailey which was surrounded by an earthen parapet, crowned by a palisade of wood, with an outer ditch upon whose counterscarp was a defence which may have been a quickset hedge of pointed stakes intertwined with brambles or some such prickly shrub—the forerunner of modern barbed wire. The entrance gateway, which from early times was sometimes of stone, was normally at the side furthest from the mound. Sometimes there is no sign of a gap in the bailey defences, suggesting that entrance was by means of a wooden bridge from counterscarp to top of rampart. Sometimes, as at Norham, Wark, Mitford and Harbottle, an enclosure larger than the bailey [barmkin] was attached to it, used either for temporary protection for men and beasts in case of hostile attack or for more permanent dwellings gathered around the castle for greater safety. Naturally strong sites, easily made into a castle, were usually chosen and preference was given to places near river crossings or main roads; examples of these in Northumberland were at Norham, Wark, Mitford, Morpeth and Warkworth."
"The largest mottes in England, such as Thetford, are estimated to have required up to 24,000 man-days of work; smaller ones required perhaps as little as 1,000. Taking into account estimates of the likely available manpower during the period, historians estimate that the larger mottes might have taken between four and nine months to build. This contrasted favourably with stone keeps of the period, which typically took up to ten years to build. Very little skilled labour was required to build motte and bailey castles, which made them very attractive propositions if forced peasant labour was available, as was the case after the Norman invasion of England." Wikipedia.
 The chronological history of the castle goes something like this:

Circa 1100 - William Bertram is granted the barony of Mitford. He is the husband of Hawis, or Alice, the daughter of the most powerful baron in the area, Guy of Baliol. A natural, rock-cored hill was scarped and ditched to form a Motte and Bailey castle. It is thought that a fortified village was on this site prior to the conquest. Bertram cleared out the villagers and had a settlement, complete with a church, built on the lower ground to the north west. The weakness with defensive buildings made from timber is they can easily be burned. Bertram tackled this problem by replacing the palisade on top of the motte with a shell keep made of stone in the early 12th century. Incidentally most of the castle seems to have been constructed in high-quality ashlar (shaped and squared) material. Substantial parts of this shell keep still remain. The wooden tower and other buildings were left in place.

1166 - Roger Bertram the son of William accounted to the monarch for the lands which he held by providing five knights for the king's military service. He was married to Ada.

1177 - The lands and castle were held by William Bertram, the son of Roger, who married Alice daughter of Odinel de Umfraville, the mighty lord of Prudhoe and Ridsdale. In 1175 the king of Scotland had stayed at Mitford and granted a charter from here. It was around this time that a curtain wall of stone was built around the bailey to form an outer ward. The North part of the bailey was left with a ditch and bank defence as a barmkin. A church was built on the southern side of the bailey. It overlay a graveyard which was partially examined in 1938. 19th century quarrying had greatly destroyed this part of the castle and the outbreak of WWII meant that large parts of the bailey area remain unexplored. However, it was discovered that the small church, or chapel, the foundations now being buried, was cruciform in shape. Most gravestones were protected by a head, foot and ledger stone although some were just cysts. Seven tombs were examined in total. One male was 6' 2" tall. At the end of this century the construction of a  block house was started on the motte hill but was never completed. This was discovered by excavation in 1938. The foundations were buried by a later building.

1215 - Roger Bertram, the next descendant to hold the castle, took part in the baron's rising against King John. The following year King John was at Mitford in his fierce campaign against the Northern Barons. John used mercenary troops to lay waste the North and its castles. Architectural evidence suggest Mitford Castle was spared but the property was forfeited to the Sheriff of Northumberland, Phillip of Ulecotes, who was described as unpopular but able and energetic. In 1217 Alexander II of Scotland laid seige to the castle for a whole week but was unsuccessful in being in being able to capture it. Bertram was restored to his property in this year after having made peace with the new, and young, king Henry III and also paying a fine of £100 (about £152,000 in 2017).

1256 - Roger Bertram III born 1224 was granted free warren in his demesne lands of Mitford. But in November of this year the King's escheator, for reasons unknown, was ordered to take his lands. He was later imprisoned for taking up arms against the King. He was in great debt and eventually sold all the rest of his baronial estate to the Baliols. After his death his widow married Sir Rir Robert Neville of Raby.

1264 - The castle and lands were confiscated by the King. There was then a complicated series of landholding involving local nobility and royalty.  It was towards the end of this century that a stone tower was built on top of the mound/motte in the inner ward replacing all the previous buildings. The foundations and basement of the tower still remain. What is most visible to visitors are two barrel-vaulted chambers. There was no well to provide water on the castle site so these chambers were used to collect rainwater via inlet spouts. The entrance door was set well above floor level. At times however, the chambers were used for the confinement of prisoners. Graffiti inscribed in Latin on the walls testifies to this.

1314 - The castle and estate was sold to Aymer de Valance, the Earl of Pembroke. The Earl appointed Sir John Evers as guardian of the castle.

1317 - Gilbert de Middleton, in league with Sir John Evers, made the castle his headquarters for his famous rebellion against the King. The castle was eventually recaptured by Sir William Felton and Sir Thomas Heton on behalf of the Crown. Evers was pardoned for his part in the rising, probably through the influence of Earls Lancaster and Pembroke. Middleton wasn't so lucky.

1318 -  Middleton's partner in the rebellion, Sir Walter Selby had captured Horton Castle near Blyth and had been under siege there for some time. He eventually somehow managed to make his escape. He made his way to Mitford where, probably in alliance with the Scots, who where waging a bloody campaign against England at the time, took the castle "by guile". Selby surrendered on promise of a pardon in 1321 and the castle was restored to the Earl of Pembroke, although it was badly damaged by now.

1324 - The castle passed in the female line of Aymer, the Earl of Pembroke, to David of Strathbogie the 11th Earl of Atholl and the Inquisition Post Mortem on the death of Strathbogie in 1326 records the castle site as "wholly burned".

And it was commonly thought the castle was disused after this date, but pottery, both medieval and Tudor, found in the 1938 excavation shows that the castle was occupied until 1617 when a manor house was built on lower ground using stone robbed from the castle. The shards disappeared during the war as the owner would not allow them off site. Valuable evidence was lost. The site wasn't back filled after the dig and much damage was done by the home guard on training exercises and by day trippers desecrating graves. The nettles have since the 1940s provided the greatest protection to the site.  In what state of repair the castle was in is not presently known, or indeed anything of its Tudor life. A survey was made of the castle in the 1810s and showed a greater amount of its fabric to be in existence than what survives today. Quarrying and robbing have taken a toll on the site.

A complete gatehouse, used as a holiday let sits overlooking the town of Morpeth on high ground to the South of the town.

 A motte and bailey castle was built by the De Merlay family by 1095 when it is recorded to have been attacked by William II (Rufus). Pevsner writes: "The NE end of a narrow ridge appears to have been artificially scarped to form a motte guarding the crossing of the Wansbeck." Some archaeology found on the site in 1830 suggests that a stone keep crowned the motte. Apparently this was destroyed by King John in 1215 (Baron's Revolt etc) and never rebuilt.

Another castle close to the motte and bailey on Ha Hill was built in the 13th century. A map of Morpeth from 1604 shows a keep in the middle of a bailey with a gatehouse and an outer ward. The keep has now disappeared entirely and only fragments remain of the rest.

Hunter-Blair writes:
"The mound was cut off from its west part by a deep ditch, the material from which was used to steepen and heighten the natural hill; the west part thus separated formed the bailey, surrounded by the usual stockaded ditch.The castle was well sited as a guard to the nearby bridge or ford. Hodgson, gives a small diagram of the mound and ditch and part of the bailey as seen by William Woodman in 1830 who at the same time dug up, at its east end, some Norman capitals and voussoirs carved with Norman billet moulding; of these Hodgson give s small plans and sections. These stones show that before the middle of the twelfth century a stone tower had been built on part of the site, probably upon the’ hill  itself. This was the castle destroyed by John during his savage campaign of 1215/16 , and Leland is probably right when he says that John burnt downe Morpeth Castle . . . whiche standythe by Morpeth Towne .” Indications of destruction by fire were noticed in 1830. It was not rebuilt. In the fourteenth century another castle was built on the hill to the south where its gatehouse and ruined curtain walls still remain."


The settlement is set some way back from the River Wansbeck on a not particularly defensible site, especially when looking to the North. It is now a very picturesque village with a church and manor house.

It was the centre of the barony of Walter fitz William. The barony later came into the possession of the Cramavilles by marriage. There is no evidence of the Fitz Williams having a residence here, especially a defensible and stately structure. The barony passed to the lords of Warkworth in the 13th century, who had their main residence elsewhere and didn't need a dwelling at Whalton.

Hodgson (1827) suggested that "if the Barons of Whalton ever had a residence upon it, it was probably about half a mile out of the village [now] called the Camp House Farm ... where there are traces of ancient works and some even ground called dead men's graves.


Granted to the monks of Tynemouth Priory in the late 11th century so there was no lordly castle or tower at this location. It must have been an important Anglo-Saxon settlement site however as there was a pre-conquest church already established.

"The monks of Tynemouth ... in the early 12th century built a fortified tower to protect the tithes. Originally freestanding the church was expanded to join it shortly after. The monks lived in the upper floor of the tower." (Dodds 1999)

Later the Knights Templar inherited the estate and between 1250-1312 carried out a large rebuilding program constructing a new tower and vicarage 100 yards North of the Church.


Built on the probable site of an Iron Age hill fort.

Nothing now remains to be seen and there is no indication that this was formerly an important medieval settlement. The site is on high ground with a steep slope running North to the River Wansbeck but is not particularly defensible to the South.

From the North looking up to Bolam Tower site in the distance.

The area is now overgrown with trees but in 1920 the foundations of a square building was still showing. Today nothing is visible of the tower and it is thought the stone was used to construct Bolam Hall which stands a few metres away.

MJ Jackson (1992) thought that a settlement here was adapted into a motte and bailey castle in the late 12th century although a mound has not been identified. The Barony of Bolam was granted to Gilbert de Bolam by King John in the late 12th century. He was succeeded by Sir Walter de Bolam, whose effigy is in Bolam Church. He dates the tower to the late 13th century, built by Robert de Reymes.

By 1323 it was reported to have been completely destroyed by the Scots.

SOUTH MIDDLETON Deserted Medieval Village

Beside the river excellent earthworks (lumps and bumps in the ground) remain undisturbed.

From the North looking at part of the South Middleton site.

The village was fairly typical for this area with two parallel lines of houses facing a broad rectangular green with narrow crofts, or garden areas to the rear. It was surrounded by the arable farm land which now shows as ridge and furrow earthworks of the medieval farming.

"This type of village in Northern England is thought to be the result of deliberate planning by Norman rulers attempting to exert control over a rebellious region during the 11th-12th centuries."

The villagers lived in long houses and there is evidence of twelve at this site. Neighbours were separated from one another by an earthen bank 0.4m deep and from the fields at the rear of the crofts by the same methods.

The lands were granted to a major Norman baron, Hugh de Bolbec. This was a detached township of his Barony of Slaley, on the Tyne, which also included Blanchland, Heddon, Matfen, Wallingon and more.

The township came under the ownership of the Fenwick family. Documents record a gradual fall in population and the village was completely abandoned by 1762.



A very complete gatehouse still remains at Bothal. It is a residence to the agents of the Duke of Portland who is the major landowner of the area. The castle was leased to Welwyn Electrical during the 1970s. It was restored from ruin in the 1830s.

Bothal Castle gatehouse.

In 1095 the manor was granted to Guy de Baliol as part of the Barony of Bywell on the Tyne. Baliol was the most powerful of barons to have been granted land in Northumberland at this time. It is thought, however, that the estate was owned by a high-ranking Anglo-Saxon lord. The name of Gisulf has been put forward and a whole pedigree published. But there is some serious doubt as to the authenticity of Gisulf and his ancestry. Roland Bibby has speculated there is enough circumstantial evidence to say Bothal was an important Anglo-Saxon royal estate. It is not until 1161 that there is evidence of de Baliol, or his successor, granting out Bothal to his grandson Richard Bertram, the holder of Mitford Barony. This was probably after the death of "Gisulf", De Baliol having showing some deference to his status.

Richard Bertram's brother, Robert, became the resident lord here, but it was not until 1343 that a license to build a castle was issued. There is no evidence that the hill where the castle now stands was ever consolidated with an artificial mound therefore we can only speculate on the type of defensive settlement the Bertrams inhabited.


It would seem the first theories on this being a frontier line of defences may be wrong. Only Mitford and Morpeth can be defined as castles in the sense of having a bailey and curtain wall. Even Bolam and Whalton, the centre of baronies, do not show any sign of having an early motte and bailey defence and remained only lightly defended. It is interesting that Morpeth and Mitford castles sit astride the A1 road and even then it was probably the main route between Newcastle and Scotland and needed to be heavily defended. Hunter-Blair in his 1944 article "Early Castles of Northumberland" gives the founding of other baronies and castles in Northumberland as around the same period as the Wansbeck ones. If the Wansbeck was a frontier it was surely short lived, but it did have some importance to the early Normans in Northumberland.