Alnwick and District Local History Society

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MEDIEVAL ALNWICK: The Alnwick and District Local History Society welcomed one of its own members, Peter Carter to its January meeting to talk about Medieval Alnwick, a period covering nearly 1,000 years, from the sixth to the 15th centuries.

In 547 AD Ida occupied Bamburgh, and the area became the Anglian kingdom of Bernicia. In about 600 AD, Deira was added and the huge Northumbrian kingdom was founded.

The earliest villages in the Alnwick area were Lesbury, Whittingham, Edlingham, Eglingham were established by the eighth century. At this time, men lived longer than women and half the population was under the age of 18.

There was a shortage of adult labour, but the development of the heavy plough, requiring teams of men and oxen, made it sensible for families to work together in villages.

Alnwick was one of these new villages, starting as a farm on the Aln. There are two theories as to its exact location. It might have started where Bailiffgate is now, and later moved, or alternatively, and more likely, was a triangular area roughly where the modern Fenkle Street, Market Street and Bondgate are now.

About this time, the Vikings arrived, making random raids at first, but in 866/7 a Viking army occupied York. Aelle, the last Northumbrian king, who had seized the throne only the previous year, was killed in this battle, and Northumbria was split into three.

The next major historical event was the Norman invasion in 1066.

For some time, William had little control over Northumberland: The “Harrying of the North” was directed at the population of North Yorkshire, who suffered greatly. Most parts of the country were under the control of Norman Earls, with William as their overlord. However, the first Earls of Northumberland were not Norman.

In 1093, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, King Malcolm of Scotland came to William II, but was not “Considered worthy of an audience.” Angered, he invaded England, but was surprised and killed near Alnwick by the forces of the Earl of Northumberland, Robert de Mowbray. Shortly after, in 1095, Robert himself rebelled, and spent the last 30 years of his life in prison.

After this, smaller areas of land were granted to barons by the crown. In exchange, they had to supply a number of fully armed knights, the “Knight’s fee.” Alnwick supplied nearly a fifth of the Northumberland total, 12 knights, showing that it was far and away the most powerful estate in the region. It is thought that the Barony of Alnwick was created between 1110 and 1120. The first baron was either Ivo de Vesci or Eustace Fitzjohn, his son-in-law, who died in 1157. There is an article about Eustace in the Autumn 2010 edition of Bondgate, the Society’s magazine.

Norman castles were constructed at great speed after the invasion. The first castle at Alnwick was a simple motte and bailey, but by 1135 it was a solid stone structure.

After this, development of the town was rapid. A chapel was constructed and Alnwick Abbey was founded in 1147. Towns were very profitable. Rents from burgage plots could bring in 15 times as much rent as the same area of farmland. Alnwick became one of about 125 new towns which were founded before 1220.

Problems with the Scots arose between 1136 and 1237, when they tried to regain the earldom of Northumbria.

In 1173, when Henry II’s eldest son rebelled against his father, William the Lion offered his support, and invaded England. Although he retreated, he tried again in 1174, but was surprised and captured at Alnwick.

In the 13th century, St Leonard’s Hospital and Hulne Priory were founded, and Alnwick was burnt in 1216 by King John, though it is not known how serious an event this was. Later, in 1297, William Wallace invaded. He caused devastation throughout the English border lands.

The 14th century was a difficult one for the whole county. There was famine from 1315-7, and the income from agriculture from the Alnwick estates fell to just over half that of 1314. On top of that, there were a series of Scottish raids led by Robert Bruce, which lasted till 1338. Then, in 1348, the Black Death reached the country.

In 1309 the Barony of Alnwick was purchased by Henry de Percy from Bishop Bek. Henry de Percy added a Barbican and Gatehouse to the castle and Henry de Percy III was created Earl of Northumberland in 1377.

There was more trouble with the Scots in the 15th century, leading to the building of the walls around the town, Alnwick Abbey and Hulne Priory.

The Parish Church and St Mary’s Chantry were built. But the major event of the century was the Wars of the Roses, fought between 1455 and 1485. Northumberland was particularly affected between 1461 and 64, when Alnwick Castle changed hands six times.

The Percys supported Henry VI, but at the crucial Battle of Bosworth Field, they chose to sit on the sidelines, and hence lost the trust of the future king. Their mutual distrust led to later rebellions by the Percies, but that is beyond our period.

The next meeting of the Society will be held on Tuesday, February 28, at 7.30 pm, and the speaker will be Kim Bibby-Wilson on Northumbrian Dialect and Language.