Alnwick Castle was built in 1096 by Yvo de Vescy, one of William the Conqueror's Norman Barons, to protect a crossing of the River Aln. By the mid-12th century, the castle had evolved to mostly the castle we see today. The castle was first mentioned in 1136 after King David I of Scotland captured it. It was besieged twice by William the Lion in 1172 and again in 1174. King William was captured while camped outside the castle walls during the second siege, the Battle of Alnwick.

Alnwick Castle

In 1212, King John ordered Alnwick Castle to be destroyed after Eustice de Vescy was accused of plotting against the king, but his orders were not carried out. In 1297, William de Vescy left the castle in trust to Antony Bek, the Bishop of Durham, who sold the castle to a Yorkshire landowner, Henry de Percy, on November 19th, 1309, with the blessing of King Edward II. Henry would add the Abbot's Tower and Constable's Tower shortly after purchasing the castle, both of which survive today. In 1345, the Percy family acquired nearby Warkworth Castle, and though Alnwick was more prestigious, the family preferred to stay at Warkworth.

In 1399, Henry Percy, 1st Earl of Northumberland, and his son Henry "Hotspur" Percy supported Henry Bolingbroke in his rebellion against King Richard II. The uprising was successful, and the new King Henry IV rewarded them lavishly. A few years later, after unpaid debts owed to them by the King, Hotspur rose in rebellion against Henry IV. They would meet at the Battle of Shrewsbury on July 21st, 1403, where Henry Hotspur would meet his end. Alnwick Castle surrendered under threat of bombardment soon after.

During the Wars of the Roses, Alnwick Castle changed hands several times and was besieged by Yorkist forces by the end of 1462. Before surrendering the castle, the gunners within the castle poured their cannonballs down the castle well so the Yorkists could not use them, then escaped through the sally-port in the Postern Tower. Some of those cannonballs are now on display at the castle. The barbican protecting the entrance to the castle was built in 1475 and has the badge of Henry Percy, 4th Earl of Northumberland, above the gateway. The barbican extends 18 meters beyond the castle walls. It has several lines of defense to prevent access, including two ditches, a portcullis, and two guard chambers on either side for firing arrows.

Thomas Percy, 7th Earl of Northumberland, led the Rising of the North, an unsuccessful attempt by Catholic Nobles to depose Queen Elizabeth I. Thomas fled to Scotland but was captured by the Earl of Morton and held prisoner at Lochleven Castle for three years, after which he was sold to the English for 2000 pounds and taken to York, where he was beheaded for treason on August 22nd, 1572.

Another Thomas Percy, a cousin of the 9th Earl of Northumberland, was one of Alnwick Castle's constables. He was a principal conspirator in the Gunpowder Plot. When Guy Fawkes was discovered in the basement of the Parliament building on November 5th, 1605, Thomas fled but was shot and killed. His cousin, the 9th Earl, was put on trial as a result of the plot and spent over 15 years as a prisoner in the Tower of London.

In 1650, 6000 Scottish prisoners were held at the castle by Oliver Cromwell for one night on their way south to Durham after the Battle of Dunbar.

In the 19th century, Algernon Percy, 4th Duke of Northumberland, removed much of the Gothic architecture and redid the staterooms in a grand Italian Renaissance style, converting the castle into a palatial residence.

The 12th Duke of Northumberland, Ralph Percy, still lives at Alnwick Castle, home to the Percy family for over 700 years.

Castle Highlights

I first visited Alnwick Castle in 1996 and was one of just a couple visiting that day. I visited again in 2018, and the castle was packed with busloads of tourists and kids. It became much more popular after the Harry Potter movies, but it has always been a grand castle in northern England. I prefer to be less crowded, but I am glad it thrives as a tourist destination.

Alnwick Castle is a busy place to visit now, but well worth a visit. Lancelot Capability Brown, famous for designing open landscapes in England, designed the grounds around the castle. The inner bailey and some towers can be visited at your own pace. A guided tour is also available and more informative for visiting the staterooms.

The Postern Tower has a sally-port in the basement, allowing people to leave the castle secretly. It also houses the Castle Museum, which displays archaeological finds of the Percy family. The Constable's Tower is named for the constable of the castle, who probably lived on the middle level of the tower. The tower became an armory for the Percy Tenantry Volunteers, whose story is told on the tower's top floor.

The staterooms and chapel are accessed between two large Octagonal towers of the inner gatehouse. These towers are decorated with thirteen shields of notable medieval families near the top and are topped with eight stone figures. The ground floor contains a guard room in one tower and a dungeon in the other. The dungeon was a confined space through an open grate in the floor, what we call an oubliette, or place to be forgotten, today.

Travel through the entrance hall or lower guard room and up the Grand Staircase to the upper guard chamber, designed as a hallway or vestibule for the staterooms beyond. The upper guard chamber and Grand Staircase are created in the Italian Renaissance style.

Beyond the upper guard chamber is the chapel featuring tapestries from the 17th and 18th centuries; two tapestries depict events in the life of Constantine, the 1st Christian Roman Emperor, while the other five around the altar depict scenes of the story of Tobit and Tobias from the bible.

One of the most impressive rooms in the castle is the library, which occupies the entire first floor of the Prudhoe Tower. It contains over 14000 books collected over multiple generations of the Percy family. The room has four finely carved "trophies" on the ceiling, celebrating art, music, and science, and one celebrating archeology and the navy, passions of the 4th Duke.

The Saloon is the grandest room in the castle and the first to be restored in the Italian Renaissance style. It functions as a reception room for hosting large gatherings and, by the 20th century, also became known as the Music Room. The Saloon contains four paintings by Canaletto and portraits by William Dobson.

The part of the castle containing the dining room was once the great hall. This room measures 18 meters long and 7 meters high, is used for entertaining guests, and is decorated with Percy Family heraldry from several centuries.

Alnwick Castle has been used as a filming location in several movies and TV shows, including Becket, the first two Harry Potter movies, and Downton Abbey, increasing its popularity with tourists. It can easily take a whole day to visit the castle.

Alnwick Castle is also haunted.