Corbridge: Aydon Castle

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Amid the scars of ancient roads and fortifications, the slopes of hills in Northumberland conceal the austere and strong architecture of the “land of great castles” (Allsopp & Clark, 1969). The steep gradient to the Cor Burn forms a defence on three sides of Aydon Castle and its bailey with strong walls and gateway protecting the north side of the house. A wonderful survival from the Middle Ages, Aydon Castle is often recorded as Aydon Hall. Although planned as a manor house, its proximity to the England-Scotland border meant that it had to have some of the attributes of a fortress. Prehistoric and Roman remains have been discovered near Aydon yet there is no certain evidence that the site of the castle was occupied before the 13th century. First recorded in 1225, the village formed part of the barony of Bolam and combining two Old English words, meaning ‘hay pasture’, Aydon was acquired shortly after 1290 by a Suffolk landowner – Robert de Raymes. Most of what survives at Aydon was built between 1295 and 1315 and it is an exceptionally well preserved fortified manor. As one of the first areas to be raided from Scotland, Edward I granted a royal licence to crenellate in 1305. Most of the buildings were already completed by this time with a licence to crenellate more often granted when works were finished. Licences were very rarely refused as those who wanted the status of a castellated house were charged a fee by the king who could also control the spread of castles within his realm. Exercising control over the building of non-royal castles, 12th century government officials introduced the legal obligation to obtain a licence before a residence could be fortified (Friar, 2003). The earliest stone buildings at Aydon are the hall, chamber block and the garderobe/latrine wing (Summerson, 2004). The battlemented walls were built to the north between 1300 and 1305 enclosing the buildings within an inner courtyard.

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Inner courtyard stairs to the hall

Before entering Aydon Castle it is evident that it was a fortified manor house and not a fortress. There was never a gatehouse or any other form of defensive outworks and the small ditch that extended in front of the north wall would not have kept any serious attacker at bay for long. The smaller outer courtyard was characteristic of medieval architecture – providing some defence and by creating a series of entrances, it was also intended to impress. A further stage to pass before entering the castle buildings is through the inner courtyard (above). Replacing an earlier one, the present stairway dates from the 16th century and originally there was a porch at the top. The porch was later replaced by a lean-to that covered the whole length of the stair of which the roof outline is still visible on the wall. Although staircases were usual and probably of wood construction, the ladder and trapdoor were frequently used in the early part of the medieval period and most external staircases of the 13th century have since been replaced (Wood, 1994).

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Fine stone vault of the stores

The ground floor of an early medieval house was often vaulted in stone which raised the living rooms to the first floor level and thus became more defensible. The vaulted ground floor became extremely popular during the first half of the 13th century and the stores underneath the second kitchen at Aydon are particularly fine (above). Providing fireproof storage accommodation, there are three interconnected rooms that were built to hold the stores for the kitchens immediately above. The doorway into the stores has a shouldered lintel, also known as Caernarvon arch, which became common from the latter part of the 13th century onwards and there are many good examples throughout Aydon. This block was converted to stables in 1657 by William Collinson who briefly owned the estate from 1654 until his son, Henry Collinson, sold up in 1702.

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Downstairs solar

In the early Middle Ages the solar was a private bed-sittingroom of the owner and his family. With servants sleeping in the hall or in work rooms between the storage, individual bedrooms were rare. The downstairs solar at Aydon has three doorways in the west wall of the room, one of which opens onto the inner courtyard. The room was originally only accessible from above which suggests that it was a retreat for the lord’s family, likely during the winter months. The only two 13th century windows that survive are small lancets with others thought to be have been installed during the 16th century when the room was converted into a kitchen. The room features an original 13th century fireplace in the east wall which is beautifully decorated with a row of carved stone bosses (below). Aydon Castle contains several excellent and unusual examples of elaborate 13th century fireplaces.

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Carved bosses above the fireplace (downstairs solar)

The polite version of latrine, a garderobe or privie, was used in the privy sense from the 14th century. The privy chambers (camerae privatae) were attached to other rooms and were usually situated at the end of a passage. Privies were always provided with a small window or some form of ventilation – shafts could be ventilated or ventilators in the roof also occur. Unless a corbel was provided, as at Aydon, the window sill would serve as a place on which to put a light. Adjoining the upstairs solar, the location and amenities of the latrine tower at Aydon (below) suggest that this was the lord’s bedchamber. The room is lit on three sides by windows and was effectively a medieval en suite. The latrine itself is a double-decker and the small cupboard cut into the wall at the far end has the chute next to it. The shaft is concealed in the buttress at the south east corner of the room and although the latrine is directly above one on the ground floor, the upper one is set further back to prevent accidents. Later refurbishments of this chamber resulted in the addition of a fireplace and in the 1920’s, the chamber became a bathroom. By this time the latrine had been superseded by an earth closet in the kitchen garden.

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The latrine tower

The chief room in a medieval house was the hall. With a central hearth, the medieval hall developed from a barn like structure of prehistoric and Saxon times and during the earlier Middle Ages, the room could be raised to the first floor. Raised on a stone basement these first floor halls were more defensible and were in use from the late 11th century onwards. The first floor hall is found common in both town and manor houses and the high table, where the owner and his family would dine, was at the upper end of the room. The private quarters, or solar, was often at the end of the hall and eventually a separate room developed. Divided off with curtains initially, a wooden partition would be used and by the 12th century, there might be a more permanent division built in stone. Retaining the outer staircase, the hall at Aydon has no sign of a wall fireplace suggesting that it was heated from the one in the room below or from a fire in the centre of the room either in a brazier or on a stone hearth.

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East end of the hall

The social centre of the whole complex, the hall was where the lord appeared in public especially when entertaining guests. The open roof at Aydon gives space for smoke to rise and escape through a louvre at the top. The roof is not original but was replaced with one very much like it during the 16th or 17th century when repairs were made to the hall. The walls, which would have been plastered and decorated with paintings or wall hangings, would have needed constant cleaning due to the effects of smoke. There was originally a gallery at the west end of the room where musicians would play and from which a steward or servant could observe the meal. The hall was the communal living room and was also the main living and sleeping space for all but the lord’s immediate family. The room was screened off at one end from the kitchen and other service areas and the stone screen (below) was inserted during the 16th century. The wall of the hall is narrowed at the west end to give access to the doorway suggesting that the chamber block was built before the stone hall and possibly, it may have been built up against an original hall with thinner wooden walls.

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The 16th century stone screen in the hall

During the 16th century the eighth Robert de Raymes consolidated his estates and gave Aydon to Sir Reynold Carnaby in exchange for lands at Hawkwell. In the process of building up a substantial estate at Hexham, Sir Reynold placed Aydon in the hands of his brother Cuthbert. The Carnaby family made significant changes to the estate especially to the kitchen and to the roofs. Dendrochronology indicates that the timber in the roofs of the latrine block and the west wing kitchen date to the 1540’s. Following the civil wars of the 1640’s, Ralph Carnaby was heavily penalised by parliament for supporting Charles I and as a result, Aydon Castle was sold in 1654 with an estate of 300 acres of arable land to William Collinson of Tynemouth and together with his son Henry, they farmed their estate until 1702.

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Around 1830 Sir Edward Blackett, the sixth baronet, put the castle into a complete state of repair as it had long been ‘neglected and ruinous’ (Summerson, 2004). The land was once again used as a working farm and the interior was altered to provide the necessary accommodation. Members of the local Rowell family came into occupation and they stayed at Aydon for just over a century. A schoolroom was installed on the first floor of the old latrine block and as there was no electricity until 1950, oil lamps and candles were used to provide lighting. Aydon was completely self-sufficient and the Rowell family appear to have lived well. In a county guide published in 1889, the writer William Tomlinson described Aydon as “a better class farm house, though still retaining many of its ancient features.” As farming became less profitable in the early 20th century and with the roofs needing constant attention, Sir Charles Blackett, the ninth baronet, placed the castle in the guardianship of the Ministry of Works in 1966. A thorough restoration got underway which included the removal of practically all the 19th century fittings (Summerson, 2004). Surviving little changed from its original state, Aydon Castle is an outstanding example of a 13th century manor house.

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“The poetry of history lies in the quasi-miraculous fact that once, on this earth, once, on this familiar spot of ground, walked other men and women, as actual as we are today, thinking their own thoughts, swayed by their own passions.” G.M. Trevelyan: Autobiography of an Historian (1949).

Aydon Castle is a Scheduled Ancient Monument and Grade I Listed.

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Stokesay Castle: The Great Hall

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South wall

Early medieval houses tended to have halls of aisled construction but gradually the obstructive posts were omitted resulting in a magnificent building type. The 13th century carpenters were experimenting in methods which would obviate the need for aisle posts and the cruck form of roof construction, which transferred the weight of the roof to the walls, eventually made them unnecessary. There is no evidence that the hall at Stokesay ever had aisles but there was likely to have been a screen across it. Reducing the size of the hall when it was used for its principle function, a wooden screen would have provided shelter from the draughts from the screens passage which led to the service rooms – the buttery, pantry and kitchen (Friar, 2003). The hall in a medieval castle or manor house, such as Stokesay, was the nucleus of an estate and considered the most important room in a dwelling. The walls of the hall would have been plastered and whitened and some of the original plasterwork can be seen on the north and south walls at Stokesay (see above). The hall at Stokesay stands on the western side of the courtyard and was built in the early 1290’s.

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Built of sandstone rubble and retaining its extraordinary timber roof, the Great Hall at Stokesay is described as “one of the most evocative medieval halls” (Friar, 2003). Built to replace an earlier wooden hall, it comprises four bays with separate gables above each window and the doorway. The roof was originally supported by three pairs of crucks with each pair braced by two collar beams. Each cruck rested on a stone corbel above the hall floor but they were replaced by stone pilasters in the 19th century. The roof is a fantastic range of raised crucks, aisled end trusses and an unusual example of collar-purlins without crown posts (vertical king or crown posts provided extra stability). The fabulous cruck timbers cover the whole expanse of the hall and the three great wooden arches over the room are a rare survival for this period. Each supported by two horizontal collars, the topmost collars are supported below by pairs of struts. The arches are linked by purlins (the horizontal beams) which run along the side walls of the roof.

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It is unknown where Laurence of Ludlow obtained his timber however, following his death some years later, his eldest son William was recorded as buying 24 oaks from the royal woods at Bushmoor and Haycrust – five miles north of Stokesay. Under the supervision of the carpenter, trees were cut up where they fell and the same marks of arcs and circles are found in the north tower, hall and solar block. The timbers have been dated by dendrochronology to the late 1280’s and show that these buildings were erected at the same time and possibly overseen by the same carpenter. The two upper floors of the north tower are accessed from the hall via a wooden staircase (below). Similar to the roof, this staircase survives from the late 13th century and the same carpenter’s marks occur on both. Using high quality wood, the treads of the staircase are cut from whole tree trunks and the sturdy brackets supporting the landing also date to the 1290’s (Summerson, 2009).

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North wall with 13th century timber stair

Three large windows feature on the east and west walls and as was usual in the 13th century, only the upper parts of the windows were glazed. The lower levels were commonly open to the elements in fine weather and covered by wooden shutters in cold or rain. Shutters were almost invariably fitted to window openings with surfaces often painted with heraldic and other decoration. With glazing an expensive commodity, shutters were often braced like doors with pulleys and ropes used to close larger sets (Friar, 2003). The pointed trefoil head to the lights, which was much more common during the 13th century, feature at Stokesay and the hall windows have soffit cusps – more usual for the period are cusps built as part of the chamfer of the lights (Wood, 1994).

Enchanted by what he saw, the writer Henry James visited Stokesay in 1877 and remarked: “I have rarely had, for a couple of hours, the sensation of dropping back personally into the past so straight as while I lay on the grass beside the well in the little sunny court of this small castle and lazily appreciated the still definite details of medieval life.”

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North end with wooden window shutters

Corbridge: Aydon Castle Upstairs Solar

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The Chamber (Solar) above at Aydon Castle was used as the Lord’s private apartments and is laid out as a single room. Access to the room was from the hall but the private stair to the ground floor no longer exists. The present stairs are as a result of alterations from when the building was used as a farmhouse from the 17th century and continued until 1968 (Allsopp & Clar, 1969). To provide privacy, the room was divided by a partition – probably where the staircase now stands. The smaller part of the solar would have been used as a lobby or waiting room for visitors.

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The main room was the northern one with a fireplace and three windows with seats. The most significant alteration to the room has been the removal of the main 13th century fireplace from the opposite wall to its present location. The medieval chimney flue remains on the outer wall and despite its move, the fireplace is still impressive and gives an indication of the quality of the interior furnishings and fittings within the chamber block. The previous position of the fireplace was immediately above the fireplace in the room below so it is possible that the chimney flue may have leaked from it into the solar’s fireplace. The rather awkward looking fireplace now stands lower than it should which encapsulates Jenkin’s (2003) view that Aydon “seems gloriously lost in an antique world of its own.”

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Stokesay Castle: Solar

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At the south end of the hall range at Stokesay Castle is a cross wing which houses the solar block. Reached by an external stair, the solar was originally private apartments for Laurence of Ludlow who built the castle in the late 1280’s. As with many of the rooms in the castle, the solar was refashioned in the 17th century. The ceiling dates to that time as do the carved overmantel, the cornices and panelling round the walls.

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A principle feature of the Renaissance period was the tradition of elaborately carved fire mantels dominating a room with surrounding walls covered in plain panelling. This is finely demonstrated at Stokesay where undecorated panelling frames the stunning centrepiece of the room – the overmantel.

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The overmantel is divided by pilasters shaped as human figures (above)into four squares, two of which have a grotesque head at their centre (below). Originally brightly coloured, the design may have been Flemish and the cornices used to cover exposed portions of the wall after the overmantel had been put up, suggest that it was not made specifically for its present position.

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Respecting the room’s medieval outline, the 17th century designer hid the openwork roofing from sight with a new ceiling. The panelling carefully framed the peepholes on either side of the fireplace and although covering some 16th century paintwork, the windows and window-seat were left untouched. The only significant change inside the room was in the east wall where the original window was blocked up however, the medieval window has since been opened up.

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The solar was intended for use as a bedroom and afforded some privacy for the noble family of the castle. Typically situated on an upper floor, it was a secluded room used as private living and sleeping quarters. A room of comfort and status, the solar at Stokesay is a wonderfully preserved example of such historic indulgence.

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Lyddington Bede House

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The village of Lyddington lies on the northern edge of the valley of the River Welland where the Hlyde, from which Lyddington takes its name, forms a tributary valley. The forest of Rockingham provided an ideal hunting ground for the Norman kings and was the basis of the Bishops of Lincoln decision to develop their estate at Lyddington. Located conveniently near the centre of the diocese, the rural palace became an important seat of ecclesiastical administration. The palace served the princes of the church up to the sequestration of episcopal property by the Crown in 1547. It then passed to the Cecils of Burghley in 1600 and the surviving buildings were converted by Sir Thomas Cecil into the Jesus Hospital, later known as the Bede House, to house pensioners. The buildings served this purpose and continued to be occupied until 1930. It was acquired by the Ministry of Works in 1954 and has since been restored.

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Originating as the medieval wing of the palace, archaeological evidence suggests that the surviving buildings are only the end cross wing of a great 14th century hall. It is thought likely to have been built by Bishop Burghersh who was given licence to crenellate in 1336. The main upper chambers were refenestrated and re-roofed in the latter part of the 15th century. The archaeological evidence has also revealed that the position, splendour and size of the former hall was greater than that constructed by the Archbishop of Canterbury at Mayfield in Sussex. Running along the front of the building is a lean to verandah which was erected in 1745 to provide some shelter for the old folk of the bede house.

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At the top of the stair to the ceremonial apartments is a landing with two very fine doorcases (above). Dating to the early 14th century, they survive from the newly crenellated residence of Bishop Burghersh. The shields in the spandrels may well have been painted and gilded but no trace of this now survives.

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The Chapel (above) was probably once part of the bishop’s private chapel. Originally there was a window in the wall (now blocked) which would have allowed those in the Great Chamber to hear mass. The room was later used by a bedeswoman and the invalid chair also dates to this period.

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The Great Chamber (above) was the most magnificent room in the bishop’s private quarters. It later became the common hall of the bedehouse. The room is bathed in light from the mullioned and transomed windows which date to the late 15th century. Below the exceptionally beautiful early 16th century cornice (below), the walls had fine tapestries and hangings. This room was where the bishop received eminent guests – high clergymen, heads of monastic houses, courtiers and kings.

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When the palace was converted in 1601, the great chamber became the bedesmen’s common hall. The residents would gather here to say prayers and recite the Lord’s Prayer. Four times a year they would also listen to the warden reading the rules of the bedehouse. With the dispersal of the bishop’s household it is probable that the fine furnishings were stripped out with anything of value being sold to supplement the royal coffers.

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The Presence Chamber is a room in which medieval bishops conducted their business. The room has a blocked doorway that originally lead up to the presumed gallery above the great hall. The room features a fine fireplace (above) with five carved panels datable by analogy to 1480-1520. With its ornamental fireplace and handsome ceiling, the room would have been impressive and furnished with a canopied bed, rich hangings and decorated chairs. Bishop John Longland was possibly the last bishop who occupied the room. He was King Henry VIII’s confessor and was caught up in the king’s struggle against the Church. The king and Catherine Howard stayed at Lyddington in 1541 and met with his privy councillors before continuing north. After the conversion of the palace in the 17th century, this room and those beyond it were used by the warden of the bedehouse.

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In the medieval palace, the attic floor was probably no more than roof storage. Moulded tie beams indicate that these were visible before the fine ceiling of the great chamber was inserted. Part of the floor is laid in gypsum plaster on reed – a flooring technique common in the east Midlands from the late medieval period onwards. The attic floor has a series of fine knee-braced collar trusses with curved windbraces to the single level of butt purlins. The fine roof structure dates to the mid 15th century and was probably built by Bishop Alnwick before his death in 1449. Gabled dormer windows were inserted in the 17th or 18th century and a small iron fireplace indicates that at least one of the attic rooms was used and heated in the 19th century.

Lyddington Bede House is a Scheduled Ancient Monument and Grade I Listed.

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Lanercost Priory: Outer Gatehouse

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To the west of Lanercost Priory stands the remains of the inner arch of the priory gatehouse. Forming a link between the outside world and the canons inside, the surviving part of the outer gatehouse above would have faced into the precinct and the building would have extended to the edge of the road. Dating to the early 13th century, the gatehouse was constructed of squared calciferous sandstone and coursed rubble which was taken from the nearby Roman wall. The gatehouse remains feature a chamfered segmental arch of three orders, hood mould and moulded corbel stops with fragments of fan vaulting. The current gates reflect the Arts & Crafts interests of George Howard, ninth Earl of Carlisle, who erected them during his restorations. The surviving inner arch of the gatehouse is Grade I Listed.

Lanercost Priory: Undercroft

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Beneath the refectory (dining room) in the south cloister range at Lanercost Priory is the vaulted undercroft. Originally divided in two, the undercroft was built during the mid 13th century and provided plenty of space for storage of food and drink. The last three bays were known as the warming room, the only place the canons were allowed to keep warm in front of a fire. As with the other monastic buildings at the priory, the undercroft is constructed of dressed sandstone and originally lay beneath the refectory which was a victim of the Dissolution.

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Providing a practical way for masons to identify which pieces of masonry they have produced, the marks of the masons were used both as a way for masons to ensure they were paid for their work and as a quality control. Many such marks (above and below) can be found on numerous stones around the priory.

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The marks of the masons provide us with evidence for the working practices of the highly-skilled and able men who constructed the magnificent stone structures of the past. The marks were put on the stone for entirely practical reasons and in answer to the particular needs of the industry. Most masons only worked on site between the spring and the autumn and work was scaled right down during the winter when it was not possible to build for fear of frost damaging the partially complete structure.

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Archaeological excavations in 1994 recorded eighty seven masons marks with tooling marks evident on most of the masonry wall blocks. The position of the marks on the lower courses of the wall above the foundations suggest that they are related to the first phases of construction of the priory church in circa 1200 A.D. We may not be able to identify, or name, all the masons from their marks but we can use them to deepen our understanding of their work and appreciate more the buildings that they helped to create.

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The undercroft contains replicas of Roman altars and tombstones found near Lanercost over the last 200 years. The above relief sculpture depicts Hercules on the left and Jupiter on the right. A similar relief was found in 1821 at Birdoswald Roman Fort and a more detailed description can be found in my earlier post entitled Gilsland: Birdoswald Relief Carving (July).

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The above altar is dedicated “To Jupiter, Best and Greatest, the First Aelian Cohort of Dacians… willingly and deservedly fulfiled its vow, with (…) rinus, beneficiarius, in charge of the work.” The Province of Dacia was situated in Romania and a beneficiarius was someone who had been seconded for special duties.

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The above altar is “To the god Cocidius the soldiers of the Twentieth Legion Valeria Victrix willingly and deservedly fulfiled their vow in the consulship of Apr… and Ruf…” Cocidius was a native god and is identified with the Roman gods Mars and Silvanus. This altar was dedicated in AD 153. On the left hand side is a jug and on the right is a dish for pouring the libation or offering on to the top of the altar. A wild boar, symbol of the Twentieth Legion, is portrayed on the base of the altar. This altar was found in the foundations of Milecastle 52 at Bankshead.

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The above altar is “To the god Cocidius the soldiers of the Second Legion Augusta willingly and deservedly fulfiled their vow.” This altar was also found in the foundations of Milecastle 52 at Bankshead.

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The above altar is “To the holy god Cocidius, Annius Victor, legionary centurion.” The cult of Cocidius was limited to north Britain and most of the dedications to him come from Hadrian’s Wall or its vicinity.