Overlooking the lush green meadows of the banks of the River Aln and dominating the small town of Alnwick in Northumberland is the vast medieval fortress of Alnwick Castle. The stark and dramatic exterior of the castle, the site of various battles and sieges throughout the middles ages, contrasts with its opulent Victorian interiors and landscaped gardens that have led to Alnwick Castle being dubbed ‘Britain’s answer to Versailles’.
Key Facts about Alnwick Castle
- A castle was built on the site of Alnwick Castle as early as 1096, following the Norman Conquest.
- The castle has been the seat of the Percy family since 1309 and members of the family still live in a part of the castle today.
- After Windsor Castle, Alnwick Castle is the second largest inhabited castle in England and is visited by over 800,000 people per year.
- Alnwick Castle has become famous in the 21st century for its use as a filming location for the Harry Potter films.
History of the House
The early history of Alnwick Castle is fraught with plots, rebellions, sieges and surrenders. The castle was first built in 1096 by Yves de Vescy the Baron of Alnwick. Due to its location close to the Scottish border the castle was repeatedly besieged by the Scots until Henry Percy, the 1st Baron of Percy, purchased the barony and castle in 1309. Henry and his son, the 2nd Baron of Percy, commissioned ambitious building works that transformed Alnwick Castle from a modest stone castle into the major palace-fortress it is today.
The 1st and 2nd Barons of Percy created a prestigious and sprawling castle in the form of an outer bailey enclosing a massive shell keep that comprises of a cluster of towers set around an inner courtyard. This ambitious architectural project, balancing the requirements of a military stronghold with the needs of a high society family, is said to have inspired succeeding castle renovations throughout the 14th century.
The Percy family are descended from a great-grandmother of Charlemagne and throughout the Middle Ages were the most powerful lords in Northern England. The grandson of the 1st Baron of Percy, Henry the 1st Earl of Northumberland played a major role in dethroning King Richard II. Later, he rebelled against King Henry IV who threatened to destroy Alnwick Castle in retaliation but, thankfully, never did. The castle was surrendered to Henry IV in 1403.
Throughout the bloody and prolonged War of the Roses, Alnwick Castle was captured by Lancastrian forces numerous times. Once the House of York and the House of Lancaster were finally united by the marriage of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York, the military importance of Alnwick Castle waned. What followed was a period of abandonment succeeded by a complete restoration. While the appearance of the exterior of the building was not altered, the interiors were completely transformed. In the 1760s the foremost architect of the time, Robert Adams, was employed to renovate the castle interiors using a Strawberry Hill gothic style, completely at odds with his usual neoclassical work.
Less than 100 years later the 4th Duke of Northumberland demolished all of Robert Adams interiors, transforming the castle in an ambitious project that involved transporting the castle’s state rooms from the outer bailey into the keep. A grand staircase was assembled leading to the state rooms which became some of the finest and most intricately decorated Victorian rooms in England. At an estimated cost of £250,000, the 4th Duke hired Anthony Salvin to construct the Prudhoe Tower, new state rooms, a kitchen and a new layout for the inner ward.
Next he employed Italian Luigi Canina and his assistant Giovanni Montiroli to decorate these new additions in a decadent Italiante style. The Florentine carver Anton Bulletti was also hired to train 27 local men in the ways of Italian craftsmanship. The creation of Alnwick Castle’s state rooms, its finely carved cornices, picture frames and furniture was the work of these men and the skills they learned on the job led to what became known as the Alnwick School of Craftsmanship.
The upper guard chamber and library at Alnwick Castle hold treasures by artists such as Titian, Canaletto, van Dyck and Sebastian del Piombo as well as busts of Bacon, Newton and Shakespeare. The saloon and drawing room feature intricately carved geometrical ceilings as well as grand fireplaces imported from Italy and pietra dura cabinets. The 1st Duke and Duchess of Northumberland are immortalised in a pair of paintings hung over the fireplace in the dining room, casting their eyes over an extensive and perfectly conserved Meissen dinner service.
Today, the current duke and his family are still resident in the castle, but only occupy a small part of the sprawling building. During the summer months a portion of the castle is open to the public and special exhibitions are held in three of the castle’s towers mostly on the subjects of military history, archaeology and classical history.
What Makes Alnwick Castle Famous?
Alnwick Castle is one of the most visited stately homes in the UK. The size of the castle and the fact that it has remained relatively unchanged since it was dramatically extended in the 14th century has made it one of the finest medieval castles in the country. The Duchess of Northumberland Jane Percy established the Alnwick Gardens in 2003 which feature a viewing fountain, tree house, cafe and ‘poisoned garden’. Alnwick Castle has achieved worldwide fame in the 21st century as the filming location for both the exterior and interior of Hogwarts School of Magic in the Harry Potter series of films.
Featured in TV and Film
- Downton Abbey (2010) TV Series
- Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002)
- Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (2001)
- Elizabeth (1998)
- Antiques Roadshow (1997) TV Series
- Robin Hood Prince of Thieves (1991)
- Mary Queen of Scots (1971)
- Beckett (1964)
- Prince Valiant (1954)
- James McDonald (2012) Alnwick Castle: Home of the Duke and Duchess of Northumberland
- Colin Shrimpton (1999) Great Houses: Alnwick Castle
- Dan Jones (2013) The Plantaganets
- Duke of Northumberland and Richard A. Lomas (1999) Power in the Land: The Percys
- Richard A. Lomas (2007) The Fall of the House of Percy
Alnwick Castle and Gardens is open to the public from March until October between the hours of 10.00am and 5.30pm. Entrance to the castle and gardens costs £14.50 per adult and £7.50 per child.
How to Get There
35 miles from Newcastle International Airport and 35 miles from the Port of Tyne, Alnwick Gardens are accessible from air and sea. If travelling by car Alnwick Castle is less than a mile from major motorway A1, the property’s postcode is NE66 1YU. Alnwick is connected to the city of Newcastle Upon Tyne by buses X15 and X18 and the East Coast mainline train from London to Edinburgh stops at Alnmouth, which is four miles from Alnwick. We suggest taking a short taxi or bus from the train station. For more detailed information view the website www.alnwickcastle.com