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Belsay Castle

Also known as, or recorded in historical documents as;

In the civil parish of Belsay.
In the historic county of Northumberland.
Modern Authority of Northumberland.
1974 county of Northumberland.
Medieval County of Northumberland.

OS Map Grid Reference: NZ08487855
Latitude 55.10127° Longitude -1.86853°

Belsay Castle has been described as a certain Tower House.

There are major building remains.

This site is a scheduled monument protected by law.
This is a Grade 1 listed building protected by law*.


Towerhouse with attached house. c.1370, attached house added 1614, possibly around earlier core, by Thomas Middleton and Dorothy, his wife. Ruined fragments of early C18 west wing attached to left.
Squared stone and ashlar. Tower has lead roof, house is roofless. Tower of 3 storeys stepped in at first floor. Chamfered plinth. South side: on ground floor a slit window; on first floor a large 2-light mullioned-and- transomed window with cinquefoil heads to lights, and left of this a smaller 2-light mullioned window with trefoiled heads; on 2nd floor a 2-light mullioned window with cinquefoil heads. Battlemented machicolated parapet on close-set triple-step corbels; higher round corner turrets on multi-moulded corbels; turret to left is higher still and flanked by square projections. North side: C19 doorway; 2-light mullioned-and-transomed window on 1st floor and smaller 2-light mullioned window on 2nd floor both with cinquefoil heads to lights. Garderobe chute. West side: (i.e. now within attached house) has a recessed centre section, and set within it a doorway with pointed arch and chamfered surround; on the 1st floor a Tudor-arched blocked doorway, and on the 2nd floor, largely covered by a C19 external stack, a pointed-arched doorway with chamfered surround. House of 2 storeys has original 2-storey porch with round-headed multi-mullioned doorway flanked by paired Tuscan columns; Middleton coat of arms above doorway in moulded frame and inscription above that; on 1st floor a 5-light mullioned- and-transomed window. Walling and windows to right of porch seem partly original; other external features of mid C19 in similar style.
Attached to north side of tower is a 2-storey barn, altered C18 and C19 but largely of medieval masonry. It has, on east side, a blocked 2-light mullioned window and several blocked small C16 windows; on the west side, five C18 bays with doorway in 4th bay; all openings have raised surrounds and are now boarded up.
Interior: The plan of the tower shows on each floor a large chamber taking up the whole eastern side, with short projecting wings on either side of the entrancecontaining staircase, smaller rooms and garderobes.
Large pointed tunnel-vaulted kitchen on ground floor has fireplace with segmental arch. Hall on 1st floor has traces of C15 mural decoration. The stair has an umbrella vault above with 8 chamfered ribs. (Listed Building Report)

The monument comprises two areas which together include the remains of a tower house of 15th century date, an attached range of buildings of early 17th century date, a deserted medieval village, a possible moated site and a promontory fort containing a post-medieval watch post. All are situated at the centre of the medieval estate of the Middleton family. The tower house was constructed between 1439 and 1460 during a period of turbulent border warfare, possibly as a free standing building or more likely at the eastern end of an early range of buildings replaced by the Manor House in the 17th century. It is situated in a weak defensive position with a high ground above it to the west and low ground on the east and north which gently slopes away. The tower is a three storied rectangular stone building with two short projections or wings at the south west and north west corners; it is capped by four rounded corner turrets with battlements in between. It is constructed of square blocks of sandstone and measures 21.5m to the highest point. Each of the three stories contains a large room, the lowest of which is tunnel vaulted and, given the existence of a large fireplace and a well in the main room, was almost certainly used as a kitchen. The whole of this ground floor was lit with only narrow slit windows for security purposes. Above this, on the second floor, was the great hall with two large windows to the south and north. The hall has a fireplace and on the walls are some remains of 15th century wall paintings. On the third floor there is another large room also containing a fireplace. The staircase giving access to all of the floors is housed in the south western wing along with several small rooms, some with vaulted roofs. The north west wing contains four rooms. Documentary sources refer to the tower of 'Belshowe' in the late 14th century and the first reference to the castle was in 1415.
In 1614 a low two storied range was added to the tower house, possibly on the site of an earlier range of buildings. The building, one of the earliest undefended houses in the county, reflected the more settled conditions in the Border area after the Union of the Crowns of England and Scotland in 1603. This house which had mullioned and transformed windows and an elaborate porch was re-modelled in 1862. Situated immediately north of the tower house there is a two storied range of buildings, originally free standing but joined by a small building to the tower in the 19th century. This building, known as the north wing, displays obvious medieval masonry, especially in the eastern wall, and has clearly been re-modelled at various stages in its history. The gable ends and the roof of this building were replaced in the 19th century but the remainder is thought to be of similar date to the tower house.
Situated some 45m north east of the tower house there is a linear depression 31m long, 9.5m wide and 0.4m deep visible in pasture land, which can be traced for a further 10m to the north into a walled garden. The exact nature of this feature is uncertain, but given that it was obviously once a much deeper feature, its interpretation as the remains of an infilled moat is a strong possibility. As such it would have been associated with the early Manor of Belsay before the construction of the tower house in the 14th century. It is known that there was an earlier manor house as it received Edward I in 1278 and its location has never been confirmed.
Adjacent to the moat fragment on its eastern side there are the remains of part of the well documented deserted medieval village of Belsay. Most of the remains of the village, which was largely situated to the south west of the tower house, were removed during the 19th century when the underlying stone was quarried in order to provide building stone for the construction of Belsay Hall. The surviving remains to the east of the tower are visible as a rectangular enclosure 16m long enclosed by a bank 0.2m high and the fragmentary remains of numerous less well defined square and rectangular enclosures or yards situated to the south west. There are further traces of low scarps and rig and furrow situated to the north of these which are considered to be further remains of the village. Two maps of the village at Belsay dating to 1769 and 1784 do not depict any houses in this area; it is therefore likely that this part of the medieval village had been abandoned before the date of the earliest map and that the village of Belsay may have shifted slightly to the south west during the medieval period. The remains described here may therefore, represent the earliest part of the village. Documents show that the village had once been considerably greater in size than it is known to have been during the 18th century when it consisted of only 18 houses. During the 14th century it contained 30 enclosures and in 1666 it had 36 houses.
Another portion of the village is situated to the west and south west of the tower house. This comprises the remains of individual closes or long rectangular enclosures each of which would have been accompanied by a single house. They are visible as parallel lynchets 0.5m high extending northwards away from the site of the medieval village. The closes are on average 70m long and 30m wide. They were clearly shortened and divided at a later date and are overlain by rig and furrow; it has been suggested that this change in organization of the village fields may have occurred no later than the mid 17th century.
Some 500m to the west of the medieval tower house there is a prehistoric promontory fort situated on a spur called Bantam Hill. The settlement, irregularly shaped, measures a maximum of 72m east to west by 88m within two inner ramparts on the east side only, as it is naturally defended by steep slopes around its western end. The inner of the two ramparts is best preserved and is visible as a scarp 3.5m high. There is an entrance through the extreme southern angle visible as a raised causeway 7m wide. The remains of an external ditch can be seen at either end of the defensive arc where it is 1m deep. A counterscarp bank on the edge of the ditch is a maximum of 0.7m high. Some 30m outside the inner rampart there are the remains of a double outer rampart with a medial ditch and an entrance in the south western side in line with that through the inner line of defence. Both ramparts now stand to a height of 0.3m and the ditch is 0.6m deep. It is thought that both lines of defence were constructed at the same time.
Situated at the highest point of the fort there is a stony mound 0.4m high and 6m in diameter. This is thought to represent the remains of a watch post, part of the 'Belsay Sector' system of watch towers constructed in 1552 after the Anglo-Scottish conflicts of the 1540s. (Scheduling Report)

A 3 storey tower with 4 rounded bartizans and machiolated battlements between. The date of erection is unknown but would appear to be of early to middle 14th century. The 2 storey house adjoining the tower to the west was built in 1614 (Pevsner 1992).
The wall paintings in the Great Hall reflect two periods of medieval secular painting. The 14th century decoration of red vinescroll against a bright white background was replace in the 15th century by a more ambitious scheme. This later scheme is divided into two tiers. The upper level depicts a naval scene with two ships and various figures, while the lower tier consists of heraldic shields hanging from lopped trees set against a dark landscape covered in white flowers. Conservation work in 1996 revealed a 'wild man' supporting the quartered shield of the Middleton and Strivelyn families on the east wall (Babington, Manning and Stewart 1999).
English Heritage's Archaeological Survey & Investigation team carried out a Level 1 rapid survey of Belsay Castle in April 2009. The extent of the large formal garden compartment in front of the south front of the 1614 house and presumably broadly contemporary with it, is reasonably clear from the levelling that has taken place, defined by gross earthworks which have been 'smoothed' to some degree at a later date. To the east, a terrace (followed by the present track) may mark the eastern limit of another garden compartment. The long rectangular pond to the east of the castle shows no signs of returning at either end and may therefore be a 17th-century ornamental canal rather than a fragment of an earlier moat. Further east, a hollow way which appears to be overlain by broad ridge and furrow, starts to turn as though to cross the south front, before it is lost where the garden earthworks end. This hints that a portion of the medieval settlement may have been lost when the formal garden was created (English Heritage: Field observation on Belsay Castle 03-APR-2009).
The late 14th century tower is one of the best surviving examples of a peel tower. It was probably built by John Middleton between 1391 and 1396. It was probably not a free-standing self-contained residence, but more likely to have served as the defensive stronghold to a larger domestic complex. Decorated wall plaster is visible in the great chamber.
The Belsay estate has been held by the Middleton family since first recorded in 1270, when it was known as Beleshou. Confiscated in the 14th century after regional anarchy prompted the holding to ransom of two cardinals in 1314 by Gilbert and John Middleton. Returned to Middleton family by marriage in 1391 (White 2012). (PastScape)
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This record last updated 26/07/2017 09:20:09

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