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Norham, until 1844, was an outlying part of the County Palatine of Durham, and with the shires of Island (including Holy Island and the Farnes) and Bedlington was known as North Durham. Norham was the chief stronghold of this principality. It commanded the chief ford over the Tweed and such was its elevation that from the summit of its keep a wide area of country was under surveillance. It was governed by a constable appointed by the bishop.

Norham Castle Today
Norham Castle Today

Here in 1121 Bishop Flambard ordered a castle to be built. It was almost certainly of the "Motte and Bailey" type with a wooden tower and ditches which correspond to those of the present castle. In 1136. fifteen years after it was built, Norham was taken by David, King of Scotland. It was restored to its owner but two years later 'war broke out again. This time David razed the castle to the ground.

In 1157 Henry II regained possession of Northumberland and rebuilt in stone the castles of Bamburgh, Newcastle and Wark-upon-Tweed. In the following year Hugh Pudsey, Bishop of Durham built a stone keep at Norham. The architect was Richard of Wolviston a well known Durham builder. The first and second storeys of the keep, parts of the gatehouses to the outer and inner wards, and sections of the curtain walls, survive today from his work.

In 1215 the castle was besieged without success for forty days by Alexander, King of Scotland. In 1318 the Scots blockaded Norham for a whole year and a second siege of seven months in the following year was equally unsuccessful.

We need not relate in detail Norham's long eventful history as the "most dangerous" place in England and the "Queen of Border fortresses".

In 1513 James IV invaded England in the campaign which led to the disaster of Flodden. He attacked Norham using the mighty cannon "Mons Meg". The castle was soon in ruins and the garrison surrendered. There is a tradition that the castle was won through the treachery of one of the inmates who advised the king to descend from Ladykirk Band to Gin Haugh, a piece of flat ground near the river and to attack the corner wall there with his cannon.

"So when the Scots the walls had won
And rifled every nook and place,
The traitor came to the king anon,
But for reward met with disgrace.

"Therefore for this thy traitorous trick
Thou shalt he tried in a trice;
Hangman, therefore,' quoth James, 'be quick;
The groom shall have no better price'."
-Ballad of Flodden.

A field north of the castle, called "Hangman's Land", is said to be the place of his execution. The castle was immediately restored and in 1542 Sir Robert Bowes described it as in "very good state, both in reparacions and fortificacions, well furnyshed and stuffed with artyllery, munycions, and other necessaries requysyte to the same". But by 1551 the fortifications were being neglected. The Border Survey describes the castle as "in muche decaye". In 1559 the shires of Norham and Holy Island were taken from the See of Durham. The Lord Warden reported to Lord Cecil in 1580 that if "speedy remedy be not had it will fall flat to the ground". But Queen Elizabeth refused to pay anything for its restoration. The need for the castle had now disappeared.

Over the years the castle deteriorated, falling into disrepair, a woodcut made in 1748 shows the castle in some of its original splendour. But from that date to the 1920's the castle was used as a cheap source of stone for building homes in the village, and it was not until it was declared an Ancient Monument and government money was spent on its upkeep that this deterioration has been halted.

In the nineteenth century, Norham Castle became well known far and wide from the paintings of Turner, it was one of his favourite subjects, and several examples of his work can be seen in the Tate Gallery in London. Now it basks on top of the hill in the evening sunset as a subject for the clicking cameras of tourists from all over the world and still protects the village economy by attracting visitors to the area.