Barnard Castle: a journey through time

Julian Humphrys explores the history of Barnard Castle, which last saw action in 1569 and has connections with the monarchs of both England and Scotland

The ruins of Barnard Castle

When was Barnard Castle first built?

Perched on a cliff overlooking a crossing of the river Tees, Barnard Castle was first built at the end of the 11th century on land granted by William Rufus to Guy de Balliol, a knight from Bailleul, near Abbeville. Guy’s nephew Bernard began the rebuilding of the original wooden castle in stone and it’s from him that the castle and the town that grew up around it take their name. During the war that followed King John’s sealing of Magna Carta in 1215, the castle was held for the beleaguered ruler by Hugh de Balliol. It was briefly besieged by John’s enemies in August 1216 but the siege came to an abrupt halt when Eustace de Vesci, one of the king’s leading opponents, ventured too near to the castle walls and was shot in the head by a crossbowman.

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The 13th century saw a significant rise in the fortunes of the Balliols, especially after Hugh’s son John  married the wealthy Devorguilla of Galloway. This seems to have been something of a love match, and when John died 1268 she carried his embalmed heart around with her in a casket and was eventually buried with it in the appropriately-named Sweetheart Abbey near Dumfries. It was under their son, another John, that the Balliols reached the height of their power. The royal blood he’d inherited through his mother gave him a claim to the Scottish throne and he was appointed King of Scotland by Edward I, who had been asked to judge between a number of rival contenders.

A portrait of John Balliol
A portrait of John Balliol, who was appointed King of Scotland by Edward I. (Photo by Mansell/Mansell/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images)

It was to be a short-lived triumph. Balliol’s attempts to pursue an independent foreign policy attracted the ire of Edward who invaded Scotland and overthrew Balliol, sparking off three centuries of intermittent warfare between the two kingdoms that would only end with the Union of the English and Scottish Crowns in 1603. Balliol was exiled to his Picardy estates and Barnard Castle was confiscated by the English king. Despite attempts by the Bishop of Durham to claim it for himself, the castle was granted to Guy de Beauchamp, 10th Earl of Warwick. He and his successors would hold the castle for the next century and a half, adding to its buildings and strengthening its defences.

 The last Earl of Warwick to hold the castle was Richard Neville. Better known as Warwick the Kingmaker, he’d acquired it through his marriage to a Beauchamp heiress. Following his defeat and death at Barnet in 1471 many of his northern estates, including Barnard Castle, were granted to Richard of Gloucester, the future Richard III. His personal symbol, a boar, is carved above the oriel window of the castle’s great chamber.

Richard III
Richard III. (Photo by Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Rebellions and uprisings – when was the last battle at Barnard Castle?

The 16th century saw the castle twice thrust into the forefront of national events. In October 1536, during the popular rising against Henry VIII’s government known as the Pilgrimage of Grace, a rebel force advanced on the castle. Its aim was to seize Robert Bowes, the keeper of the castle (and an ancestor of the present Queen Elizabeth II) and force him to join their cause. Bowes surrendered the castle without a fight before playing a clever double game, first acting as a rebel leader and then later helping the authorities to stamp out the uprising.

Then came 1569. Another rebellion, another Bowes. This time it was a rising by England’s catholic northern earls who sought to replace Queen Elizabeth I with her cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots. As the revolt gained momentum, the protestant Sir George Bowes locked himself up in the castle with about 700 men and prepared to hold it for Elizabeth. Unfortunately for Sir George many of his men didn’t share his resolution; his attempted lockdown was undermined by a steady stream of desertions. After 11 days Bowes was forced to surrender but his defence had at least bought the authorities the time they needed to assemble an army to crush the rebellion. It was the last time that Barnard Castle would see action.

The ruins of Barnard Castle
By the 19th century the ruined castle had become a tourist attraction. (Photo by: Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

When did the castle become a tourist attraction?

In the early 17th century the Vane family acquired Barnard Castle. They primarily used it as a source of building material and the battered towers and walls of today’s castle were not caused by the guns of besieging armies but the pickaxes of their workmen. By the 19th century the ruined castle had become a tourist attraction. Sir Walter Scott featured the castle in his 1813 poem, Rokeby, and soon the castle was attracting a steady stream of visitors who were often entertained by Frank Shields, the castle’s self-appointed ‘hermit’ who had taken up residence in one of the towers.

It’s worth pointing out that that there’s more to Barnard than just the castle. Visitors approaching from the east will pass the gates to Rokeby Park. Velásquez’s Venus hung there for nearly a century before moving to the National Gallery where, in 1914, it was slashed by suffragette and future fascist, Mary Richardson.

The Bowes Museum
The Bowes Museum, which could easily be mistaken for a French chateau, displays the fine art collections of John Bowes and Joséphine, his French wife. (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)

The town is also home to the Bowes Museum. An enormous building which could easily be mistaken for a French chateau, it opened its doors to the public in 1892 and displays the fine art collections of John Bowes and Joséphine, his French wife. Star of the show is an 18th-century automated silver swan which normally performs daily at 2pm and never fails to attract a crowd of reverential onlookers.

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Julian Humphrys is a writer and historian who regularly leads tours to Barnard Castle. You can follow him on Twitter @GeneralJules