Etal Castle tower house


Heritage Category:
Scheduled Monument
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Date first listed:
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Ordnance survey map of Etal Castle tower house
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The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.

Northumberland (Unitary Authority)
National Grid Reference:
NT 92530 39322

Reasons for Designation

Tower houses are a type of defensible house particularly characteristic of the borderlands of England and Scotland. Virtually every parish had at least one of these buildings. Solitary tower houses comprise a single square or rectangular `keep' several storeys high, with strong barrel-vaults tying together massive outer walls. Many towers had stone slab roofs, often with a parapet walk. Access could be gained through a ground floor entrance or at first floor level where a doorway would lead directly to a first floor hall. Solitary towers were normally accompanied by a small outer enclosure defined by a timber or stone wall and called a barmkin. Tower houses were being constructed and used from at least the 13th century to the end of the 16th century. They provided prestigious defended houses permanently occupied by the wealthier and aristocratic members of society. As such, they were important centres of medieval life. The need for such secure buildings relates to the unsettled and frequently war-like conditions which prevailed in the Borders throughout much of the medieval period. Around 200 examples of tower houses have been identified of which less than half are of the free- standing or solitary tower type. All surviving solitary towers retaining significant medieval remains will normally be identified as nationally important.

Etal Castle is a well-documented example of a tower house, the importance of which lies not only in the good state of preservation of its standing remains but also in the wide range of ancillary buildings which survive as buried features within its barmkin.


The monument known as Etal Castle is a tower house comprising a number of elements which include the tower and its outer enclosure or barmkin, a gatehouse, a corner tower, and the sites of various ancillary buildings which existed within the barmkin, built against the enclosing curtain wall. The earliest element is the tower, built either in the late 13th or early 14th century. This is a rectangular building of four storeys which originally had a projecting forebuilding on the east side. Externally it measures 15m x 10m and has walls over 2m thick. The ground floor consists of a rib-vaulted undercroft or basement which would have been used for storage and the occasional shelter of livestock. It has a single window and was reached via a short passage through the forebuilding which also housed a spiral stair that gave access to the upper floors. The first floor served as the hall or day-room and was comfortably appointed with a large fireplace in the north wall, two recessed windows with window seats, and small vaulted mural chambers constructed in the thickness of the north and south walls. One of these, at the north-east corner of the chamber, housed a garderobe or latrine, and a third window in the south wall has been found to incorporate a 'murder hole': a narrow slanting shaft through which projectiles could be aimed at intruders below. This indicates that there was originally a doorway in the south wall at ground floor level and also that this wall must have been rebuilt at some point as there is now no sign of a door. The second floor was equally comfortable and served as the solar or private chamber. In addition to a fireplace in the south wall, there are three large windows with window seats and three mural chambers, one of which, set above that on the first floor, also contained a garderobe. The third floor is plainer, with no fireplace, but with four windows of which three had seats, and a mural chamber with a projecting garderobe. This floor may have served as a guardroom with access to the fighting platform on the roof of the tower. The roof itself does not survive but it is likely that, in common with other Border towers, it was steeply pitched with stone gables and crenellated parapets. The fragmentary remains of a look-out turret survive above the head of the spiral stair. The tower stands at the west corner of a roughly square platform measuring c.50m along each side. The north-west and south-west sides of the platform are bounded by a scarp which is the result of material being deposited prior to the tower's construction in order to raise the level of the original land surface and so provide a flat area to build on. This area, the barmkin, would originally have been enclosed by a timber palisade. In c.1341, however, Edward III granted the lord of Etal licence to crenellate, that is, fortify his house against the likelihood of invasion from across the border with Scotland. Almost certainly the tower itself was already crenellated at this time, but the grant meant that its owner now had permission to extend the fortification to include the gatehouse, corner tower and curtain wall whose remains now extend round the edges of the barmkin. Documents indicate that the construction of these features took a minimum of 15 years, because a survey of 1355 describes the site as a 'fortalice', a term used for buildings of lesser strength than a castle. The curtain wall appears never to have been particularly strong, being only a little over 1m thick in its one remaining standing section, but the gatehouse is a formidable building comprising a two storey structure with a central rib- vaulted gate passage, flanked to the fore by twin towers which projected above the battlements of the main building and also forward to cover the approach to the gate. The entrance was defended by a portcullis whose housing still survives, and a pair of gates whose hinge pins also remain. Apertures flanking the window above the gate passage suggest that the eastern approach was also defended by a moat and drawbridge because similar apertures, known from other sites, are where the cables attaching the drawbridge to its mechanism passed through the gatehouse walls. Masonry fragments on the gatehouse towers suggest also that there was a barbican over the moat, but neither moat nor barbican remain visible. Above the gate passage were the quarters of the guard commander while on either side, at ground floor level, were rib-vaulted guardrooms, one equipped with a fireplace and the other with a garderobe. A sentry chamber was housed in the south tower while the north tower contained the spiral stair that gave access to the fighting platform. Although the roof and crenellations of the gatehouse no longer survive, the remains of an angle turret can still be seen at the rear of the gatehouse together with the surviving south curtain. Earthworks indicate the positions of the walls around the rest of the barmkin, as do fragments of projecting masonry where the walls joined the tower house, gatehouse and corner tower. Only the ground floor of the corner tower remains standing, surviving as a high, rib-vaulted chamber measuring 7m x 6m and incorporating a wooden loft supported by corbels set into the walls. Originally it had a single window, but this was replaced in modern times by a door giving access to the adjoining cottage which lies outside the area of the scheduling. The walls of the chamber also include two lockers and an embrasure or small recess. Access to the upper storey would have been via an external stair or from the wall walk of the adjoining curtain. In addition to the tower house and defensive buildings, there would have been various ancillary or service buildings within the barmkin, including, for example, stables, kitchens, quarters for servants and guardsmen, offices, a brewhouse, a bakehouse and numerous others. None survive as standing ruins, but their remains exist as buried features and also in traces seen on the inner face of the south curtain wall where their demolition has left scars in the masonry. In addition, partial excavations carried out in the barmkin have located a number of ovens at the north corner, an open drain running north to south across the front of the tower house, another demolished oven, and a flag or cobbled surface which shows evidence of having been repaired or relaid on several occasions. During the medieval period, the manor of Etal was part of the barony of Muschamp and, in 1250, was held by Robert Manners, a tenant of Robert Muschamp. In 1291, the Manners were sufficiently well-respected for the Archbishop of York to have been their house guest, and it would have been shortly after this that work was begun on the tower house by another Robert Manners, the same one who, in 1341, applied to Edward III for licence to crenellate. The fortifications he began were completed by his son John, to the extent that, in a survey of 1368, the site was described as a castle. Throughout the next hundred years, however, Scottish raids and an ongoing and financially ruinous feud between the Manners and another leading local family, the Herons of Ford, conspired to decrease severely the value of the manor so that, by 1438, it was worth only a tenth of what it had been in 1250 and the buildings of the castle were in decay. However, the Robert Manners who became lord of Etal in 1438 was an active Border skirmisher and, by the time of his death in 1461, he had been granted a knighthood and had restored the family fortunes. In 1495, his grandson George Manners inherited the barony of Roos through his mother Eleanor and, from that time, Etal Castle ceased to be the principal residence of the Manners family but was occupied throughout most of the 16th century by their tenants, the Collingwoods, who became constables of the castle. During this time it played a significant role in the Border wars, including being captured in 1513 by the forces of James IV of Scotland and, later that year, being used to store Scottish artillery captured at the Battle of Flodden. In 1525, Thomas Manners became Earl of Rutland and, in 1547, gave the manor of Etal to the Crown in exchange for lands elsewhere. In this way, Etal became a royal castle and its connections with the Manners family ceased. Although it continued to house a garrison, surveys carried out in 1541, 1564 and 1584 show that repairs were not being carried out and that the buildings were considerably decayed. Nevertheless, its importance as a Border stronghold is shown by the fact that the royal commissioners who surveyed it in 1584 urged its repair and recommended that 200 pounds be spent to restore it to its former strength. However, the union of the Scottish and English Crowns in 1603 effectively ended the need for Border castles and the repairs were not carried out. Throughout the succeeding centuries, the Etal estate passed through numerous hands and the castle ceased to be a residence in the 18th century when it was superseded by a house at the other end of the village. In 1908, the Etal and Ford estates were purchased by the first Lord Joicey and remain with the Joicey family. The monument has been in State care since 1975 and the standing remains are a Grade I Listed Building. Excluded from the scheduling are all English Heritage fittings and fixtures, all modern gates and fencing, the surface of the modern track through the site, and the pair of 19th century cannon at the gate, but the ground beneath these features is included.

MAP EXTRACT The site of the monument is shown on the attached map extract. It includes a 2 metre boundary around the archaeological features, considered to be essential for the monument's support and preservation.


The contents of this record have been generated from a legacy data system.

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Books and journals
Burns, J R, A Short Description of Work since the First Edition, (1988), 21
Nelson, I S, Etal Castle, (1975)
Harbottle, B, 'Medieval Archaeology' in , , Vol. 23, (1979), 262


This monument is scheduled under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979 as amended as it appears to the Secretary of State to be of national importance. This entry is a copy, the original is held by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.

End of official listing

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