Belsay tower house and attached unfortified wing, deserted medieval village, possible moated site, promontory fort and watch post


Heritage Category:
Scheduled Monument
List Entry Number:
Date first listed:
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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:
NZ 08146 78509, NZ 08611 78647

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. At many sites the tower comprised only one element of a larger house, with at least one wing being attached to it. These wings provided further domestic accommodation, frequently including a large hall. If it was incorporated within a larger domestic residence, the tower itself could retain its defensible qualities and could be shut off from the rest of the house in times of trouble. 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 or 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 over half were elements of larger houses. All surviving tower houses retaining significant medieval remains will normally be identified as nationally important.

After the Union of the English and Scottish Crowns in 1603 as the threat of warfare gradually receded, it became common place for the owners of castles and tower houses to make improvements to their formerly defensive dwellings. These often involved the replacement of existing domestic wings or the construction of new ones.

Around 6000 moated sites are known in England. They consist of wide ditches, often or seasonally water-filled, partly or completely enclosing one or more islands of dry ground on which stood domestic or religious buildings. The majority of moated sites served as prestigious aristocratic and seigneurial residences with the provision of a moat intended as a status symbol rather than a practical military defence. The peak period during which moated sites were built was between about 1250 and 1350 and by far the greatest concentration lies in central and eastern parts of England.

The village, comprising a small group of houses, gardens, yards, streets, paddocks, often with a green, a manor and a church, and with a community devoted primarily to agriculture, was a significant component of the rural landscape in most areas of medieval England, much as it is today. Although the sites of many of these villages have been occupied continuously down to the present day, many others declined in size or were abandoned throughout the medieval and post-medieval periods. As a result over 2000 deserted medieval villages are recorded nationally. The reasons for desertion were varied but often reflected declining economic viability, changes in landuse such as enclosure or emparkment, or as a result of widespread epidemics such as the black death. As a consequence of their abandonment these villages contain well-preserved archaeological deposits. Because they are a common and long-lived monument type in most parts of England, they provide important information on the diversity of medieval settlement patterns and farming economy between the regions and through time.

Promontory forts are a type of hillfort in which conspicuous naturally defended sites are adapted as enclosures by the construction of one or more earth or stone ramparts placed across the neck of a spur in order to divide it from the surrounding land. The ramparts and accompanying ditches formed the main artificial defence but timber palisades may have been erected along the cliff edges. Access to the interior was generally provided by an entrance through the ramparts. The interior of the fort was used intensively for settlement and related activities, and evidence for timber and stone-walled round houses can be expected, together with the remains of buildings used for storage and enclosures for animals. Promontory forts are generally Iron Age in date, most having been constructed between the sixth century BC and the mid-first century AD. They are regarded as settlements of high status, probably occupied on a permanent basis, and recent interpretations suggest that their construction and choice of location had as much to do with display as defence. Promontory forts are rare nationally with less than 100 recorded examples. In view of their rarity and their importance in the understanding of the nature of social organization in the later prehistoric period, all examples with surviving archaeological remains are considered nationally important.

Beacons were fires deliberately lit to give a warning, by means of smoke by day and flame by night, of the approach of hostile forces. They were always situated in prominent positions, usually as part of a group, chain or line which together made up a comprehensive early warning system covering most of the country. They were extensively used during the medieval period and the system was in decay by the mid-17th century. Beacons were initially bonfires of wood or furze, but later barrels of pitch or iron fire baskets mounted on poles were used. The poles were occasionally set on earthen mounds. More unusual beacon types include stone enclosures and towers, mainly found in the north and south west of England. Beacons were built throughout England with greatest density along the south coast and the border with Scotland. Although approximately 500 are recorded nationally relatively, few survive in the form of visible remains. Given the rarity of recorded examples, all positively identified beacons with significant surviving archaeological remains are considered to be of national importance.

The medieval and post-medieval remains at Belsay are very well preserved and retain significant archaeological deposits. Taken together they provide a good example of the sequence of settlement history beginning in prehistory.


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.

Parts of the monument have been in State care since 1980 and an additional area was added in 1984. The tower house is a Grade I Listed Building. The unfortified wing is also Listed Grade I. The whole of the monument forms part of a more extensive area which was included in the Historic Parks and Gardens Register in 1986.

All English Heritage fixtures and fittings and all modern field walls and fencing including the fence which runs around the top of Bantam Hill, are excluded from the scheduling, although the ground beneath all of these features is included.

MAP EXTRACT The site of the monument is shown on the attached map extract.


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

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Books and journals
Hewlings, R, Anderton, S, Belsay Hall Garden and Castle, (1994)
MacLaughlan, H, Memoir to Survey of Eastern Branch of the Watling Street, (1864), 7-8
RCAME, , The Parkland around Belsay hall, (1985)
RCAME, , The Parkland around Belsay hall, (1985), 4-8
RCAME, , The Parkland around Belsay hall, (1985), 1-3
Raimes, A L, 'Archeologia Aeliana 32' in Archeologia Aeliana 32, (1954), 143-5
1:1000, RCAME, (1985)
RCAME, NZ 07 NE 06,


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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