Reasons for Designation
Fortified houses were residences belonging to some of the richest and most
powerful members of society. Their design reflects a combination of domestic
and military elements. In some instances, the fortifications may be cosmetic
additions to an otherwise conventional high status dwelling, giving a military
aspect while remaining practically indefensible. They are associated with
individuals or families of high status and their ostentatious architecture
often reflects a high level of expenditure. The nature of the fortification
varies, but can include moats, curtain walls, a gatehouse and other towers,
gunports and crenellated parapets.
Their buildings normally included a hall used as communal space for domestic
and administrative purposes, kitchens, service and storage areas. In later
houses the owners had separate private living apartments, these often
receiving particular architectural emphasis. In common with castles, some
fortified houses had outer courts beyond the main defences in which stables,
brew houses, granaries and barns were located.
Fortified houses were constructed in the medieval period, primarily between
the 15th and 16th centuries, although evidence from earlier periods, such as
the increase in the number of licences to crenellate in the reigns of Edward I
and Edward II, indicates that the origins of the class can be traced further
back. They are found primarily in several areas of lowland England: in upland
areas they are outnumbered by structures such as bastles and tower houses
which fulfilled many of the same functions. As a rare monument type, with
fewer than 200 identified examples, all examples exhibiting significant
surviving archaeological remains are considered of national importance.
Tarset fortified house survives reasonably well and is a rare survival of this
form of medieval settlement in Northumberland. It is well documented and will
add to our knowledge and understanding of the wide variety of medieval
The monument includes the remains of the fortified residence known as Tarset
Castle, situated upon a steep sided promontory commanding the valley of the
Tarset Burn to the north and the North Tyne to the west, south and east. The
promontory is surrounded by a substantial artificially dug ditch on the east
and south sides 20m wide and on average 5m deep. The remaining two sides are
bounded by steep banks which have the appearance of having been artificially
scarped for added defence. The fortified house occupies the eastern half of
the promontory, and is largely visible as the grassed over remains of a
rectangular structure, oriented north to south. Standing masonry is visible to
a maximum height of 1.5m at the north east and the south east corners of the
structure standing upon the uncovered remains of a stone plinth. This masonry
is thought to represent two of the four square corner turrets known to exist
at Tarset Castle. The fortified house has a long documented history: John
Comyn was given licence to crenellate his residence here with a stone wall and
a ditch in 1267, the earliest surviving licence to do so in Northumberland. It
was clearly a site of some importance, situated as it is above the North Tyne
and the Tarset fords and hence also commanding traffic on two old routeways.
In 1523 the fortified house was occupied by Sir Ralph Fenwick and 80 men but
was taken and burnt in 1525. A sketch of the house in 1773 shows it to be a
long narrow rectangular building with square turrets at each of the four
corners surrounded by a stone wall of the same shape; this is thought to be
the wall for which licence was given in 1267. The monument was partly explored
by excavation in 1888 but no records of the findings were left. It is thought
that there is a timber palisade on the inner edge of the ditch and that there
must have been a bridge across the ditch to give access to the house.
The fence posts and upstanding railway sleepers used as posts are excluded
from the scheduling but the ground beneath these features is included.
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.