Northumbrian Castles - Malcolm III and the First Battle of Alnwick
This is getting really big, so I’ll post the history of Alnwick Castle in several parts; that way you’ll at least get a new post occasionally. *grin* Since the posts extend to the overall history of Northumbria, there will be some photos of other historical sites as well.
One should think that the beginning of a huge and important castle like Alnwick would be better documented than the obscure keeps dotting German hills, but unfortunately, information about the beginnings of the castle is nonexistant, though it may have predated the first evidence in 1096 where it is mentioned as in possession of one Ivo (Yves) de Vescy, who built part of the castle still in existence.
The castle guards the crossing of the river Aln and since it is so close to the Scottish border, it saw a fair deal of action during history. The first owner may have been Gilbert de Tesson (Tyson) who was the standard bearer of William the Conqueror at the Battle of Hastings. But in 1095, he - or his descendant - participated in a rebellion against William Rufus and lost the fief which was then given to Yves de Vescy, together with the title Baron of Alnwick.
View to Alnwick Castle from the gardens
Alnwick had come into focus already two years earlier, when King Malcolm III Canmore and his oldest son and heir Edward were killed in a battle or ambush; the sources are not clear about the details. The relationship between King Malcolm III of the Scots and William the Conqueror and his successor William Rufus, was always uneasy as we will see, and the battle of Alnwick not the only military action in Northumberland during Malcolm’s reign.
Malcolm, the son of King Duncan of Macbeth fame, was still a child when his father was killed in 1040, and he and his brother Donald Bán spent many years in exile. It has long been assumed they went to England to the court of Edward the Confessor, but recent research opens the possibility that Malcolm went to Orkney and found shelter with its earl Thorfinn Sigurdsson. There certainly was a connection with Orkney since Malcolm later married Thorfinn’s widow Ingibjorg with whom he had a son, Duncan, but he also had a keen interest in AngloSaxon culture and administration and was fluent in English. Donald Bán may have spent part of his exile in the Isles.
The details of Malcolm’s rise to power are contradictory and obscure, so I’ll spare you a lengthy discussion. But by April 1058, Macbeth and his stepson Lulach were dead and Malcolm was crowned king. He conducted a raid into Northumbria in 1061 but this was likely a border conflict caused by some Northumbrian nobles and not an attempt at expanding power.
Alnwick Keep seen from the inner bailey
After the death of Edward the Confessor in 1066, Scotland became a place of exile, first for the deposed Earl Tostig Godwinson of Northumbria, a sworn friend of King Malcolm, though Malcolm did not partake in the Battle of Stamford Bridge where Tostig and King Harald III Hardrada of Norway were killed by Harold Godwinson of England. Two years later, the widow of Edward the Confessor’s nephew and her children, among them Edgar Ætheling and Margaret, fled to Scotland in the aftermath of the Battle of Hastings. In the group of exiles accompanying them was Earl Gospatric of Northumbria.
The sources can't agree when Malcolm married Edgar's sister Margaret, 1068 or 1070 (the date of Inigibjorg's death is not documented, either), and neither is it clear whether or not he supported the 1069 rising in Northumberland. We also get two different shipwrecks, and sources that - because of their anti-Celtic Church stance - present Margaret as the queen who basically introduced civilisation to 'barbarian' Scotland. Several chronicles were also written long past the events. For me, the more likely scenario is that the shipwreck that brought Edgar and his family to Scotland happened in 1068, because at that time they may indeed have planned to return to Hungary where they had spent their exile prior to 1057. The events from 1070 are more likely a flight to the nearmost shelter.
The AngloSaxon Chronicle presents Edgar as having but reluctantly agreed to the marriage to some obscure king, but I'm not sure Malcolm was as obscure and uneducated as the Chronicle describes him. It can well be Edgar saw the advantage of becoming the brother-in-law of a king who at least lived north of England (instead of Flanders, Hungary or wherever) and who already was acquainted with the English culture and language. Margaret's dowry was Malcolm's right to Cumbria.
Malcolm was careful, it seems, but he also was ambitious, and with the moral backing of restoring Edgar, and by this his own future offspring with Margaret (who were to bear AngloSaxon, not Celtic, names), to kingship, he may have put his weight behind a Northumbrian invasion in 1069, when he did not risk to support his - obviously unpopular - friend Tostig a few years earlier.
Alnwick Castle, the ramparts in the inner bailey
The events are a bit of a mess in the sources as well as the - often contradictory - secondary literature, so I'll present a version I think plausible:
In January 1069, the Northumbrians killed the earl King William the Conqueror had foisted upon them, and soon there was a major rebellion. Edgar Ætheling and Gospatric went to join the fun and managed to conquer York (probably with some of Malcolm's troops involved; I don't think there were enough English exiles and disgrunteld Northumbrians to make an army) which Edgar intended to turn into a basis for further conquest. But King William rushed north with an army, retook the town and built a castle; Edgar had to flee back to Scotland.
But the Northern Alliance had made a pact with the Danes under Sveyn Estridson who had a claim to the English crown, too, and who came with a fleet in August. Luck turned towards Edgar and his supporters, and by October of the year William's position looked pretty uncomfortable. Edgar held York, Gospatric was again earl of Northumbria and sat in Bamburgh Castle, King Malcolm held Cumbria in the west, the Danes patrolled the east coast, and the Earls Edwin and Morcar of Mercia were negotiating an alliance.
But William didn't play by the rules and launched a winter campaign. The Danes had set to winter in Lincolnshire and left York to the AngloSaxons. So William surrounded the Danes, cutting them off supply, and reconquered York, forcing Edgar's army to retreat further north.
Next spring William gave Sveyn a bag full of shiny coins and merry farewell banquet, at which point the Danes packed their axes and returned home. Then he pushed further north all the way to Hexham, and forced Gospatric to surrender. William then reinstalled him as Earl of Northumbria and sent him harrying Cumbria to keep Malcolm busy. Edgar Ætheling had no choice but to flee back to Scotland. I don't think a flight to the continent would have proven easy at that point, with no access to ships or harbours not controlled by his enemies.
In June 1070, William could leave a subdued Northumbria behind and return south. Malcolm plundered the lands of Gospatric in retaliation for his changing sides. Not a nice thing to do in a land already harried by war, but it was a point of Medieaval honour. An attempt to gain Northumbria on his own seems not likely. While Malcolm had the army Edgar lacked, he could not have hoped to achieve more than his brother-in-law without further support.
Inner bailey; view towards Ravine Tower
We can only speculate how the Norman lord of a castle like Alnwick fared in such unruly times, but at least Gilbert seems to have kept his hold on it, or was able to return from a period of exile. At that time, its strategic position and likely also its defenses were inferior to places like Bamburgh or York, so Edgar, Gospatric or whoever may not have had a very great interest in it.
After Edgar also got involved with Hereward and a fugitive Morcar of Mercia in Ely, and William had to subdue another rising, the Conqueror finally had enough of what he considered as nest of rebels at the Scottish court. In 1072, he invaded Scotland from both land and sea, much like Æthelstan did in 934 against Constantine. Malcolm did not want to risk the loss of Lothian or Fife and opened up negotiations pretty fast.
At the Treaty of Abernethy (September 1072) Malcolm 'became William’s man' as the AngloSaxon Chronicle says, a rather undifferenciated expression that surely did not imply a feudal relationship to Malcolm and his successors (nor did it mean much to Constantine who had made the same agreement with Æthelstan in 934), though it may have meant more to the Norman William. Malcolm also gave his eldest son Duncan as hostage. But he was not forced to deliver Edgar Ætheling to William; Edgar and Gospatric, whom William meanwhile had replaced as Earl of Northumbria, fled to Flanders.
Two years later, Edgar and Gospatric returned to Britain after a failed attempt to win the French king’s assistance and another shipwreck (seriously, what sort of sailor was Edgar?). Edgar made his peace with William and gave up his claim to the English throne, while Gospatric got land in Dunbar from Malcolm. In 1079, Malcolm used the quarrel between William and his eldest son Robert for another push into Northumbria which was countered by Robert; negotiations ended with the status quo ante.
Robert erected a castle at Tynemouth / Newcastle, though. There would be peace for several years until the death of William the Conqueror in 1087.
Newcastle upon Tyne, the main gate
The Conqueror’s death changed the political landscape, because his sons weren’t really happy about the succession plans: The oldest son, Robert Curthose, was to get Normandy, the second, William Rufus, England; and the youngest, Henry, was left with some minor bits of land. But Robert wanted to inherit the whole cake. Edgar Ætheling, who seems to have spent at least part of his time in Normandy, supported him, whereof his lands in Normandy were confiscated by William Rufus. Edgar fled once again to Scotland, and that would bring Malcolm into the fray as well.
In May 1091, Malcolm used the chance that William was busy putting Robert on a potty in Normandy, and marched south to besiege Newcastle (or Durham, as other sources say, but I think that less likely since Malcolm venerated St.Cuthbert). William Rufus took the threat seriously enough to return from Normandy in September, after he made peace with his brother. So Malcolm withdrew and William followed all the way to Falkirk. Thanks to negotiations led by Robert and Edgar, a reconciliation was reached between William and Malcolm (where Malcolm likely became William Rufus’ 'man'). Can we detect a pattern here, lol?
The clashes between William Rufus and Malcolm were not only caused by both sides’ interest in Northumberland and in Cumbria but also by the Irish/Norse/Gaelic/Welsh alliances that kept forming along the west coast and isles; and whose leaders wanted neither a Norman nor a Scottish overlordship if they could get away with it. It seems that William feared a possible alliance of these unruly lords with Malcolm and invaded Cumbria in 1092, building the castle at Carlisle. He also set up some powerful nobles in castles in Northumbria and endorsed their raids northward.
Malcolm considered that as breach of the 1091 agreement. A second reason to add to the grievances could have been a planned marriage between William and Malcolm’s daughter Edith that William went back on. Moreover, Robert thought that William was slow to honour their agreements made in Normandy and returned back to the continent. Edgar went with him.
Alnwick Castle, the keep from the other side
Malcolm, who was in his 60ies by now and who may have realised that a military action would not achieve anything, was willing to discuss the question with William Rufus. He even travelled to Gloucester to meet the king there in August 1093. But William refused to negotiate, maybe interpreting Malcolm's actions as weakness; he asked for Malcolm's full surrender as vassal, and the matter to be judged by his barons right there. Malcolm wanted a court of the barons of both England and Scotland, situated at the border of their realms. William didn't give in and Malcolm left Gloucester in a very sour mood.
Whether or not William intended to provoke war (the AngloSaxon Chronicle is a bit optimistic if it seriously thinks Malcolm would have swallowed those insults), war came. And like the Conqueror earlier, Malcolm too, decided not to care about the proper seasons for a war and started one in late autumn. He was accompagnied by his sons Edward, the oldest and tanaiste (designated heir), and Edgar.
They took to the usual harrying tactics for the most, but the details are not clear. The Earl of Northumbria, Robert de Mowbray, didn't manage to call upon a sizeable host in a short time to counter the Scots, and William Rufus was still in the south. Malcolm seems to have avoided to get near Bamburgh Castle which may have withstood a siege, but if he laid siege to Alnwick Castle instead or was just camped near the town is not sure. What we do know is that the steward of Bamburgh Castle, Arkil Morel (possibly a nephew of Robert de Mowbray), caught up with Malcolm's army at Alnwick on November 13, 1093, either to relieve a siege or to lay an ambush. He succeeded in cutting Malcolm and his sons - and probably their personal guards - off the main host and killed Malcolm and Edward. Edgar escaped to Scotland wounded, and the rest of the army snuck back as well.
Queen Margaret, who had been ill for a time, died at Edinburgh Castle when she heard the news. Scotland was left with an inheritance struggle between the surviving sons of Malcolm and Margaret, Malcolm's oldest son (with Ingibjorg) Duncan, and his brother Donald Bán.
Edinburgh Castle, St.Margaret's chapel
Robert de Mowbray, a powerful Norman nobleman, had joined Robert's rebellion against William Rufus in 1088, but was pardoned and given - or restored to - the position as Earl of Northumbria. He joined another conspiracy in 1095 which aimed to hand the crown to Stephen of Aumale, a cousin of William Rufus and Robert Curthose. Gilbert de Tesson, likely a vassal of Mowbray, must have been involved in the conspiracy as well, and if it is correct that Malcolm had laid siege to Alnwick Castle in 1093 when he was killed, we can assume there was a Norman motte and bailey construction of some sort at the time.
It is difficult to say who far-spread the rebellion was in the beginning (comparable to the 1088 one?), but when push came to shove, most barons abandoned Robert de Mowbray and his ally Guillaume d'Eu, which makes the final events look more like a local quarrel gone bad. Mowbray seized four Norwegian vessels anchoring in the Tyne; the merchants complained to the king, William Rufus called Mowbray before court, but the earl refused to attend. When William led an army into Northumbria, Mowbray took shelter in Bamburgh Castle. But at some point he broke through the siege with a small following of knights, William in hot pursuit. Mowbray, wounded in the leg, came as far as Tynemouth (Newcastle) but was captured after a short siege and taken back to Bamburgh. His wife surrendered the castle when William threatened to blind her husband.
Robert de Mowbray forfeited his estates and spent the rest of his life in prison. The date of his death is unsure (1106 or 1125). Guillaume d'Eu fared even worse; he lost the trial by combat, was castrated and died.
Bamburgh Castle, view to the keep
We don't know what happened to Gilbert Tesson, but it is likely he got executed as traitor. William gave Alnwick and the baronial title to Yves de Vescy. Yves was likely responsible for expanding the castle and giving the older part of it its shape until today. Alnwick Castle also appears more frequently in the sources.
Next time we'll look at King David of Scotland who continued the Into Northumbria Out Of Northumbria-game, with Alnwick playing a larger role than under Malcolm.
Frank Barlow: The Feudal Kingdom of England 1042-1216. 5th edition, Edinburgh 1999
Richard Oram: David, The King Who Made Scotland. Tempus Publishing Ltd, 2004
Richard Oram: Domination and Lordship, Scotland 1070-1230. The New Edinburgh History of Scotland, Edinburgh 2011
Frank Stenton: AngloSaxon England. 3rd edition, Oxford University Press, 1971
Ian W. Walker: Lords of Alba, The Making of Scotland. Sutton Publishing, 2006
The Lost Fort is a travel and history blog based on my journeys in Germany, the UK, Scandinavia, the Baltic Countries, and central Europe. It includes virtual town and castle tours with a focus on history, museum visits, hiking tours, and essays on Roman and Mediaeval history, illustrated with my own photos.
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- Name: Gabriele Campbell
- Location: Goettingen, Germany
I'm a blogger from Germany with a MA in Literature and History which doesn't pay my bills, so I use it to research blogposts instead. I'm interested in everything Roman and Mediaeval, avid reader and sometimes writer, opera enthusiast, traveller with a liking for foreign languages and odd rocks, photographer, and tea aficionado. And an old-fashioned blogger who still hasn't got an Instagram account.
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