British Castles, History

Barnard Castle: The Fortress Sold For Parts

The Normans, led by King William, conquered England in 1066. They took the south easily, but the north was another matter. William eventually acquiesced and allowed some powerful northern Anglo-Saxon lords to keep their power.

For decades after 1066, the Anglo-Saxon northern lords were fair-weather vassals at best, and after several rebellions William acted to break their power base, splitting up their large estates. The Earl of Northumbria had many holdings: one of these was Barnard Castle – though there was no castle on the site back then. With the old Earldom broken up, Barnard Castle was granted to the Norman lord Guy de Balliol in 1095, and he promptly set about building a wooden castle there to help suppress the northern peasants.

As you might have guessed from the name, it was most likely his son Bernard de Balliol who built the stone castle. After his death the castle passed to another Bernard, who continued building until the 1180s.

In a weird quirk that’s quite rare in the British Isles, not only was the castle named after the man who built it instead of a feature of the local landscape, it wasn’t long before a small market town grew around it which was also called Barnard’s Castle. (This makes it quite hard, incidentally, to google information on the castle in particular.)

Barnard Castle viewed from the far side of the river Tees
Here, let me show you its good side. (source:

The Balliols endured a rapid rise and fall from power: in 1292, John Balliol was chosen by a council of English lords as the new king of Scotland. Naturally, he wasn’t widely accepted by the Scots, and was forced to abdicate just four years later. He was imprisoned in the Tower of London and eventually banished to Normandy, his English estates confiscated. Barnard Castle passed to the Earls of Warwick and eventually to the Nevilles, though it wasn’t used very often by either family.

The castle was kept in good repair, though, and was eventually inherited by Richard, Duke of Gloucester. The man who would become Richard III, the last English monarch to die on the battlefield.

He married a Neville heiress and with her claimed the castle, which quickly became one of his favourites. He made modifications to it – including by carving his sigil, the boar, into one of the window frames! It can still be seen today, though it’s mostly faded.

the boar of Richard III carved into a window at Barnard Castle
It’s there, I promise! (source:

Even as king, Richard made several journeys north to stay at Barnard Castle. His last trip was in 1484, the year before he died at the Battle of Bosworth.

Sources disagree on what happened next: some say it was granted to Henry VII on condition he return it to the Nevilles on his death, which he never did, and so it remained in the hands of the crown.

Others say it passed back into the hands of the large and powerful Neville family, who had extensive estates across the north. Unfortunately, they were also Catholic – a grave problem in the newly-Protestant country. They were involved in a large uprising in 1569 to replace Elizabeth I with the Catholic Mary. They were defeated and their properties were seized, and Barnard Castle fell into the hands of the crown.

Either way, sometime after Richard renovated it, it fell into royal hands and was neglected for decades. By the time the crown sold the castle to Henry Vane in the 1600s, it was falling down. Instead of renovating it, Vane used its stone to repair his other estate at nearby Raby Castle, leaving Barnard as little more than a ruin.

Barnard castle and towers from the other side.
Aaand here it is from its less-than-good side. (source:

I wanted to tell the story of Barnard Castle because I feel sorry for it. From what’s left, we can see it was a large and beautiful building, benefiting from the wealth of the Balliols and the Nevilles. Yet because their lands were so extensive, it was never really anyone’s permanent home. It was maintained as a place for occasional visits. To begin with it was only really built so the Anglo-Saxon northern lords could be kept in submission. In the end, by the whims of fate, it passed out of ownership entirely and was forgotten, only to be pulled apart for repairs. It never even had chance to endure that horrible fate many English castles suffered: being purposely damaged in the civil war (being ‘slighted’, as it’s known) to make it useless, because by then it was already a ruin.

Here’s a map of our site – I hope it helps. (Source: – with annotations by moi)

A lot of castles went this way, but there’s no sign of them today. They’ve been entirely dismantled. Somehow, though, a couple of Barnard Castle’s walls have survived intact, giving us a unique glimpse at its former glory.

One of which is its beautiful and unusual oriel window – a kind of early bay window. You can see it here:

Rumour has it that the window was added to the Great Chamber by Richard III as part of his renovations. Historic England reckons the Great Chamber was built circa 1170-1185, when Europe was embroiled in the Crusades. One of the arguments for the rise of the oriel window is that it was inspired by Arabic architecture, and if this is the case, the era of the Crusades was the time when European architects started experimenting with Arabic designs. On the other hand, it does look rather like it’s just been plonked on top of that window underneath: that doesn’t look planned. And we can’t dismiss the presence of the boar carving, of course.


In this much better close-up photo, it does look as though it was added into the existing wall, and we know the Great Chamber was rebuilt sometime after it was originally built, and it might have been added then. Either way, medieval oriel windows aren’t seen very often, so it’s great this wall has survived so we can see it today.

I also find it rather interesting that the great hall, to the right of the oriel window in that photo above, has buttresses and large windows, both features you wouldn’t expect to see in a military castle (especially on the outside walls) since they weaken the architecture. This to me suggests that by the late 1100s, the castle was being used mostly as a personal home, despite its proximity to Scotland. Not that it was used very often, since the families who owned it also owned so many other estates.

Shortly after, the huge round tower was built too, though again I imagine that was just for show, considering the size of that outer window.'s_round_tower_(2),_2007.jpg

This is a great photo because it gives us a cross-section of the old Great Chamber. (You can see the oriel window up on the left there.) Front and centre is the remains of what was presumably the chamber’s main hearth – and you can see a small portion of the hearth itself at the bottom left of the hole, but the rest has been stripped away, leaving nothing but a fireplace-shaped hole.

Halfway up you can see those telltale holes in a line that show where wooden boards would have held up a floor – so the Great Chamber was two storeys, with the oriel window lighting the upper floor. Perhaps it was a solar of sorts? A private apartment just beside the great hall, which would have stretched off to the left? Such arrangements were not unusual – and sometimes lords had holes in their floors so they could watch what was happening in the great hall, ensuring their men didn’t cause any trouble – though this was much more common in France.

Now I might be wrong, but there’s something very interesting at the top of the round tower in this photo: a diagonal line marking the stone. To me that looks like the kind of mark a roof would leave: I certainly can’t imagine what else it would be. But it’s an unusual shape compared to the rooms below and there’s no mark going down the other side, so I’m not 100% confident in saying that.

I will say here that the best thing you can possibly do is go and visit the site itself. English Heritage, who owns the ruin, doesn’t have a guidebook, but they have placed information boards around the site that tell you much more about the castle than I can. Here’s one that shows an artist’s impression of how the inner ward changed over time:


Now, the vast majority of my focus here has been on the inner ward, where admittedly most of the ruin lies. But there are also the remains of the castle’s curtain walls, which are interesting in themselves simply because of their size and endurance. But of special interest to me is the sally port, which shows you just what kinds of things medieval builders could achieve: look at the size of this wall!

Pretty impressive.

There’s also this, the final remaining wall of a square tower that was apparently added to the castle in the later middle ages:

picture of the remaining wall of the square tower on the southwest corner of the inner ward

This fascinates me because it clearly wasn’t built for any defensive reason: the windows are too large. The thickness of the walls also suggests the inner rooms would have been fairly small. There appears to be a chute on the left side, and from the other side you can see the chute is dotted with small windows. Perhaps this was a staircase? But it doesn’t appear to extend down to the ground.

And then those two square windows in the top room aren’t lined up with each other. What’s that about? There’s no clear mark in the wall that shows where a floor would have been, so they appear to have been part of the same room. A strange one.

There’s a bit more I could say about Barnard Castle, but I’ve already gone on for a while, and I wouldn’t want to say any more without seeing the site in person. So I’ll leave you with this: an illustration on one of the information boards of what the castle probably looked like in the mid-1300s. A rolling estate, with huge walls and many buildings. It’s just a shame most of it is now missing. (That small ward in the bottom right is where we’ve been looking this whole time.)


Oh yes, and before I go: here’s the link to the site’s entry in the Historic England database, where you can read an archaeological breakdown of its various features and the rough dates they were built.

If you enjoyed this, great! You can read another castle post here, where I talked about Conisbrough Castle. You’ll find links to my other castle posts on this page here.

There’s more on the way, so if you’re interested in that, put your email address in below (or just click the follow button if you’re on WordPress!) You’ll be told whenever I upload a new post.

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