It seems a little odd to be writing a page about "Tynemouth Castle" when it is arguable that there has never been a castle at Tynemouth. What is not arguable, however, is that the headland guarding the northern side of the entrance to the River Tyne has been fortified by successive occupiers for two millennia and probably longer, and that though the fortifications here have at various times taken the form of defences for settlements, defences for religious communities, and later defences for the mouth of the river itself, they have certainly taken a castle-like form at times. Take a look at the header and footer images on this page if in any doubt.
Today's visitor to the headland gains admission to "Tynemouth Priory and Castle". On this page we cover the story of the defensive structures on the headland. For the closely related, and often intertwined, story of the religious communities that have been established on the headland, see our separate Tynemouth Priory page.
The headland at Tynemouth stands roughly 100ft above sea level and has cliffs that fall sheer to the sea on its northern and eastern sides. The drop to its south is not sheer, but the ground still falls very steeply to the inlet known as Prior's Haven. The headland itself is fairly flat-topped and covers an area large enough to house a significant settlement without any difficulty at all. At its western, landward, end, the headland is fairly narrow, meaning that defending this side is relatively easy. Take all these things together and it requires no great imagination to work out that the headland offers a superb defensive location, and that is before you even begin to consider the strategic importance of the River Tyne, whose mouth lies only a short distance to the south.
Archaeological excavations in 1963 unearthed traces of circular huts dating back to both before and during the Roman occupation of Britain. The implication seems to be that our Iron Age ancestors first made a home on the headland during the era in which the area was occupied by the Votadini tribe.
One of the defining characteristics of the headland is the massive earth bank which lies across its western, or mainland, end, and the deep ditch which has been cut to the mainland side of the bank. The ditch has changed in shape at times, as defensive theory and technology evolved over the centuries, but it seems plausible to suggest that both the ditch and the mound were originally constructed in the late Iron Age, by a people who then went on to occupy the site for a period of some centuries, presumably in relative harmony with the Romans, who intermittently occupied the area and whose most permanent boundary ended just a few miles inland at Wallsend.
The headland was occupied by an Anglo-Saxon monastery from, probably, the mid 700s, and this seems to have been destroyed by the Vikings, who may themselves have briefly occupied the headland in 875. By 1050 the headland at Tynemouth was occupied by some sort of manorial complex. This included a parish church, but was sufficiently important in its own right to have been visited on a number of occasions by Tostig, Earl of Northumberland. Whatever stood here when the Normans arrived would appear, with the possible exception of the church, to have been destroyed in their campaign to bring northern England under their full control.
The words "Norman" and "control" usually appear together in a sentence that is followed by another that talks about the building of a castle. We know that monks from Jarrow had established a religious community on the headland by about 1080, but it is not clear whether the Norman lord, Roger de Mowbray, Earl of Northumberland, had otherwise taken advantage of the defensive possibilities of the site. What is clear is that the priory being established here as a daughter house of St Albans Abbey in the years from 1090 had significant defences. De Mowbray joined a rebellion against William II in 1095. William laid siege to the rebel strongholds, and de Mowbray and his supporters held out at Tynemouth Priory for six days before the king's forces broke through the defences. De Mowbray was captured after trying to seek sanctuary in the partly build priory church.
In 1312, King Edward II sought refuge at Tynemouth in the face of a revolt by barons. In 1314, when a Scottish invasion was expected in the aftermath of the Battle of Bannockburn, the abbot cleared buildings from the area in front of the gatehouse, and recruited 80 men to garrison the defences. Four years later the king paid for a custodian to ensure that the priory fortifications were well maintained and properly manned.
King Richard II, the Duke of Lancaster and the Earl of Northumberland all contributed funds for improvements to the defences in 1390. The most obvious result was the building of the magnificent gatehouse which so dominates views of the castle and priory from Tynemouth today.
Tynemouth Priory was suppressed in 1539, and within a year work was under way to turn the headland into a fortress intended to ward off any attack from Spain and France. Plans to greatly increase the defended area so as to include the actual northern side of the mouth of the River Tyne were not fully implemented, but many changes were made, including the construction of the "Spanish Battery" to the south of the headland and immediately overlooking the mouth of the river. Tynemouth's defences proved important during the Dutch wars of the 1600s, though to an extent it was supplanted as the main defender of the River Tyne by the construction of Clifford's Fort on the river bank in North Shields.
The headland at Tynemouth remained defended through the 1700s. The military presence was dramatically increased when new barracks were built for 1,000 men 1758. Preparedness had declined again by 1795, when the garrison comprised just an officer and 11 men. That all changed with the perceived threat of invasion during the Napoleonic Wars, and by 1805, Tynemouth was home to over 50 artillery pieces and the men needed to operate them.
The next major change came in the years after 1882, when Germany was increasingly being perceived as a threat. The result was the construction at the seaward end of the headland and on the Spanish Battery of a series of modern gun emplacements, complete with bunkers and other structures needed to support them. During World War I the defences in place comprised a mixture of long range artillery intended to attack enemy ships well out at sea and quick firing guns to defend against fast moving small boats in the river. Associated fire control and rangefinding equipment, searchlights and ammunition storage were also in place.
During World War II, Tynemouth continued to have an important defensive role, though now it was as important to defend against aircraft as against large and small enemy ships. Tynemouth remained a military base until the UK's coastal artillery was disbanded in 1956. In 1960 many of the military buildings on the site, some dating back as far as the 1600s, were removed to give more prominence to the surviving medieval remains: a move that seems remarkably short-sighted today.
So, not really a castle, but a remarkable series of defensive structures nonetheless. Today's visitor enters via, and can subsequently explore, the gatehouse built from 1390, and there is no denying the strong castle heritage of this particular building. Beyond this, the surviving early defensive structures are limited to the massive western wall, and the outer walls on the north side of the headland, complete with an 1859 cannon placed there in 1984. The angular building the north east of the priory church looks almost defensive in nature, but is actually a coastguard station, built in 1968 and now disused.
Nearby, however, there are significant remains of the modern defences built since 1880 that are well worth exploring. These include a series of emplacements for 9.2 inch and 6 inch guns, as well as for quick firing 12-pounder guns. It's not particularly obvious to visitors, but it is possible to explore some of the bunkers and ammunition stores beneath the gun emplacements while you hear the accounts of the lives of those who lived and worked here.