The village of Warkworth occupies a promontory formed by a tight loop in the River Coquet just over a mile inland from where the river flows into the North Sea. This places it six miles south-east of Alnwick, and a mile and a half north-west of Amble. There can be few more attractive villages anywhere, in part because of the light honey coloured stone from which much of Warkworth is built, and in part because it retains much of its medieval street plan.
Warkworth has ancient origins. The loop in the river here gives it a strong defensive location, and it is thought possible that this was exploited as far back as the Iron Age. A deep ditch cut across the neck of the promontory may be much older than the castle that later used it, and could suggest continuous habitation on the site of the village for well over two thousand years. Warkworth enters recorded history in 737, as "Werceworde" or The Homestead of Werce, when it was granted by King Ceolwulf of Northumbria to the monastery on Lindisfarne when he abdicated his crown to become a monk there. Ceolwulf also founded a church at Warkworth, on the site later occupied by the current St Lawrence Church, so the settlement here appears to have been of considerable importance to him.
Warkworth was taken back into the royal estate by King Osbert, the last King of Northumbria, in the mid 800s. By the time of the Norman Conquest in 1066 the manor here was a property of the Earls of Northumberland. A castle was first built at Warkworth, probably in the years after 1158, when the Anglo-Saxon manor and its estates (including the church and settlement) were granted by Henry II to Roger fitz Eustace.
The first Warkworth Castle probably comprised a motte and bailey surmounted by wooden defences. It was considered so inadequate that it was not defended when the Scots under William I invaded northern England in 1173. And a year later, on Saturday 13 July 1174, the castle again offered little defence when the Scots under Duncan, Earl of Fife, sacked the village. The residents preferred to gather for protection in the stone built St Lawrence Church rather than in the wooden castle. It did them little good, and in the darkest day in the village's history some three hundred villagers were massacred, presumably a large proportion of the local population.
In 1328 Warkworth and its castle, the latter by now built in stone, were granted to Henry Percy, 2nd Lord Percy by Edward III. Under the Percys, who later became Earls and Dukes of Northumberland, Warkworth Castle grew to become one of the finest castles in northern England, and the village grew in importance with it. At the north end of the village, St Lawrence Church added a tower and a south aisle to the Norman nave and chancel built in 1130.
The main access to Warkworth was always from the south, across the narrow neck of land guarded by Warkworth Castle. But it seems that there had long been a secondary route into the village from the north, across the River Coquet. This presumably started life as a ford, but when a "new" Warkworth Bridge was built in about 1380, complete with a defensive tower at its southern end, it replaced an earlier arched stone bridge of indeterminate date. The Warkworth Bridge built in 1380 can still be crossed today, on foot, having been replaced for vehicle traffic by a modern bridge that opened in 1965, a few yards downstream. It is the only surviving fortified bridge in England.
It is interesting to think that the most famous member of the Percy family, Harry Hotspur, son of the 1st Earl, was partly brought up in Warkworth in the 1360s and 1370s. He would have worshipped at St Lawrence Church looking very much as it does today (minus the south aisle), and witnessed the building of the "new" Warkworth Bridge. He was killed at the Battle of Shrewsbury in 1403 during a rebellion against Henry IV: but he has since achieved literary immortality in Shakespeare's Henry IV Part 2, which also has two scenes set at Warkworth Castle.
In October 1715 Warkworth was the first English village to fall into the hands of the Jacobites during the uprising of that year. On Sunday 9 October a church service was taken by the Chaplain of James Francis Edward Stuart, "The Pretender". The service was followed by a rather premature proclamation of James III as King of England in the Market Place. The Jacobites then offered a shilling a day to anyone agreeing to join the uprising, though it is not recorded how many villagers signed up to the doomed cause.
The Pevsner Buildings of England guide to Northumberland describes the modern approach to Warkworth from the north as "one of the most exciting sequences of views one can have in England", and it is difficult to disagree. There is only a little development on the north side of the River Coquet, plus the road that leads east to the parking for the extensive beach and dune system. As a result, you only really know you are entering the village when you cross the 1965 bridge over the River Coquet, and spy the old Warkworth Bridge to your right.
From here you take a half right and pass along Bridge Street, lined with attractive stone buildings up to three storeys in height, including the Warkworth House Hotel. This brings you to the foot of Castle Street, which climbs the hill towards Warkworth Castle. before taking a sharp left when it reaches it, and progressing around the east side of the castle, passing the stone Sun Hotel en route.
Warkworth repays rather closer exploration than that brief tour implies. Where Bridge Street meets the foot of Castle Street, the road broadens out to form the south end of the village's market place. This heads slightly west of north along Dial Place, now the main car park, as far as St Lawrence Church. The medieval street plan is reflected in the long plots of land that extend out both sides of Castle Street, as far as the back lanes running alongside the River Coquet on both sides of the promontory. These are known as the Stanners on the west side of the village, and The Butts to its east.
At the heart of the village is the Market Cross. This dates back to about 1830, though it stands on what seems to be a much older base. At the far end of the market place, on the outside of the churchyard wall, is Warkworth's war memorial.
Warkworth is a very distinct village, not least because it is tightly constrained by the surrounding loop of the River Coquet. We discuss Warkworth Castle and St Lawrence Church separately, and it is worth noting that a rather unusual visitor attraction can be found half a mile west of the village in the form of The Hermitage, a chapel carved out of the sheer rock face beside the river. This is in the care of English Heritage and, when open, can be accessed by boat from Warkworth Castle.