The magnificent ruins of Warkworth Castle stand guard over the neck of a loop in the River Coquet less than a mile from the Northumberland Coast. The village of Warkworth lies immediately to the north, occupying the body of the loop in the river, and the castle, in theory at least, worked in tandem with the fortified medieval bridge at the north end of the village to ensure Warkworth's security in troubled times.
Warkworth Castle is defended on its southern side by a deep ditch cut across the neck of the promontory formed by the River Coquet. It has been suggested that this is all that remains of Iron Age defensives of a fort occupying the site of the village, but that has not been confirmed.
There certainly seems to have been an Anglo-Saxon manor called Werceworde, meaning The Homestead of Werce standing somewhere nearby, probably on the site of the castle itself, during the reign of King Ceolwulf of Northumbria. 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. Werceworde was among the properties granted by Ceolwulf to the monastery on Lindisfarne in 737 when he abdicated his crown to become a monk there.
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.
The first clear reference to a castle here came in a charter of 1158, in which Henry II granted Roger fitz Eustace ownership of "the castle and manor of Warkworth". It has often been suggested that the castle referred to in the charter was actually built some 20 years earlier by Henry, oldest son of King David I of Scotland. Henry was made Earl of Northumberland after the Scots gained the area under the terms of the Treaty of Durham in 1139. However, this seems doubtful. It is known that Earl Henry based himself at Bamburgh Castle, contrary to the terms of the Treaty, in which case it is unlikely he would have needed to build a castle at Warkworth.
The most likely explanation is that Roger fitz Eustace inherited whatever remained of the pre-Conquest manor, and turned his hand to developing his nominal castle into a real one, building a motte and bailey to the north of the ditch crossing the neck of the promontory, complete with defensive structures, probably of wood. Though perhaps not very good defensive structures. The castle was considered so inadequate that it was not defended when the Scots under William I invaded in 1173. And a year later the castle offered little defence when the Scots under Duncan, Earl of Fife, raided again, massacring 300 of the residents of Warkworth who had gathered for protection in St Lawrence Church.
Roger's son, Robert fitz Roger, spent 300 marks on confirming his ownership of the castle and the manor of Warkworth in 1199, and in 1203 he became Sheriff of Northumberland. It seems likely that it was Robert who, over the course of the following decade, built the first stone castle at Warkworth, replacing the presumed wooden structure that had proved so ineffectual in he 1170s. The gatehouse seems to date back to this period, as do the Carrickfergus (or south-western) tower, the curtain wall on the eastern side, and elements of a predecessor to the Great Tower you see today.
Warkworth was inherited by John de Clavering in 1310, and the following year he signed over ownership of the castle on his death to King Edward II: apparently in return for royal assistance with his huge personal debts. In 1328 Edward III granted Warkworth Castle and its estates to Henry Percy, 2nd Lord Percy. His great grandson, Henry Percy, 1st Earl of Northumberland, who lived from 1341 to 1408, transformed Warkworth Castle into one of the greatest castles in northern England.
The need for improvements may have been highlighted by renewed conflict with the Scots in the 1380s, or by development of the nearby Dunstanburgh Castle by Henry Percy's rival for power, John of Gaunt. Either way the result was the spectacular Great Tower, probably built in the 1390s partly on the foundations of an earlier keep, and probably built by the renowned master mason John Lewyn. The building that emerged combined great military strength with remarkable beauty. The plan can be described as a Greek cross; or you can think of it as a square with rounded corners, with a polygonal tower projecting from the mid point of each face. Today the Great Tower is the most complete surviving part of the castle.
In 1403 the Percys rebelled against Henry IV, who they had helped to depose Richard II four years earlier. The result was the seizure of Warkworth Castle by Henry's forces in 1405. It had only taken seven cannon shots to persuade the defenders to surrender. In 1416 the 1st Earl's grandson, another Henry Percy, became the 2nd Earl of Northumberland and had the family estates, including Warkworth, restored to him. The 2nd Earl was killed in 1455 fighting on the Lancastrian side in the Wars of the Roses at the Battle of St Albans, and the 3rd Earl was killed in the same cause at the Battle of Towton in 1461. The following year Warkworth was occupied as the Yorkist headquarters in Northumberland.
The 4th Earl of Northumberland, another Henry, assumed ownership of the family estates in 1471. From about 1480 he undertook major building work at Warkworth. One significant result was the creation of the Hall Range, in effect a palace residence running down the west side of the bailey of the castle. The most striking survival of this is the Lion Tower, originally the main entrance to the palace. Much of the rest of the range, comprising great hall, residential accommodation and a chapel, can be traces at foundation or ground floor level. It seems that the 4th Earl was also responsible for the oddly proportioned collegiate church, built across the width of the bailey. This may not have been finished by the time the 4th Earl was murdered by a mob in 1489. If it was ever finished, the design meant that access to the upper part of the bailey from the lower would only have been possible through a passage beneath the church.
The 6th Earl of Northumberland, inevitably another Henry Percy, replaced part of the south wall of the castle and removed whatever part of the collegiate church had been completed (leaving just the foundation level you can see today). The Percys again rebelled against the crown, this time against Henry VIII, in 1536, and Warkworth was again seized. Restoration and repair followed in 1557, but in 1569 the Percys became involved in an uprising intended to return England to Catholicism. This time the royal forces, of Queen Elizabeth I, that took control of Warkworth also sacked it.
The building that was returned to the Percys in 1574 was badly ruined, though parts were still clearly habitable at the end of the 1580s. In 1605 the 9th Earl of Northumberland was imprisoned for a minor role in the Gunpowder Plot, and the castle was leased by the crown to a neighbouring landowner, Sir Ralph Gray. He stripped it of anything valuable, and when James VI/I visited briefly in May 1617 he found little more than a ruin. What was left of Warkworth Castle was occupied by Scottish troops in 1644 and by Royalists in 1648. The latter took steps to render it unfit for military use before they left, including demolition of some of the remaining buildings.
The turning point for the castle came when Algernon Percy, 4th Duke of Northumberland, commissioned work on the restoration of parts of the castle, and in particular the Great Tower, in the 1850s. The Duke's Rooms in the Great Tower are a reminder of this phase in the life of the castle, when Warkworth as in effect used as a picturesque picnic venue for the Percy family travelling from their main residence at Alnwick Castle. Meanwhile the gatehouse was converted as a residence for a caretaker.
In 1922 the castle passed into state care, and it has been looked after by English Heritage since 1984. It is worth noting that a visit to the castle can be combined with a trip to Warkworth Hermitage, a remarkable chapel cut from the rock on the far side of the River Coquet. It is accessible only by boat, and opening hours are far more limited than those of the castle itself. If you want to visit the Hermitage, check opening times before setting off.