With a full schedule of activities, extensive exhibits both inside and out, and an extraordinary contemporary garden just finished in the last few years, the castle truly has something for everyone. The second largest inhabited castle in England, Alnwick Castle is still home to the Ralph Percy, 12th Duke of Northumberland, and the Duchess of Northumberland. The duke and duchess occupy part of the castle, while much of it is open to the public and contains exhibits for visitors to enjoy.
The Percys have owned the castle at Alnwick since 1309, though the first Norman owner of the land is thought to have been Gilbert de Tesson, standard bearer to William the Conquerer at the Battle of Hastings. Yvo de Vescy owned the land next and constructed the first elements that remain in the existing castle.
When Henry de Percy acquired the castle in 1309, he set about rebuilding the existing structure in a new style, creating a significant fortress that included seven semi-circular towers and a gatehouse and towered barbican.
An interesting feature of the Alnwick Castle barbican is the 18th century collection of human-sized stone figures positioned on the top of the battlements and intended to look like defenders to those contemplating a breach of the fortification.
Alnwick Castle has such impressive exteriors that it was used as a location for Hogwarts in the first two Harry Potter films. The castle is still available for use as a filming location and has been featured in the 1998 film Elizabeth, Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves in 1991, and the beloved British television show Blackadder, among others.
The castle endured years of tumultuous history during the 14th and 15th centuries, and Alnwick was one of three castles held by Lancastrian forces during the Wars of the Roses in 1461 and 1462. The 6th Earl of Northumberland carried out renovations in the 16th century, but the castle was uninhabited for a time after the execution of the seventh earl in 1572.
Thomas Percy, 7th Earl of Northumberland was a devoted Catholic during the persecutions of Queen Elizabeth’s reign. Though he remained in favor with the queen for many years despite his religious commitments, after the Northern Rebellion in 1569 the earl was eventually captured in Scotland, where he had fled, and was executed when he refused to renounce Catholicism.
In the later 18th century, celebrated Scottish architect and designer Robert Adam was commissioned to renovate the castle. Adams transformed the neglected castle into a fashionable ducal residence in the Gothic style, much different than the neoclassical designs for which he was known.
In the 19th century, Algernon, the 4th Duke of Northumberland replaced much of Adams’s Gothic style architecture on the outside of the castle and opted for palatial Italian Renaissance style interiors.
This interior styling can be seen today in the castle’s impressive Library, containing just under 14,000 volumes and decorated with sumptuous red walls and carpet, and the Dining Room, which includes an intricate carved white marble chimney piece carved in Italy in the 1800s.
The first garden at Alnwick Castle was initiated by the 1st Duke of Northumberland, who commissioned the famous landscape architect Capability Brown to design the parklands near the castle.
In the late 1990’s, the current duchess, Jane Percy, Duchess of Northumberland, instigated the development of a renovated garden at Alnwick. The garden is a registered trust with 42 acres and 9 million pounds donated by the Duke of Northumberland for its inception.
The total cost of the renovation was 42 million pounds and the resulting gardens include many interesting water features, architectural landscaping, theme gardens, and a fascinating locked Poison Garden, which features plants and flowers as deadly as they are lovely.
Christy Carlyle is a writer, graphic/web designer, and avid Britophile. She has been lucky enough to live in both England and Ireland and to marry a Scotsman. She writes historical romance and mysteries and blogs about Victorian Britain at Romancing the Victorians.