Medieval Period

It was not until about 1110, when King Henry I created the barony of Alnwick, that there was any Norman settlement. The barony was a large one covering much of central Northumberland and the first baron was Eustace Fitz John, or, possibly, his father-in-law Ivo de Vesci. The Vesci name was to be taken by Eustace’s heirs. The new baron’s first act was to build himself a Castle on the site that it still occupies, which is a naturally defensible position above the river.

Eustace Fitz John and his descendents were to be barons of Alnwick for almost 200 years. Eustace himself founded Alnwick Abbey in 1147 and his great grandson founded Hulne Priory in 1240.

Eustace also began the development of the small Anglo-Saxon village into a town with the creation of burgage plots to be rented to tradesmen. A burgage is a medieval term for a rented piece of land in a town. The form of a burgage plot is distinctive in that it consists of a long narrow plot of land, with a house fronting onto the street. These plots, rented for money, indicate the growth of an urban economy based on trade and craft skills, rather than rural tenures based on the provision of labour and services. These plots can be seen around the town centre on the map of 1774 which shows a town little changed from medieval ages.

These developments continued under his successors with the burgage holders being granted charters given them certain privileges, including the right to the use of pasture land. Initially the burgage plots were around the Market Place but other trades such as tanning developed away from the centre.

In 1297 the last legitimate Vescy heir died and the Castle passed into the ownership of the Bishop of Durham.  In 1309, he sold it to Henry de Percy, a Yorkshire baron.  It remains today in the ownership of his descendant, Ralph Percy, 12th Duke of Northumberland.

The first Percy lord of Alnwick and his son made significant improvements to the Castle in the first half of the 14th century, adding the Gatehouse and Barbican, and towers on the curtain walls, giving the castle the basic outline that is seen today. After the 15th century, the castle was little touched and by the end of the 17th century it had fallen into disrepair.

Alnwick suffered in the Middle Ages from the border wars between England and Scotland beginning with an attack on the town led by William Wallace in 1297. But it was not until 1434 that it was licensed to build a defensive wall. The building of the town wall took at least 50 years, and it is not certain that it was ever completed. The wall is thought to have been about two metres thick and six metres high.

Houses of this time were mainly small, low and thatched. Many were of only one storey. Two houses on the northside of Bondgate Within (nos 58 and 60) are still probably medieval in basic structure although much altered. Besides the two monasteries, other buildings with medieval remains are St Michael’s Church, St Mary’s Chantry, St Leonards Hospital and Heiferlaw Tower.

In Norman times there was only one bridge across the Aln with fords being the usual method of crossing the river.

Outside the Town Walls, other settlements developed at Bailiffgate, Canongate and Walkergate. Two monuments commemorate medieval events: the death of King Malcolm is marked with a Cross and the capture of a later Scottish King, William the Lion by an inscribed stone.