It is hard to believe when looking at pretty Alnwick today, that it was a fiercely contested and fought over place in the late fifteenth century. In fact Alnwick was subjected to more sieges than any other castle during the Wars of the Roses.
Alnwick was founded in around c.1100 by the Vescy family, who were major landowners in Yorkshire. It is situated on a spur of land that is close to a crossing of the River Aln. The earliest castle was most probably made of stone, as opposed to timber, and consisted of one or two baileys, adjoining a keep. Alnwick was subsequently purchased by Henry, Lord Percy (1273-1314), in 1309, who began the process of remodelling the castle. These works were continued by his son, also called Henry (1301-52), which were completed around c. 1340. This included the construction of new towers, walls, and an imposing main gatehouse, which was protected by a barbican. Alnwick became the main seat of the Percy earls of Northumberland, who became the dominant magnates in northern England, particularly in the north-east, for much of the Middle Ages.
The third earl of Northumberland was killed fighting on the Lancastrian side at the Battle of Towton on 29 March 1461. In the summer of that year, the castle was occupied by the Yorkists, with a garrison of 100 men installed there under the command of Sir William Bowes. On 8 August, Robert, Lord Ogle, was granted the offices of steward and constable for Alnwick, as well as other Percy lordships in Northumberland. The Lancastrians subsequently regained control of the castle in the winter of 1461-2. In July, a Yorkist force laid siege to Alnwick, which eventually compelled the Lancastrian garrison to surrender under terms. However, the balance of power was transformed in late October due to the arrival of Queen Margaret’s French invasion force in Northumberland. According to the author of the Annales, Alnwick was captured after a siege, with the Yorkist defenders forced to surrender due to a shortage of provisions.
Richard Neville, earl of Warwick, took command of the royal army tasked with regaining the castles of Northumberland in the winter of 1462. Warwick oversaw operations from his base at nearby Warkworth Castle, with the siege of Alnwick directed by his lieutenants, William Neville, earl of Kent, and Anthony Woodville, Lord Scales. According to one source, they commanded a force of 10,000 men, whereas the garrison only numbered 300 men. Under the pressure of the Yorkist blockade, the nearby Lancastrian defenders of the castles of Dunstanburgh and Alnwick had yielded under terms by 27 December, but their comrades at Alnwick remained determined to resist. On 5 January 1463, the besiegers left their position due to the arrival of a Scottish relief force. This allowed part of the garrison, including Lord Hungerford, Sir Richard Tunstall and Sir Robert Whitingham, to escape from the castle. They then withdrew with the Scots back to Scotland, with the remaining soldiers in Alnwick surrendering to the Yorkists.
Later that year the Lancastrians once again regained the castle. This was due to the treachery of its constable, Sir Ralph Grey, who captured the captain, Sir John Astley, through deception, with his unfortunate victim sent to France as a prisoner. Robert, Lord Hungerford, then took possession of Alnwick with a force of French soldiers. Following the Yorkist victory at the Battle of Hexham on 15 May 1464, the castle was surrendered to Warwick’s army without resistance on 23 June. Later in the same year, John Neville, Lord Montagu, was rewarded for his services in defeating the Lancastrians by Edward who made him earl of Northumberland. Montagu was also granted most of the Percy estates, including the lordship and castle of Alnwick. In 1470, the king decided to restore the earldom of Northumberland to Henry Percy, who thereby regained the castle. Alnwick has thereafter remained in the ownership of the Percy family.
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