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Thirlwall Castle

Also known as, or recorded in historical documents as;
Thirlwell; Thyrlewall; Thirwall; Thirlewall

In the civil parish of Thirlwall.
In the historic county of Northumberland.
Modern Authority of Northumberland.
1974 county of Northumberland.
Medieval County of Northumberland.

OS Map Grid Reference: NY65946615
Latitude 54.98879° Longitude -2.53375°

Thirlwall Castle has been described as a certain Tower House.

There are masonry ruins/remnants remains.

This site is a scheduled monument protected by law.
This is a Grade 1 listed building protected by law*.


Castle ruins. Probably mid C14. Masonry largely re-used from nearby Hadrian's wall: dressed stone facing to rubble core. Rectangular plan with slightly projecting north-east tower. 2.5 to 3.0-metre thick walls standing to 2 and 3 storeys on north and west; east wall of similar height has partly collapsed at south; south wall has almost entirely collapsed. Fragments of chamfered plinth. North-east tower and corners have huge squared quoins. Scattered loops in flush surrounds with squared alternating jambs. No remains of vaulting. In dangerous condition at time of survey. (Listed Building Report)

Mid-C14 castle surviving as a ruined building, largely built of stone robbed from Hadrian's Wall. Rectangular plan with slightly-projecting north-east tower. 2.5 to 3m thick walls standing to 2 and 3 storeys on north and west; east wall of similar height has partly collapsed at south; south wall has almost entirely collapsed. Fragments of chamfered plinth. North-east tower and corners have huge squared quoins. Scattered loops in flush surrounds with squared alternating jambs. No remains of vaulting. In dangerous condition at time of survey. (PastScape)

Thirlwall was the centre of a barony created by King Malcolm IV between 1153 and 1165. The elected baron, who took the surname Thirlwaal, lived in a manor house built in timber, later rebuilt in stone. The 'castle', really a tower, is first documented in 1360. Designed as a strong point with few concessions to comfort, it is unlikely that it was Thirlwall's main residence, the manor house probably remaining the main residence. Hutchinson said that "Thirlwall Castle was the stronghold rather than the seat of the Thirlwalls". The tower was never attacked by either Scots or English, and in the Civil War was commandeered by Scottish troops aiding the Parliamentarians. They damaged the fabric so much that it was not considered worth repairing. Renovation was unsuccessfully attempted in 1759, but in 1831 the east wall collapsed. (PastScape ref. Dodds 1999)

The Thirlwall family appear to have occupied the castle, or an earlier manor house on or near the site, throughout much of the medieval
period. Edward I visited Thirlwall on 20th September 1306, but the first reference to the Thirlwall seat as a castrum does not occur until 1369. No licence to crenellate appears to exist. In 1429 the castle was the residence of Rowland Blenkinsop, but later returned to the Thirlwall family.
The tower was described in good reparations in 1542; the will of Lancelot Thirlwall dated 27th December 1582 refers to the 'low parler' and 'the hie loft over the hall'. In the Civil War Thirlwall was garrisoned by Scots forces and it seems likely that the Thirlwalls did not return but settled instead at Newbiggin near Hexham. In 1738 Eleanor, the Thirlwall heiress, married Matthew Swinburne who sold Thirlwall to the Earls of Carlisle.
There are many antiquarian accounts of the ruined castle, the earliest appears to be by Wallis in 1769, followed by Hutchinson in 1776, Grose in 1783, Hodgson in 1840. Wallis describes an excavation in 1759 which uncovered the flooring of a room and discovered three courses of flagging one above the other. In 1831 the east wall of the castle fell into the Tipalt Burn and left a gravity defying fragment of the south east corner of the south east tower. The ruin has suffered little since this collapse. A photogrammetric survey was made by the Institute of Advanced Architectural Studies, University of York in 1982. Since then the overhanging corner of the tower has fallen and huge pieces of it now lie down the steep slope to the Tipalt Burn.
The castle consists of a rectangular block 14.2m by 5.8m internally, aligned north east to south west (hereafter north-south). At the northern angles were slightly projecting square turrets, of which only the north western survives; a larger rectangular tower projects from the south end of the east side. The castle would appear to have been of four storeys throughout (although the fourth storey of the main block may have been little more than a loft), with the turrets and tower carried up higher; there were no vaults and the floor timbers were carried by internal set backs of the wall faces.
The castle is largely built of reused Roman stones, with larger well shaped sandstone quoins and dressings; there has been a continuous external chamfered plinth (now largely buried on the west, and robbed away on the east). Most of the facing has been robbed away from the lower sections of the walls. At re-entrant angles the coursing ends on a vertical joint, with only the occasional course being carried on to key in with the adjacent wall. This to other profile is well seen at the east end of the north wall, where the facing of the wall remains largely intact whereas the north east turret, into which it was keyed, has been completely removed.
THE BASEMENT: The castle was entered by a doorway near the north end of the east wall; all that remains of this is part of the facing of the internal east jamb (set at right angles to the wall face), with a substantial drawbar tunnel. In the 1760s this doorway was complete, and Wallis found part of an iron gate still in place.
The basement of the main block was lit by small loops in the south and east walls; the latter is now merely a ragged hole in the wall, but the former retains its internal splay, and the sill and chamfered west jamb of its external opening. The sill shows a socket for a harr hung shutter. The north east turret contained a small square chamber at this level, roofed by a pyramidal vault. Bates describes the doorway into this turret as having a bolthole in its east jamb, showing it was secured from the outside (a prison?); he describes the jamb as nearly buried, and it is no longer visible. The vanished north east turret probably contained a newel stair rising to the first floor and opening off the entrance lobby in the common fashion of tower houses.
The basement of the south east tower is now largely infilled with debris; no trace of any openings survive in the surviving north and south walls. One corner of a small mural chamber at the south eastern corner survives.
THE FIRST FLOOR: The first floor timbers of the main block were carried by an offset of 0.35m on each long wall; the first floor apartment, or apartments were very poorly lit; there is a single very narrow square headed loop in the south wall (with a chamfer to its external jambs but not its lintel), and a similar but more badly robbed loop midway along east and west walls. At the north end was a doorway into a mural stair rising to the second floor, roofed by overlapping slabs and lit by a small square headed loop. There was presumably a doorway into the small chamber in the north west turret, but this and the internal wall faces (and vault) of the turret have been almost entirely robbed away at this level; one fragment of surviving facing suggests that the chamber was approached through a lobby or angled passage.
The first floor chamber in the south east tower was entered by a doorway at the south end of its west wall, part of the internal jamb of which survives. The room was lit by splayed square headed loops in the centre of both north and south walls; that on the south has chamfered jambs but an unchamfered lintel, but its rear arch has fallen, whilst that on the north is reduced to a simple ragged hole in the wall. There was a mural chamber, or chambers, in the thickness of the south wall; only its south west corner now survives. Hodgson's 1810 sketch seems to show the outer section of the south wall partly fallen, exposing the doorway to the chamber, and a square headed loop lighting the chamber in the surviving section of outer wall further north.
THE SECOND FLOOR: The second floor of the main block would appear to have contained the principal apartments; its floor is carried both on a set back (on both long walls and at the south end) and on large corbels on the side walls - some survive on the west. At this level there were two windows on the north (one a ragged hole, the other represented only by part of its internal splay), and one window on the south, a square headed loop with a chamfered surround. To the east of the south window are traces of a fireplace (of which little more remains than the side walls of the flue). The mural stair in the north wall appears to have entered the second floor chamber by a lobby set diagonal to the axis of the building, lit by a small trefoil headed window on the north. This lobby also presumably had a doorway into the small square chamber in the adjacent turret; this has a loop on the north, and retains most of its pyramidal vault. To the south of the stair a fragment of faced stonework shows that there was a mural chamber of some sort at the north east corner.
The second floor chamber in the south east tower was entered by a doorway at the north end of its west wall, of which part of the internal north jamb survives. The chamber retains well preserved square headed windows in both north and south walls, with chamfered surrounds externally and shouldered rear arches; above the rear arches are ranges of large corbels formerly carrying the timbers of the third floor. There are traces of mural chambers at both south east and north east corners.
THE THIRD FLOOR: Another set back marks the positions of the third floor. Little fabric remains at this level over the main part of the
building, and it is not possible to say whether there was a full floor or just an attic. More remains in the south east tower, where there is a window in the south wall with a trefoiled head and the remains of a shouldered rear arch, with a couple of broken corbels surviving above for the fourth floor or roof timbers; a ragged gap may indicate a second window opposite. Once again, there are indications of mural chambers at the eastern corner; prior to the 1980s collapse part of the east wall on the southern remains, together with one jamb of its doorway.
The older illustrations appear to show the south wall of the main block carried up to the same height as that of the tower; it is not clear whether the east and west walls rose to this height. The same sources (especially Hutchinson's print) show the two northern turrets rising considerably above the adjacent walls. (Northumberland HER Ref. Ryder 1994-5)

Mentioned in 1541 as “At Thyrlewall is a toure of thinherytaunce of Rob't Thirlewall of the same in measurable good rep'ac'ons.”
Hadrian's wall provided a source of free stone that meant the Thirlwall family were able build a massive building which impressed by size rather than the (expensive) architectural refinements of other contemporary Northumbian castles. Its military aspect is more due to the relative poverty of the Thirwalls than defensive reasons.
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This record last updated 26/07/2017 09:21:29

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