If you take the Edinburgh to London train, the dramatic backdrop of Durham Cathedral and its Castle towering over the city is hard to miss. This time as luck would have it, we were travelling by road. Keen not to miss such a wonderful opportunity, we were able to explore this fascinating World Heritage Site on foot.
The old part of the town still retains a medieval flavour but the view from the bridge looking up at the towering buildings is pretty impressive by anyone’s standards.
Built in the time of William the Conqueror, the castle was originally of motte and bailey construction but over time has been substantially modernised. From 1840, it became part of Durham University and is not open to the public. However, you can walk around some of its external edifice which is in close proximity to the cathedral.
The latter is huge as you might expect and grandiose, with a history to match. Dedicated to the the Virgin Mary and St Cuthbert, it was an important pilgrimage site. The Prince Bishops ruled the Diocese of Durham from 1080 until 1836 with a small blip during the Reformation around 1541 when the Prior took on the mantle of Dean and the Benedictine monks swapped their habits and became Canons.
I was interested in the links with the Scots. For much of the time, the castle was a strategic stronghold to protect the Prince Bishops from Scottish attacks. Robert the Bruce frequently won goods and money from the wealthy bishops to prevent further assaults on their property. But it didn’t always go the Scots way…
On occasions the castle served as a temporary holding prison as well for the likes of Sir Andrew de Moray, Regent of Scotland, and much later around 1346, King David II was taken there initially after his capture at the Battle of Neville’s Cross.
One of the most striking features of our visit was the enormous knocker on the door of the cathedral which historically offered sanctuary for those who had broken the laws of the time – but the rules of sanctuary contained strict time limits. It was a stark reminder of the harshness and intransigence of medieval life.
The ancient duo of castle and cathedral overlook a city which nestles comfortably within its medieval footprint and the sanctuary knocker set the seal on this impression.
If you love medieval history, then you’ll love the World Heritage site of Durham.
Let’s start with Richmond Castle! What a spectacular location! No wonder it was never besieged – it was impregnable! Set high above the river, ‘Richemont’ was a post-conquest castle. It’s earliest sections were built around 1071 by Alan the Red of Brittany. The Dukes of Brittany morphed into the Earls of Richmond but the English kings often took control of Richmond Castle. A very chequered past!
My interest in the castle has a Scottish twist in that King David II, the adult son of Robert the Bruce, spent some of his imprisonment here. In 1346, he invaded near Durham and at the Battle of Neville’s Cross, he was injured and captured. What a blow to Scotland! Inevitably David was taken to the Tower of London but his imprisonment in England lasted eleven years. How things might have been different if this terrible event hadn’t taken place.
On our trip through England, we called into a small village in the East Riding area of Yorkshire, looking for Watton Priory. It was here that Marjory, the eleven year old daughter of Robert the Bruce, had been imprisoned in 1306 by Edward I during Scotland’s bitter War of Independence.
Eight years later, her father won her release with his success at the Battle of Bannockburn. But what must it have been like for a young girl to be ripped apart from her family and seemingly abandoned in hostile England? ‘Sisters of The Bruce’ takes up this story.
At Watton, there are no signs about the priory and we only found it by pure chance. If you happen to find yourself there, you’ll see a small car park off the main road with a public path leading into the distance between two fields. Such a lovely walk it was too. The sun was shining and the birds serenaded us. Serendipitously, at the end of the footpath, a large field emerged with low mounds of what looked like earthworks. To our ‘time team’ eyes, these appeared suspiciously old. To add to our excitement, a large interesting building loomed beyond a line of trees, bare of leaves but home to a large rookery. The house was a mix of ancient sections with newer parts added later. It is privately owned so we took some care not to be intrusive but it was a joy to find something so isolated but with clear links to this fascinating past.
Wandering across the earthworks, holes excavated by rabbits overflowed with mossy white lumps of fine handworked plaster. Pieces of broken terracotta tiles added strength to our growing conviction that this must have been the site of the old priory. I wondered whose feet had trod upon these tiles.
Shortly after, we had the fright of our lives when we saw a brown snake coursing through the grass. No doubt it was just a harmless tree snake. But in Australia, we exercise great caution walking through paddocks. For us, here in England, the shock was magnified perhaps because we were so engrossed in our discoveries and felt so relaxed.
Later research clarified that we had indeed found Watton Abbey. I struggle a bit between what constitutes an abbey or a priory – the site was a priory but the existing building is known as Watton Abbey and is a Grade I listed building. Regardless it is an intriguing remnant of a fascinating period.
One of the stories attached to this priory, relates to the Nun of Watton, who entered there as a toddler. Unable to accept the strict rule of celibacy, she later fell in love with one of the lay workers – the English Gilbertine monasteries system allowed males and females to coexist but with separate living and working quarters. Predictably, the young nun fell pregnant. Older nuns wanted to punish her by burning or branding. Instead the lass was chained hand and foot, and fed bread and water in solitary confinement. Her captured lover was handed over to the nuns who castrated him. If he didn’t die from his injuries, presumably he was imprisoned as well.
Given this sad historical anecdote, one can only imagine the harsh environment in which young Marjorie found herself without hope of rescue and an anticipated lifetime of unrelenting imprisonment.
Miraculously, she did survive but the damage to her physically and emotionally must have been immense. Another casualty of a profoundly cruel and violent war!
Earlier this year, we were fortunate to be able to spend a few glorious days exploring North Yorkshire, whilst staying in a classic thatched cottage in the lovely village of Harome near Helmsley.
But the purpose of our visit was to get a grasp on the Battle of Old Byland which had taken place near Rievaulx Abbey way back in 1322. It was the first time since the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314 that the Scots had won such a decisive, larger scale victory.
Robert the Bruce was still trying to force Edward 11 to formally recognise his kingship, but the English king was distracted by his rebellious northern magnates: one of whom, Thomas of Lancaster, was accused of trying to form an alliance with the Scots.
When the Scots poured over the border in early 1322 in their continued efforts to gain independence, Lancaster apparently did little to stop them which caused Edward to take successful military action against him at Boroughbridge and subsequently led to his execution for treason.
Edward then sent an army into Scotland with little success due to lack of food and resources following the Scots’ ongoing burnt earth policy. The English army retreated but not before wreaking destruction at Holyrood Abbey in Edinburgh and some of the Border abbeys.
In October, the Scots advanced once again all the way into North Yorkshire. By this time, King Edward and his queen had retired to Rievaulx Abbey; he sent a large English force to halt the Scottish assault but Robert the Bruce was able to outwit its commander, the earl of Richmond. Using tactics similar to those which led to his success some years previous at the Pass of Brander in the west of Scotland, King Robert sent his force to engage the enemy up an escarpment whilst sending another force over the top to surprise the enemy from the higher position.
Edward was forced to quit the safety of the Abbey, reportedly leaving many of his possessions behind.
It was difficult to ascertain exactly where the battle had taken place as there is an abbey by the name of Byland as well as the small village of Old Byland, some distance apart. My hunch was that it took place north of the village on the rugged edge of the upland moors.
In the course of our visit to the area, Rievaulx Abbey was an essential stop. And its glorious hillside position and existing ruins, a rich golden russet in the sunlight, remain etched in my mind. At one stage, this historically powerful abbey housed over 640 monks and was the mother house to a number of smaller but decidedly significant abbeys such as Melrose in the Scottish borders.
It was quite an instructive visit for me in terms of research for my next book, to see how far the Scots were able to make inroads into English territory, venturing even further afield to southern Yorkshire as well. I wondered at the intrepid, adventurous nature of the Scots leaders like Douglas and Moray to journey so far from their own borders and place of safety, in the full knowledge that their retreat may have been cut off, but they seem to have been able to undertake their hit and run raids with complete bravado and most importantly with continued success.
This time, it was definitely: Scotland 1 – England 0.