Jeremy Flint visits Alnwick Castle and meets the Duke of Northumberland for an exclusive behind-the-scenes tour of the castle that has been his family seat for over 700 years
Alnwick Castle is a beautiful country house in the heart of Northumberland and one of the UK’s favourite stately homes. The vast stone fort stands proud high above the River Aln in the market town of Alnwick and has withstood the test of time, surviving both the elements and invasions from marauding armies during the Scottish and English civil wars.
Built in the late 11th century as a border fortress, Alnwick castle has transformed over the years from a derelict battlement into one of the country’s finest pieces of magnificent medieval architecture.
This architectural icon is an incredible example of British heritage that has been preserved and protected by the Percy family for centuries.
Today, Alnwick Castle is the second largest inhabited castle in the UK (after Windsor Castle) and is home to the 12th Duke and Duchess of Northumberland, Ralph Percy and his wife Jane, and their four children. According to the Duke, “the castle has been the family seat for over 700 years ever since the Percys bought the castle in 1309.
After King Edward I died in 1307, Henry Percy the 1st Lord Percy of Alnwick (who was very much involved in the Scottish Wars of Independence under Edward I) had the opportunity to buy Alnwick from a family called de Vesci.” Since then, much of the interior has been restored, with great works of art and furniture added, and parts of the medieval outer walls have been repaired and replaced.
The family live in a private part of Alnwick castle while the rest serves as a visitor attraction and filming location. His Grace says, “We created our living area from old servant’s quarters 25 years ago when we moved in so we more or less live here and absolutely love it. The rest of the castle is fantastically beautiful but it’s hard to live in full time.
We live for about six months in the castle, then when it is open to the public (from March to October each year) we move out and live in a large farmhouse in Scotland and commute back and forth.” When resident in the castle, the Duke says day-to-day life is very varied, “every day is different,” he says, “there is a lot going on.”
More than a family home, Alnwick castle is a visitor attraction with more than 700,000 visitors to the castle and garden each year, who come to learn about its fascinating history. The Duke’s new book Lions of the North: The Percys and Alnwick Castle, A Thousand Years of History also gives unique insight into its past.
Alnwick Castle is no stranger to film crews, having featured in Ivanhoe, Elizabeth, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, and as Brancaster Castle in Downton Abbey. It has also featured as Hogwarts inHarry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stone, and The Chamber of Secrets, and offers broomstick training in the courtyard.
The castle also lies at the heart of a thriving business enterprise. “The estate itself is very diverse, it encompasses all the traditional rural industries, like farming, forestry, and fishing as well as the more commercial aspects like property development and commercial property, both here and abroad,” says the Duke. “I am an expert in nothing, but I am involved in lots of different businesses.” The estate, castle and gardens have more than 300 full-time employees, which double during the tourist season, and additional income is generated from weddings, concerts, and functions.
As a link in the Percy chain, the Duke is responsible for preserving the heritage and upkeep of the castle while upholding the traditions of his forefathers. According to the Duke, “holding the position is less important than looking after the castle and everything that goes with it. People like me are often referred to as guardians of the heritage. It would be so easy to let it go, but it is really important to try and keep it for future generations and the general population, it is part of all of our heritage.
“Restoration work has been a constant, whenever there has been spare cash it’s gone to restoring and maintaining the castle. I think at the moment, we are coming to the end of a very long process of having scaffolding on the wall and trying to repoint and recement, put in new stones wherever necessary and basically try and keep a thousand-year-old castle going for a few more generations.”
Inside Alnwick castle, there are over 150 rooms, including the sumptuous Italianate State Rooms, which ticket holders can explore. The palatial interiors of the State Rooms are decorated in the Italian Renaissance style. You can visit the Lower and Upper Guard Chambers, the Library, the Drawing Room, the Dining Room, and the China Gallery and admire their magnificent decorations.
The 4th Duke chose the style of the interiors. Inspired by 16th-century Roman palaces, he commissioned the architect and archaeologist Luigi Canina (1795-1856) to create his vision, and they include woodcarvings, marble fireplaces, balustrades, and statuary figures.
The present-day Duke‘s favourite room is the Library. He says, “It’s both beautiful and very cosy in its own way. I think having thousands of books surrounding you helps to improve the acoustics and make it a bit warmer and more friendly.” The Library’s collection was begun over 400 years ago and now includes more than 15,000 books.
The other state rooms reveal beautiful ceilings; silk wall coverings and collections of Old Master paintings and antiquities acquired throughout the generations. For example, the Guard Chambers house equipment of the Percy Tenantry Volunteers (1798-1814) including pistols, powder horns and swords. The Upper Guard Chamber has a Venetian-style marble mosaic floor, laid in 1864; carved figures of Britannia and Justice stand in alcoves and a portrait of the Duke’s grandmother Helen, 8th Duchess of Northumberland, is one of His Grace’s favourite pieces.
Some of the Duke’s other favourite ancient treasures include a Turner painting of the Temple of Jupiter Panhellenios; a William Dobson painting; and a pair of ebony cabinets from the Palace of Versailles.
Growing up in the castle, the Duke admits he didn’t pay much respect to the great artefacts, pictures and beautiful furniture. “We treated it like a playground,” he says. Outside the castle, the original gardens were designed by Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown in 1750.
The Alnwick Garden (a separate adjacent attraction) reflects the passion of the present Duchess, who began the project in 1997 with the help of designers Jacques and Peter Wirtz at a cost of £42 million. Today, Alnwick Garden is the third-most visited public garden in the UK and covers over 26 acres. It includes the Poison Garden, which has been part of the garden since 2004 and contains several deadly and dangerous plants.
This extract is part of our 38-page Northumberland special in the February/March 2023 issue of Discover Britain, which will be on sale from 6 January. Get your copy here.
Read our round up of Northumberland’s top attractions and best places to stay, eat and drink here.