Bewcastle is an isolated village steeped in Roman and Border history. The church, farm, and castle occupy the site of a Roman out post fort which guarded the Maiden Way, the main Roman road north from Birdoswald on Hadrian’s Wall some 10km (6 miles) to the south.
The fort was dedicated to a local deity, Cocidius, and is unusual in having six sides, rather than the more usual rectangle or square. The fort was probably built around 122AD and occupied until AD 343.
Bewcastle Cross is said to be the finest Anglican Cross in Europe. Dating from the 7th century, it is dedicated to Alcfrith, son of Oswiu,King of Northumberland who ruled from 641 – 670 AD
The stone castle was constructed between 1340 and 1360 using much material from the old Roman fort. During the 15th and 16th century it provided sanctuary for locals during Scottish raids.
This area was much fought over by the Border Reivers; feuding, lawless, local families who raided each others farms taking livestock, goods, and possessions.
To protect themselves families built peel towers and Bastle houses. The old reiver family names survive today: Armstrong, Graham, Elliot, Musgrave and Nixon.
Did you know that…..?
The Romans were here from AD79 until the late 4th century:
- There was probably an early British/Pictish settlement at Bewcastle on the Maiden Way. Nothing to do with maidens – it means an elevated track!
- The Romans arrived in AD79 and took over the site, which they converted into a fort (Fanum Cocidii), – one of the few to the north of what was to become Hadrian’s Wall. They also used the Maiden Way to link up with another garrison at Birdoswald. You will have crossed this road on the way up to High Grains.
- Hadrian’s Wall: The Emperor Hadrian began building the wall in AD 122, at first a huge earthwork with wooden palisade. The British tribes, the Voluntii and Brigantes, had risen in revolt in the north and had to be subdued. There is a school of thought, however, which suggests that the building of the wall was a deliberate means of occupying the troublesome mercenaries in the Roman army – as well as keeping the local population under control. They finally abandoned the fort and the wall in AD367/370 as the Anglo Saxon incursions became more serious. This area was then laid waste by Picts, Scots and later Danes.
- The fort was hexagonal, not a conventional rectangle, because of the shape of the site. You can still trace parts of the street plan and see the remains of the earthworks. It must have been a significant site – there was a bath house, temple to Mithras, (the soldiers’ god) and a sizeable burial ground.
- Various Roman artefacts have been unearthed on the site of the fort including an altar – they are to be seen now in the Tullie House Museum in Carlisle. The new Roman gallery here is well worth a visit.
Bewcastle was part of the ‘Debatable Lands’ where lawlessness and disorder were almost the norm from medieval times to the 17th century
- The origin of the name Bewcastle: this has been attributed to a shadowy figure named Beuth – who could have been Norman, Saxon or even Danish. There is no real evidence to support this but there are some good stories surrounding the legends. The Bewcastle name probably originates from ‘booth’ or ‘bothy’caster: ie a Roman fort with bothies or shielings (temporary shelters). Both words occur in numerous forms in the area. They probably refer to the rough shelters (shielings/chalets) built to house shepherds when they brought animals up to higher pastures in the summertime and long, single-storey stone cottages are still called bothies today.
This area of north western England has been known as the ‘Debatable Lands’, largely because in medieval times it was part of England, at times Scotland, and often contested by both. It was nominally part of the kingdom of Northumbria but usually had a separate ruler.
Back and Forth
- 945 King Edmund the English king gave Cumbria to Malcolm of Scotland as part of a deal to secure peace on the border, but it was regarded as English again by 1066. Don’t expect to find evidence of Domesday records here – William the Conqueror didn’t think it wealthy enough to bother surveying for tax purposes!
- 1136 This area was ceded to the Scots by Stephen as a bribe to prevent them getting involved in the civil war with Matilda (daughter of HenryI)
- 1157 Henry II (Matilda’s son) took it back and gave Bewcastle to Hubert de Vallibus – it was confiscated from his son Robert in 1174
- 1237 Henry III gave some areas to Scotland at a conference in York– but the rulings were imprecise – hence ‘debatable’
- 1271 Bewcastle was purchased by John de Swinburne the sheriff of Cumbria. He may have started to build the stone castle.
- 1296 Adam de Swinburne was in trouble with Edward I for apparently helping the Scottish king John Balliol, but managed to hold on to Bewcastle. This was a time when the English were fighting the Scots and Edward I (Longshanks) used Lanercost Priory as his base for several years when he was campaigning against them. (Notice the unique road signs as you come through Lanercost village.) He died on campaign at Burgh-by-Sands in 1307 – you can see the monument to him there.
- 1311 Robert the Bruce – the new king of Scotland – invaded and ransacked the borders.
- 1327 Adam de Swinburne died and Bewcastle passed by marriage to John de Strivelyn, Constable of Edinburgh Castle, one of Edward III’s generals. By then Edward III was making peace with Robert the Bruce and the war with Scotland came to an end… for the moment. Edward’s sister Joan married King David of Scotland.
- 1346 David of Scotland invaded and ransacked much of the area – again.
The motte and bailey castle:
- It was probably begun in 1092 as a wooden fortification using the Roman earth works. The stone structure seems to have been built or at least completed by John de Strivelyn one of the generals of Edward III in about 1360. His coat of arms can be seen on a barn wall in the adjoining Demesne Farm. Local people used the Wall and other Roman structures as a convenient source of ready prepared building material. The process continued well into the 19th century!
- Richard III has a link to Bewcastle. He was given the lands in 1470 when he was Duke of Gloucester and, as Governor, set about rebuilding the castle, which had once again fallen into disrepair.
- 1541 the castle was again repaired and a barbican added. But by 1565 it was reported to be ‘utterly decayed’
- 1629 Bewcastle was granted to the Grahams of Netherby who held it until the 20th century
- 1639 Bewcastle had a garrison of 100 men and local tradition says that Cromwell’s troops destroyed the castle in 1641 from a battery now called Cannon Holes. There seems to be no real evidence of this!
The Reivers Please click here
More peaceful times:
- There were once many more houses in Bewcastle; 12 in the valley below High Grains in the late 19th century and about 120 in the immediate vicinity. For many years Bewcastle had a Monday market and a cattle sale twice a year. In 1881 the population was 889 and has declined since then.
Ale houses: there were many in the vicinity. It was not unusual for households to brew their own beer and then to sell the surplus. They were supposed to pay taxes. In 1292 the tax was one and a half pence per gallon for the strongest brew! The house now called the Limekiln near the bridge was once a pub which finally closed around 2000. Like many public houses it was sited near a ford and also a blacksmith’s forge – a useful place to wait for your horse to be re-shoed. There was a pub at the Demesne in the 18th century. The so-called ‘last pub in England’ was the Dog and Gun at Bailey on the road to Newcastleton. It closed in 1990.
- Limekilns were dotted around the area. From Roman times lime was quarried and heated to make fertiliser and also used in mortar for building purposes. Coal was also mined and in the mid 19th century attempts were made to find lead deposits, but this was unsuccessful. You can still see the limekiln at Bewcastle, which opened in the 1820s, between Demesne and Common Flatt on the road to Roadhead.
- Spadeadam: Should you hear a thunderous explosion in the area, it probably emanates from Spadeadam. The area was appropriated by the Ministry of Defence in the 1950s for experimental rocket research. It was the HQ for Blue Streak – a medium range ballistic missile in the 1960s and was linked with testing sites in French Guyana and Australia. The project was abandoned in 1973 but the site was taken over by the RAF. It continues to be used for training, particularly for low level flying – you may see evidence of this! A radar station was built on White Preston just across the valley and NATO and USAAF also use the facility. The big bangs are part of a facility for testing pressure on oil and gas pipelines.
- memory on the spot where he died in the forest; his grave is in Stapleton churchyard.
- Jesse James: the infamous American outlaw is said to be related to the James family of Bewcastle. The family moved there in the 16th century, living on a smallholding near the church. A few of them also had land at Scaleby Hill and they would take refuge in one or other of the houses when times were too hot for them at the other! An old family verse says:
The James five of Scaleby Hill
Wad fly to face the fiercest Scot
But ne’er wad to a neighbour ill
She raised a batch of honest men
And chained the foreman to the mill
- William Ewart Gladstone: The Ewart family of Roadhead claimed to be related to the great Liberal politician
Sir Walter Scott: visited this area – he certainly stayed at Gilsland Spa and included aspects of life in this area in his books. He wrote about the local method of catching (some said murdering) fish using a barbed fork called a leister’