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CHILLINGHAM CASTLE is an interesting and beautiful example of what was rather a fortified manor house than a castle. It was small in extent, lacking any complex defensive system, and accordingly it was easily adapted at a later period to express the newer beauties of the Renaissance. Nevertheless, Chillingham was of significance in Northumbria for its connection with the great families and their feuds, while it was by no means unimportant as a defence against the Scots.
In Northumberland every place of any pretensions was necessarily built so that it could be defended at need. The kings of England were constantly issuing licences to crenellate, that is, to erect battlements; and especially after David’s destructive invasion, which ended at Neville’s Cross in 1346, the Crown undoubtedly ceased to regard private fortifications on the border with suspicion, and did everything in its power to encourage their erection. Consequently the Border was dotted with pele towers, bastle houses, and other isolated defences, in addition to the castles-in-chief, such as Norham and Warkworth, which were extensive and strong. An example of a bastle house (so called from the French bastille) is to be found in Chillingham Park. Hebburn Bastle is a compact gabled dwelling-house, strongly built, and significantly devoid of windows near the ground, with walls of great thickness. The estate in which it stood was added to Chillingham Park in the eighteenth century. Houses of this kind — provided with dungeons as well as with living-rooms — must once have been very common on the Border.
It was in 1344 that Edward III, “of his special favour,” conceded the privilege and gave licence to his beloved and faithful Thomas de Heton to erect around his manor house of Chevelyngham a wall of lime or stone, to crenellate it, and to make it into a castle or fortalice. Four years later the work must have been finished, for in a document (which gravely states also that Julius Cæsar founded and endowed the parish church of Chillingham) the lord of the manor gave to the Vicar of Chillingham a chamber over the gate of his castle, and the right to stable two horses.
There is a curious sidelight upon a day in the life of a borderer afforded by the Proof of Age of Margaret Heton in the fourteenth century. To settle a date in dispute it was the sensible custom of the Middle Ages to tap the flow of local tradition; just as in the last century the Irish dated all things by the Year of the Great Wind. Margaret Heton was born in Chillingham Castle on January 14, 1395, and of this there could be no question, for on the day of her baptism by a canon of Alnwick Abbey, Nicholas Heron was married in the church; John Serjeant was wedded to Alice Wyndegaltes; Sir William Heton bought a white horse from William Cramlington, and sent Wyland Mauduit to Newcastle to buy wine; John Belsise rode to Alnwick with a letter to the Earl of Northumberland; William Cotys slew a doe in the field of Chillingham; and John Horsley, carried off a prisoner by the Scots, was avenged by John Wytton, who brought Thomas Turnbull, a Scot, to the dungeons of Chillingham. On the same day Sir Thomas Gray of Heton kidnapped one Thomas Horne, and lodged him a prisoner in Norham, so that Margaret’s age was fixed irrevocably.
The family of de Heton died out at Chillingham at the beginning of the fifteenth century, and from 1443 the Grays of Wark possessed the castle. A Sir John de Gray was granted by Henry V the county of Tanquerville on the north bank of the Seine, near Havre, as a reward for his services, in 1419. The gift was held on the terms of homage and the annual delivery of a bassinet (or helmet) at the castle of Rouen on the Feast of St. George. A strange service, symbolical, and not arduous. A more deserving feudatory was the man of Kent, who enjoyed his manor on condition that he held the king’s head whenever he crossed the Channel; but this idle tale may be founded upon a misreading of the word “bassinet.” Both Tanquerville and Rouen were lost to the English, so the stipulated service was soon impossible to perform, but the owners of Chillingham to this day are the Earls of Tankerville.
Sir Ralph Gray, the brave defender of Bamburgh, who was executed at Doncaster in 1464, was foresighted enough to convey Chillingham in trust to the vicar of Wooler and Edmund Burrell before falling foul of Edward IV; and, in consequence, his widow, Jacquetta, was in possession at her death in 1469. During the Pilgrimage of Grace, Chillingham was held for Henry VIII, and it is recorded that Sir Ingram Percy, who had “a willing, malicious stomach” against the King, sent to Berwick for great ordnance to besiege it.
Of the castle as it stands to-day it can be said that the four corner towers date originally from the time of Sir Thomas de Heton in the middle of the fourteenth century. But the connecting buildings which form a courtyard are of much later date, even later than 1541, when the castle was “newly reparelled” by Sir Robert Ellerker during the minority of Ralph Gray.
The most noticeable feature within the courtyard is the façade on the east side, attributed to Inigo Jones, with the graceful stair in the centre, leading to the dining-hall. The niches in the façade contain the weather-worn figures of seven of the Nine Worthies in classic garb. The Nine Worthies were: Joshua, David, and Judas Maccabeus; Hector, Alexander, and Julius Cæsar; Arthur, Charlemagne, and Godfrey of Bouillon. The ordinary person would be loth to discriminate against any two of such an exemplary company, and there is a certain interest in speculating as to the sculptor’s surely reluctant omissions. But beyond a hazardous list of probabilities it is impossible to tell the tale of the Seven Worthiest.
Chillingham is famous for its herd of wild white cattle which roam about the picturesque park. The Chillingham cattle form one of the few herds surviving from the more spacious days when England was not yet honeycombed with hedge and dyke. Their strain is pure, and they have a long history at Chillingham Castle, a history which probably began when the park was enclosed during the reign of Henry III. At that time wild cattle were to be found in many parts of England (in the Chilterns chiefly, and in Epping Forest) and in Scotland. Now the interesting survivals are carefully bred according to the most orthodox Mendelian principles, but as the cattle themselves are ignorant of the solicitude with which their immaculate white coats and long horns tipped with black are preserved from plebeian mutations, they still fancy themselves wild, run away at the approach of a stranger, and refuse to touch any object which smells of man. There are some interesting old prints of the Chillingham cattle, showing the constitutional incapacity of our forefathers to draw a cow (nor could they draw a horse, as old racing pictures testify), but Landseer, in the last century, observed more carefully, and left a more faithful record of the Chillingham breed.