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England - Warkworth And Its Hermitage

( Originally Published 1910 )

WITHIN sound of the North Sea and circled about by the reflecting waters of the river Coquet, stand the massive ruins of Warkworth Castle, offering to the in-formed imagination silent yet eloquent witness to many a stirring and picturesque page of English history.

Though lying but a mile or two distant from the east-coast steel-highway between England and Scotland, the tide of modern life has almost receded from this interesting spot. Now and then a tiny wave from the ocean of travel reaches out to these silent walls, but week in and week out through the procession of the seasons the ancient peace of Warkworth is practically unbroken.

How violent are the changes the centuries bring ! To the Northumbrians of seven, or six, or five hundred years ago it would have seemed incredible that Warkworth should ever cease to be a centre of busy life. In those far-off days this castle was a favourite stronghold of the illustrious house of Percy, whose sons, in the age of chivalry and succeeding generations, held a position of proud pre-eminence among the powerful nobles of England. In the veins of the Percies there mingled the blood royal of France and England. An early lord of Northumberland traced his ancestry back in direct line to Charlemagne ; a later scion could claim kinship with Henry III of England. For long centuries the Percies were ever foremost in the council-chamber or on the battle-field, approving themselves, especially amid the clash of arms, born leaders of men. And the castle at Warkworth naturally gathered to itself much of the renown achieved by the lords of Northumberland.

But the history of Warkworth Castle began long before it became the home of the Percies. Its origins, indeed, are lost in the mists of a far distant past. Laborious antiquaries opine that the moated mound on which the donjon stands was originally occupied by the "worth " or palace of the Ocgings, a line of Bernician princes. These learned imaginings, however, provide little food even for the historic imagination. In default of actual information of earlier episodes it is more interesting to fasten upon the authenticated record of the visit of King John to Warkworth in February, 1213. More than two years had yet to elapse ere he adhibited his unwilling signature to Magna Charta, but his presence in Northumberland had intimate relation with the struggle which culminated at Runnymede. It was the strong-hearted leader-ship of the Northern barons which made the winning of the Great Charter possible, and John's presence at Warkworth was due to the sudden expedition he made for the purpose of crushing those fearless champions of liberty. Devastation and disorder marked the path in Northumberland of that king on whom the terrible verdict was passed, " Foul as it is, hell itself is defiled by the fouler presence of John." The perfidious monarch paid marked attention to the estates of the Percy of that time, as though foreseeing that his name would take a foremost place on the list of those barons who were to compel his acceptance of Magna Charta.

Not yet, however, were the Percies lords of Warkworth Castle. But they had a stronghold near by, at Alnwick, against which, in the late years of the thirteenth and the early years of the fourteenth centuries, the tide of Scottish invasion frequently broke in wild force. Those were the stirring generations of border warfare. Bannockburn did not end the feud between the northern and southern kingdoms. Again and again Robert Bruce invaded Northumberland. Several desperate attempts belong to the year 1327, culminating in the investment of Alnwick and Warkworth Castles by a considerable army under the personal leadership of the redoubtable Scottish king. But they all failed. And that result was largely due to the Percy who was so soon to number Warkworth among his personal possessions.

It happened thus. Grateful. for the services he had rendered in hurling back the Scots, but more appreciative still of the part he played in securing the conviction and death of the scheming Mortimer, Edward III marked his favour to Percy by a grant of the castle and lordship of Warkworth in 1330. From that time to the present, with brief intermissions of forfeiture, it has remained among the possessions of the famous Northumberland house.

Nearly half a century later the head of the Percy family was created Earl of Northumberland by Richard II. That monarch could have had little premonition of the part the new earl was to play in the rebellion which, twenty-two years later, was to end in his deposition. Why the earl took part in that movement is involved in obscurity, but there is no gainsaying the fact, nor that he played a conspicuous rôle in placing Henry Bolinbroke on the throne of England as Henry IV.

Four years later the Percies and Warkworth Castle figured prominently in English history. The loyalty of the earl to the new king was shortlived. Through family relationships they became ,implicated in the conspiracy for the dethronement of Henry IV, a conspiracy which was discussed and consummated within the walls of Warkworth. This is the theme Shakespeare seized upon for the first part of his " Henry IV," the leading characters of that drama including, it will be remembered, not only the Earl of Northumberland, but his still more famous son, the Percy Hotspur of ballad and history.

"A son who is the theme of honour's tongue; Amongst a grove, the very straightest plant; Who is sweet Fortune's minion and her pride."

Even a king might have hesitated to take arms against such a sire and such a son. The earl and Hotspur were no novices in the arts of war ; the one was growing grey in the service of arms, the other had been bred to sword and spear and dauntless leadership from his tenderest years. And when the Percies took a venture in hand they bent to its accomplishment every gift of an adroit and high-spirited race. Warkworth Castle, as has been said, was the centre of this momentous conspiracy, and so skilfully and speciously was it planned that in a brief time Hotspur had letters in his possession committing nearly all the nobles of England to the support of his enterprise. At length the hour arrived for action, but ere riding off at the head of eight score horsemen, Hotspur placed the incriminating letters in the custody of his squire, who, in turn, hid them in some corner of Warkworth Castle.

Hotspur's enterprise against Henry IV cannot be followed here. It was the last of his desperate ventures. Mani nobles flocked to his standard at Chester, and his father was to follow soon with such support as he had remained behind to gather in Northumberland. But the king, moving swiftly and with consummate general-ship, threw his forces between Hotspur and his father, and by the battle of Shrewsbury freed himself from the danger which threatened his throne. Hotspur himself fell on that stoutly-contested field :

" fare thee well, great heart !
Ill-weaved ambition, how much art thou shrunk !
When that this body did contain a spirit,
A kingdom for it was too small a bound;
But now two paces of the vilest earth
Is room enough : this earth that bears thee dead
Bears not alive so stout a gentleman."

News of the disaster and the death of his heroic son reached the Earl of Northumberland on his march. It was useless to proceed further, and so he retreated to his own country. At New-castle he found closed gates and cold hearts, resolving him to seek refuge in his own castle at Warkworth. Here he received a summons to the presence of the king, a summons he could not afford to disobey. After a year or so of hollow truce, the earl, on being called to attend the council, excused himself on the score of age and infirmity. Those pleas were but the cloak for new insurrection, and when the king realized that fact he gathered an army of over thirty thousand men and marched swiftly to the north. The earl fled, but Warkworth barred the royal host for a time. Even today its stout walls look as though they might have made formidable resistance to a fifteenth century army, but the king had equipped his force with " every conceivable engine of war, from the old-fashioned stone-casting catapults to the newly invented guns, one of the latter being so large that, it was believed, no wall could withstand the missiles it hurled." That appears to have been the opinion of the defenders of Warkworth. Perhaps they smiled confidently when they saw the royal cannons placed in position, but by the time seven rounds had been discharged such havoc had been wrought that the captain surrendered at discretion. The next day Henry IV was comfortably lodged within its walls penning a letter to the Privy Council in London announcing his success.

Royalty did not altogether desert Warkworth when the king returned to London. From this date, 1405, to about 1414, the noble castle on the Coquet was the headquarters of John of Lancaster, the third son of Henry IV. Although but a lad of sixteen, he had bestowed upon him the forfeited estates of the Earl of Northumberland, and he was further weighted with the onerous duties of the warden of the East March. In the latter capacity the youthful John was held responsible for the defences of the English Border, no enviable post in view of the lust for ravage which possessed the lowland Scots of these days. Moreover, the task was rendered all the more irksome by reason of the fact that even a king's son could not command sufficient funds for the purpose. There are in existence four urgent letters written from Warkworth Castle by John, all harping upon the monetary difficulties of his task. In one, " written in haste at Warkworth," he makes the pitiful complaint that his scarcity of funds has obliged him to actually pawn his silver plate and his jewels.

But the Percies came back to Warkworth again. Not he who was the first earl of the house and Hotspur's father. When he fled before the forces of Henry IV he had less than two years to live. Which was well, for he never knew home more. Ile was hunted hither and thither by the emissaries of the king and knew no peace till death overtook him in the battle at Bramham Moor. The heir of the Percies, Henry the son of Hotspur, a youth of fifteen, was a fugitive in Scotland when his grandfather died, and nearly a decade was to elapse ere the earldom and the Percy estates were restored to him. With that restoration, of course, Warkworth Castle was again numbered among the stately homes of the race.

Its subsequent history need not be followed here. Now one and anon another scion of the house acquired that affection for its sturdy walls and spacious chambers which distinguished the first earl, until the changing conditions of life and the transformation of social customs gradually led to its abandonment as a place of residence. Many of the ruined castles of England present a two fold problem : when they were built, and at what date they ceased to be inhabited. Both problems are suggested by Warkworth. Its most careful historian writes : " With a building of such intense interest, both in the history of architecture and of society, it is vexatious to have to confess that there is no direct evidence to prove when or by whom it was actually built." On the other hand the same authority does not hesitate to commit himself to the conclusion : " On general grounds it seems impossible that a man of such power and such ambition as the first Earl of Northumberland should have done nothing to render his favourite home more habitable and magnificent, nor if the donjon did not then exist with all the latest improvements in house planning, can we understand why John of Lancaster made Warkworth his headquarters. Although documentary evidence be not forthcoming, and architectural evidence be little favourable, it is impossible not to feel that after all the conception if not the completion of this marvellous donjon may have been the work of the first and the greatest of the eleven earls of the princely house of Louvain."

Thus far Warkworth has suggested only the somewhat aloof associations connected with noble and royal personages ; it has other and more congenial claims on the interest of its visitor. These are brought to a focus, however, not by this " worm-eaten hold of ragged stone," as Shakespeare describes the castle, but by the unique little hermitage on the banks of the Coquet near by. In a grant bearing the date of December 3rd, 1531, the sixth Earl of Northumberland writes of this remote retreat as " Myn armytage bilded in a rock of stone within my parke of Warkworth, in the county of Northumberland, in the honour of the blessed Trynete." But that is by no means the earliest mention of the place ; nearly half a century before it is specifically referred to in a deed which still exists.

When it was first " bilded in a rock " is unknown. Much speculation has been expended on that matter with little definite result. But architectural evidence goes to show that the chapel dates back at least to the fourteenth century, and the probability is that this pious refuge owes its existence to the first Earl of Northumberland.

On the other hand legend credits the hermitage with a different origin. One story tells that the place was founded by a member of the Ber-tram family in expiation of the murder of his brother ; another that it was " the retreat of a Northumberland warrior who having lost the mistress of his heart by some unexpected stroke, with her lost all relish for the world, and retired to this solitude to spend the remainder of his days in devotion for her soul and in erecting this little mausoleum to her memory."

Still more picturesque is that romantic story which links the name of Hotspur's son with the Warkworth hermitage. Bishop Percy's ballad tells how that fugitive returned to England in disguise and won the heart of the Lady Alainore Nevill, the fair daughter of the Earl of Westmoreland. Flying together, and while in search of some holy man who would join their hands in wedlock, the dark night overtook the couple along the banks of the Coquet. A cry from the darkness called forth the hermit and led him to where

" All sad beneath a neighbouring tree
A beauteous maid he found,
Who beat her breast, and with her tears
Bedewed the mossy ground."

Having taken the wanderer to the shelter of his cell, and learnt her story, which told how she had become separated from her lover, the hermit went out into the night again and quickly discovered the missing youth. In response to the enquiry of his guests, " Whose lands are these ? and to what lord belong ? " the hermit narrates the evil fortunes which have befallen the Percies :

" Not far from hence, where yon full stream
Runs winding down the lea,
Fair Warkworth lifts her lofty towers,
And overlooks the sea.

" Those towers, alas ! now stand forlorn,
With noisome weeds o'erspread,
Where feasted lords and courtly dames,
And where the poor were fed."

And so the ballad sings its way, leading to the revelation of the identity of the hermit's guests, and to their request that he would secure the services of some priest to join them in matrimony. It may be that imagination mingles with truth in this poetic tale, but the visitor to the hermitage of Warkworth will agree that " a pleasanter or more inviting spot for young love to mate in spite of family feud and royal displeasure, one must wander far to find."

Nor would it be less difficult to find a retreat more typical than the Warkworth hermitage of those narrow cells which became so common in England when the ideals of the race under-went a change in favour of the contemplative life. Probably in no district of England was the transition so marked as in Northumberland.

Strength of body and skill in muscular sports were characteristic of the sons of that northern land, but as they were equally notable for an imaginative temperament they were peculiarly susceptible to the gospel of asceticism. To that changed outlook on life the creation of the Warkworth hermitage was probably due, and certainly it would be hard to imagine a more ideal retreat for one who fell a victim to the selfish thought that his chief business was to ensure the salvation of his own soul.

Among the chambers of the hermitage which still survive in an excellent state of preservation is a remarkable little chapel. The approach is by a steep path beneath the shadow of lusty beeches, whose thickly interlaced branches seem to soften the glare of day into a not unwelcome " dim religious light." The apartment is some eighteen feet long by seven feet in width and height, and at the east end is " the one altar in Northumberland that was not overthrown or defaced during the great religious upheaval of the sixteenth century." Close by, in an arched recess, is a group of figures, including a skin-clad man in a kneeling posture, who is absorbed in contemplation of a nimbed lady who is reclining rather than recumbent. Is it any wonder that poetic imagination, unrestrained by contrary facts, should have evolved, from that silent couple the pathetic story of Bishop Percy's ballad ? It is pleasanter, at any rate, to allow that lovers' story of life-time devotion to fill the mind than to obliterate it in favour of the darksome spirits of evil which may have tormented many a hermit in this narrow cell.

Having his mind so much attuned to the past by the hermitage and the castle ruins, the visitor to this quiet northern town will be in fit condition to muse upon the long procession of humanity which has passed over Warkworth bridge since it first spanned the waters of the Coquet. This sturdy structure, by which the town is approached from the north, was erected during the closing years of the fourteenth century. Although the upper story of the gate-house at the south end of the bridge is somewhat ruinous, the rest of the work of those long dead masons bids fair to resist the assaults of time for many generations.

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