The History of Barnard Castle
The County Durham town of Barnard Castle was in effect founded by the Normans who built the eponymous fortification there, but prior to their arrival there had naturally been habitation in the area.
The Bronze Age burial mound at nearby Kirk Carrion atop the Lunedale Ridge was excavated by the Victorians , and has been dated to about 1400 BC. It is thought to have been the resting place of a regionally important chieftain, its location pointing to a settlement close by.
When the Romans invaded in the 1st century AD they built various forts in the area. A ford used by the Romans crosses the Tees at Barnard Castle, and workers building a gasworks chanced upon what proved to be a 12 feet wide Roman road there. It is thought the crossing placed Barnard Castle on the route between Bowes and Binchester (Lavatrae and Vinovium), both forts of some significance. A Roman coin was unearthed in the town’s churchyard, minted in the reign of the Emperor Trajan who ruled from 98 to 117AD.
Bowes, very close to Barnard Castle, was the scene of Eric Bloodaxe’s death in 954, his raiding army surprised at the Stainmore Pass by a more formidable Saxon force. With Eric’s death Viking control of York was brought to an end.
But it is with the Norman Conquest that the story proper of Barnard Castle begins. Guy de Baliol was with William the Conqueror ’s army at Hastings , and in 1093 William Rufus rewarded his loyalty with grants of lands including the site of the present town. A wooden fortress is thought to have been built there before Guy’s son and successor Bernard de Baliol replaced it with a stone construction erected between 1112 and 1132. Bernard’s Castle over time became Barnard Castle . Its early owners attracted craftsmen and others able to generate wealth by giving those building houses around the castle economic privileges. An older settlement called Marwood was subsumed into the burgeoning new town.
Norman political and military authority was established via the castle; church power was demonstrated with Egglestone Abbey built in the second half of the 12th century little more than a mile from the town.
The de Baliol family’s most famous sons, both named John, became King of Scotland and founded Balliol College Oxford respectively. Barnard Castle was sacked during a minor Norman revolt, and passed from the Baliols to the Earls of Warwick , who held it until Richard Duke of Gloucester , the future Richard III , inherited it via his wife. Richard’s badge of a boar can be seen on stonework in the castle still.
In 1346 the castle was the mustering ground for Edward III ’s forces left to guard the North from Scottish invasion, assembling there two days before the defeat of Scotland’s army at Neville Cross on October 17.
The castle endured two sieges in the 16th and 17th centuries. The first was of some significance in English history, Sir George Bowes of Streatlam holding out for 11 days against the supporters of Mary Queen of Scots during the Rising of the North, giving Elizabeth ’s forces time to organise. The Civil War affair was of less import; the Royalist garrison in the castle surrendering after it was pounded by Parliamentary artillery.
Barnard Castle’s subsequent history has been rather more peaceful. In 1747 local man Thomas Breaks built the notable Butter mart, its upper floor for council use, the lower a covered place for trade. In 1769 the County Bridge – still standing - was built, linking the town with Yorkshire across the Tees. For a period the town had various textile mills along the Tees which provided water power.
Two 19th century visitors are worthy of note: Sir Walter Scott had friends in the area, and visited several times. And Charles Dickens stayed at a local inn in 1838, basing the dire Dotheboy’s Hall school in Nicholas Nickleby on Bowes Boys Academy. A rather more desirable establishment, Barnard Castle School , was founded in 1883, perhaps best known for producing England rugby internationals like Rob Andrew and the Underwood brothers.
The biggest draw to Barnard Castle today is the Bowes Museum , built by local magnate John Bowes and his French wife Josephine, though they both died before it opened in 1892. This French Chateau deposited in the North East houses a magnificent art collection. Designed by two architects, one French one from Newcastle, it is said to have been the first building in England whose designers worked to metric measurements.