Westgate Castle, image 1

Westgate Castle spiral staircase, reproduced by permission of North Pennines AONB ‘Altogether Archaeology Project’.

Westgate Castle, image 2

Prior Lawrence of Durham.

Eastgate Roman Altar
Original Location: Westgate, Weardale, Co. Durham
Current Location: Westgate, Weardale, Co. Durham
Theme: Political/Cultural
Period: Medieval
Date: c.1300AD

What is it?
A stone spiral staircase built into the wall at the south-east corner of Westgate Castle revealed during the Altogether Archaeology excavations in 2011. Substantial remains of the medieval castle were found including major walls and surfaces, as well as structural alterations connected with the building’s later occupation and robbing activity after it became a ruin. The site was backfilled after investigations were completed so the staircase and other features are no longer visible.

What is its relevance to the North Pennines?
Westgate Castle was built by Bishop Anthony Bek about 1300, and was first a hunting lodge for the Great Chase. Later the stone building, probably three stories high, was used for Forest Courts, collecting rents and as an occasional prison. The castle provided the western entrance to Stanhope Park, the walled enclosure of over seven square miles north of the river Wear created around 1250 for easy-to manage fallow deer, as the forest was cleared for farming and mining which limited the habitat of the previously hunted roe deer.

In earlier times the Prince Bishops of Durham had conducted their annual Great Chase all over the densely covered ancient forest of Weardale. The poet and prior Lawrence of Durham described the Great Chase of 1130, an elaborate expedition to upper Weardale to hunt deer, wild boar and wolves. A monk appointed to Bishop Geoffrey Rufus’s court in 1133, he learned the pleasures of the chase and appreciated good horses and hawks. The Boldon Book, Bishop Hugh du Puiset’s survey of his Durham diocese in 1183, further illustrated the scale of the Great Chase, 27 settlements in the Bishopric being required to provide manpower and services for the event. These included making a temporary hall in the forest with a sleeping chamber, butchering facilities, a store house and a privy.

Why is it important?
Westgate Castle and the Great Chase are symbolic of the power of the Prince Bishops of Durham over Weardale during the medieval period. Hunting was an important privilege granted to the aristocracy in post-Conquest England and in 1109 Henry I gave the Bishopric of Durham a Royal Charter granting ownership and hunting rights for all the forests between the rivers Tyne and Tees. The Great Chase demonstrated their worldly powers, embodying civil authority, economic hegemony, and social domination.

Further Information
    Text References:
  • Durham University Archaeological Services Report 2804, Westgate Castle archaeological investigations, (2012)
  • Surtees Society, Dialogi Laurenti Dunelemensis (1880)
  • The Boldon Book – Northumberland and Durham’, ed David Austin, (1982)
  • J Linda Drury, Westgate Castle in Weardale: the last 500 years, (1978)
  • Peter Bowes CD, Clearing the Forest (2014)
  • Richard Almond, Medieval Hunting (2002)

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