Askerton Castle, 1844, William James Blacklock, Tullie House Museum
Standing near the north tip of Cumbria, three miles beyond the Roman Wall, Askerton provides a rare and beautiful example of a fortified medieval manor house. The building, which is about 80 feet square overall, encloses a small courtyard, with accommodation on three sides and an arched entrance on the fourth, as well as two towers.
Little is known of Askerton's early history, but a careful study of the masonry and general features reveal a number of clues which suggest that the oldest part of the castle, the South range between the towers, was probably built in the early 14th century or before, as a rectangular flat roofed manor home for the Lord of the Manor. The North and West ranges appear to have been added in the early 16th Century to to strengthen the castle's position at a time when robbery, kidnapping, and plunder were an everyday fact of life in this wild and lawless region.
All three parts of the building have very fine oak beams. They have been dendro-dated by Nottingham University and found to have been made from trees which were felled between 1494 and 1510. Consequently, they are undoubtedly the work of Thomas, Lord Dacre (1467-1535). However, the buildings beneath the beams are not all of the same age, as the North and West ranges can be seen quite clearly to have been added to the South range.
A possible construction sequence may have been as follows:
- c13 or c14 construction of medieval manor house
- circa 1494 flat roof replaced by a gabled roof
- soon after gable roof found to be undefendable, the towers were added of existing ones raised in height by Thomas Dacre
- 1500-1515 North and West ranges added by Thomas Dacre, to provide further strength in the region and accommodation for military personnel under the command of the land sergeant.
A third tower, long since gone, appears to have existed at some time on the North West corner of the castle and the high quality dressed stonework of its parapet can still be seen in the North wall, as also can the stairway leading up within the wall. Perhaps besieging marauders burned down this tower, as there is evidence of intense heat from a fire on the stones beneath it.
A second internal stairway also exists within the North wall, which could have led to a parapet walk along the roof, but no trace of this remains. However, courtyard walls of the North and West ranges contain a considerable number of dressed stones of the type normally used for battlements, which must be regarded as very unusual for an inner wall. These stones may, therefore, have originally formed the battlements of the North West tower and parapet walk. Their number and size confirm that this was indeed possible. No doubt a major rebuild was thus involved, perhaps as a result of the fire, with the tower and parapet being abandoned, but good use being made of the stones.
Another puzzling feature is the large triple window in the North wall. This is in a very exposed position, and totally inappropriate for the early 16th century when this part of the castle was built. It could perhaps have been put there by Lord William Howard after the border fighting had died down, having been taken from Kirkoswald Castle, along with other parts of that building which he took to Naworth Castle.
Apart from the above, the basic structure of the castle appears to have remained virtually unchanged for the last 400 years, although major restoration work was done by Salvin in the 1850s and by Warre in the 1920s. Askerton has been in the same family for over 600 years.