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Hogwarts: homage to English history
This, too, is Hogwarts
Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry is not one place. Well, first off, it’s fictional (Sorry.), but the film version of Hogwarts is a composite of British history. For example, when we see Professor McGonagall in her office, we are looking at the Chapter House at Gloucester Cathedral. The exterior of her office is at Alnwick Castle in Northumbria, about 250 miles away. Her classroom is at Durham Cathedral, also in Northumbria, but about 45 miles away. The staircase on which she greets students is at Christ Church, Oxford, again 250 miles or so to the south and west of Alnwick.
Hogwarts is principally a fantastic version of Alnwick Castle, enhanced by graphic artists who apparently ingested something magical. The fanciful towers and turrets soar beyond the heights of the ancient, but more prosaic, towers of the castle.
Reality v. Illusion
However, some of the castle scenes accurately represent the Alnwick. For example, the field in which Professor Hootch begins to instruct her fledgling quidditch players how to fly is immediately recognizable. The field is the same. The wall is the same. Even the carved figures on the battlements are the same, although the originals, older than Professor Dumbledore, were augmented with additional figures for the film.
When the hapless Neville Longbottom suddenly takes flight, his erratic maiden broom voyage ends abruptly when one of the figures on the castle‘s barbican snags him midflight. Similarly, the windowed exterior of Minerva McGonagall’s office looks exactly the same as when he zips past.
About 30 miles from the Scottish border, Alnwick is England’s second largest inhabited castle (after Windsor). It has been home to the Percy family, earls and dukes of Northumberland, since 1309. Its proximity to Scotland, though, has made its history far more eventful.
In England as it is in Scotland
Alnwick Castle, residents of which were charged with protecting the border, has been the center of rebellion and shifting loyalties almost since William the Conqueror gave it to his standard-bearer from the Battle of Hastings One laird of the castle killed a Scottish King, another allied with one. Sometimes the same owner did both. Owners have conspired or rebelled against English monarchs about as often as they have fought against Scottish monarchs.
As an example of the changing loyalties of Alnwick’s occupants, In 1093, Robert Mowbray, the first Earl of Northumberland, killed Malcolm Canmore, King of Scotland, and mortally wounded his son Edward, and then joined in a failed rebellion against William Rufus, the English king, three years later. For that lapse in loyalty, he lost the castle and his title to Yves de Vescy who became the Baron of Alnwick.
Baron de Vescy began fortifying the castle, the oldest parts of which date to the late eleventh century. By 1134, contemporary accounts already describe the castle as "very strongly fortified."
When de Vescy died, his son-in-law, Eustace Fitzjohn became Baron of Alnwick and allied himself with King David I, of Scotland. Fitzjohn built the central towers, two outer courtyards, or “baileys,” and the perimeter, or “curtain,” wall.
When Fitzjohn’s son, William, succeeded him in 1157, he adopted the de Vescy name after his mother’s family from whom his legacy had derived.
Good news; bad news at the border
Alnwick continued to be a target for Scottish invaders. In 1174, Scottish King William the Lion captured the castle and left 500 of his men to occupy it while the rest of his men raided the countryside, including Warkworth, the Percy family’s ancestral home, where they massacred 300 people they found taking refuge in a church. In what became a trend of centuries of reversals of fortune, an English sortie from Newcastle then captured King William under cover of thick fog.
The border history reads like a litany of good-news, bad-news jokes, a see-saw of fealty and war.
After William de Vescy died in 1184, his son Eustace married the Scottish King William’s daughter, and then after King John ascended the English throne in 1199, the Scottish king claimed Northumberland—including Alnwick Castle—and Cumberland for Scotland.
When Alnwick was again English, King John stayed there at least twice, in 1201 and 1209, and the Scottish king’s son Alexander went call on him at the castle. However. true to Alnwick tradition, Eustace soon assumed a leadership role in the failed Baron’s Revolt against King John in 1212, and then fled to the king’s protection in Scotland, whereupon King John seized the castle, and ordered it destroyed. Before his orders were executed, though, he and Eustace reconciled and King John returned his property and titles.
When Eustace again allied himself with the Scottish king, now Alexander, who had succeeded his father, William the Lion, English soldiers loyal to the monarch burned Alnwick.
When Eustace died in a subsequent rebellion in 1216, his son William succeeded him, and Alnwick enjoyed a peaceful interlude until Willam’s death in 1252, whereupon his son John joined Simon de Montfort in revolt against Henry III. John was captured in the Battle of Evesham in 1265, and stripped of Alnwick and his title. Upon his release, John retook the castle by force.
Given the previous record, it will come as no terrific surprise that John lost Alnwick again, this time to Prince Edward’s forces. What might come as a surprise is that after John paid a fine, the king returned both land and property again in 1279.
John died in France, returning from a Crusade with…Prince Edward.
It almost begins to make American politics look stable and civilized.
Harry Hotspur and the powerful Percys
When John died without heirs, his brother William inherited Alnwick. When he in turn died without heirs in 1297 he willed the estate and title to the bishop of Durham, who sold them to Henry de Percy in 1309. A descendant of William de Percy who came to England with the Conqueror in 1066, Percy began an ambitious rebuidling program that continued in the castle after his death, creating the impressive compound that exists today.
Fans of Shakespearean history plays will recognize the Percy name from Henry IV, in which Harry 'Hotspur' Percy figures prominently. The hot-headed Harry Percy, who was born in one of the castle’s twin towers--toward which Hagrad is shown dragging a Christmas tree in one of the films— won his spurs and his reputation as a teenager fighting the Scots.
Although less turbulent than under previous owners, Alnwick continued to be involved in political intrigue. In addition to being almost continually involved in border wars with the Scots, helping to bring down Richard II, rebelling against Henry IV, participating in York’s “Pilgrimage of Grace” uprising against Henry VIII, and leading the “Rising of the Earls” to depose Elizabeth I, contretemps included in one family member’s (Thomas Percy) being executed for participating in the Gunpowder Plot…. Well, maybe they did have some intrigue going on, but the Percys have remained one of England’s most powerful families for a thousand years.
There's gold in them thar towers
Maintaining the great estates and stately homes of England is a costly venture. The current (12th) Duke of Northumberland, Ralph Percy, has demonstrated a keen business mind in finding the means to maintain the castle while so many of the British aristocracy are struggling to meet the costs of supporting their own ancestral homes. In addition to being home to the duke and his family, the castle has leased space to educational programs. Since 1981, a satellite campus for St. Cloud University’s international studies program has been in residence. He also rents the property for weddings and for filming the likes of Beckett, Ivanhoe, Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves and of course, the Harry Potter films. As a popular tourist attraction—a couple hundred thousand visitors a year for someplace as out of the way as this Northumbrian castle is pretty impressive, the castle also offers what it bills as adventure programs, such as Knight’s Quest and Dragon Quest and exploits the Harry Potter connection with broomstick training and a Battleaxe to Broomsticks tour.
Alnwick Castle is not an easy day trip from London, but given the castle’s connections with history and the fun of recognizing familiar sites from television and film, I can’t imagine a reason to pass up a visit if the opportunity arises.