The Battle of Wark Castle took place on the 4th of November, 1523.
There’s an old saying in the Borders that “Auld Wark on Tweed has been mony a man’s deid” and indeed, mony a man lost his life either attacking or defending the castle. Between 1136 and 1523, it was besieged no fewer than eleven times. Of course, it was an English garrison castle, formerly held by the Nevilles, and its position was designed to deter the incursions of marauding Scots border reivers into its northern territory. In those turbulent days of Border history, the village of Wark on Tweed on the English side of the River Tweed, seven miles south west of Norham and two miles west south west of Coldstream, was regularly a front line victim of Scottish attacks. Later, in Tudor times, during the period of the ‘Rough Wooing’, it was critical in the defence of the Borders. At that time, it was blithely described as “situate for annoyance and defence in the best place of all the frontiers.”
The motte and bailey castle of Wark, sometimes called the castle of Carham, was built beside the River Tweed upon a large rocky mound overlooking the village of Wark. It was built by Walter Espec in the time of King Henry I of England in the early 12th Century. It had an unusual, six sided keep, which was five storeys high and according to a 1517 account, “in each of which there were five great murder holes, shot with great vaults of stone except one stage which is of timber, so that great bombards can be shot from each of them”. A wall encircled the keep and curved down to link with the courtyard wall of the bailey. That linking wall was divided into two sections; intended to allow the garrison to retreat progressively from the gatehouse if it was taken during a siege. The gatehouse opened close to the Tweed and for added defence, a trench ran from the river, through the gate house and up around the keep. Although considered a minor castle compared to Norham, nevertheless, Wark played a major part in Border history.
The first several attacks upon Wark Castle were made by David I, King of Scotland, in 1126, when he captured and held the castle for a short time. Two years later, he again besieged the castle, but was not able to affect its capture. Later, in 1138, it was beset once more, again unsuccessfully in the lead up to the Battle of the Standard. By 1216, the castle had been destroyed by the Scots, but it was rebuilt, only to be burned down in 1399. That destructive act was made to ‘test English resolve’ in relation to an existing peace treaty after the ascension of Henry III. A notable incident occurred in 1419, when Sir William Halliburton, the Governor of Fast castle, took Wark with only twenty-three men using ropes and grappling hooks. The castle was then in the possession of Sir Robert Ogle and accounts differ as the fate of his garrison. Some state that Ogle and his men were put to the sword, while others claim that Halliburton negotiated the surrender of the keep. In any case, the castle was quickly recovered by the English. Halliburton’s men were surprised by some English troops who, with the aid of local knowledge, had been able to make their way into the castle via a sewer, which led from the kitchen into the Tweed. Whether or not in revenge, Halliburton and all of his men were killed and beheaded. Their bodies were thrown in the river and their heads were displayed on stakes upon the battlements as a grisly warning to other Scots raiders.
In 1460, the Scots assailed and demolished Wark yet again, only for it to be repaired afterwards by the Earl of Surrey. The early part of the 16th Century then saw increased tension between Scotland and England, and famously, when the English invaded France in 1513, King James IV in turn invaded England. James IV reduced Wark Castle, amongst others, on his way to meet his fate at Branxton Moor, otherwise known as the Battle of Flodden Field. However, Wark Castle must have been repaired quickly as a 1517 account showed it to be fully equipped and operational, boasting a barrack cum stable block in it's inner courtyard, which was able to house one hundred and forty men and their horses. That made Wark an ideal location for mounting lightning cavalry raids into Scotland and during the ‘Rough Wooing’ that’s exactly what happened. It did get its comeuppance during that time though as, in 1548, it was bombarded and stormed by a combined Scottish and French army under General Andre’ de Montalbert, Sieur d’Esse’.
In 1523, the Captain of Wark led a raid across the Tweed, and provoked retaliation by killing twenty-five Scots and capturing a further sixty-one. The Duke of Albany, then heir to the Scottish throne, brought an army to Coldstream and from there, launched an attack on the castle. Contemporary records describe the castle at that time as being “a tower of great strength and height, encircled by two walls; the outer enclosed a large space, into which the inhabitants of the country used to fly with their cattle, corn, and flocks in time of war; the inner was of much smaller extent, but fortified more strongly by ditches and towers. It had a strong garrison, good store of artillery, and other things necessary for defence”. Albany bombarded the castle for two days from across the river, before sending over a chosen force, predominantly French, but under the command of Andrew Kerr of Fernihurst, in several boats to make an assault.
On the 4th of November, 1523, those two hundred assailants carried the outer enclosure at the first assault, despite fierce resistance. The besiegers were then temporarily dislodged by the garrison having set fire to the straw laid up behind the wall, but soon recovered and, with the aid of cannon, effected a breach in the inner wall. The French mounted the breach, but then sustained heavy losses under fire from the keep and were obliged to retire. So the tiny garrison of one hundred or so men had managed to drive off the attackers and set about preparing for more of the same ‘upon the morrow’. However, nature intervened and overnight, rain caused the Tweed to rise, which threatened to cut off any retreat of the attackers. In addition, the Earl of Surrey was known to be approaching to relieve the beleaguered garrison. That obliged the Duke of Albany to raise the siege and retreat into Scotland. Wark Castle had been seriously damaged, but once more survived.
Wark was eventually abandoned at the beginning of the 17th Century and all that remains to be seen is a large mound of rubble, which occupies a circular eminence overlooking present day Wark from its position a little to the west of the village. It is not known when it was dismantled and totally destroyed, but most probably it was ordered to be demolished by James VI of Scotland when he acceded to the English throne in 1606.