Ravensworth History

Ravensworth History

Ravensworth and the Liddells.

Many of England’s imposing homes have been disappearing during the last half century. No longer are fortified dwellings required to safeguard us from war-like communities, and places of palatial splendour are too expensive these democratic days. Ravensworth Castle, north Durham, which stands on the gentle slope of a hill to the north- west of the village of Lamesley was at one time the pride of the county, today it is an empty shell.

The castle occupied the site of an old fortress whose origin is lost in the mists of time. Two of its ancient towers are embodied in the present structure. This early stronghold, according to the first chroniclers, was called Ravens helm and in some records, Raffens weath. Hutchinson, an early historian of the county of Durham, in attempting to explain these names tells us: The The antiquity of this castle leads to conjectures as to the etymology of the name; in many old records it is called Ravenshelm and Ravenfwaith, in the old spelling Raffenfweath. The Danish standard was called Raffen, and weath is a north country word, now used in Scotland for sorrow . The application we would make is, that Ravensworth Castle is of Danish foundation, and had its name from them as Raffens-Helm, or the stronghold of the Danish standard; and that some defeat of that people had occasioned the name of Raffens weath, or Danish woe.”

We know that these warriors from across the seas visited this area when they sailed up the Tyne and anchored their fleet at the mouth of the Team. Historians, however, are apt to differ as regards the derivation of words and place-names and Surtees in summing up Hutchinson’s conclusions says :

” But the name of Raven enters into the composition of numerous Saxon names of places: Ravenglass, in Cumberland; Ravenstondale, Westmorland that other castle Ravensworth, the seat of the Fitz-Hughes, near Richmond. In some instances it is not denied that the name may be derived from the haunts of the very bird itself.”

Surtees first mentions Ravensworth when he tells us it was here one, “ Eardulf, rose from the dead to, predict the death of Bishop Walcher, and the punishment of his murderers.” This Norman prelate with several of his followers was put to death by an angry mob in a little church on the banks of the Tyne in Gateshead in the 14th day of May, 1090.

William of Normandy’s victory over Saxon England brought a new aristocracy into the land. Many of the nobles who. fought with Harold at Hastings and in the minor battles which followed as the Normans penetrated the country lost their lands and their properties became forfeit. King William I distributed lavishly his ill-gotten gains among his henchmen and new names, a new tongue, fashions and customs came to Britain.

As the years roll by, however, we find the Normans quarrelling among themselves for pride of place. Nearly a century after the Conquest Bishop Ranulph Flambard granted Ravensworth and Hecton now called Eighton, to his nephew Richard, related to the Barons Fitz-Marmaduke. Who lived at Ravensworth and in the castle of Ravenshelm before the occupancy of this family is not known. The last in the male line of the Fitz-Marmadukes was killed on Framwellgate Bridge, Durham, one night following a quarrel with his cousin, Robert Nevill, no doubt over the family possessions. Ravenshelm Castle then passed through marriage to the Lumleys when Eleanor Fitz- Marmaduke married one of that ilk.

The deeds presented by the late Lord Ravensworth to the Newcastle upon Tyne Society of Antiquaries provide visible proof of early ownership. There are altogether eighty- two documents, but the most interesting arc numbers one and two – the original grant by Bishop Flambard and the charter of Henry I (1129?) confirming the grant. Brief entries in various writings also pierce the gloom of the past and these fragments give us the story of Ravensworth. In the time of Bishop Hatfield, 1367, we read that ” Alexander de Kybblesworth held a moiety of the vill of Ravensworth of Elanora, Countess of Ravenshelm.”

In 1353 Robert de Lumley, son of Eleanor (or Elanora) died, and was succeeded by Bartram. This member of the Lumley family left an only daughter, Isabel, who married in 1489 Sir Henry Boynton, of Sedbury. There was one child from this union, a daughter, another Isabel, who was to become the wife of Sir’ Henry Gascoigne, second son of Sir William Gascoigne. Sir William Gascoigne, of Gawthorpe, in Yorkshire, was Chief Justice of England in the reign of Henry IV. A man of strong resolution he incurred the King’s displeasure ‘by his refusal to sentence to, death Archbishop Scroop, and on another occasion committed the young Prince of Wales to prison for contempt of court. King Henry, however, came to place much reliance upon him.

Sir Henry Gascoigne’s son, also called Henry, was followed by Richard, who married Joane, daughter of Richard Norton, of Norton Conyers. Their son and heir was another William.

Buck’s engraving of Ravenshelm Castle in the year 1728 has inscribed the names of Fitz-Hugh, Turneaux and Marmion, Dacre and Parr. But the Ravensworth deeds, Hutchinson and Surtees make no mention of these families having dwelt in the Ravenshelm of county Durham.

Under the date August 14th, 1582, Welford gives us the following entry: ” Died, Isabel, wife of Henry Anderson, M.P. She was the younger of two daughters and co-heirs of Christopher Morland of Pittington, and at the time of her death was only thirty-three years of age. Four daughters survived her, Barbara, who married William, afterwards Sir William Gascoigne, of Ravensworth; Alice, who became the wife of John Gower; Elizabeth, wife of Isaac Anderson of Newcastle; and Isabel, who was united to Thomas, afterwards Sir Thomas Liddell, of Ravensworth, baronet.”

In another revealing passage under the date 1607, Welford tells us: ” In the papers preserved in the register office at Durham is a record of the acquisition by Thomas Liddell of the family estate at Ravensworth. It is the document by which Bishop James granted pardon for entry without licence into the castle of Ravenshelme, the manor of Ravenshelme and Lamesley, and messuages land, etc., there, and in Eighton Hedley, Over Eighton, Nether Eighton, Longacres, Northendes, Ravensworth, and Pockerley, acquired from William Gascoigne, Knight, and Barbara his wife.”

And this brings us to the family who held the Ravensworth estates for more than 300 years. Ravensworth Castle was, until recent years the ancestral home of the family of Liddell. The first castle of Ravenshelm consisted of four towers connected by a curtain wall enclosing a large courtyard. This structure, as we will presently learn, was, with the exception of two towers, completely pulled down and rebuilt.

The story of the Liddells as Lords of Ravensworth begins in the 16th century, so we will return to the reign of Queen Elizabeth and take a glimpse down the years at several of the sons of this famous family who fought so valiantly on the field of battle when Royalists opposed Roundheads, and in the political arena when Tories struggled with Whigs to decide who should govern our islands. Thomas Liddell, the first on this distinguished list, was a merchant adventurer and an extensive property owner in Newcastle and Gateshead. Sheriff of Newcastle 1563-4 and Mayor 1572-3’, he died May 8th 1577, bequeathing to his eldest son, also called Thomas, his progressive business.

It was Thomas who acquired the manor and castle of Ravenshelm. This Thomas, like his father, became the chief citizen in Newcastle in 1609-10, and in the same year was to have as Sheriff, coincidently, his own son Thomas, this particular Christian name was quite a favourite in the Liddell family. Thomas Liddell on the death of his father in 1619 continued to live in Ravenshelm Castle and as a tradesman speculating in coal and corn and became a very wealthy man. In 1625 King Charles I had just ascended the throne, he was elected Mayor of Newcastle and by all accounts was head of Municipal life during troublesome times.

These were the days of religious persecution, and Thomas Liddell as a Protestant, was expected to assist in seeking out Jesuit priests, treacherous work he found foreign to his honest nature and which he refused to do. During his second term in office as mayor 1636-37 a terrible plague swept Newcastle and Gateshead when thousands perished, and there is still to be seen near Ravensworth Castle the Butter Cross (pictured right) where, so says tradition, trades people left their merchandise and returned to collect the money in payment which was steeped in vinegar, the only disinfectant known at the time. This cross was the market cross of Ravensworth village, a little hamlet swept away when making Ravensworth Park.

From the moment Charles I became King of England he had trouble with his Parliament because of his autocratic demands, and with the Scots because of his determination to impose upon them an Anglican liturgy. In 1639 the Scots broke into open rebellion and the following year an army under the command of General Sir Alexander Lesley crossed the Border.

After the defeat of an English force at Newburn the Scots entered Newcastle, which town they occupied for ten months and only withdrew upon receipt of £60,400 as a war indemnity. In 1642 Charles set up his standard at Nottingham to enforce his will upon the Parliamentary forces which were gathering to defy him. Never was such a noble man misguided by evil advice and so foolish in heaping up trouble. It was in November of this year that Thomas Liddell, who zealously upheld the King’s cause, was rewarded by Charles with a baronetcy for his loyalty in keeping Newcastle a Royalist stronghold.

After a number of successes and reverses on either side the English Parliament founding an alliance with the Scots and on February 3rd, 1644, Lesley, now the Earl of Leven, again entered England. But the Great Siege of Newcastle is another story-one of heroism and suffering which, whatever the ideal at stake, showed how stubborn and unwilling the Tyneside people were to accept defeat. For twelve months the gallant defenders fought and starved and successfully repulsed the invaders from their crumbling walls. Side by side with the Governor of Newcastle, Sir John Marley, Sir Thomas Liddell fought and was with those who withdrew to the Keep and continued to defy the Scots when the town was taken.

But courage was of no avail against overwhelming odds and Sir Thomas with other survivors eventually capitulated. The Earl of Crawford, Lords Maxwell and Reed, Sir John Marley, Sir Nicholas Cole and Sir George Baker likewise were forced at last to leave the Old Castle and surrender their swords. Sir Thomas Liddell was detained in ” London House ” until 1646 when he was released upon payment of a fine of £4,000.

An astute businessman he was, as we have seen, a grand old warrior who had the courage to uphold his convictions. He was also a family man, but in his old age lived to mourn the loss of his entire progeny. His fourteen children all died before him, and when he passed on in 1652 to give a final account of his life and labours he was succeeded by his grandson, another Thomas, who came to dwell at Ravenshelm.

Sir Thomas Liddell, the 2nd baronet, unlike his grandfather, had a puritan outlook and married Anna, the daughter of Sir Henry Vane of Raby Castle, a staunch supporter of the Commonwealth who became President of the Council of State. Sir Thomas, who had never believed in drastic measures, was included in the Act of General Pardon when Charles II came to the throne, while Sir Henry Vane, outside this amnesty was arraigned on a charge of high treason and executed on Tower Hill in the June of 1662. Sir Henry Liddell succeeded to the title and estates upon the death af his father in 1697. He was M.P. for Durham City, 1688-98, and for Newcastle 1701-5, and 1706-10. He purchased in 1720 the lands at Eslington Park which had been forfeited to the Crown through an act of attainder, and here built a mansion that was to serve as a dual place of residence for the Liddell family. Thomas Liddell was M.P, for Lostwithiel in 1715; George Liddell was M.P. for Berwick 1727-40; Richard Liddell, M.P. for Bossiney, 1741-46.

Henry Liddell, son of Sir Henry Liddell, became the 4th baronet, and was raised to the peerage in 1747 with the title Baron Ravensworth, of Ravensworth Castle, in the County Palatine of Durham. Like other members of his family before him he took an active interest in the politics of his day and in the General Election of 1734 was elected M.P. for Morpeth and entered the House of Commons at the early age of twenty-six. A man with a broad outlook on life he was “. … a foe to jobbery and corruption, the steady friend of political honesty and religious tolerance, and an earnest advocate of progress in agriculture, and protection to the coal trade.” His efforts on behalf of his fellow men were sincere and upon his death in 1784 his loss was generally lamented:

He left only a daughter, thus the first Barony of Ravensworth came to an end. Henry George Liddell, his nephew, became the next baronet, and acquired the estates at Ravensworth and Eslington. Sir Henry also inherited the spirit of adventure which distinguished his early forebears. On one occasion with a Captain Fothergill of the good ship “Gottenburgh Merchant” and a number of close friends he sailed for Denmark, Sweden, Finland and finally explored the icy wastes of Lapland. As proof of his visit to these northern regions he brought back two girls, natives of Jokmo, named Sigree and Anea, and a collection of reindeer. Their presence at Ravensworth aroused considerable curiosity and many were the gifts bestowed upon the two outlandish ladies. After a brief stay in England they returned to their homes at Sir Henry’s expense taking with them an additional present of £50 from the intrepid baronet, a sum of money they considered a fortune. The reindeer at Ravensworth continued to breed, but unfortunately every animal perished during a severe winter a few years later, through neglect upon the part of those to whom they were left in charge. Thomas Bewick, the celebrated wood engraver, visited Ravensworth Park when in search of illustrations for his ” History of Quadrupeds.” Sir Henry’s grandson, named after him, the Very Rev. Henry George Liddell, D.D., LL.D., D.C.L., was Hon. Chaplain to Queen Victoria and Domestic Chaplain to Prince Albert. He was Vice-Chancellor of the University of Oxford 1870-74 and was Dean of Christ Church 1885-91. It was Dean Liddell’s daughter, Alice, and her two little sisters, who inspired Lewis Carroll to write his ” Alice in Wonderland,” and ” Alice through the Looking Glass.” Carroll, whose real name was Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, was then teaching at Oxford

Sir Henry George Liddell died November 26th, 1791, and was succeeded by his son, Sir Thomas Henry Liddell. Ravensworth Castle, up to this time had preserved its medieval and fortress-like appearance, but the next owner aspired to something more grandiose and in the year 1808 old Ravenshelm changed its identity. John Nash, 1752-1835, earned fame as an architect when he rebuilt Buckingham Palace, the great Pavilion at Brighton and for his reconstruction of Regent’s Street and Regent’s Park, named after the Prince Regent. His services were obtained to rebuild Ravenshelm Castle and the noble edifice we have so long remembered came to grace our countryside. The castle, however, like Nash’s other work was adversely criticized, but even if it was a ” sham fortress ” which never heard the ” clang of knightly mail,” it had a stately grandeur and was the pride of North Durham. Sir Thomas entered Parliament for Durham in 1806, and was a Tory of the Pitt school. A great friend of the royal family, the Barony of Ravensworth was revived by George IV and Sir Thomas became the second Lord Ravensworth.

He devoted much of his time to his estates and to the coal industry, realising that this useful commodity was not only of importance to his own income, but also a vital necessity in the life of the nation. He encouraged the engineering abilities of Nicholas Wood and George Stephenson, and gave this latter Tyneside genius his first opportunity in building a practical steam engine to run on rails. In after life when these iron steeds were puffing along the railways of Britain Stephenson remarked with feeling: ” The first locomotive that I made was at Killing-worth Colliery, and with Lord Ravensworth’s money. Yes, Lord Ravensworth and partners were the first to, entrust me with money to make a locomotive engine. That engine was made, and we called it ` My Lord.’ t said to my friends that there was no limit to the speed of such an engine, provided the works could be made to stand.” Prophetic words in the light of the revolutionary advance in railway engineering today.

Ravensworth Castle during the second baron’s lifetime received many distinguished guests. In the September of 1827 His Grace the Duke of Wellington visited the north of England where he received a civic welcome at Stockton. He dined at Wynyard, seat of the Marquis of Londonderry. After a grand reception in Stockton he came to Newcastle on September 28th when thousands lined the streets to give him a welcome. Sykes, the bookseller and recorder of unusual events, tells us: The Duke dined at the Mansion House, inspected various guards of honour, and was generally socially entertained. Following a ball at the Assembly Rooms His Grace retired to the privacy of Ravensworth. He enjoyed the hospitality of Lord Ravensworth until October 4th and had for company during these last few days that eminent man of letters, Sir Walter Scott. Two years later there was assembled within the imposing walls of Ravensworth Castle a gathering of the nobility which far exceeded in beauty, chivalry and splendour any other assembly the ancestral home of the Liddell’s had known. Mr. Henry George Liddell, the eldest son of the Hon. H. T. Liddell, M.P., had reached the age of twenty-one, and his proud grandfather, the Lord Ravensworth, had decided to celebrate this important event.

On October 8th the tenantry were entertained. It was a day of feasting and jubilation, but on the, following Wednesday, the 12th, his lordship was pleased to invite many of England’s aristocratic families to the beautiful vale of Ravensworth and his stately home. The guests began to arrive in the afternoon. Around the castle gates and along the road which leads to the castle entrance a large crowd was gathered to watch. the arrival of the distinguished company, and about the lawns were numerous parties holding polite conversation. Among the 400-500 visitors were His Imperial Highness the Archduke Frederick Ferdinand of Austria, the Marquis of Normanby, the Earl of Scarbrough, Lord and Lady Prudhoe, Lord and Lady Barrington, Lord and Lady Chelsea, Lord George Seymour, Sir Edward and Lady Blackett, and ” most of the principal families of the counties of Durham and Northumberland.” Lord Ravensworth married Maria Susannah, daughter of John Simpson of Bradley, and Ann, grand-daughter of the Earl of Stra.thmore. They had sixteen children-eight sons and eight daughters. Henry Thomas, who was to become the third baron and first Earl of Ravensworth; Thomas; John; George; the Rev. Robert, Vicar of St. Paul’s, Knightsbridge; George Augustus Frederick, a Colonel in the Scots Guards and deputy ranger of Windsor Great Park; Charles; Sir Adolphus Frederick Octavious, K.C.B., Under Secretary of State for the Home Department; Maria, Marchioness of Normanby; Frances Jane, died unmarried; Ann Elizabeth, Lady Williamson; Jane Elizabeth, Viscountess Barrington; Elizabeth Charlotte, the Hon. Mrs. Edward Earnest Villiers; Susan, Lady Hardwicke; Charlotte Amelia, Mrs. John Trotter; Georgiana, Lady Bloomfield.

Lady Ravensworth died November 22nd, 1845, and Lord Ravensworth some ten years later March 7th, 1855, both being buried in the family vault in St. Andrew’s Church, Lamesley.

All the towns and villages in Northumberland were in a fervour of excitement, there was a great election which lasted fifteen days, from June 20th to July 6th.The result was declared and Henry Thomas Liddell entered the Houses of Parliament.

Born March 10th, 1797, he was educated at Eton and St. John’s, Cambridge. After travelling in Europe and visiting the principal cities, Paris, Rome, Berlin, and Vienna he returned to Ravensworth where, in 1820, he married Isabella Horatio, eldest daughter of Lord George Seymour. During the course of his political career he was M.P. for Durham and Liverpool, but gave up the, last seat when he entered the House of Lords on the death of his father. A man of culture, he was an accomplished artist, poet and writer. A Latin scholar, he translated the Odes of Horace. From 1861 to 1878 he was President of the Newcastle upon Tyne Society of Antiquaries. In his 84th year he was created by Queen Victoria Earl of Ravensworth and Baron Eslington.

The first Earl of Ravensworth; like his father, had a large family- fourteen. He died on March 19th, 1878 and was succeeded by Henry George Liddell. The second Earl was M.P. for South Northumberland 1852-78. He was a Doctor of Civil Law and a Justice of the Peace and, like many of the Liddells, was a military man. He was Colonel and Hon. Colonel of the Northumberland Hussars Yeomanry. Although he married twice, he died without male issue in 1903 and his brother Athol Charles John became the third Earl of Ravensworth.


The new Earl, a Captain in the 60th Rifles, was Deputy Lieutenant for Durham, but he survived his brother by only seven months and died on February 7th, 1904. Having no heir, the earldom of Ravensworth became extinct. The Barony of Ravensworth, created in 1821, then devolved upon the late Earl’s cousin, Arthur Thomas, who became the fifth Baron of that name.

Many who had social or business connections with Ravensworth will recall this branch of the family. The Ravensworth estates were then in their hey-day, still the most splendid palatial residence. But Ravensworth Castle was slowly leaving behind the scenes of its former glory. Lord Ravensworth died on November, 1919, and the following year there was held within the castle’s noble walls an extensive sale when furniture, china, bronzes, manuscripts and books and many art treasures changed possession.

Gerald Wellesley, the sixth Baron, left Ravensworth to live at Eslington Park, near Alnwick, and the castle became but a romantic picture of the past. For a short while it was used as a High School. for young ladies, then its doors were closed and this stately old pile was left to time’s ravage and decay. Robert Arthur Liddell, the seventh Lord Ravensworth, who succeeded to the title in June, 1932, in 1936 he planned to pull the castle down and to erect in its place a model village from the stone and valuable oak timbers. This plan aroused the indignation of all lovers of beautiful Britain who accused his lordship of vandalism. Lord Ravensworth replied to his critics in the local Press revealing that through the workings of a 30-acre coalfield beneath, the castle was beginning to sink and that huge cracks were appearing in its walls, the castle was no longer tenantable.

Lord Ravensworth, died on August 4th, 1950, in Hexham General Hospital following a road accident, aged just 48 years.

The Liddell Estates at Eslington Park, the seat of Arthur Waller Liddell the eighth and present Baron Ravensworth, were acquired by Sir Henry Liddell in 1720. George Collingwood, the former owner, supported the Old Pretender in his claim to the throne of England, and with many other Jacobites lost his head and his property when the rebellion of 1715 failed. Every generation has produced a Liddell of note who has left his mark. The family has seen big industrialists, soldiers, statesmen, writers and philanthropists and their name appears with some frequency in our local records

Ravensworth castle now lies in ruins, a well publicised attempt in 2004 to raise finance for a re-building programme failed. Had the coal owners, among them the Liddells, not extracted coal from underneath the castle and so caused subsidence, the entire building may still be with us. There is little doubt that the magnificent castle would have been a huge tourist attraction, especially with its beautiful woodland surround. As it is, even the ruins are slowly being overgrown by foliage, a testament to the greed of the coal owners.

The estate bordered by Blackburn Common, Kibblesworth and the River Team. The plan was bought by W. W. Gibson in June 1937 from R. D. Steadman Bookseller, Saville Row, Newcastle-upon-Tyne who bought them from a Mrs. Reay of Gateshead, the widow of a son of a Newcastle Architect, Thomas Reay who died on 23 Decemeber 1914 at Low Fell, age 79.