By Sophie Andrade
From his base in Newcastle, the wicked Sheriff of Northumberland weaved a web of power and corruption in the thirteenth century.
Sitting atop the banks of the River Tyne in the heart of Northumberland is Newcastle, a fortress steeped in Anglo-Norman history. The site dates back to the second century BC, when the Roman fort, Pons Aelius, protected the land. The natural defences provided by the river and valley, as well as access to the sea and roads, make it an ideal site for a fortress.
Today, only the stone keep, the Black Gate, southern postern gate and parts of the south curtain wall remain. In the castle’s heyday, it was a bustling centre of administration and defense, and acted as both a royal residence and a home for the sheriff of Northumberland.
Our understanding of Newcastle’s beginnings stems mostly from the twelfth-century chronicler and monk of the church of St Cuthbert, Simeon of Durham. Before the castle was built by the river, there was a settlement on the site called Monkchester. Simeon writes that in 1074, three monks journeyed to ‘the place called Monkchester, that is, the city of monks, now called Newcastle.’
Not much else is known of the place until 1080 when Robert Curthose, the eldest son of William the Conqueror, established the earthwork castle there. This would have been constructed in order to defend the territory against the Scottish king Malcolm, who, when he invaded Northumberland the previous year, ‘slew many, took more prisoners, and returned with great spoil.’
Nothing remains of Curthose’s eleventh-century castle. Until the early nineteenth century, there was an earthen mound in the inner bailey. This was likely part of the motte, upon which there would have been a wooden tower. A ditch would likely have separated the motte from the bailey, which would have been enclosed by timber palisades.
In 1095, the castle belonged to Robert Mowbray, earl of Northumberland. At this time Mowbray, along with several other barons, attempted to remove William Rufus from the English throne and replace him with Stephen de Albermarle. When King William became aware of this plot, he assembled an army and attacked the castle, besieging it for two months. There William mined and sapped the outer walls and captured the vast majority of the earl’s soldiers, including Robert Mowbray’s brother. The castle was surrendered and the siege ended when Mowbray fled to Bamburgh, with King William in hot pursuit.
The history of the castle remained relatively calm until 1138, when King David I of Scotland invaded Northumberland, eventually taking possession of Newcastle and Bamburgh. The castle remained in Scottish hands until 1157 when Malcolm IV of Scotland surrendered it to Henry II.
After several invasions from the north and frequent turmoil within his own kingdom, Henry II would have been eager to assert his authority and protect his land so close to the Scottish border. In 1168, construction began on the stone keep and curtain walls of the castle.
According to the Pipe Rolls, over the next ten years Henry II spent a total of £1144 on the castle at Newcastle upon Tyne. From 1174 a master mason named Maurice is recorded as having worked on the castle until 1178, when £94 was spent ‘on the work of the New Castle upon the Tyne, and of the gateway of the said castle,’ likely an indication of the keep’s completion.
The castle’s most notorious tenant took up occupancy approximately 70 years later. The infamous Sheriff of Northumberland, William Heron, was a minor baron who spent three years as one of the justices in charge of the jail in Newcastle before becoming the sheriff of Northumberland and keeper of the castle in 1246. By all accounts, Heron was a truly despicable person: notorious for punishing anyone whom he disliked, and for extorting money from Newcastle’s poorest residents.
In one of his most unpopular acts, Heron introduced two ‘tourns’ a year in Northumberland. A tourn was traditionally a bi-annual event where the sheriff of the county would visit the county’s subdivisions, called hundreds, to act as judge by settling disputes and criminal allegations.
The residents of Northumberland were outraged by the introduction of the tourn as the county had not been divided into hundreds and had never been subjected to a tourn before. Nevertheless, Heron conducted two per year and fined all those who did not attend. Heron abused his position as judge and used the tourn as an opportunity to squeeze more money out of the locals by fining unwitting people for such random things as selling beer and stray animals.
Heron had an unpredictable temper and would take offence – or find an opportunity to extort money out of someone – for the most minor of indiscretions. He imprisoned someone for something as petty as talking back and wouldn’t release them until they paid a fine.
The most unfortunate “offenders” were held in the ‘Heron Pit’ – a deep, dungeon-like prison of his own creation in the inner bailey of the castle. The pit could only be accessed through a trap door in the basement of Heron’s residence.
An additional prison, known as the Great Pit, was located inside a tower near the Second Gate. An interesting and no doubt odorous incident occurred long after Heron’s time, but it is worth a mention. According to the sheriff’s account of 1357, ‘… a certain prison called the Great-pit in a certain tower near the Second Gate, of (which) the Loftlore suddenly fell by rotting of the joists, and almost killed those incarcerated within.’ Almost immediately after this was repaired, the prisoners contrived a way to escape through the latrine. Masons and labourers then spent three weeks reconstructing the prison cell.
Now, back to Heron. One scheme he devised targeted those who wanted to skirt the requirement of mandatory knighthood. In 1256, landowners who made more than £15 a year would have their land seized by the king and be subjected to knighthood. Those who did not want this title and the responsibilities that went with it would pay a fine to get out of it – somewhere between £3 and £6. These fines were meant to go directly to the king, but Heron is said to have charged a lower price, possibly to attract more ‘customers’, and kept all the money for himself.
Heron also fined those who did not show up for jury duty when called and would take bribes from those who did not want to perform jury duty. He would overcharge for marriage certificates and pocketed the profits after the construction of a new granary at Bamburgh castle.
Heron was certainly not the only corrupt sheriff in the thirteenth century and behaviour like his was likely not uncommon. At the time, Henry III was putting a lot of pressure on his sheriffs to raise money for his campaigns overseas, and other sheriffs might have used this as an excuse to charge more money and line their own pockets. Heron, however, stands out among the rest as so many of his misdeeds were recorded and complained about by the people of Northumberland.
Heron died in 1258, and despite years of gouging the poor, a whopping £1200 debt was passed on to his son and heir, William Heron Jr. Earning just £37 per year from his land income, Heron Jr. still owed more than half of the £1200 debt twenty years after his father’s death – an inauspicious inheritance indeed.
William Heron’s nefarious legacy is cemented in the prison pit that bears his name in Newcastle Castle. Visitors today can look down into the open dungeon and imagine all who were dropped into the cavity for the most minor infractions.
Sophie Andrade is a recent graduate of the University of St Andrews with an MLitt in Medieval Studies. Her research focuses on medieval women, music, manuscripts, and castles. She lives in Nottingham, England.
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Cassidy, Richard, ‘William Heron, “Hammer of the Poor, Persecutor of the Religious”, Sheriff of Northumberland, 1246-58’, Northern History (2013).
Harbottle, Barbara and Margaret Ellison, ‘‘An Excavation in the Castle Ditch, Newcastle upon Tyne, 1974-6’, Archaeologia Aeliana, 5th ser., vol. 9, (1981).
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Top Image: BNF Arsenal 3481 fol. 65r