I have been slowly making progress on my family history book, 500 Fenwicks.  This is what I have on Bitchfield:

Bitchfield, also known as Bichfield, West Bitchfield, or Beechfield, is a few miles north-east of Fenwick.

In the 15th century, a pele tower was built by the Middleton family, who sold it to the Harbottles in 1502[1]. The Harbottles were rather grand; directly descended from King Henry II and, before him, William the Conqueror. Two years later, in 1504, my great etc grandfather Ralph Harbottle died, and the property was inherited by his daughter Marjorie, who married my great etc grandfather Sir John Fenwick of Fenwick Tower (i.e. the place that is today called Fenwick; see page 28 above.  The property remained in the Fenwick family’s hands for the next 125 years or so.

In 1529, Sir John and Lady Marjorie conveyed the property to their second son, my great etc grandfather Sir Roger Fenwick, who lived there with his wife Lady Ursula (nee Heron) and their children, including my great etc grandfather George.

The tower is remarkably intact, albeit with some restoration work carried out in the 20th century.

In the 16th century, the big thing would have been protection from the border reivers, and in particular from the Scots[2]. The attackers did not strike alone, but in bands of up to around 100 men at a time, all well armed. In large measure, they were are the livestock, and there would have been little that a family unit could have done to have prevented the reivers from driving off a herd of cattle.  But Sir Roger would have wanted to protect his wife, his children and his valuables as well, and for this, a pele tower was particularly well suited. There were a numbers of defensive measures that could be taken.

First, the battlements at the top provided an excellent vantage point from which to spot an attacking group, thus providing time for the family to brace itself.  Further, there was an iron basket at the highest level of the tower ready to be fired in case of attack; the smoke and/or flames (depending on the time of day or night) would alert the neighbours, who would be able to gather themselves for counter-attack.  Indeed, the use of such baskets was mandated by legislation.  The expression “hue-and-cry”, still used today, described the warning process.  Following a raid, the raiders were far from safe; slowed down by driving the livestock they had just stolen, there was a period of 6 days when the family that had been attacked were entitled, and indeed if between the ages of 16 and 60 obliged, to go after the raiders by way of “hot trod”.  A piece of burning turf was held aloft on a spear point to signify a hot trod, and failing to assist a hot trod was regarded as treasonous.

Secondly, there was a high stone wall called a barmekin which ran around the tower. As much livestock as possible was herded into the enclosure thereby formed, and that provided at least some protection against a half-hearted attack.

Thirdly, there was the door to the tower itself. The stone walls of the tower itself are several feet thick, and the Scots had neither the temperament nor did the terrain lend itself to siege artillery; the door was thus the only viable way in.  A mere ordinary door, made of wood, would have been insufficient, for even border reivers, generally in a bit of a hurry because of the risk of counter-attack, would have been able hack it down, or to have made a fire and burned it down. Further, in a technique called scumfishing, the attackers would heap wet straw against the doorway, and thereby attempt to smoke the occupants out. Typically, the family would drive its horses, and perhaps a few of its cattle, into the ground floor of the tower, so that that these animals could be preserved even if the reivers stormed the barmekin.

Fourthly, the stairways were designed with defence in mind.  They are narrow, spiralling upwards in a clockwise direction. This meant that only one Scot at a time could fight his way up, and a right-handed defender was able to slash down with a sword, whereas a right-handed attacker was severely impeded by the central pillar. For this reason, there was some advantage for a lead attacker to be left-handed, and thus the expression “Kerr-handed”, meaning left handed.

Finally, if it became necessary to abandon a pele tower, a fire made from a mixture of sand and peat would be set alight: this created such a dense smoke that the attackers would not stay inside the tower for long, and the owners could return to it, hopefully relatively intact, when reivers had gone.  There is no evidence that Bitchfield ever had to be abandoned in this way.

Following the “clean sweep” of James I in the early 1600s, life in Northumberland became much safer, and it became practical to live in a house rather than a house.  It was by no means uncommon for such houses to be built adjoining a pele tower; perhaps the owners felt that this was a wise insurance policy against the risk of the reivers returning.  In 1622 Robert Fenwick built a new manor house adjoining the tower: a datestone inscribed ‘RF 1622 JF’ is incorporated into the building and still visible.

The Fenwicks sold the estate a few years later, in 1630, to Edward Grey.  Later owners include Sir James Clavering (from 1646) and Sir Charles Monck (from 1802).

Of all the properties built or owned by the Fenwicks, Bitchfield is perhaps the most evocative of days gone by.  Standing on the battlements, looking out at the Cheviots, it is not hard to imagine Sir Roger and his family watching out for Scottish reivers.  The tower is given over to children’s bedrooms these days, but nevertheless, they are rooms which powerfully evoke the old need to protect the family by keeping them out of harm’s way, above those narrow, winding stone steps.

Today, Bitchfield is not only a Grade I listed building, but a stylish family home, now in the hands of the Manners family[3].

[1] The Middletons did not go far; today they own the adjacent Belsay estate.

[2] See page 92 below as to the border reivers generally.

[3] With whose kind permission the photographs in this section were taken.



Filed under History

6 responses to “Bitchfield

  1. Heather Nichols

    my Granny lived in West Bitchfield as a child, I have an embroidery that was made by my Great Aunt (her sister) ,they lived there I believe at the turn of the century, her family name was Black

  2. Heather Nichols


    If you send me an email address I can forward you the embroidery done by my Great Aunt Miriam Black


  3. This is really interesting! I am working with the Manners family to launch this as a wedding and events venue. If anyone has any romantic or ghostly stories I would love to hear them! We are launching the venue as “Bichfield Tower” – I think it is one of the most beautiful buildings I have seen in Northumberland. Thank you this wonderful history! Emma 🙂


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