Despite the name Naworth, which does look rather castle-like, is actually a pele tower meaning that it started out rather smaller than a castle and was intended as a place of retreat during times of Scottish raiding. It received its planning permission in 1335 from King Edward III. Essentially by planning permission I mean that Ranulph de Dacre received a licence to crenellate – this means there was a definite permission to build battlements. We tend to think that it is just the monarch who could give permission for fortifications but England being what it was there are some notable exceptions. If you wanted to build a castle in the county of the Prince Bishops i.e. Durham you had to apply to them. The same was true for the powerful earls of Chester and also within the Duchy of Lancaster whose landholdings seem to have had a tentacle like grip from the north down across the Midlands.
So why would you want a licence to crenellate? Well, if you lived on the borders between England and Scotland as at Naworth you probably wanted a jolly high wall to keep marauding Scots out. The downside of this so far as the monarchy was concerned was that some nobles, once they’d got their fancy walls with battlements, might sit behind them and revolt against the king. The other reason for possibly wanting a licence to crenellate was more a matter of keeping up appearances. Castle building was an expensive pastime – thus not only were you wealthy enough to afford all the masonry and labour but you were probably also posh enough to receive permission in the first place.
Anyway, Ranulph de Dacre gained his licence and promptly built a stone tower and it grew from there. Once the bother with the Scots was over and done with in the seventeenth century the Dacres found themselves short of a male heir so married into the Howard family and the border tower turned into a mansion. In between times they managed to get themselves a fiercesome reputation as the “Devil’s Dozen,” one of them even managing to kill his brother. The battle cry of the Dacres is “A red bull! A red bull!” Apparently the cry filled the Scots at the Battle of Flodden in 1513 with dread. Thomas, Lord Dacre was in command of the reserves.
The Dacres are one of those families who turn up throughout the history books either as loyal servants of the crown or out and out rebels – though sometimes its hard to tell which is which. One of the family, as might be expected, managed to get himself killed at the Battle of Towton in Easter 1461.
To tell the full story, Thomas Dacre the sixth baron married into the Earl of Westmorland’s family when he got hitched to Philippa Neville. Philippa was the daughter of the earl of Westmorland’s first wife. This particular branch of the family wasn’t terribly keen on the Nevilles who were descended from the Earl of Westmorland’s family by his second wife who was Joan Beaufort, the daughter of the John of Gaunt and Katherine Swynford. This can sometimes be a bit confusing but basically the children of the first wife (Philippa) got the title and what was entailed to the estate whilst the children of the second wife (Joan) got all the money and everything that wasn’t entailed -i.e. the lion share. Inevitably this caused resentment and by the time the Wars of the Roses came around the Nevilles from the two extended families were at each others throats. Dacre having married into the first brood of Nevilles fought on the Lancastrian side whilst the Nevilles from the second family are synonymous with the white rose of York (until the earl of Warwick threw his toys out of the pram and changed sides).
The sixth baron died in 1458. His eldest son was also dead by the time of Towton leaving daughters. This had resulted in the splitting of the barony into two parts – the north and south. Ranulph or Ralph the second son of the sixth baron became Lord Dacre of the North or just to be even more difficult Lord Dacre of Gilsland. He fought on the Lancastrian side at Towton (remember his mother was a Neville descended from the earl of Westmorland’s first wife and therefore hostile to Nevilles descended from the second wife.) He was to the left of the duke of Somerset’s men along with the earl of Devon. Dacre was, according to legend, shot by a boy in a tree on the part of the battlefield known as North Acres. He is buried at the Church of All Saints, Saxton. Even though he fought for the Lancastrian side someone managed to find time to bury him sitting on his horse – and yes, the Victorians checked.
His brother Sir Humphrey Dacre also took part in the battle. He was attainted for treason but was pardoned in 1468 and more formally in 1471. In a twist of fate he turns out to be the marital great uncle of Henry VIII’s last wife Katherine Parr having married Mabel Parr.
Sadler, John. (2006) Border Fury. London: Longman