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Barnard Castle

The siege of Barnard Castle and the River Tees

In River Hunters, US YouTube sensation Beau Ouimette teams up with Rick Edwards to hit the waterways of Britain. Their mission? To uncover long-lost relics left by soldiers, nobles and everyday folk swept up in epic events like the English Civil War and the battles of Braveheart.

Visiting Barnard Castle on the River Tees, the chaps dig into the story of an oddly forgotten moment in our past. A confrontation that deserves to be far better known for the role it played in cementing Elizabeth I’s status as a monarch every bit as fearsome as her father, Henry VIII.

This was the Rising of the North, also known as the Northern Rebellion, and one of its flashpoints was Barnard Castle. But to understand what happened there, it’s important to consider the wider context, a dramatic saga featuring a rebel king, slain aristocrats and a runaway royal.

What happened after the ‘first Brexit’

This rollercoaster period in British history began with Henry VIII’s infamous break from the Vatican. It’s a well-known story, of how the king, disgruntled that his first wife Catherine of Aragon hadn’t given him a male heir, wanted to cast her aside for the beguiling Anne Boleyn. The Pope refused to annul his marriage to Catherine, leading Henry to dramatically renounce the authority of the Catholic Church and set himself up as the new, Supreme Head of the Church of England.

This event, which paved the way for Protestantism, has been dubbed the ‘first Brexit’ by some wry commentators in recent years. But what followed is unimaginable today. When Mary I, the Catholic daughter of Henry and Catherine of Aragon, took to the throne, she attempted to reverse the Reformation by any means necessary.

England’s first ever queen regnant (ie, the first female monarch to hold real power in her own right, rather than merely sitting alongside a reigning king), she earnt her nickname, ‘Bloody Mary’, by literally burning hundreds of Protestants at the stake. But, in yet another dramatic reversal, her efforts were overturned after her own death when her half-sister Elizabeth took the crown in 1558, putting the country back on the Protestant path. But there was plenty more trouble and turmoil to come.

Elizabeth vs Mary, Queen of Scots

A thorn in the side of Elizabeth was her Catholic cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots. Mary had actually spent her younger years far from Scotland, being the wife of Francis II of France. Scotland had been ruled by regents in her absence, but following Francis’ death she returned to her homeland in 1561.

Still a teenager, Mary was more French than Scottish: a fish out of water in her own nation. A series of dramatic and savage events unfolded: she wound up marrying an aristocrat, Lord Darnley, who turned out to be an arrogant, possessive drunk with a violent side. A jealous Darnley helped orchestrate the murder of her courtier and close friend, David Rizzio, who was dragged from a dinner party with Mary and knifed to death. Darnley himself was later murdered (he was found dead outside his home, which had been blown up by gunpowder) in an audacious assassination that may well have been greenlit by Mary herself.

When Mary went onto marry Lord Bothwell, the man widely regarded as being behind her previous husband’s murder, it stoked such controversy and outrage that her rule was rocked to its foundations. Mary was eventually forced to abdicate and fled across the border to England, where she was received with an outward show of respect and affection by Elizabeth.

In reality, however, Elizabeth was deeply unnerved. She knew full well that many Catholics in England regarded her as illegitimate: the spawn of an illegal marriage (between Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn). On top of that, Mary had a solid claim to the English throne, being a direct descendant of Henry VII.

She was right to worry because Mary – now essentially held in captivity by Elizabeth – soon became a figurehead for the disgruntled Catholics who still held sway in the north of England.

The siege of Barnard Castle

The Rising of the North was spearheaded by two of the most powerful Catholics in the land: the Earl of Northumberland and the Earl of Westmoreland, who sought to liberate Mary and basically topple the Protestant power structure. In 1569, they amassed an army of thousands and marched to Durham, where – in a shocking show of defiance – they performed a Catholic Mass in the cathedral.

The rebellion, which looked set to turn into an all-out civil war, spread to Barnard Castle on the Tees. It was a fortress of vital strategic importance to the English, standing just 70 miles from the Scottish border. Here, loyalist forces hunkered down behind the stone walls, led by military commander George Bowes.

In one day and night, 226 men leapt over the walls...

The castle was soon surrounded by thousands of rebels, and the siege lasted 11 arduous days. As Bowes wrote in a letter to Elizabeth, he and his men survived on a ‘very hard diet and great want of bread, drink and water’. To make matters worse, many so-called loyalists actually defected to the rebels, literally leaping off the castle to join the uprising. ‘I found the people of the castle in continual mutinies,’ Bowes wrote. ‘In one day and night, 226 men leapt over the walls… of which number 35 broke their necks, legs and arms in the leaping.’

After 11 days, Bowes and his remaining men surrendered. However, the rebellion was doomed. Elizabeth had dispatched a vast army to stifle the uprising, with one of the ringleaders, the Earl of Northumberland, eventually executed. He was far from the only one. A wrathful Elizabeth wanted the north punished for their brazen insurrection, and it’s thought that up to 700 people were hanged. Mary herself would be executed years later for treason.

So, it’s no wonder the River Hunters are excited at the thought of probing the River Tees and finding traces of this dramatic, violent chapter of Elizabeth’s reign.