Medieval Craster, Craster Tower & the Craster Family
by Mary Craster
The name was spelt Crawcestre until around 1500. It means
Crow's earthwork (Crawe Ceastre) in the Anglo Saxon.
There is a small Iron Age fort on top of the south heugh,
but the medieval village was nowhere near the shore. It lay
back from the sea, on the hill where the Tower now is. The
name is more likely to have come from another prehistoric settlement,
now entirely disappeared, amongst the trees at the top of the
hill, where the rooks still nest.
Here the early Crasters are likely to have built their first,
Before the Norman Conquest Craster was one of nine townships
(now villages or hamlets) within the parish of Embleton. It
was later split between the barony of Embleton and the Vescy
Lordship of Alnwick. Henry 1 granted it to John Vesconte, son
of Odard, who held his barony from the King for three knight's
fees. In 1166 John had split this responsibility for military
service by granting part of his lands to three tenants. One
of these was Albert de Crawcestre.
Albert is not an Anglo Saxon name (he may have come from the
Rhineland); he married Christiana from the North Riding of
Yorkshire, and his son William succeeded to the Craster part
of her estate.
In 1255 the sole heiress of Baron John Vesconte conveyed her
barony to Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester, one of the
greatest nobles of the realm, and with this went the services
of John of Crawcestre.
When Simon de Montfort rebelled against Henry 111 and was
eventually defeated at the Battle of Evesham in 1265, his lands
were forfeit to the Crown and were granted to Edmund Plantagenet,
Earl of Lancaster.
This did not involve forfeiture for the tenants. By 1278 all
tenants with estates worth over 20 pounds were in duty bound
to become knights and entitled to a coat of arms. This was
not necessarily a welcome privilege, as it involved providing
a fully armed and mounted knight for 40 days a year, as well
as agricultural services. In 1296 the then Craster, Sir Richard,
had to provide:
- Feudal service for 1/2 a knight's fee
- Homage for his holding
- Attendance as a freeholder at the Earl's manorial
court at Stamford
- Payment of certain rents to the Crown
- Rent for a mill-pond and water-mill on Howick Burn
- Help in cultivating the fields of the Earl's demesne
- Providing 6 ploughs (drawn by oxen), 12 horses for harrowing,
12 men for reaping and 12 carts for a day's carting
of hay and corn.
In that year a Scots army under William Wallace invaded Northumberland
and caused great damage in this area, burning the Earl's
manor at Stamford and much of Embleton and Dunstan.
In 1301 Sir Richard Craster sued Richard Wetwang of Dunston
over the right-of-way by which Wetwang was taking his carts
to cut seaweed, used as a fertiliser. (This manorial privilege
was still bringing in revenue to the Crasters in 1737).
Richard named his son Edmund after his feudal lord and for
the next 200 years nearly all the eldest sons were confusingly
Thomas, Earl of Lancaster, son of Edmund, was an ambitious & powerful
man. He it was who began to build the great Castle of Dunstanburgh
The road to Dunstanburgh ran along the inland, western side
of the Heugh (still visible) and up through one of the two
gaps, Big & Little Shand.
The castle promontory was turned into a near island by a great
ditch dug in 1314 along the low lying ground to the west, extending
from Embleton Bay to the head of the harbour which ran inland
below the Castle on the south side. The entrance to this depression
is now blocked by rocks and shingle banks. (A recent survey
suggests that the entrance may have been further along). There
is a record of three of Henry V111's ships sheltering
there in 1514. After the defeat at Flodden, the Scots were
no longer a threat, and the castle fell into disrepair.
By the mid 14th century a pele tower had been built attached
to the old hall-house at Craster. It is first mentioned in
the list of border strongholds in 1415. An elegant pointed
arched door led through into the tower on the ground and first
floors and a circular stair led up in the thickness of the
wall at the SE corner; there were four storeys.
In 1344, two years before the Scots defeat at the Battle of
Neville's Cross, near Durham, the second Sir Edmund Craster
was Collector for Northumberland charged with raising militia
against the Scots invasions and funds to repair the destruction
they caused. This proved a very long drawn out job (13 years)
largely due to the depredations of the Black Death. The plague
carried off most of the inhabitants of Newton in 1379. In 1384
further damage was caused by a Scottish army.
In the Wars of the Roses, the Crasters supported the Yorkists,
although their lands were held from the Duchy of Lancaster.
They seem to have accommodated successfully, however. In 1489
the then Edmund Craster was appointed Constable of Dunstanburgh
Castle for life by Henry VII.
An amusing side light - in 1506 Edmund Craster testified that
one Bertram Dawson was Embleton born and bred; he was a draper
in York, and his business was falling off as his broad Northumbrian
speech caused him to be 'sinisterly deformed that he
should be a Scotchman born'.
All this time and until the late 18th century, Craster village
was still at the top of the hill, immediately north and east
of Craster Tower. A map of 1723 shows an E-W road with 12 houses
in 2 rows on each side of it still to be seen in the pasture,
running straight down the bank next to the Tower. The present
road did not exist and there was nothing by the sea apart from
the little cove where the fishing boats were beached.
The 16th century was a disturbed and unruly period, with constant
feuds and cattle reiving on both sides of the Border. In 1521
one Richard Storey was killed by Jasper Craster. In 1598 a
later Edmund Craster was arbitrator to settle a feud between
Storeys and Hebburns. Despite all this, the Crasters managed
to increase their property and obtained various outlying farms,
let to tenants. One Thomas Craster, who had a tannery business
in Alnwick, was appointed guardian to his great nephew until
he succeeded to the family property. At Thomas' death
in 1557 he left 3 beds, 1 cupboard, 5 brass pots and 10 pieces
of pewter, as well as his stocks of leather. Even the comparatively
prosperous had very few personal goods and chattels in those
Yet another Edmund, who died in 1594, left a widow Alice,
who moved into the still habitable portion (possibly part of
the Constable lodging?) in Dunstanburgh Castle. She ran a farm
within the Castle (18 plough-oxen, 32 cattle, 3 horses, 145
sheep and 12 pigs). She was evidently quite well off and at
her death her personal possessions were listed as a bed (perhaps
a 4-poster) 2 truckle beds, 2 tables, 2 chairs, 7 stools, 2
benches, a cupboard and a chest; also a silver salt cellar,
6 spoons, 18 pewter vessels & 3 trenchers, kitchen utensils,
2 spinning wheels, bedding and bed- and table- linen.
Her grandson John received a university education at Cambridge.
In his days, the Greys came to live at Howick Tower, and so
as to make their estate more compact, arranged to exchange
with John, various scattered Craster holdings, including Howick
Mill, for the Howick land to the west of Craster; this now
represents the greater part of Craster West Farm.
During the Civil War, the Crasters supported the king's
party, but somehow managed to avoid sequestration of their
Between 1666 and 1675, Craster Tower was enlarged; the old
timber hall-house on the East side was replaced with a two
storey stone manor house, and a new front door was made on
the South side of the pele tower, opening on to a courtyard
with a well, which is still there, under the later dining-room
floor. Beyond the front door courtyard was a formal garden;
it was just outside this garden that in 1680 a maid saw a younger
son, Thomas, leaving after having killed Edmund Foster in a
In the next generation, the eldest son (another John) went
to Merton College, Oxford, (the college has the gift of the
living of Embleton). He became a barrister at Gray's
In 1724 stables and coach-houses were built on the north side
of the Tower and the old village, with a 'home farm' yard
behind them (now the site of the Stable Yard Farm Shop). One
imagines the old village may have been in the process of moving
down to the sea. In the mid 18th century, Dunstan Hill Farm
and Craster West Farm were built. John Craster married Catherine
Villiers, daughter of a former governor of Tynemouth Castle.
She became lady-in-waiting to Queen Caroline, wife of George
11; two of her court dresses are to be seen in the Victoria
and Albert Museum in London. John became an M.P and collected
quite a reasonable and very typical country gentleman's
library at the Tower, although he lived much of his time in
the South and the Craster property was rented to a cousin,
Daniel Craster. John's son, George, married Olive Sharpe,
daughter of a neighbour at Gray's Inn and in 1760 they
set off on an extended Grand Tour of Europe; South France,
Rome, Florence, Venice and back to Paris. On their return they
decided to enlarge and modernise Craster Tower, building a
Georgian wing with pedimented front door on the South courtyard.
A kitchen-garden was also constructed with its North wall backing
onto a row of cottages at the southern edge of Dunstan (thus
warming the garden wall). These form the present Cottage Inn.
The Summer House on the SE point of Craster haven was also
built as a picnic house for the Craster family. Olive's
health was not good and she died, childless, on a visit to
Paris in the winter of 1769. George returned to the North,
but died a few years later.
The property eventually passed to Daniel, son of the cousin
who had rented it from John the barrister. He was a keen farmer
and interested in the agricultural improvements of the later
18th century - such as the cultivation of root crops for feeding
livestock in the winter. He was succeeded by his son Shafto,
who was squire for over 50 years and did much for the village
in charity, medical assistance and so on. He built the school
in Dunstan and laid out tree plantations round the Tower gardens.
He it was that completed the removal of the village to the
sea. It was known as Craster Seahouses as late as 1828. In
1822 he built Craster Square on the hill behind where Robson's
Yard now is, as housing for the fishermen. This was pulled
down in 1962. A water reservoir was also built and coastguards' cottages
(the castellated) building on the hill above Bark Pots tea
The road past the Tower on the North side of the house was
moved further away, making the Avenue, from the Pillars at
the new cross-roads and leading through the sham Gothic archway
and down the bank.
On Shafto's death in 1837, the estate passed to his
sister's husband, Thomas Wood of Beadnell (whose mother
had also been a Craster). Shafto's only daughter, Francis,
was furious at not inheriting and removed herself to Preston,
taking all Shafto's family records, furniture and furnishings,
and even the rockery from the garden!
Thomas Wood employed the architect John Dobson of Newcastle
to modernise the Tower extensively, renewing and moving the
fireplaces and chimneys to the internal walls (the house suffered
from damp - it still does, despite Dobson's efforts),
adding a second floor to the old East wing and turning it into
domestic offices and servants' quarters. He also built
a laundry, bakery, brewery and dairy around an internal courtyard
behind the NE side of the house; these were pulled down in
1969. He added a handsome bay window to the East side of the
South wing, with a good view to the sea, for which a ha-ha
was constructed in the east garden wall.
Thomas Wood took up residence in 1839 in the newly refurbished
house. He took on the name of Wood-Craster (the Wood was subsequently
dropped). He bought Craster South Farm back from Lord Grey.
On his death in 1867 the little Anglican church of St Peter
the Fisherman was built in the village in his memory; it was
at first intended as a Sunday school, but became a chapel-of-ease
to Embleton, which remains the parish church. The Memorial
Hall, next door to it was built in 1887 and inaugurated as
a men's reading room in 1889.
The last member of the family to live in the Tower as a single
house was Sir John (1901-1976). He served a term as High Sheriff
of Northumberland and was Chairman of the Associated Sea Fisheries
Committee of England and Wales from 1949-1970. He was very
knowledgeable on wild birds being a member of the Home Office
Advisory Committee on the Wild Birds' Protection Act.
He took great interest in the creation of a national reserve
on the Farne Islands. The Arnold Memorial Reserve below Craster
Heugh was set up in 1973 in memory of Dr. Lawrence Arnold on
land sold by Sir John Craster to the Northumberland Wildlife
A fine double window - the last work of Leonard Evetts, a
notable designer of stained glass, was placed in St Peter the
Fisherman in 1998, in memory of Sir John's twin brother
and sister, Shafto and Phyllis Carr-Ellison, who lived for
many years at the Bogie, Craster South Farm.
During World War II, the army was quartered at the Tower.
There was a camp of Nissen huts in the NE corner of the grounds,
to the left of the present North drive.
In 1965, Sir John sold a large part of Craster Estates, Craster
Harbour and the West Farm only being retained, and left eventually
to Oswin Craster (his cousin). S & A Grey are the tenant
farmers. South Farm was sold to Howick Estate, except for the
Bogie and Keeper's Cottage, now belonging to children
of Phyllis Carr-Ellison. The Tower itself was bought by three
Craster cousins, who employed the Edinburgh architect, Schomberg
Scott, to divide it - very skilfully - into 3 separate, self-contained
dwellings, two of which still remain in the ownership of members
of the Craster family.
With acknowledgements to Oswin Craster, and detailed articles
on the history of the Craster family written by Sir Edmund
Craster, published by the Society of Antiquarians of Newcastle