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, timber hall-house.

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 called Edmund.

Thomas, Earl of Lancaster, son of Edmund, was an ambitious & powerful man. He it was who began to build the great Castle of Dunstanburgh in 1313.

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 days.

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 estates.

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 duel.

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 Inn, London.

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 rooms.

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 Trust.

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 upon Tyne.

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