Written by Mary Craster
Medieval Craster, Craster Tower & the Craster Family
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
a fully armed and mounted knight for 40 days a year,
as well as agricultural services. In 1296 the then Craster,
had to provide:-
service for 1/2 a knight's fee
- homage for
- attendance as a freeholder
at the Earl's
manorial court at Stamford
- payment of certain rents to the
- plus rent for a mill-pond and water-mill on Howick
- help in cultivating the fields
of the Earl's
- providing 6 ploughs (drawn by oxen), 12 horses for
- 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
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. (The recent survey thinks that the entrance may have
been further along). There is a record of three of Henry
VIII'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. 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
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,
Craster for life by Henry V11.
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 running
straight down the bank next to the Tower, with 12 houses
in 2 rows on each side of it, still to be seen in the pasture.
The present road did not exist and there was nothing by the
sea apart from the little cove where the fishing boats were
The 16th century was a disturbed and unruly period, with
constant feuds and cattle rieving 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
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 new 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 2
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 fuel.
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 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, 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
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 Castellate)
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 Gothick
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 round
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
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 was very knowledgeable
on wild birds and 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 Evetts, a notable designer of stained glass, was
placed in St Peter the Fisherman
in 19--, 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 11, 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, 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 3 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, written by Sir Edmund
Craster and the detailed history of the Craster family, published
by the Sec. of Antiquarians of Newcastle upon Tyne.