The Forsters had been a landed family in North Northumberland since the 1200s, their seat at Etherstone. Bamburgh Castle, in the 1500s, had been for centuries the property of the Crown, but crippled since a massive siege in the Wars of the Roses. We can tell from early etchings, and especially the exquisite sketches by Samuel Grimm in the mid-1700s, that the walls looked like broken teeth, its earlier strength totally emasculated, and only the Keep remained habitable and intact. The Keep was to become one of Sir John’s many residences.
John fought in the Anglo-Scottish wars of the Tudor era, and for his valour and bravery was knighted in 1548. In 1555 he was made Captain of Bamburgh Castle, and Deputy Warden of the Middle Marches-the lawless “debateable” lands. However, Sir John was far from leading a blameless life as the Representative of the Crown. He was a man on the make-and make good he did. This was the start of start of what was to become an obsession to acquire land. It was the time of Henry VIII’s infamous Dissolution of the Monasteries (1536-7). The Abstract of the Title to Bamburgh Castle at Woodhorn Archive confirms that in April 1541 ”A Lease by Indenture from King |Henry VIII to John Forster of Etherstone of the scite of the late cell of Bamburgh and other Herediments therein” mentioned for 21 years at a rent of 37 pounds 10 shillings and 4 pence.
However, by 1546 this was translated into a purchase for 664 pounds, 5 shillings and 10 pence, including:
This land extended to Beadnell, Lucker, and Fleatham. The purchase encompassed the wool, corn, and hay and also the tithes of pigs, geese, hens and fish in the Tweed. Importantly the grant included the “Liberty to Keep Courts as the Abbot did” and this in time led to the creation of the courtroom in Bamburgh Castle that exists to this day.
Not content, in 1577 Sir John acquired the Mansion House built on the site of the former Mastership Tower of Bamburgh. In 1561 Queen Elizabeth conferred the captaincy of Bamburgh Castle on Sir John on the death of the post holder, Sir John Horsley, and this was activated in 1582.
In his role as Warden of the Middle March, Sir John was in the thick of the Reiving Feuds, the “Hot Trods” and lawless thieving and pillaging. But he was deeply immersed in national politics, not to say spying and skullduggery.
Sir John lived to a great age (he reputedly died aged over 100 in Spindlestone Manor) and there are many accounts of his infirmity and losing his grasp of power in old age. During his later years he was in residence in Bamburgh Castle. It must have been in the Keep; the only intact and safe part of the Castle remaining after the siege of 1464.
The original Norman entrance door, nick named by Castle staff as “the Milk bottle Door” has three sets of grooves in the walls. Here a series of stout doors must have prevented unwanted assailants ascending to the first floor rooms. The first room encountered being the courtroom, though not in Sir John’s Day. The brilliant book “The Steel Bonnets” by George MacDonald Fraser recounts:
“In October 1597 a band of thirty raiders, with scores to settle with old Sir John, with intent to settle the score at last. Forster was in his room, but by chance Lady Forster saw the raiders coming up the stairs, and with great presence of mind “got the chamber door put to and bolted”
So the stairs that every visitor to the Castle descends were once mounted by Border thugs with murderous intent! Sir John died at Spindleston on 13 January 1602, just before his aged Queen. His funeral here in St Aidan’s, was extravagant. His will was proved by his widow, and his heir his son Nicholas, and an inventory remains of the costs of his funeral which cost £454.11.7d. His will still exists in Durham Cathedral Library. He left £1020.5.8d.
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