Witton Castle dates from the late 14th, early 15th centuries but, unlike the other surviving castles of County Durham such as Brancepeth and Lumley, its history is clouded in uncertainty.
The Eure Family
Witton was fortified by Sir Ralph de Eure about 1410. He was the fifth generation of a Northumberland family related to John Balliol, who was briefly King of Scotland before Robert the Bruce.
The founder of the family was Hugh de Eure, who was an English envoy at Balliol’s court. It was Hugh’s son, Sir John de Eure, who acquired land at Witton le Wear in 1318. However, his main landholdings were at Kirkley near Morpeth and at Stokesley.
Eure was captured at the battle of Bannockburn in 1314. After his release, he swore allegiance for life to the King’s cousin and rival, Thomas of Lancaster. After Lancaster’s defeat at Boroughbridge in 1322, Eure was killed by supporters of Edward II sent to arrest him and his lands were forfeited to the Crown.
It was not until the 1350s that his son (also John) reclaimed them on a payment of £400. This John de Eure was at the battle of Nevilles’ Cross in 1346 and it was his second son, John III, who was the father of Ralph, the castle’s builder.
Sir Ralph de Eure re-established his family’s importance as northern barons and was Sheri of both Northumberland and Yorkshire. In 1411, Eure had the title Lieutenant to the Constable of England and, in 1415, his son, William, fought at the battle of Agincourt. The Eure’s were supporters of the House of Lancaster in the Wars of the Roses and another
Sir Ralph, grandson of the castle’s founder, was killed at the Battle of Towton in 1461. His great grandson, William, was a distinguished soldier and administrator on the Scottish Border and Henry VIII created him Baron Eure of Witton in 1544.
Lord Eure’s heir, Sir Ralph Eure, was killed in the Border Wars in 1545 and, when Lord Eure died in 1548, he was succeeded by his grandson, also William. The 2nd Lord Eure died in 1594 and was succeeded by his eldest son, Ralph. By then the Eure’s were in financial decline and, about 1608, began selling land to meet debts.
The 4th Lord Eure was heavily fined for being a Roman Catholic and the family declined further during the Civil War. Lord Eure’s son was killed at the Battle of Marston Moor in 1644. The Barony became extinct in the early seventeenth century.
“It is not known when Witton was sold, but the last record of the castle in Eure hands is in 1625”
Other Witton Castle Families
Sir William Darcy occupied Witton Castle from about 1637. At the start of the Civil War, he was briefly the Bishop of Durham’s Chancellor and in 1648/9, was heavily fined by Parliament for supporting the King.
In 1660 with the restoration of the monarchy, he regained his post, but died in debt in 1663. By then, Witton had been conveyed to Sir William’s brother, James Darcy, Master of the Royal Stud. His son, James Darcy, Lord Navan, reputedly demolished part of the Castle and, in 1743, the estate was sold to a Newcastle lawyer, William Cuthbert, for £15,000.
In 1782, following the death of Cuthbert’s son, John, the castle was inherited by a nephew, John Thomas Hendry Hopper, who undertook comprehensive internal improvements. On 27 December 1796, soon after the completion of these improvements, Witton was severely damaged by re. J T H Hopper died in 1812, and the castle was again put up for sale. In 1816, it was bought by William Chaytor of Croft for £78,000. Chaytor developed the near by collieries at Witton Park and Etherley linked to the Stockton and Darlington Railway.
In 1832, having become a Baronet and established a bank in Sunderland, he was elected the first MP for the newly enfranchised town. However, later in the 1830s, both the colliery and banking enterprises ran into difficulties. Sir William withdrew as Sunderland’s MP and sold Witton Castle to Donald McClean, MP for Oxford. He never paid Chaytor and, in 1846, was declared bankrupt. In 1851, Sir William’s second son, Henry Chaytor, bought back the estate for £53,500 and Witton remained in Chaytor hands until it was sold to Lambton Estates in the 1960s.