The histories of Chillingham Castle and the Wild Cattle are tied up with two noble families of Northumbria, the Greys and the Bennets.
Commemorated by Grey’s Monument in Newcastle upon Tyne and by Earl Grey Tea, the Greys have influenced the course of our national history.
Death pervades the Grey’s family mediaeval history. Chillingham Castle is located close to the border of Scotland and England. In the 1200’s the two countries were bitter enemies.
The castle was repeatedly attacked by Scotland, and used as a base for the English army entering Scotland. In 1297, William Wallace, a leader of the Scottish army attacked Chillingham Castle and burned the women and children of the Greys to death in the monastery.
Then again, torn apart by the War of the Roses in the 1300’s, the Grey family was split between the Lancastrians, supporting Henry IV and the Yorkists, Edward IV. The winning side of the family, the Lancastrians, ordered no less than eight brutal executions for their fellow family members.
For high treason, they were hanged, drawn and quartered. Sir Ralph Grey ordered this fate for his own son.
This blood-curdling execution saw the prisoner hanged by the neck but then cut down from the gallows, still alive, to have their blood and guts removed before their very eyes. The struggling prisoner, still alive, was then sliced into quarters. Usually the dead man’s head was displayed at the city gates, as a warning to all others.
By 1695 the Greys, as lords of Chillingham and major powers in the land had acquired the title of Earls of Tankerville. But there was no son to inherit the title in 1701. Lady Mary Grey married Charles Bennet (who was then Baron Ossulston), and the title was revived for him.
During the 20th century the fortunes of the Tankervilles declined and the estate was progressively sold off. In the 1980s the Castle reacquired the Grey connection, when Sir Humphry Wakefield, whose wife is a Grey by descent, bought the Castle.
That the Chillingham Wild Cattle survived the 20th century is mainly due to the 8th Earl of Tankerville, his widow Violet, Dowager Countess of Tankerville and their son, the Hon. Ian Bennet. The Earl set up the Chillingham Wild Cattle Association and the direct family connection lasted until the Dowager Countess died in 2003. By the 1980s it was impossible to remain self-sufficient and generous help from the Knott Trust, the Northern Rock Foundation, the Duke of Northumberland and many other trusts and individuals enabled the Park and the Wild Cattle to be combined under the ownership of the Association.