Behind these walls, royalty – and 'wizardry'

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Imagine if you could trace your family tree back more than 700 years and all of your ancestors owned the same house – or castle. This is reality for Catherine, George, Melissa, and Max. Their father is the 12th Duke of Northumberland, Ralph George Algernon Percy, and for at least part of the year, they live in a castle.

With green rolling hills on one side and the picturesque town of Alnwick, England, on the other, Alnwick Castle looks like something out of a movie. In fact, it was used as the setting for Hogwarts school in the first two Harry Potter movies. It has also been used as a location for filming parts of other movies, including "Robin Hood Prince of Thieves," "Ivanhoe," and "Mary, Queen of Scots."

The castle's history dates back to the medieval period. The earliest parts were built by Yves de Vescy in 1096. Then, in 1138, Baron Eustace de Vescy added on to it by building a fortress. The castle is located about 20 miles south of the border between England and Scotland. So, depending on which king was winning the wars of the time, sometimes it was considered an English castle and sometimes a Scottish one.

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With its dungeons, ramparts, and collection of armory, it is no surprise to find that Alnwick's history wasn't always peaceful.

William de Percy came to England from France with William the Conqueror in 1066 to help fight the English in the Battle of Hastings. For his loyalty to William the Conqueror (who won), Percy was given a dukedom.

In 1309, his descendent, Henry Percy, bought the castle and became the first Lord Percy of Alnwick. Since then, the castle has stood through the Hundred Years' War, the Wars of the Roses, the [British] Civil War, several crusades to the Holy Land, and, in the 20th century, World Wars I and II.

Some famous Percys

Alnwick Castle has two connections to heroes named Harry. Besides being used in the movie, its history includes a real hero named Harry. Henry Percy (1364-1403), nicknamed Harry Hotspur, was born and raised there .

He first went into battle at the age of 8. By the time he was 11, he was knighted. He battled in the border wars with Scotland, in the crusades, and against France.

He was known for being brave and fearless, but he had a quick temper, which inspired his nickname. He was immortalized by Shakespeare in the play "Henry IV Part I." At Alnwick, a life-size statue of Hotspur on his horse greets you at the entrance.

Henry Percy, the ninth Earl of Alnwick(1585-1632), was known as the "Wizard Earl." Although he was not a true wizard (as the character Dumbledore is supposed to be in the Harry Potter books), he was very interested in science, especially astronomy and alchemy (an early form of chemistry that also mixed magic and philosophy).

Thomas Percy (1563?-1605), second cousin to the Wizard Earl, was involved in the famous Gunpowder Plot. It was a plan in 1605 to blow up the houses of Parliament in London. Although the plot was thwarted, Britons celebrate Nov. 5 as Bonfire Night, after the explosion that could have been. It's also called Guy Fawkes Night, after the man who was supposed to have set off the explosion.

Alnwick today

Alnwick Castle is open to the public from April to October. Last year, more than 250,000 people visited the castle and its famous gardens.

There are more than 300 rooms in the castle. Just a few are open to the public. On display in the state rooms are one of the largest Renaissance art collections in Europe, ornate interior design, and priceless antiques.

The Castle Museum in the Postern Tower holds artifacts from the medieval ages. The Percy Tenantry Volunteers exhibition at Constable's Tower is an exhibit of military weaponry and uniforms from 1798 until 1814.

At the castle, visitors can get dressed up in period costume and enter the Knights Quest, choose a suit of armor and try jousting, build a castle, design your own coat of arms, and test your swordsmanship. And, of course, if you're a fan of J.K. Rowling's books and the films made from them, you'll want to go on a Harry Spotter tour.

As well as being home to the Percy family, Alnwick is home to a handful of staff members, interns, and students. The students come from St. Cloud State University in Minnesota. Alnwick hosts a branch campus used by the International Study program.

Louise Derres, an intern from Belgium, calls Alnwick home. "By dusk it is so beautiful," she says. "The outside looks cold, but inside it has a very friendly atmosphere."

To find out more, visit www.alnwickcastle.com.

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