Bamburgh Castle, home to the kings and earls of Northumbria

Bamburgh Castle

Bamburgh Castle

Even though Bamburgh is only ever mentioned or hinted at in the background of The Northumbrian Saga, it is an important part of the storyline and integral to the history of Northumbria. It is the seat of power for the King of Northumbria, Aethelwin’s uncle, and later becomes the seat of resistance against the Vikings for her brother Wulfstan and the remnants of the Northumbrian survivors. In the sequel that will hopefully be finished by the end of the year, Bamburgh will play a larger role, with even a few scenes centred within the hall there. With this in mind I wanted to share a bit of what I have learnt through researching this centre of medieval power. The more I researched, the more I realised just how important and often overlooked it has been.

Today, visitors to Bamburgh castle are confronted by a large Norman style castle perched atop a distinctive rock of dolerite that overlooks the Northumberland coast. It is a grade 1 listed building popular with tourists and boasting its own museum. Despite its Norman and late medieval appearance, the site is quite ancient. Since at least the first century BC there is evidence for continued habitation at the site until very recently. In fact the surrounding countryside holds evidence for human habitation for 6000 years. During the Roman period it is thought that the rock on which Bamburgh now rests had been used as a beacon site, a prominent feature of the landscape where beacons were lit in order to send warnings of impending invaders or visitors. This rocky outcrop provided the local inhabitants not only with a natural fortification, but also a visually dominant vantage point over the coastline, productive agricultural lands and the Cheviot Hills in the distance. Bamburgh was an impressive and coveted position to hold which after the Romans left, was coveted by native Britons and Scots who occupied the site until the advent of the Anglo-Saxon migrations to the island.

Sometime in the first half of the 6th century the Anglo-Saxons managed to destroy the native inhabitants hold on the rock and a fortified stronghold was built by the legendary Angle Ida the flamethrower. It became a seat of power for his descendants and by 547AD Bamburgh was one of the many royal residences of the new Kingdom of Bernicia. At this time the stronghold was known as Din Guyardi.

Bamburgh has been known by various names since this time. Bebbanburgh, Bebanburgh, Baanburgo, Bamborrow and Bamborough to name a few. They all are thought to have derived from the name Bebbe’s Burgh or Bebbe’s fortification/stronghold. Bebbe was a Queen of Northumbria, the wife of King Aethelfrith of Bernicia and mother to the sainted King Oswald of Northumbria.

The stronghold is perhaps most famously known as the favoured seat of power of Kings such as King Oswald and King Oswy of Northumbria. As such it is one of the first locations where Christianity was introduced into Northumbria. It was here that King Oswald invited St Aidan to preach at his court, and purportedly in the nearby village of Bamburgh is where the saint died. Oswald himself was made a saint for his part in introducing his people to the new faith. He died tragically in the battle of Maserfelth or Maserfield in 642 and afterwards his body was gruesomely dismembered by his Mercian Enemies. Later, his limbs were eventually recovered by his supporters, including his brother, and made into holy relics. It is one of his arms that were brought to rest at the church of St Peter at Bamburgh in a silver casket.

The Stronghold

As mentioned in previous posts the Anglo-Saxon seem to have rarely built in stone, especially in the early medieval period. Fortifications and ramparts were built of earth and wood so it is strange, as pointed out by archaeologists Edoardo Albert and Paul Gething in their book Northumbria: The Lost Kingdom, that such an enclosure had been constructed in the 8th or 9th century around the Anglo-Saxon stronghold. It was most likely made either by a double stone wall with the middle filled in with clay and rubble, or else a single stone wall with the revetment on its inner face filled with clay. This wall was still fairly short in height and probably topped by a wooden rampart, but the craftsmanship was such that it allowed the structure to last a very long time. Such a robust defense was surely implemented because of some strife. Of course the first thought always turns to the Vikings. There is evidence of the Northumbrians fighting against these people not just from the later 9th century onwards but also around the 840s which resulted in the death of the Northumbrian King Raedwulf. It is possible that this was one of the reasons for such extensive measures, but i think there may be a more likely explanation, or at least an additional one. Before the Viking attack on York in 866 the Northumbrian throne was under threat. Civil war had been created between King Osbert and another man named Aelle who eventually won the throne. Not only this but since the beginning of the 9th century and even in the 8th century, Northumbria had been plagued by successive dynastic disputes for generations, the war between Osbert and Aelle being only the last in a long line. If Bamburgh was such a strategic position any one of these kings would have wanted to defend the stronghold against his enemies.

The excavation of this stone wall showed that the stone enclosure formed a kidney shape, a result of following the contour of the rock on which the stronghold stood. The added wall would have made this already naturally hard to get at target even more impregnable. In addition to this, on the eastern side of the rock is the North Sea. During the Anglo-Saxon period this sea would have lapped right up against the rock at high tide, unlike the beaches that are present today. Entry then could only be gained from the landward side, the west, which was guarded by a gateway known even today as St Oswald’s Gate. Such defences meant that only a handful of people were needed to defend Bamburgh, the stone wall and the forbidding sea did the rest.

St Oswald’s Gate

St Oswald’s Gate is the earliest surviving entrance to the Anglo-Saxon defensive structure and is dated to have been built in 774AD by Simeon of Durham. The entrance has been excavated under a late 18th century staircase and even showed evidence of wear from generations of people walking over its threshold.

Buildings

Within the stone wall enclosure and St Oswald’s Gate lay the buildings owned by the King of Northumbria and the later Earls. In Trench one of the Bamburgh excavations located adjacent to St Oswald’s gate was found evidence for two structures. The first was a timber building of middle Anglo-Saxon date. The second building was made of stone that had been robbed out sometime after the 11th century (probably when it was made into a Norman Castle 1070). They are both aligned with the natural cleft of the dolerite rock that formed the gateway and it is thought that these two structures housed the gate wardens, men who controlled access in and out of Bamburgh.

Another smaller building was excavated within trench 3 and thought to have been the site of metalworking, perhaps a blacksmith’s shop. Hammer scale, the hardened flakes of molten metal that is discarded when a piece of heated metal is hammered into shape, indicated that the practice had taken place on this location. Stone slabs which were found within the same trench though probably not belonging to the metal workshop, and are thought to have been the remnants of a stone porch maybe even an entrance to a higher status hall.

Port

In the mid 13th century Bamburgh had its own port used largely for trade at nearby Budle Bay, 2km to the north west of the castle. This seems to be the earliest named location for a port in the area although evidence of an earlier port closer to Bamburgh can be assumed from an account from 1095 of the Earl of Northumberland, Robert de Mowbray, facing charges of plundering four ships at Bamburgh. Although the exact location is not mentioned it is possible that another port, perhaps closer to the castle, was in use at least at this time if not earlier.

One possibility has been named very close to St Oswald’s Gate and a medieval street called the Wynding. During this time period the small inlet would have been sheltered by a spur line to the north from the wind coming off of the North Sea and would have provided access right up to the main entrance of the stronghold. Unfortunately no definite evidence has been shown that this was the case, but it is still a likely possibility.

Bamburgh village

Outside of the walls of Bamburgh castle is the village of Bamburgh. This village would have housed the people who serviced the Anglo-Saxon and later Norman lords through their trades and crafts and of course through farming. The village has endured many battles throughout its history including its total destruction twice by King Penda of Mercia. After his defeat of Northumbria at Maserfield and the death of King Oswald, Penda is said to have taken the village apart and used the timber to create a pyre around the castle in an attempt to burn the stronghold to the ground. The village is also home to St Aidan’s Church, the original is thought to have once stood somewhere under or near to the present church. It was here that St Aidan came to preach to King Oswald’s people and convert them to Christianity, and where he is said to have died.

Many other finds have been discovered during excavations in and around Bamburgh castle. The most famous of which is the Bamburgh Beast, a small golden plaque from the 7th century, and the fragments of a stone seat or possibly a throne. The fragments are made from local yellow sandstone and date to around 800 AD. It even made an appearance on Channel 4’s Time Team program in 2011 where experts attempted a reconstruction using the surviving fragments and examples of carved motifs from this era.

There is also a cemetery in the nearby sand dunes to the south of the castle. This is known as the bowl hole cemetery because of its location within a depressed dune system. Around 100 individuals both male and female and of varying ages were found here and dating to around the 7-8th centuries.

Bamburgh after the Anglo-Saxons

With the destruction of the Kingdom of Northumbria thanks to the Viking incursions in the mid 9th century, Bamburgh continued on a smaller scale as a centre of power, this time for the earls of Northumbria who had survived the invasion and still tried to cling on to their wealth and influence. A dynasty of successive heirs seems to have established themselves fairly early on during this period and continued more or less intact up until the Normans arrived. Like in the rest of England after 1066, Bamburgh was given a new Norman lord and William the Conqueror had the Norman castle built in 1070.

In 1464 during the all-consuming War of the Roses or Cousins’ War, Bamburgh was a supporter of the Lancastrians and found itself pummelled by the canons of the Kingmaker, Richard Neville the Earl of Warwick. It gradually fell into disrepair until it was given over to the keeping of the Forster family in 1603 who unfortunately went bankrupt at the beginning of the 18th century. The castle then went to the Archbishop of York, Nathaniel Lord Crewe, and was cared for after his death as part of his charitable trust by Dr John Sharp. Dr Sharp is largely credited with beginning the restoration of the castle to what is seen today. It was made into a school for girls and a hostel for shipwrecked Mariners while he had care for it. At the end of the 19th century the castle was sold to William, first Lord Armstrong. It has since been passed down through his family who have also undertaken further restorations.

In addition to this there have been a number of Archaeological excavations conducted within and around the castle relating to many eras of occupation. The first excavations were instigated by Dr Brian Hope-Taylor in the 60s and 70s. Since 1997 excavations have continued under The Bamburgh Project which also run a field school and are largely to thank for a lot of what we know about Bamburgh’s history.

Most of the information contained within this post has been taken from the various blog posts, articles and reports found on The Bamburgh Project’s website. For more information on the organisation and what they have discovered at Bamburgh castle, the Kaims, and other archaeological sites associated with the castle then give them a visit here. I also recommend signing up with their blog posts for the latest news and discoveries at Bamburgh which are always interesting, especially when they make a big discovery!

 

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4 thoughts on “Bamburgh Castle, home to the kings and earls of Northumbria

  1. I live just north of York and often visit Bamburgh, although I prefer Dunstanburgh castle for sheer, windswept isolation. Your blog post was fascinating, thank you.

    • So jealous of all these people living in northern England. Loved York when I went there a few years ago and I hope to visit Bamburgh around 2016. I’ll have to put Dunstanburgh castle on the list too. I am a sucker for windswept isolation! thanks Jane 🙂

    • Thanks Edoardo, that means a lot especially coming from you. I have really enjoyed reading Northumbria:the lost kingdom that you and Paul Gething have published on the history of the Kingdom, including Bamburgh. From your blog you sound very busy! I cannot wait to read your Northumbrian thrones series! ( for anyone interested check out http://www.edoardoalbert.com)

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