Bamburgh Castle
Bamburgh Castle Photo © 2018 David Simpson

Bamburgh : Joyous Guard ?

The village of Bamburgh is dominated by its great sandstone castle which stands on a massive whin sill outcrop, overlooking the Farne Islands. When viewed from the golf course near the Harkess Rocks to the north of the village, the castle in its lofty coastal location looks to good to be true. The building is well described in William Tomlinson’s Guide to Northumberland;

“A more impregnable stronghold could not be imagined, for rugged strength and barbaric grandeur it is the king of Northumbrian castles. From nearly every point of the compass its majestic outlines are visible.”

In pre Anglo-Saxon times Bamburgh was called Din Guaire (or Din Guayroi), and was a tribal stronghold of an ancient British tribe called the Votadini. The old name has lead some to believe that Bamburgh was the legendary ‘Joyous Guard’, the castle of Sir Lancelot and Sir Gallahad in the time of King Arthur.

Photo © 2018 David Simpson
Bamburgh Castle rock Photo © 2018 David Simpson

Bamburgh and Northumbria

Bamburgh’s recorded history begins in 547 A.D when King Ida the Flamebearer established the royal city and capital of Bernicia at Bamburgh. Bernicia was an expanding kingdom centred upon the Rivers Tyne and Wear.

King Ida’s people were Angles, a fierce piratical race originating from a region now in southern Denmark near the border with Germany. As Bernicia expanded it conquered the ancient Celtic speaking tribes of the region including the kingdom of Catraeth (centred on the River Tees) and the kingdom of Rheged, in what is now Cumbria.

The rise of Bernicia reached a climax in A.D 603 when King Aethelfrith of Bernicia (Grandson of Ida), seized control of the neighbouring Angle kingdom of Deira (now the Yorkshire Wolds). This resulted in the formation of a new powerful kingdom called Northumbria, stretching from the River Humber northwards.

Northumbria, occupying almost a third of the whole British mainland became, at the height of its influence, one of the strongest Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of Britain and was ruled from two capitals at York and Bamburgh. Although for a time the supremacy of the Northumbrian kings, was challenged by the great midland kingdom of Mercia, and the later Viking kingdom of York, Northumbria remained a fiercely independent Anglo-Saxon province, right up until the time of the Norman Conquest.

Bamburgh Castle Dunes
View of Bamburgh from across the dunes to the south Photo © 2015 David Simpson

Bebba’s Burgh and Armstrong’s castle

The name Bamburgh originates from the time of Aethelfrith, the first King of Northumbria, who named the fortress or `burgh’ after his wife and queen called Bebba. Over the years the name Bebba’s Burgh was simplified to Bamburgh. Before Aethelfrith’s time Bamburgh had continued to be known by its Celtic-British name Din Guaire (or Din Guayroi).

Over the centuries Bamburgh Castle has been greatly restored, most notably by the Victorian industrialist William, Lord Armstrong (1810-1900) and the oldest remaining part of the building, is now the twelfth century keep. Today the modern visitor to the castle is more likely to be reminded of the Victorian age of Armstrong than of Bamburgh’s Celtic, Anglo-Saxon and medieval history. Nevertheless when viewed from afar, the castle still retains a romantic historical appearance.

Read about The Laidley Worm Legend of Bamburgh

A kingdom within the walls

One curious though little known event in Bamburgh’s history took place long after Northumbria’s `Golden age’, at the time of the Wars of the Roses, when the castle was a staunchly Lancastrian stronghold.

It was to here in 1464, that King Henry VI and his wife, Queen Margaret of Anjou fled, following a defeat by the Yorkists in a Battle at Hexham. For a short time the disheartened monarch held court at Bamburgh during which time, the great building encompassed the total extent of his kingdom.

Eventually Henry was defeated when Bamburgh came under siege from the artillery of Edward IV. It was the first castle in England to come under fire from cannons.

Bamburgh Castle
Bamburgh Castle and village Photo © 2015 David Simpson

The Kingdom of Northumbria 547-900 AD. Poster Print (A2 only).


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