The village of Bamburgh is dominated by its great sandstone castle which stands on a massive whin sill outcrop, overlooking a beautiful beach and the Farne Islands out at sea. When viewed from the western end of the beach near the Harkess Rocks, the castle in its lofty coastal setting looks too good to be true. It is no wonder that it has often been used as a setting for historic scenes in Hollywood movies.
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.”
There is evidence of human activity in and around Bamburgh from the Mesolithic, Neolithic and Bronze Age eras as well as the Iron Age. Perhaps occupied by the Romans, in pre Anglo-Saxon times Bamburgh was called Din Guaire (or Din Guayroi), and was a tribal stronghold of an ancient British tribe of the Iron Age called the Votadini. The Votadini were friendly to the Romans and made peace with them, being an important provider of grain to the Romans in the north.
Din Guayroi, the old name for Bamburgh inspired speculation that Bamburgh was once the legendary ‘Joyous Gard’, the castle of Sir Lancelot in the legends of King Arthur.
Bamburgh and Northumbria
Bamburgh’s recorded history begins in 547 AD when King Ida, an invading Angle chief, established the royal city and capital of Bernicia at Bamburgh. Bernicia was an expanding kingdom probably centred upon the Rivers Tyne and Wear.
King Ida’s people were Angles, a fierce piratical race originating from a region now lost amongst the borders of Germany and Denmark. As Bernicia expanded it conquered the ancient Celtic speaking tribes of the region including the kingdom of Rheged, in what is now Cumbria.
The rise of Bernicia reached a climax in 603 AD when King Æthelfrith of Bernicia (a grandson of Ida), seized control of the neighbouring Angle kingdom of Deira (in Yorkshire). This resulted in the formation of a new, powerful, kingdom called Northumbria, stretching from the River Humber northwards.
The name Bamburgh originates from the time of Æthelfrith , who named the fortress or ‘burgh’ after his wife and queen, Bebba. Over the years the name Bebba’s Burgh was simplified to Bamburgh. Before Æthelfrith’s time Bamburgh had continued to be known by its Celtic-British name Din Guaire (or Din Guayroi).
One of the most powerful Northumbrian kings associated with Bamburgh was King Oswald (634-642AD), a pagan, who converted to Christianity and appointed St Aidan as the first bishop of nearby Lindisfarne, making this north eastern corner of Northumbria an important focal point for early Christian cultural developments.
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.
Archaeological excavations at an Anglo-Saxon cemetery just outside Bamburgh Castle have revealed that the Northumbrian capital at Bamburgh was a cosmopolitan community during the time of King Oswald.
Bio-archaeologists who have studied the cemetery have found that the high status burials on this pre-Viking age site show individuals originated from a variety of places across Europe including the Hebrides, Scandinavian countries, the southern Mediterranean and even North Africa. Around 110 burials from the cemetery site were reburied in a crypt or ossuary at Bamburgh’s church of St Aidan in 2016 in a special ceremony.
Other finds discovered over years of continuing archaeological excavations in and around Bamburgh have revealed hundreds of Anglo-Saxon coins, an Anglo-Saxon sword (found in 1960) and a tiny 7th century solid gold plaque featuring a zoomorphological design. The last mentioned of these, found in 1971, is known as the ‘Beast of Bamburgh’ and dates to the 7th centur. Believed to be from a book cover or a shrine, it is now used as the official emblem of Bamburgh Castle.
Although for a time the supremacy of the Northumbrian kings was challenged by the great midland kingdom of Mercia, and on two occasions the castle was attacked by the Mercian king, Penda, Bamburgh remained an important Anglo-Saxon centre. North Northumbria, focused on Bamburgh, Chester-le-Street and later also on Durham remained a fiercely independent Anglo-Saxon province right up until the time of the Norman Conquest.
In later times the Viking kingdom of York had challenged Bamburgh’s supremacy and the fortress was a target for the Danes on more than one occasion, falling victim to the raiders in 993 AD.
Bamburgh in Norman times
After 1066, the old communal fortress and citadel of the Northumbrians became a private baronial fortress of the Norman conquerors though the independently minded outlook of the province seems to have rubbed off on the third Norman appointed earl of Northumbria, Robert De Mowbray, who revolted against King William Rufus in 1095.
Mowbray’s castle at Tynemouth was captured by the king but Mowbray took refuge at Bamburgh another of his possessions which the king’s forces found impregnable. An ‘evil neighbour’ fort was built in close proximity to Bamburgh that was heavily garrisoned with the king’s men with the intention of besieging Bamburgh and starving Mowbray out.
After some time Mowbray attempted to make his escape but was captured following a skirmish. However, the castle remained in the hands of Mowbray’s wife and his nephew Arkil Morel. It was Morel who had played a big part – through trickery – in the defeat and death of King Malcolm of Scotland at Alnwick in 1093.
The captured Mowbray was taken to Bamburgh where the king’s forces threatened to have Mowbray’s eyes gouged out. Mowbray’s family and retainers surrendered Bamburgh to the forces of the king. Mowbray was imprisoned at Windsor but later pardoned and is thought to have retired as a monk at St Albans Priory.
A kingdom within the walls
Despite its obvious grandeur Bamburgh was by no means the most important border fortress in the later medieval era, with castles like Norham and certainly Alnwick being of greater significance.
Part of Bamburgh became the site of a monastic foundation around 1121 and the ruins of a chapel within the castle may be associated with this. The chapel is thought to have been built on the site of an earlier Anglo-Saxon chapel within the fortress that is thought to have housed the holy remains of King Oswald.
Nevertheless Bamburgh still proved to be a useful fortress and as a Royal castle played host to King John, Henry II, Edward I, II and III and also to Harry Hotspur, the 14th century son of the Earl of Northumbria, who commanded the castle. The castle often served the purpose of a prison during medieval times and its distinguished ‘guests’ in this respect included Piers Gaveston, the much-despised ‘favourite’ of King Edward II and King David II (David Bruce) who was captured at the Battle of Neville’s Cross near Durham City in 1346.
One curious event in Bamburgh’s history took place at the time of the Wars of the Roses, when Bamburgh Castle (along with Dunstanburgh and Alnwick) 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 under the powerful Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick – known as ‘Warwick the Kingmaker’. Heavy artillery was used was used in the siege and Bamburgh became the first castle in England to fall to cannon fire.
Interestingly, present at this siege was Sir Thomas Mallory who added much of the substance to the legend of King Arthur and created the idea that Bamburgh may be associated with the Sir Lancelot’s castle of Joyous Guard.
Lord Crewe’s Castle
The massive keep of the castle dates to the 12th century with dimensions of 61 feet by 69 feet and a height of 35 feet. Much of the outer walls of the castle are medieval and some parts of the towers are Norman.
Yet the building was in considerable ruin when it was purchased by Nathaniel, Lord Crewe, the Bishop of Durham in 1704 from the bankrupt Forster family who then owned it. Crewe also brought the estate of Blanchland from the family – which lies in the Derwent valley in the southern reaches of Northumberland near the border with County Durham. Both Bamburgh and Blanchhland villages are, incidentally, homes to handsome stone inns called The Lord Crewe Hotel.
The Forsters had been Constables of Bamburgh since the reign of Elizabeth I. Bishop Crewe was married to Dorothy, a member of this family who was heir to the castle along with her nephew, Tom Forster. Crewe settled Tom’s debts by purchasing of the castle.
Tom, who a Northumberland MP (as his father had been before him) became heavily involved in the Jacobite rebellion of 1715 and was its most prominent leader. He supported the claims of James Stuart, ‘the Old Pretender’ to the throne. Seemingly, the whole of Northumberland came out in support but a refusal by the people of Newcastle to back him (they supported King George) is said to be the origin of the term ‘Geordie’.
The rebellion was a failure. Forster was captured and imprisoned at Newgate in London. Here he was rescued from prison by his sister, who like his aunt was also called Dorothy who disguised him as her maid. Dorothy later became the eponymous subject of the novel Dorothy Forster by Sir Walter Besant. Tom Forster fled to the continent where he continued to plot against the Crown. He would not return to England until after his death, for burial at Bamburgh.
On the death of Lord Crewe, Bishop of Durham, Bamburgh Castle passed to Crewe’s charitable trust and after 1757 part of the castle keep became the home to a girl’s school, an infirmary and accommodation for shipwrecked sailors. Much of the adaptation of the castle at this time was in line with the wishes of Crewe’s trust and was undertaken by a Crewe trustee, John Sharp, who was Archdeacon of Northumberland. A further development of the Trust’s activities under Sharp was the establishment of what was claimed to be the world’s oldest lifeboat station which. The station utilised a converted coble adapted for the task of sea rescues.
Another development of the castle at this time and again in line with the wishes of the Trust was the establishment of a granary at the castle for the use of the villagers. A vestige of this is the Bamburgh Castle windmill (there are no sails today) at the west end of the castle. This mill was built by John Sharp as part of the granary.
Corn was bought in, then ground on site and sold to local people at reasonable rates. The mill is positioned on the site of an earlier tower that was part of the castle. It stands near the site of the ancient gateway to the castle called St Oswald’s Gate – with roots going back to Anglo-Saxon times. It was once the only entrance to the fortress.
In 1894, Bamburgh was purchased by the Tyneside industrialist William, Lord Armstrong (1810-1900) who of course lived at Cragside house near Rothbury. During Armstrong’s period of ownership the castle underwent significant restoration and rebuilding under the guidance of the architect Charles Ferguson.
Ferguson’s designs initially allowed for the inclusion of a convalescent home in line with the charitable wishes of Bishop Crewe but this was relocated to Bamburgh village. Armstrong and his architect must take significant credit for the wonderful edifice that we see today and his Armstrong family descendants continue to maintain the castle for the enjoyment of the visitors today.
Today the modern visitor can explore numerous rooms within the castle and enjoy the mix of Medieval and Victorian splendour. There is an extraordinary range of beautiful items and artefacts including 18th and 19th century portraits, porcelain, landscape paintings, silver, furnishings, fabrics, tapestries, a wonderful hammerbeam roof, stained glass, armour and much else to see.
The beautiful village of Bamburgh offers some of the most delightful views of the castle to the north of its extensive cricket green which the castle overlooks on its lofty dark grey whin sill cliffs. Bamburgh is a small village with two or three main street and numerous cottages some of which serve as holiday homes and bed and breakfast establishments, as well as inns and coffee shops.
The village retains much charm and is much less commercial than the larger seaside village of Seahouses to the south. The castle itself is approached by a driveway at the east end of the village while the beautiful Bamburgh Beach and its spectacular views of the castle can be reached from a pathway at the west end of the green near the castle windmill which takes you through the sandy, grassy dunes down to the shore.
The pubs and coffee shops are clustered along Front Street, which has a number of 18th century cottages. Here we get the best views that combine both castle and village.
Near the Lord Crewe Hotel there is a tiny triangular village green and here the road continues past the castle, passing its car park and the caste’s entrance driveway before continuing en route to Seahouses. The route to Seahouses (it’s the main route for visitors in and out of Bamburgh) offers great views of the neighbouring dunes and the distant Farne Islands.
Near the little green another street called The Wynding – a cul-de-sac – also joins Front Street from the north and is the most secluded of Bamburgh’s main streets with alternative views of the castle at its north end. The other main street is Church Street the road to Belford and the A1. About a mile and half east of Bamburgh it passes close to Budle Bay and the nearby settlement of Waren which served as the medieval port for Bamburgh.
Within Bamburgh itself Church Street contains some charming Tudoresque houses of the 19th century and passes the Grace Darling Museum on its south side. The museum commemorates the life of the famous Northumbrian heroine of that name who made a famous sea rescue from the island of Longstone on the Farne Islands in 1838.
Just over on the opposite north side of the road from the museum is the church of St Aidan where there is a memorial to Grace in the churchyard. The church is mainly 13th century, though perhaps has a Norman foundation and is said to have been built on a site of an earlier church which marked the spot where St Aidan himself passed away in Anglo-Saxon times.