Ten Castles that Made Medieval Britain: Bamburgh Castle

By James Turner

Windswept and interesting, the spectacle of the venerable old man of Northumbria, Bamburgh Castle, cannot help but stoke the imagination. Enthroned upon a rearing dais of sub-volcanic rock, the castle rises rugged yet regal over the village that bears its name and the wild iron blue sea.  

Its roots reaching deep into the formless rolling fog of Britain’s ancient past, Bamburgh Castle is built about the fossilised heart of a primordial kingdom. Emerging from the whirling, scrambling mêlée of shattered Sub-Roman Britain’s dusk and the marauding Saxon dawn, ageless Bamburgh taken with fire and sword was the grain of sand around which a pearl coalesced.


The Kingdom of Northumbria, high water mark of Germanic conquest within Britain, was for a time the most powerful kingdom in the Saxon Heptarchy holding sway over all others.  The soon Christianised Northumbrian monarchs from their seat, the mighty fortress of Bamburgh, oversaw a great flourishing of monastically driven scholarship and literature, transmuting a backwards kingdom on a half-forgotten and benighted island into one of Christendom’s great strongholds of learning and culture. Yet all things come to an end, the dynasties and people of Northumbria changed under waves of settlement and conquest, its definitions became blurred until it was subsumed into the newly awakened England. While Northumbria was largely washed away, clinging onto the peripheries  of peoples’ identity, the craggy robust grandeur of Bamburgh Castle rose up to mark its passing, carrying and expanding its legacy down the ages.

The site of the current castle, like many of Britain’s most iconic and enduring fortresses, seems to have served as a stronghold almost since time immemorial; archaeological evidence pointing to the presence of  an extensive Celtic settlement and fortification by the Votadini tribe. During their extended efforts to tame and reshape Britain, during their centuries of settlement and cultural conversion, the Romans constructed a watch tower on the site, a link in a vast chain of coastal defences.

From these murky origins the history of the castle swims into view when in 547 it was wrested from the grasp of the local Briton Kingdom, which had sprung up to fill the power vacuum caused by the  withdrawal of Roman troops, by the evocatively titled Anglo-Saxon warlord Ida Flame-Bringer of Bernicia.  Here Ida established the centre of his hard won domain which was to play a pivotal role in the Saxons ongoing and bitter struggle for dominance under the auspices of the royal inhabitants of Bamburgh.


It was this foundation that turned Northumbria into one of Europe’s premier centres of learning and a powerhouse of book production. As well as training such luminaries as the historian, the Venerable Bede and Emperor Charlemagne’s adviser Alcuin who played a vital role in the Carolingian Renaissance, Northumbria’s scholarly and literary revivals were transmitted across Europe. However, as Northumbria’s power inevitably waned, losing their stranglehold over Mercia, the relatively isolated fortress at Bamburgh became superfluous to the expanding interests of the Northumbrian Kings, especially when compared to the rising star of York, now an important episcopal centre. Saxon domination of Northumbria came to an end in 867 with a full scale invasion by the much maligned Vikings under the Lothbrok brothers, Halfdan and the ominously and confusingly nicknamed Ivar the Boneless.  In 993, after a long period of grudging co-existence with the neighbouring Viking settlers, Bamburgh was finally captured and sacked by the unabashedly stereotype embracing Vikings.

Following the invasion of the Normans and the eventual dispossession of the Northumbrian Earl Morcar, together with remaining Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-Danish noblemen, the newly minted King William experimented with numerous replacements in order to ensure his control of the wild northlands and impose a semblance of order on his followers and allies as they frenziedly and haphazardly sought to carve out their own holdings. The Normans, likely out of a mixture of tactical awareness and habit, constructed a castle at Bambrugh, on the site of the old Saxon fort and palace complex, which was then occupied by Aubery de Coucy, who the Conqueror installed as Earl after the harrowing of the north.

The Conqueror, himself, visited the newly created Bamburgh during his preparations for a raid into Scotland. Aubery, perhaps tiring of the weather or the animosity of his new subjects, decided to return to Normandy, permanently forfeiting his English lands which were awarded to Robert de Mowbray, another Norman mercenary adventurer. Robert, one of the most powerful lords in the newly fused Anglo-Norman world and from a family that constituted a formidable network of power, had an eventful tenure as Earl rising up against the Conqueror’s successor, William Rufus in 1088 only be pardoned before then slaying the invading King Malcolm III of Scotland and his heir at the Battle of Alnwick.  Knowing when to call it quits though is a quality entirely absent from the psychological makeup of a Norman magnate and in 1095 Robert rebelled once again against King William Rufus who promptly retaliated by besieging Bamburgh Castle. Such was the formidable nature of the defences that the King was unable to breach them and the Castle only fell when Robert himself was captured, the King having struck a deal with Robert’s wife, the formidable Matilda who had been serving as castellan throughout the siege, saying that if she surrendered he would refrain from gouging out her husband’s eyes. The Castle was then taken over directly by the Crown and further fortified to better fulfil its role in the network of border defences.


Centuries later during the turmoil and confusion of the War of the Roses, Bamburgh Castle briefly served as a refuge for the Lancastrian King, Henry VI. Not coincidentally then, does Bamburgh Castle possess the rather dubious honour of being the first English castle reduced by cannon as the proto-Machiavellian Richard Neville, the Earl of Warwick – called King Maker by many for his role in championing and stage-managing the Yorkist cause – used his artillery train to batter down the walls in an attempt to capture the King.

In 1610, the castle was granted by James I to the Forster family who had long acted as the castle’s custodians.  However, operating a castle proved to be a cripplingly expensive endeavour and while they managed to retain it for several generations, Bamburgh Castle suffered from a degree of deterioration. The castle changed hands several times after it was auctioned off following the death and bankruptcy of William Forster in 1701.

Perhaps one of the noblest moments in the castle’s long history came in 1751 when it was purchased by Dr John Sharp who sought to create a bizarrely, ahead of its time, socialist utopia using the castle as a focal point for a number of charitable endeavours. These included the opening of both a free hospital and school for the local residents, stock piling of food and fuel which could then distributed to the needy, as well as the creation a coastguard. The castle was eventually bought in 1894 by a Victorian industrial magnate, Lord Armstrong. Lord Armstrong and his successors invested a vast amount of money in the full restoration and modernisation of the castle; an investment which in terms of the culture heritage of Britain continues to pay dividends.


The castle while not amongst the largest or most complex of its ilk within the British Isles nevertheless boasts its own roguish good looks. Its evocative location and complementary design have even brought it to the attention of the fabled and golden land of Hollywood with the castle appearing in a number of film and television productions such as Peter Glenville’s ‘Becket’, two adaptations of ‘Robin Hood’ and perhaps in the lowest point of the Castle’s long tattered yet glorious history, it featured in an episode of ‘Most Haunted.’

The aptly named Great Keep, the oldest part of the castle standing today, was raised by Henry II in 1164 while the rest of the castle spreads out around it enclosing entirely the outcrop upon which it is built. Its wide, occasionally layered battlements  braced as they are against the sea are perfect for purposefully striding across before halting suddenly between ramparts  to stare dramatically across the horizon, something  I once saw in a movie and now find inexplicably therapeutic. Bamburgh Castle is awash with historical artefacts, together with treasures of great beauty and historic import which are proudly displayed throughout the castle and its numerous exhibition rooms all of which do an admirable job in informing visitors of its long history. The King’s Hall features a beautifully carved roof made from teak provided by the King of Siam and is awash with historical artefacts many of which predate the War of the Three Kingdoms. Tantalisingly for those so blessed, it is worth noting that the Hall is available for weddings.

The real jewel in the castle’s crown is the Archaeology Room featuring a host of artefacts from Bamburgh’s Dark Age past, ably conveying both the significance and context of the various relics within. The two most prominent pieces in this collection are the Bamburgh Beast, a golden plaque dating back to the 7th century upon which is intricately carved the design of an unknown animal and the Bamburgh Sword.  Originally excavated in 1961, this 7th   century sword features what would have been at the time revolutionarily advanced metallurgical techniques.  The sword has only recently been the subject of research due to the bizarre circumstances surrounding its retrieval. The archaeologist who originally found the blade left it in his garage, forgetting about it for some forty years!

A still beating heart of ancient kingdoms, standing tall as it always has above the endless crash of waves, Bamburgh Castle is one of those rare and blessed places where you can feel the breath of history on your neck.


Click here to visit the Bamburgh Castle website

You can also follow the castle on Twitter @Bamburgh_Castle


See also: Ten Castles the Made Medieval Britain: Pembroke Castle

See also: Ten Castles that Made Medieval Britain: Caernarfon Castle

See also: Ten Castles that Made Medieval Britain: Stirling Castle

Top Image: Bamburgh Castle – Photo by giorgio raffaelli / Flickr


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