By James Turner
Castles are interesting. Crude brutal constructs designed for a crude brutal use, they gradually evolved into the skyscrapers of their day, a mergence between science and art on a truly grand scale, epitomising the pinnacle of medieval engineering. Similarly the applications of castles were equally dualistic; ideal for exerting control over territory, not to mention handy for hiding behind, a castle was also a great canvas upon which lords could scrawl their pretensions and aspirations.
Few ambitions were ever so grand or manifestos so proudly proclaimed as those writ into the walls of Dunstanburgh Castle. The power of such fortifications wasn’t just limited to their considerable heft but was rooted in their role as the stronghold and home of the great men and women of the age who sought to rise above the aristocratic crab bucket they found themselves in and cast a great ripple into the river of history. The shadow of this grip on the human psyche lingers still where such fortifications function as both a potent reminder of the realities of the past and a catalyst without equal for the imagination.
The castle as an enduring symbol of medieval society then, reminds us how similar, yet impossibly removed, we are from our ancestors, much like the gulf between the marmite lovers and haters of the modern era. We share the same drives, yet context has bequeathed to us very different dreams. It remains important, of course, never to drift too deeply into nostalgia and away from historical accuracy; had we been born during the Middle Ages most of us would have been dead before our fortieth birthday which may have come as something of a relief after enduring medieval toilet facilities. The proud echoes of Dunstanburgh Castle make this rule very easy to forget.
Like many of Britain’s greatest fortresses, the strategic and tactical concerns which informed their placement remaining immutable for more than a millennia, Dunstanburgh is a site with deep roots. Archaeological surveys performed in the 1920s revealed the existence of both Celtic and Roman habitation of the site, although unlike many of its contemporaries, this occupancy was not continuous and whatever Iron Age fortifications stood at Dunstanburgh were eventually abandoned and left to decay in solitude until the Middle Ages.
Dunstanburgh’s founder, Thomas, Earl of Lancaster and Leicester, was the second richest man in England, an aristocratic magnate of the first order, infused with a potent combination of royal blood and heaps of cash that propelled him into the heart of the turbulent political storm that would soon come to beset the reign of his much maligned cousin, Edward II of England. Born in 1278 Thomas was the eldest son of Prince Edmund Crouchback, the third son of Henry III. Edmund, who had briefly been King of Sicily, was a noted Crusader and able royal lieutenant who had made his fortune through his unflinching service to his elder brother, Edward I.
When Edmund died in 1296 while besieging the city of Bordeaux on the King’s behalf in an attempt to shore up their family’s shaky grasp on Gascony, Thomas succeeded to the entirety of his father’s lands and titles. At first, Thomas seems to have emulated his father’s model of faithful and close service to the senior branch of the royal family, spending much of his early political career participating in England’s hegemonic war in Scotland, even fighting in the Battle of Falkirk, as well as playing a key and symbolically charged role in his cousin’s coronation.
However, Thomas soon found himself entangled in the King’s disputes with the fractious and disgruntled nobility. The key to success for any medieval English king was to build cohesion with the aristocracy, bringing their interests into alignment with the King’s own. It was a lesson well learnt by Edward I who had successfully harnessed his subject’s natural acquisitiveness to the old dream of English military and political domination of Britain. However, the growing monopolisation of royal favour and its accompanying material benefits by Edward II’s closest friend and confidant, Piers Gaveston began to destabilise the equilibrium of the realm, as an irate and belligerent aristocracy sensed a threat to their continued prosperity. Earl Thomas was one of the leading figures in Gaveston’s removal from power, contributing a large quantity of troops in the army assembled to apprehend the royal favourite and serving as a judge in his resultant trial held in one of the Earl’s Warwickshire holdings.
Thomas and his fellow judges quickly came to the conclusion that the most efficient and expedient way to prevent Piers from gaining access to the King was to have him executed and he was duly beheaded. Thomas had now emerged not only as a leading figure in the delicate political ecosystem of medieval England but also as a rival and stringent critic of the King. Dunstanburgh Castle was to be his shiny new Ferrari with which he hoped to drive around England impressing the other nobles with his wealth, power and impeccable taste, tempting them away from the King and into an affinity with his own alternative court existing in parallel. Work on this ostentatious but undeniably impressive display began in 1313. Thomas spent a vast sum of money on the Castle which was constructed using the latest architectural techniques and heavily modelled upon the royal castles his uncle, Edward I raised in the course of his great building programme during the conquest of Wales.
The Castle’s walls and towers continued to grow at an impressive pace until they could easily be seen by the King’s custodians squinting off into the horizon at nearby Bamburgh Castle, its location perhaps a calculated challenge. When Edward’s government was thrown into crisis in the aftermath of the Battle of Bannockburn, Thomas took the reins of leadership, although here the Earl suffered from the tragic irony that has plagued back seat drivers the world over as he too struggled to curb the fractious dissent of the nobles and halt the catastrophic reversal of the English position within Scotland and was soon removed. While Dunstanburgh appears to have served its purpose most admirably, its mastermind met an unfortunate end in 1321 when, while once again in rebellion against the King, he was captured and swiftly executed trying to flee north to the Castle.
Dunstanburgh and Thomas’ vast collections of lands then fell to his younger brother Henry, being restored to him piecemeal by Edward II and later by his son Edward III over the next 6 years. Henry would finish what his brother started, participating in Queen Isabella’s successful coup and being appointed jailer of the unfortunate former Edward II. He became one of Edward III’s primary advisers and was given control of the Scottish marches, directing these defences from his seat at Dunstanburgh on the very edge of the Border.
Henry’s son and successor, Henry of Grosmont, was one of the new King’s closest companions and childhood friends; they shared a love for heady tales of chivalry and acts of martial valour, a widespread sentiment which Edward, like his grandfather used as a tool of mobilisation for war. Henry, now the master of Dunstanburgh Castle, was created Duke of Lancaster and following only Edward, himself, was the second member of the Order of the Garter, at the forefront of a new generation of aristocrats who would lead England to the height of its temporal power.
From there, Dunstanburgh eventually came into the hands of another great royal consigliere, John of Gaunt, the Duke of Lancaster, one of Edward III’s sons and the husband of Henry’s daughter Blanche. John undertook extensive repairs and refurbishment, further fortifying the Castle, creating a new gatehouse and transforming the previous one into a purely domestic building. However, lamentably the Castle figures little in John’s long and distinguished career. During the War of the Roses, where the descendants of the Castle’s old master, John of Gaunt , vied for the throne, it was held by the Lancastrians but was twice captured in 1461 and 1464 by the Yorkists. Sadly, the damage inflicted during this conflict was never to be repaired since the Castle, isolated from any major population centres, lacked strategic significance. Thus after its heyday of lavish splendour, Dunstanburgh Castle was left to quietly decay by the sea.
As previously alluded to, not much of the Castle remains today, although those parts of it that abide are impressive enough particularly the front of the Castle with its massive double turreted gatehouse which housed the Earl’s own apartments and great feasting hall. While the uppermost storeys no longer survive, those levels which remain are readily accessible for exploration, although for the sake of those easily spooked I recommend this be done on a golden Summer’s day.
The rest of the Castle stands as a skeleton of its former self; the only other structure which has survived in anything approaching good condition is the Lilburn Tower on the north side. While the Castle’s impressive former dimensions, its walls flexing to encompass the entirety of the hill, can still be seen, the large interior now reduced to waste ground eloquently articulates the scale of the Castle and the depths of its former grandeur as a court designed to illuminate the north of England and elevate its patron. The location of the Castle is so idyllic you’d actually be surprised if you didn’t see Just Williamesque gangs of children skipping by looking for adventure and mischief with their canine friend. The Castle is located on a wide flat hill lounging comfortably next to the sea and is accessible by means of grassy ten minute stroll from the seaside village of Craster.
The Castle set like a gem in the green and pleasant Northumbrian seaside is truly beautiful and deeply evocative, its current ruination conspiring to make our perceptions of the court it once housed grander still. Dunstanburgh Castle remains a potent relic of a time when the nobility rolled dice for the destiny of nations.