Heritage > British Castles

Bamburgh Castle

Bamburgh Castle, Northumberland, is sited on a basalt outcrop overlooking the North Sea. From the battlements, Lindisfarne Castle on Holy Island can be seen to the north. By road Bamburgh is some fifty miles north of Newcastle-upon-Tyne and seventy five miles south of Edinburgh.

Dramatically situated on a crag jutting out over the North Sea, Bamburgh is one of Britain's most photogenic castles. Henry II built a massive keep on the site of what had been the capital of the Anglian kingdom of Bernicia in the 7th century. The main highlight indoors is a superb collection of 17th century arms and armour from the Tower of London.

Bamburgh Castle HistoryBamburgh's Norman Keep has stood on the basalt crag for almost nine centuries, but even that great span of time covers less than half of the rock's history of occupation. The earliest reliable reference to Bamburgh shows the craggy citadel to have been a royal centre by AD 547 and excavation has revealed that the site has been occupied since the first century BC.

The story of Bamburgh as far as we know it, thus begins at the end of the prehistoric period, when Britain was still a Celtic land untouched by Roman, Saxon or Viking. At that time, Bamburgh lay in territory belonging to a native tribe known as the Votadini; and it is likely that this natural fortress was then the stronghold of a local tribal leader. Beneath all we see on the great rock today lies the original ground surface on which these Ancient Britons lived: covered over by blown sand and the debris of centuries, it still preserves fragments of cooking-pots made and used at Bamburgh 2,000 years ago.

The next chapter of the story covers the first four centuries AD. The Roman conquest made Britain the northernmost province of a great empire; and the effects of that event are clearly written in the soil of Bamburgh. Various kinds of Roman-style pottery (some of it imported from the Continent) have been found at Bamburgh, showing that the citadel was occupied and used throughout the Roman centuries. Indeed, the archaeological evidence from the West Ward suggests that a beacon burned there during the dark days when at last Roman power began to fail. In those days, various seaborne raiders were attacking Britain's shores, and coastal defence was a vital matter. It is at least likely that Bamburgh played its own special part in the overall scheme.

When the Roman empire at last collapsed, Britain was left to work out its own destiny. The Roman overlords gone, the leaders of the native British population clearly hoped to keep Britain British once again, and they revived all the old, proud, Celtic traditions in their various little kingdoms. This is the most mysterious period of our history; but the evidence suggests that Bamburgh once again became the stronghold of a powerful British chieftain or local 'king'.

Meanwhile, however, the rough, illiterate Anglo-Saxons (coming from Denmark and the Frisian coast) had won a foothold in southern Britain. Gradually they spread, fighting down Celtic opposition and laid the foundations of a new country that was later called England. In 547 Bamburgh itself appears in history as the seat of an Anglo-Saxon king, Ida; and from that time on it emerges clearly in the written records as the 'capital' of the early English kings north of the Tyne.

Much remains unknown; but two things are certain. First that Bamburgh originally had a Celtic name, which ancient writers give as Din Gsayrdi (Din = fortress) or Din Gxoaroy; and secondly that this fortress was a key-place in the northern struggles between British and English in the fifth and sixth centuries AD. Romantic legends couple the name of King Arthur with Bamburgh, and it has even been alleged that Bamburgh was the castle of the Joyous Gard given to Sir Galahad. Although Arthur himself, the Churchill of his age, may be no more than an invented, symbolic hero, the myth does catch the essential character of Bamburgh's role in the dark age that created the modern differences between England, Scotland and Wales. In the end, Bamburgh itself lost its old, Celtic name, and was given a new, English one. The name we use today is simply a corruption of Bebbanbgrgh. The Venerable Bede, the first great English historian, writing in the eighth century, suggests that the place was named after Bebba, wife of King Ethelfrith (Ida's grandson).

Perhaps the greatest age of Bamburgh began in the seventh century. First it came by conquest into the hands of the great king, Edwin of Northumbria. Edwin's main 'capital' was at York, but as soon as he had been crowned and baptised in 627 he brought the Roman missionary Paulinus to preach Christianity in his lands around Bamburgh. Pagan enemies defeated and killed Edwin at last; but then the rightful heir of Bamburgh - Oswald, the son of Edwin's old adversary Ethelfrith - returned from exile to do great things. It was Oswald who set up a monastery on Lindisfarne (Holy Island) in 635; and that little offshoot from the world of Bamburgh became one of the great centres of learning and art that lastingly affected the civilisation of Europe.

The 'Golden Age' of Bamburgh and Northumbria was cut short by the devastating attacks and political demands of invaders from Scandinavia - the Vikings. But even so, though the balance of political power changed with the times, Bamburgh still held its place as one of the crucial centres of the north.

This section of the history of Bamburgh Castle has been edited and revised by Dr Brian Hope-Taylor, F.S.A., Soho directed a long-term programme of archaeological excavation and research Within the Castle precincts.

Visitors can see in the Crewe Museum Room objects uncovered during the archaeological dig: in particular, a small gold plaque found at Bamburgh in 1971 and engraved with the amiably ferocious creature seen on other Anglo-Saxon works of art that belong to the seventh century. His descendants are to be seen in the Book of Durrow and the Lindisfarne Gospels. The monks who wrote and illuminated great books on Holy Island, within sight of Bamburgh, evidently had the opportunity to meet this little Anglo-Saxon beast and his relatives. Also on display are a pair of strap-ends of bronze inlaid with silver dating from the ninth century. The intricate decoration is very small and barely visible.

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