Castle of the Week 31 – Bamburgh Castle

“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. To the mariner plying between the Tyne and the Elbe, it is the most conspicuous landmark on the North East Coast of England.”

Bamburgh sits proud and imposing on top of an outcrop of the Great Whin Sill, an igneous intrusion of about 300 million years old. The emperor Hadrian used this to his advantage and built Hadrian’s Wall on top of the sill to keep the Picts from invading Roman England. Bamburgh has a long recorded history and the site is of great historical importance. Although there is no reference to Bamburgh in any current written history books before the 6th century AD, excavations carried out on the site has led archaeologists to believe there were settlements here before this period. Bamburgh, like Edinburgh, is believed to have been an important regional focus and very probably the chief stronghold of a local king.

The history of Northumbria in the 7th and early 8th centuries was extensively recorded by a monk called Bede, whose History of the Church of England became the equivalent of a medieval best seller. Bamburgh was confirmed a site of foremost importance. In pre-Anglo Saxon times it was known as DUN GUYARDI, and was a tribal stronghold of an ancient British tribe called the Votadini. The old name has led some to believe that Bamburgh was in fact the legendary Joyous Guard, the castle of Sir Lancelot and Sir Galahad in the time of King Arthur.

Bamburgh’s recorded history begins in A.D. 547 when King Ida, also known as The Flamebearer, established the royal city and capital of Bernicia at Bamburgh. King Ida’s people were Angles, a fierce 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 Rheged, in what is now Cumbria. The rise of Bernicia reached a climax in AD 603 when King Aethelfrith of Bernicia, grandson of King Ida, seized control of the neighbouring Angle kingdom of Deira. This resulted in a new powerful kingdom of Northumbria. This mighty kingdom covered almost a third of the whole British mainland and became one of the strongest Anglo Saxon kingdoms of Britain.

Aethelfrith gave the settlement of Bamburgh to his wife, Bebba, and it was then named BEBBANBURGH in her honour. In the sixth century Bamburgh resembled nothing like it does today. Bede described Bamburgh as being ‘fortified by a hedge and timber palisade. It was not until the Norman Conquest that the castle as it appears now began to take shape.

From the 6th century through to the 9th century and the beginning of the Viking attacks along the shores of the North East coast, the castle site was the capital of the royal dynasty of Northumbria. The rule of the Danish kings at York did not mark the end of Bamburgh’s importance for the region. By the early 10th century a dynasty of earls based at Bamburgh were ruling an Anglo-Saxon Northumberland, which at that time extended from the river Tees (in what is now North Cleveland and the southern most reaches of Durham) to the Forth in Scotland. This family, who were very likely responsible for the fall of Eric Bloodaxe in A.D. 954 and who fought with the kings of the Scots as equals, remained in power in the region until after the Norman Conquest.

The Anglo-Saxon earls took a major part in the Northern rebellions against William the Conqueror and so subsequently lost their grip in the region, being replaced by the Normans. The immense strength of the castle prevented it from ever falling into obscurity and it appears again and again as a place of defence, refuge and at times of imprisonment.

Bamburgh stood until the end of the Wars of the Roses (1453-1486) and was besieged on a number of occasions, but was never taken during its golden age. At the time of the Wars of the Roses, when the castle was a staunchly Lancastrian stronghold, it was here in 1464 that King Henry VI and his wife, Queen Margaret of Anjou, fled following a defeat by the Yorkists at the Battle of Hexham. For a relatively short time the monarch held court at Bamburgh, during which time the castle encompassed the extent of his kingdom. Eventually Henry was defeated when Bamburgh came under siege from Edward IV. It was the first castle in England to come under cannon fire.

The castle was largely restored during the Victorian period by Lord Armstrong (1810-1900) and the oldest remaining part of the building is the 12th Century keep.

Write-up, first two pictures and downloaded scenario courtesy of Sulis. Remaining pictures courtesy of Jayhawk.

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