Large castle on a rocky outcrop
England,  History

The great fort of Bebbanburg

One of the grandest sights on the Northumbrian coastline is that of Bamburgh Castle. It is a view that I never tire of.

The castle stands on a massive outcrop of rock and towers over the sands below. Unlike many castles on this coast, it is still a family home, and thus far more complete than the ruins elsewhere. It is truly an impressive sight.

I have been to Bamburgh a number of times, but revisited recently in the company of a group of one-time Virtual Tourist members who were attending the big Euromeet I organised in Newcastle.

Group of people in front of a large castle
Virtual Tourist friends

We had a fantastic guide for the day, Robert from Lundgren Tours, who was both knowledgeable and entertaining. That visit has prompted me to share one of my favourite Northumberland places here.

Man in green shirt gesturing in front of large castle
Our guide Robert
A potted history

There has been a castle at Bamburgh since the sixth century, when the site was chosen as the Royal capital by the Celtic kings of Northumbria. And it is easy to see why this site would be chosen. It has commanding views over the coast; a coast that was vulnerable to attack from Vikings and others. And the basalt outcrop on which the successive castles have stood is one of the most prominent landmarks along that coast.

Large castle on a rocky outcrop
From the south

In 547 the castle, then known as Din Guarie, was captured by the Anglo-Saxon ruler Ida of Bernicia and became his seat. By the end of the sixth century Ida’s grandson Æthelfrith was on the throne of Bernicia. Worried about the frequent warring, he sent some of his children, including his son Oswald, to Iona to be educated by the monks of that peaceful island. It was there that Oswald converted to Christianity. Later, when he became king himself, he was to set about converting the whole of Northumbria to Celtic Christianity. Meanwhile Æthelfrith had left his castle to his wife Bebba and it was renamed Bebbanburg: Bebba’s fortress.

Large castle on a rocky outcrop
From the south

It was in the end the Vikings who, in 993, succeeded in destroying the original fort. It fell into disrepair but when the Normans arrived in Northumbria on their way north after the Battle of Hastings, they built a new castle on the same site, which forms the core of the present one. This castle became a strategic outpost in the Border Wars against the Scots.

The castle was a royal possession for centuries, and an important element in the defence of England, with the border just a few miles to the north. In 1464, during the Wars of the Roses, Bamburgh was the first castle in England to be defeated by artillery, at the end of a nine-month siege by the Earl of Warwick. For 400 years the castle remained in royal hands, with the local Forster family serving as governors. Eventually the castle was made over to them; but the cost of its upkeep was too high and it fell into ruins.

Large castle on a rocky outcrop
From the village cricket pitch

The last Forster heir, Dorothy, married Lord Crewe, Bishop of Durham. When she died he set up a charitable trust in her memory to restore the castle and support the people of the village. He left a bequest so that the trust could continue its work after his death. The castle became a centre of village life, with a windmill where locals could grind their crops, a hospital and a school.

Eventually however the trust ran into financial difficulties and was forced to sell the castle. It was bought by the Victorian industrialist William Armstrong, who completed its restoration. Armstrong was a pioneer of engineering, inventing hydraulic power and building ships and armaments. It was he and his descendants who created the Bamburgh we see today.

Looking up at a large castle
Starting the climb to the castle

That’s quite a history lesson! All this and more was recounted by our wonderful guide, Robert, but I have skipped over his most dramatic accounts.

Uhtred of Bebbanburg

In recent years the name of Uhtred of Bebbanburg has become known to many through The Last Kingdom, both the books by Bernard Cornwall and the TV series. In these stories Uhtred is born to a Saxon lord who rules from Bebbanburg in Northumbria. He is captured as a child and adopted by a Danish warlord, Ragnar the Fearless. He grows up a Viking but ends up fighting for the Saxon king Alfred in his battles to unite the kingdom. Driving him however is his ambition is to take Bebbanburg, stolen from him by his uncle after his father’s death.

Robert however told us about the real Uhtred, Uhtred the Bold. He was the son of Waltheof I, ealdorman of Bamburgh, whose family ruled from this castle. He married the daughter of the Bishop of Durham which extended his land and his power. When Malcolm II of Scotland invaded Northumbria in 1006 Uhtred raised an army and defeated the Scots. The king, Ethelred (‘the Unready’) rewarded Uhtred with the ealdormanry of Bamburgh even though his father was still alive. He also made him ealdorman of York, thus uniting northern and southern Northumbria under the house of Bamburgh.

Large castle with sand dunes in foreground
From the dunes

Playing power games, Uhtred divorced his wife and married again, this time to the daughter of Styr, a rich citizen of York. This gave him political allies amongst the Danes of that region. But his manoeuvring didn’t stop there. He later married a third time, this time securing the hand of the daughter of Ethelred himself! But perhaps in doing so he overreached himself. When Cnut of Denmark invaded Yorkshire Uhtred was forced to surrender to him. He paid homage to Cnut as King of England, but maybe the new king was wary of so political a game-player? He summoned Uhtred to a meeting, but on the way there, Uhtred and forty of his men were murdered at Cnut’s command. His death started a blood feud that lasted for many years, but his descendants continued to rule the region until the Norman conquest.

While there are some parallels between this historical Uhtred and the fictional one inspired by him, they are not the same person, with the latter described as living over a hundred years earlier than his namesake.

Large castle seen from a beach below it
From the beach
Inside the castle

If you like your castles to be romantically ruined, this is maybe not the one for you. Under Lord Armstrong and his successors it has been developed from fortification into an admittedly grand family home. With the Virtual Tourist group I went inside for the first time in many years. There is a lot to see there, mainly items from Armstrong’s collection of artworks, ceramics and other objects. The state rooms are impressive, especially the King’s Hall, the former Great Hall of the castle.

But on the whole I wished I had stayed outside, as I usually choose to do here. From the village and from the beach you can appreciate the grandeur of this castle and better imagine its days as a stronghold against invaders from the sea and land.

As I said, if you prefer a ruined castle, this may disappoint (go to Dunstanburgh instead!). But if you like to see a building largely intact and strong, still standing proudly above the coast it once defended so effectively, Bamburgh is indeed an impressive sight.

I last visited Bamburgh in May 2022; the photos included here are a mix of those taken on that visit and on previous ones

43 Comments

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you Siobhan – I agree, it’s pretty much the image we all have in our heads of a great castle 🙂 The setting on that rocky outcrop really helps!

  • Wind Kisses

    Fantastic Sarah. Loved the landscape there, and Robert looks like a fantastic tour guide. My husband happened to be looking over my shoulder while I was reading, so I read some of it outloud. Now he is researching for us. lol. Thank you for this. Great history and great photos to bring it to light. Donna

    • Sarah Wilkie

      So glad you were taken by this Donna. Bamburgh is one of my favourite places and I thought I knew it quite well, but I learned so much more from Robert and he really brought the place to life for us all 🙂

  • maristravels

    Putting a tentative step back into WP via The Rreader and catching up with your Posts. Loved this one, as I’m a sucker for castles on coasts. I never want to venture inside, it seems to spoil the mystery for me, but the exterior always fascinates. I had read about Bamburgh, of course, but your text made it all come alive.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Lovely to see you back Mari 🙂 If you like castles on coasts Northumberland can offer you several. My other favourite is Dunstanburgh which was once larger than this I believe but is now just a ruin!

    • Sarah Wilkie

      I’ve never watched the series and hadn’t even realised it was set around one of my favourite places until this recent visit there! Now I think I’m going to have to watch it 😉

  • Marie

    I’m not familiar with this castle at all so always good to hear of somewhere new – although, like yourself, the wish list will never clear!!

  • Easymalc

    It was good to see so many on the tour and it sounds like the guide was a great addition to your visit. Your point about a ruined castle or a restored one obviously depends on different factors, not least a personal view. Due to its location as much as anything, I think my preference would have been to see it as a romantic ruin, but the Armstrong family are an integral part of the area’s history as well – and it certainly does look impressive.

  • Annie Berger

    Yes, I got that sense from you and other readers’ comments. JUST what we need is yet another place to add to our travel wish list when were trying to winnow it down and not add to it, Sarah! But reading your posts does make me want to explore far more of Africa and see just a bit of what you’ve seen in Gambia, Botswana, etc.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      I’m exactly the same – I read a blog post and think, I’d love to go there! But I’m resigned now to not getting to everywhere on my list and I see it as a plus to have so many places to consider 😀 Definitely I would recommend Botswana if you’re considering Africa (much more than Gambia, although we enjoyed our stay there too).

  • ThingsHelenLoves

    Bamburgh Castle is a beauty. I’m a little surprised by the interior, it’s more stately home than traditional castle. I suppose old Armstrong wasn’t one for roughing it! That whole stretch of coastline is full of beautiful castles and beaches. My dads side of the family come from Holy Island and surroundings so I spent a lot of time up that way as a child. I keep saying I’ll get back up north but it never seems to happen. One day!

    • Sarah Wilkie

      I reckon you’re right Helen – Armstrong loved the finer things in life! He was a great collector of art and ceramics, and I’m sure he wanted a home that would showcase his treasures as well as make a statement about how successful he was. Wow, fancy having family origins on Holy Island! It’s a magical place. We took this same Virtual Tourist group there after the morning in Bamburgh and they loved it!

  • sheetalbravon

    Bebbanburg rang a bell immediately thanks to The Last Kingdom, Sarah. I’m a fan of the TV series, its central character, Uthred of Bebbanburg is a fascinating person. Was disappointed to read how the actual Uhtred died . Somehow the TV hero would have anticipated this ambush. The fort though is a beauty in real life and most importantly, well maintained. I can see why TV Uhtred kept hankering for it all through the four seasons. Now I’m inspired to finish season five to see where it all goes.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Yes, who wouldn’t want to fight for this place?! I’ve never seen the series or read the books but I’m interested to do so now after all that Robert told us, even if the fictional Uhtred bears only a passing resemblance to his real life namesake!

    • margaret21

      Thanks for this exhaustive history, brought up to recent times. I’ve never been inside, but will continue to give it a miss, and imagine it as it was, just as I have to with Dunstanbrough.

      • Sarah Wilkie

        It’s hard here to separate Victorian restoration from the original, and Dunstanburgh poses almost the opposite problem – there’s too little of anything so you have to add structure in your mind’s eye rather than strip away, as here 🙂

  • Heyjude

    It is a grand castle and I actually liked the inside. It’s also impressive seen from the Holy Island. Another rather lovely ruin is Warkworth.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Yes, I like Warkworth a lot – the setting at the top of the village is great too! We went on to Holy Island after this visit to Bamburgh but I’ve already written about that wonderful place on this blog so probably won’t repeat myself 😉

  • Yvonne+Dumsday

    Nice to have the history written down as I had already forgotten some of the finer details from Robert’s presentation.

      • Annie Berger

        Don’t know this stretch of England at all or the story behind the castle but you brought it all to life in your photos and text. Thanks, Sarah, for showing us such a lovely castle. So glad that it’s still thriving and a going concern.

        • Sarah Wilkie

          If ever you’re in England again Annie you should definitely explore Northumberland. It has so much to offer – beautiful coastline, more castles than any other English county, centuries of history from the Romans onwards …

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