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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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