Web Text-ures Logo

Web and Book design,
Copyright, Kellscraft Studio

(Return to Web Text-ures)

Click Here to return to
Castles of England and Wales
Content Page

 Return to the Previous Chapter

Kellscraft Studio Logo


THERE are in England many towns that have grown up around feudal castles, but Bamburgh is unique as a fortress upon the site of which was once “the mistress of the cities of Britain.” It might almost be said that, with the building of the Norman castle the glory of Bamburgh departed. For upon this volcanic rock jutting into the North Sea was a British stronghold, Dinguardi, which became the capital of the Northumbrian king­dom, Bernicia. Bebbanburh, as it was called by the Angles, held sway over the mingled fortunes of Bernicia and Deira, now the glory of a victorious nation and again the impregnable refuge of a broken people. The history of Bamburgh in that period mirrors the defeat of the Britons, the savagery of pagan Mercia under Penda, the extension of Wessex under Alfred’s house, and the low Danish ships driving in from the east.

This barren cliff-top, described by one chronicler as about the size of two fields, was yet the subject of a lamentation worthy of Jerusalem. “She has exchanged her ancient sabbaths,” wrote Reginald of Durham, “for shame and desolation. The crowds that flocked to her festivals are represented by a few herdsmen. The pleasures her dignity afforded us are now no more.”

Indeed, there was an end to Ilium. At some period, which it is impossible to fix, the inhabitants of the shrunken capital built a new, inglorious Bamburgh, outside the enceinte of what is now the castle.

This “corner of Northumberland defended on all sides by the sea and the marshes,” was the last refuge of the Conqueror’s enemies in the North. Fortified as it was, even then possibly with stone walls, careful strategy was needed to make it surrender, and he paid Bamburgh the compliment, shared only by Durham and York, of leaving it untouched when he laid waste Northumbria in 1070. A soldier’s eye saw the value of the site, and the history of Bamburgh as a castle began.

Often enough, of course, the Normans used existing fortifica­tions until the opportunity arose to build after their own manner  — an opportunity which in some cases did not present itself until the twelfth century. All that we know certainly about the date of its building is that the keep was an addition to a completed castle; not, as in the case of the White Tower, or the keep at Dover, a nucleus around which concentric fortifications were afterwards built. The keep was erected by Henry II in 1163, ten years before that of Newcastle.

The plan of Bamburgh is long and narrow, with its north­ eastern side fronting the sea. On such a site there was no question of throwing up a mound to make a fortress of the mound and bailey type. Instead, three wards were built. The inner or eastern ward contained the halls, kitchens, vaults and living quarters with the twelfth-century chapel of St. Oswald, of which the carefully-preserved foundations now remain. The keep at the eastern end of the middle ward has unfortunately lost some of its aspect as a fortress owing to an eighteenth-century effort to convert it into a private residence. This necessitated the piercing of the walls with large, unsightly windows, and the reorganization of its exterior plan.

In the basement of the keep there is to be found a well, described in Anglo-Saxon times as “most sweet to the taste, most pure to see, which has been excavated out of the solid rock with marvellous labour.” Despite its importance to the castle it was lost sight of during the sixteenth century and only discovered by accident in 1770. Its depth is 150 ft. — the actual height of the rock above sea level at that point — which is truly “of a marvellus grett dypnes” for such early work. Another marvel in early times was the flight of steps cut out of the solid rock at the lower end of the castle to the north. Examination proves that these became the mediæval postern steps, but the indiscriminate renovators of the eighteenth century had no compunction in destroying them. In general, at Bamburgh, although much is ancient, the visitor must approach warily each “Norman” door and “mediæval” tower.

Bamburgh has had to stand the test of several sieges, but its impregnability was a byword so long as gunpowder was unknown. William Rufus, who besieged Robert de Mowbray there in 1095, was reduced to blockading tactics. He threw up a temporary castle, which he nicknamed “Malvoisin,” and which was so near the walls that William is said to have suffered from the taunts of the beleaguered garrison. And, in the end, Mowbray’s fall was due, not to a breach in the walls or to the failure of food supplies, but to his own capture after the sortie he made to get possession of Newcastle.

In effect, this was a victory for the throne that only increased the reputation of Bamburgh. For William was wise enough to imprison Mowbray, suppress his earldom, and make Bamburgh a royal fortress. Thenceforward it was governed by Constables, who were royal nominees.

Nevertheless, its very strength as a mediæval fortress can be looked at from another aspect. The object of the mediæval castle builder was to construct a place of passive strength, easily defended, and it can be said that, had six men of their time possessed modern rifles, they could have held the castle against all comers. As a royal stronghold, the history of Bamburgh was well documented, and these documents describe a line of incompetent and dishonest Constables, a castle largely ruinous and desperately devoid of ammunition. Three great statesmen, Henry I, Henry II, and Hubert de Burgh, devoted their attention to Bamburgh, but the state of the castle at other times is fairly shown by an inventory of 1248, in which we are told that the garrison could boast only of two hauberks, three doublets, two helmets and eight iron caps “all old and valueless.” There were thirteen small ballistæ — no more than crossbows — and ten barrels of “quarrels” for them. And, carefully recorded like treasures of great price, are these tools: two crowbars and one broken iron hammer, six axes and one pickaxe, three worthless coppers in the furnace, three old brass pots, three worthless dishes and a gridiron. On another occasion all the provisions to be found were: four casks of sour wine, a pipe of Greek wine, “no better,” one jar full of honey and another with some honey in it.

Again consider the structure of the castle. A Constable in the time of Edward III reported extensive ruins: the lead was decayed and the beams were rotting; the tower was threatened with ruin; the stone roofs of the Davytoure and of the Belletoure had been carried right off by a tempest; all other parts of the castle were in great decay. Yet even in this ruined state, Scottish attacks were beaten off for three months during the year 1328, with what seems to us the small loss of five ballistæ, a bucketful of bolts, the one bow the castle possessed, and all of its five sheaves of arrows. Evidently mediæval castles were not always the perfect strongholds they were represented to be. Or rather the science of siegecraft, in England at any rate, was largely undeveloped.

In this connection though, it must not be overlooked that the garrison was aided by the services of the crown tenants. Few sums of money are put down for repairs in the Rolls of the Exchequer.

In fact, repairs might almost have been a means of revenue, for in 1170 the Thane of Hepple was fined five marks for refusing to lend his assistance. Francis Grose conjectured that the small stones used for the tower must have been brought on the backs of men and horses from a quarry three miles away.

Although Bamburgh lacks in its history some of the dignity of Warwick or of Arundel, both seats of feudal dynasties, it is a place

Where Sultan after Sultan with his pomp
Abode his destined Hour and went his way.

It is, indeed, a commentary on English history, the strength or the weakness of its kings. Thus the powerful Hubert de Burgh proceeded to Bamburgh, accompanied by Brito the Balister, and his eighteen comrades. In the same year the castle was visited by the young Henry III with an insignificant retinue. There is an echo of Edward I’s Welsh victories, when we find two princes from Wales confined in the castle, while Edward II is shown characteristically making a pretext of imprisoning Piers Gaveston at Bamburgh to secure him from his enemies. After the Battle of Neville’s Cross, David Bruce, “who called himself King of Scotland,” was brought to Bamburgh and, ten years afterwards, Edward III there completed the final convention with Edward Balliol for the latter’s surrender of the Scottish Crown. The strong John of Gaunt restored it, and Harry Hotspur was made Constable as a reward for his share in the dethronement of Richard II.

Bamburgh’s most intimate connection with royalty was a tragic one; the unavailing refuge of Margaret of Anjou, it shel­tered the unhappy Henry VI for some months, finally endured a famous siege, and, sorely battered, owned itself defeated by the new artillery. After Towton, Margaret of Anjou, assisted by Lancastrians and French mercenaries, made two attempts to maintain a pied-à-terre for her husband in that part of North­umberland guarded by Bamburgh, Alnwick, and Dunstanburgh. But she had to cope with Warwick the King Maker, and at one time was so closely blockaded at Bamburgh that she was forced to escape to a storm-bound French fleet, and finally reached Berwick in a fishing smack. In the meantime, the garrison, after eating their horses, surrendered to Warwick. Nevertheless, within four months, “by false collusion and treason,” Margaret again had possession of the castle, and with her was Henry VI. She failed to take Norham, was chased back to Bamburgh by Warwick, and so escaped again with her son to secure French aid, leaving Henry VI in safety. Probably the real security of Henry’s position lay, not so much in stone ramparts, as in Warwick’s doubt whether it would be to his own best interests to crush the Lancastrians too effectively. He withdrew southward, leaving Henry undisputed monarch of a little kingdom. To his liege subjects of Alnwick and Dunstanburgh the royal com­mands were issued; even upon the citizens of Edinburgh was conveyed a charter granting trading privileges with the princi­pality in Henry’s possession, until at last the danger of French intrigue forced Edward to march north and scatter Lancastrian court and kingdom to the winds of heaven.

Bamburgh, whence Henry had been assisted to escape, sustained a siege which was a strange mixture of mediæval pageantry and modern science. The Warwick Herald and the King’s Chester Herald were despatched to demand the surrender from the Constable “and other that held his rebellious opinion.” But he “had clearly determined within himself to live or die in the Castle.” So the heralds departed after delivering a final warn­ing against the destruction of the castle: “the which the King, our most sovereign lord, hath so greatly in favour seeing it marcheth so nigh his ancient enemies of Scotland, he specially desireth to have it whole, unbroken with ordinance; if ye suffer one great gun laid unto the wall and be shot and prejudice the wall, it shall cost you the chieftain’s head; and so proceeding for every gun shot to the last head of any person within the place.”

So “Newe-castel,” “London,” and the King’s brazen gun, “Dijon,” came into play. They so “betyde” the place that great stones flew into the sea, and Dijon shot through Sir Ralph Grey’s chamber oftentimes. The castle capitulated, and Sir Ralph Grey was led to Doncaster for execution, one of the chief counts against him being that he had “withstood and made fences against the King’s Majesty and his lieutenant, the worthy Lord of Warwick, as appeareth by the strokes of the great guns in the king’s wall of his castle of Bamburgh.”

This siege gave Bamburgh a certain fame which it might otherwise have lacked. It is widely known, not as a royal town, nor as a castle merely, but as the castle upon whose walls was triumphantly demonstrated the supremacy of artillery. So historians have said, forgetting that the growth of common law destroyed more of the feudal strongholds than did ever “London,” “Newe-castel,” or “Dijon”; forgetting also that Basing House, a fortified manor, held out against the improved cannons of a later century. The real interest of the siege and of Bamburgh is a more human one. The sight of that long-stretching sea-wall and the water-gate is a reminder of Queen Margaret bravely setting out to prepare a new attack on the usurper, of Henry in vigil for the help that never came to him on earth. There are memories here of kings in plenty, and anyone who is interested in such things will find a fount of interest in the history of the Anglian royal town — of Aidan, Cuthbert, Oswald of the Fair Hand, and Queen Bebba, whose name was given to the spot.

Even the enthusiastic renovations of the eighteenth century may be forgiven to the trustees of Lord Crewe, Bishop of Durham, whose aim it was to make the castle into a refuge for shipwrecked sailors. Lord Armstrong, the present owner, has done much to restore the characteristic features of its earlier history.

Bamburgh as a target for those strange new guns is of minor importance. It stands to-day a monument of men, not of things. It held the border of two nations that are now one on behalf of a monarchy that now rules an Empire.


Book Chapter Logo Click the book image to turn to the next Chapter.