Bamburgh Castle: Medieval Fortification in England

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Bamburgh Castle occupies a strong defensive position on top of a long volcanic crag overlooking the North Sea.

The site has been occupied since pre-historic times and, by the late Iron Age, was an important settlement of the Votadini tribe.

A beacon was established on the site during the Roman era and it is possible Bamburgh acted as part of the warning system associated with the Saxon Shore defenses (such as at Scarborough).

By the late fifth/early sixth century, a fortified settlement had become established at Bamburgh. This was captured in AD 547 by the Anglo-Saxon King Ida and thereafter Bamburgh evolved into the capital of the Kingdom of Bernicia.

It remained an important caput even after that domain merged with Deira to become the Kingdom Northumbria. Bamburgh was attacked and destroyed by the Vikings in AD 993.

The Normans invaded England in 1066 and quickly secured the south. However, resistance continued in the north prompting William I to march north with his army. Bamburgh may have been the stronghold of the rebel leader – Gospatrick, Earl of Northumbria – but ultimately he was forced to submit.

The King then granted the Earldom, including Bamburgh, to William Walcher, Bishop of Durham. It was either William I or Walcher who established the first castle on the site.

In 1086 Bamburgh was granted to Robert de Mowbray, Earl of Northumberland. Robert used the castle as a base to secure the north against Scottish incursions and deployed from the castle to engage the Scots at the First Battle of Alnwick (1093) where he mounted a surprise attack on Malcolm III and killed the Scottish King.

However, in 1095 Robert rebelled against William II who promptly marched north with his army.

Bamburgh Castle, which was being held by Robert’s wife, was besieged and contained by a siege castle called the Malvoisin. Robert, who was at Tynemouth Castle, was captured when he attempted to escape to Newcastle and was brought to Bamburgh as a prisoner.

Nevertheless, his wife remained defiant and only capitulated when the King threatened to blind and castrate Robert. With the rebellion suppressed, Robert was dispossessed and spent the next thirty years as a prisoner at Windsor Castle.

William II granted Bamburgh Castle to Eustace Fitz John who commenced rebuilding the structure in stone.

Bamburgh Castle

It withstood an attack by the Scots in December 1135 but, at this time, England was on the brink of civil war as Stephen and Matilda vied for the English throne.

Faced with rebellions across southern England and the threat of the Scots in the north, Stephen tried to buy the latter off by granting Prince Henry of Scotland the Earldom of Huntingdon as well as Carlisle and Doncaster.

Nevertheless, further Scottish attacks followed and, although they were defeated at the Battle of the Standard (1138), the appeasement policy continued; Bamburgh Castle was handed over to Prince Henry at this time. It may have been Henry who commenced construction of the Great Keep.

Henry II took back control of northern England in 1157. Bamburgh Castle was retained as a Royal fortress and accordingly Henry II funded the completion of the Great Keep.

It later hosted visits from King John, Henry III, and Edward I with various modifications being made at this time including construction of a new Hall.

Bamburgh Castle

In 1307 the castle was granted to Isabel de Vesci, a direct descendant of Eustace Fitz John. However, by this time the structure was seemingly in a poor state of repair. Repairs must have been made because the defenses were adequate to resist a three-month siege by Scottish forces during 1328.

In 1333, whilst Edward III was besieging Berwick-upon-Tweed, Queen Philippa stayed at Bamburgh.

the Scots once again besieged the fortification hoping to lure the King away from Berwick but he had confidence in the strength of the defenses and remained in situ. The Scots withdrew and were defeated at the Battle of Halidon Hill (1333).

Bamburgh Castle continued to be maintained throughout the fourteenth century and, following the Battle of Neville’s Cross (1346), was deemed strong enough to serve as a prison for King David II of Scotland. A new residential range was built between 1384 and 1388 by Sir John Neville who held the castle as Warden of the East March and desired accommodation that matched his status.

During the Wars of the Roses, Bamburgh was one of four castles held by the Lancastrians in the north. Although it had been surrendered to Edward IV following his victory at the Battle of Towton (1461), a Lancastrian force was able to gain possession of the fortification along with nearby Alnwick, Dunstanburgh, and Warkworth.

Bamburgh Castle

These four castles enabled the Lancastrians to secure control of the Eastern March ensuring they could seek support from Scotland and provide a secure landing place for foreign mercenaries.

Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick besieged Bamburgh later the same year and compelled the garrison to surrender.

However, the terms he offered were too good as the Lancastrians were soon back in control and the deposed Henry VI held court at the castle for nine months during 1463 and 1464.

Following the Battle of Hexham (1464), Bamburgh was again besieged by the Yorkists.

The castle’s garrison was headed by Sir Ralph Grey who was told by the besiegers he would be executed whatever the outcome.

Bamburgh Castle

Unsurprisingly he was unwilling to submit and so the Yorkists bombarded the castle with cannon fire until one of the towers collapsed; the first instance of a castle falling to artillery on the British Isles.

Bamburgh Castle was neglected during the sixteenth century and fell into ruin.

The Union of the Crowns in 1603 ended its role as a border fortress and it then passed through various owners before being purchased in 1704 by Nathaniel Crewe, Bishop of Durham.

Bamburgh Castle

He stripped it of its materials and the remaining shell was allowed to deteriorate.

Thereafter the castle was put to a variety of uses including as a hospital, school and later hospice for shipwrecked sailors.

In the late nineteenth century it was purchased by a wealthy industrialist, Sir William Armstrong, who ‘restored’ and remodeled the remains between 1894 and 1904 into the Victorian ideal of a medieval castle.

Bamburgh Castle

Armstrong intended that, after his death, the castle would be used as a convalescent home with the strong onshore winds either killing or curing the patients.


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By | 2017-11-09T07:06:19+00:00 November 9th, 2017|Categories: Castles, Constructions, Medieval|Tags: , , |0 Comments

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