The Bamburgh Castle is a spectacular medieval ruin, and for centuries was the crowning military stronghold in Northumberland. It has the best-preserved stone walls in England and Wales: they’ve not been repaired. The earliest part of its construction is about 1120AD, which means it has been standing for about 900 years.
The tower house dominates the headland upon which it stands, with much of the castle’s structure still intact. It also features an atmospheric Great Hall, which was built around 1479 by a member of the Percys family – lords of nearby Alnwick Castle.
A tower house was probably built in the 12th century, on a manorial site mentioned in the Domesday Book. The earliest surviving parts of Bamburgh Castle date from around 1120, and include the castle’s most impressive feature: its great stone curtain wall. The wall is unique for its construction, it has been suggested that it was a demonstration of John de Vesci’s wealth as a result of his coal mining operations. Alternatively, it may have been a private project by one of the Percy family who were either lords or builders at the castle. It is not known whether John built the castle or if he retained an existing fortification and rebuilt it in stone. The curtain wall includes the Great Gatehouse and the Flodden and Constable Towers, the latter is “perhaps one of the finest surviving examples of domestic late 14th century architecture”.
In 1216 King John gave Bamburgh Castle to Hubert de Burgh. In 1264, after Hubert’s death, it passed to Edmund Crouchback (better known as Edward I’s son – later Edward II) who began a new phase of building at Bamburgh. Close examination has revealed that much of this work was patching and repairs rather than wholly new work. Also in Edward II’s time the castle appears to have been used as a court for settling disputes between local people.
In 1313 Bamburgh Castle was taken by Scottish forces led by Thomas Randolph, 1st Earl of Moray. Edward II quickly ordered repairs to be made and the castle was back in use as a royal stronghold by 1328. In 1346 during the first invasion of the Scottish Wars of Independence, King David II of Scotland attempted to capture Bamburgh Castle but failed. In 1385 it was decided that Bamburgh should be considered a royal castle: this meant that it would be maintained and defended at the expense of the Crown; hitherto it had been privately owned.
In 1405 the Percy family, who were now Earls of Northumberland, took Bamburgh Castle from the Crown. The Percy family transformed the castle into their main stronghold in England. In 1415 Henry ‘Hotspur’ Percy destroyed an army led by Thomas Beaufort, duke of Exeter at Sheriff Hutton. A few days later Hotspur was killed at the Battle of Shrewsbury and his nephew Harry ‘Hotspur’ Percy was captured by Henry V’s forces at Beaugé in 1421. By 1452, however, the Percy family had lost much of their power and influence, and Henry VI gave the castle to his brother Humphrey Duke of Gloucester (later known as Duke of Gloucester). During this time period the Northumberland family were unable to protect more than a few miles around the castle. In 1464 Bamburgh was captured by Scottish forces, after Patrick, 10th Lord Gray had tricked the garrison. Its garrison were taken to Edinburgh where they were executed. The castle would remain in Scottish hands until captured by English forces led by Charles Neville, 6th Earl of Westmorland in 1513.
By the time, the Percy family had regained their power and influence after the Battle of Hexham in 1568. Thomas Percy, 7th Earl of Northumberland, took Bamburgh Castle back for his family. Despite its strategic position it was never used as a permanent residence by the Percy family, who chose to live at Syon House near London instead. In 1642 Sir John Reresby visited Bamburgh Castle to meet with Lord Eure, they ‘collected together all the arms in the castle; some were sent towards Berwick-upon-Tweed others to Newcastle’. In 1666 Lord Eure was elected MP for Morpeth and Bamburgh which he then considered his home. He added first floor bedrooms for his family and also extensive gardens. One of his sons became William Eure, 1st Baron Eure who was an MP in 1706. William’s daughter married Thomas Pelham-Holles, 1st Duke of Newcastle-upon-Tyne making Bamburgh Castle part of the ducal estate. In 1766 another addition to the castle was made: a stair tower was built at the north-west corner.
The last Percy to live there appeared to be Henry “Harry Hotspur” Percy until his decease in 1670. It then passed out of Percy hands when his daughter married Thomas Pelham, later to become the first Duke of Newcastle upon Tyne in 1712.
From the time of the 7th Earl onwards, Bamburgh Castle appears to have been left in disrepair. In 1857 the then Duke of Newcastle gave permission for Bamburgh Castle to be used as a normal residence and it was occupied by tenants including Colonel J. H. Tyrwhitt-Drake MP and General Sir Lionel Smith. In 1906 The 4th Duke of Newcastle gave Bamburgh Castle to the Office of Works for repairs and maintenance which remains today (2015). During this period of restoration a number of Roman remains were uncovered, including a mosaic floor from what is thought to be a Roman bath-house.
In World War II the castle was used to house a prisoner of war camp. A trench was dug in front of the castle and barbed wire fences were erected to guard it. The castle suffered some damage during this period, including the destruction of the gatehouse and other slight damage to the curtain walls. The camp’s main occupants were Italian prisoners-of-war, who worked on local farms during their stay at Bamburgh Castle. Many made use of the cave systems inside Bamburgh for sleeping quarters or even growing vegetables in, as seen in these photographs taken by former prisoners Sergio Graziani (1966) and Giuseppe (1943).
The castle was used for the filming of Robin Hood (1973). King Richard’s castle was represented by Bamburgh Castle and the nearby area. The keep of the castle was used as a location for filming as well.
Bamburgh Castle is situated on a rocky headland that guards the mouth of the River Aln, providing an easily defensible setting. The castle is surrounded by a moat and features two huge gatehouses in its curtain walls: one at the north-east corner, towards the village of Bamburgh, and another through which passes today’s road leading down from Dunstanburgh to Bamburgh. The earliest phase of the castle was the north gatehouse, which was built in the late 11th or early 12th century by Hugh de Puiset, Bishop of Durham. This is today largely hidden away by later additions. In 1195 Henry II stayed here for three nights on his return from Scotland and gave Bamburgh Castle to Hubert de Burgh; it was Hubert who then built the southern gatehouse.
The inner ward is defended by a collapsed twin-towered barbican and a wall with circular towers projecting from it. The towers had disappeared by the 19th century, if not earlier, but they can be clearly seen in a painting by Turner Bevis (1817); they were also sketched by Turner. The western tower was still standing in 1610 and may have been destroyed in 1665 when a gunpowder explosion battered the castle.
The outer ward is protected by the remains of a wall with three circular towers, one being partially reconstructed. The westernmost of these towers dates from around 1170 and is very similar to those built at Newcastle at around the same date. It was occupied as recently as 1936 but today is used only for storage. The others date from the 13th century. The main entrance was through a gatehouse in the middle tower, but a postern was cut through the southern tower in the 14th century. The gatehouse has been partially restored and is used as a museum that tells the story of the castle and its surroundings over time.
The inner bailey is naturally defended by steep cliffs on three sides. The remains of another wall found on an archaeological dig may well have been used to protect the southern side of this bailey. Only limited excavations have taken place within this area; most of it is now grassed over, although a few areas are used for picnics or to play football. The castle has a large cave system beneath it that has been used for many years as a storage area. Many of the caves were also mined in medieval times for lead and silver.
The areas around the outer towers provides a perfect setting for military re-enactment, including jousting. This is particularly popular with families, who set up picnics in the area to enjoy watching the action while eating and drinking. The castle is also open to visitors throughout the year, with occasional activities such as bird of prey displays taking place inside or around the castle walls.
Bamburgh Castle Official Site: http://www.bamburghcastle.
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