I love a good castle. Castles are stoic survivors of hundreds of years of history; they have often survived pillage, siege and political upheaval to remain standing today. Northumberland, the most northerly county in England, is home to some of the most dramatic castles in the British Isles. My favourite is Bamburgh – despite being transformed into a stately home in the 19th century, and having lost much of its original structure, it still retains an atmosphere that gives you shivers down the spine. Its power has much to do with its setting – on a rocky outcrop 150 feet above sea level, above a sweeping sandy bay, and overlooking Lindisfarne in the windswept sea beyond.
Bamburgh was an important place long before the actual castle was built. It was occupied by the Romans when they made their march into Scotland, before retreating down to Hadrian’s Wall. In the Anglo-Saxon period, one chronicler describes it as one of the most important places in the country. Bamburgh fortress was founded in the 6th century CE, by the Anglo-Saxon king Ida. From this point on, Bamburgh became the seat of the Anglo-Saxon royalty.
Ida’s grandson, a king called Ethelfrith the Destroyer (what a name), came to the throne in 593 CE. He gave the fortress to his wife Bebba (almost as splendid a name), from which the name ‘Bamburgh’ derives. Ethelfrith’s legacy is the country of Nothumberland itself: before him, it was split into two distinct kingdoms, Bernicia and Deira. He conquered Deira, unifying the lands into the kingdom of Northumbria, which became the most powerful county in Anglo-Saxon England.
From the 8th to the 10th centuries, Northumbria was in troubled waters. Rival kingdoms attacked, and the infamous Vikings sailed over from Scandinavia and pillaged the coastline. Bamburgh was attacked by these vicious pirates, and they left it ransacked and ruined. Looking down at the sea from the castle battlements, it was easy to imagine menacing Viking longboats heading across the waters.
After the Normans invaded England, they rebuilt Bamburgh fortress into a proper stone castle, to defend against a potential Scottish invasion. A century later, Henry I built the castle keep, which is still intact today. Its walls are an incredible 11 feet thick (which would keep out the wild Northumbrian gales!). Henry was truly a borderland king: he married Edith, the sister of the King of Scotland, in order to make England’s northern border a more stable place. His reign led to disaster though: the untimely death of his son in a shipwreck led to civil war, as powerful barons refused to acknowledge the reign of his sister Matilda.
In the 1220s, Henry III built the Great Hall at Bamburgh, which had fancy fitted windows, and chimneys instead of the conventional roof holes. Henry was only nine years old when he became king, and his reign was a troubled one: he was threatened with excommunication and rebelled against by Simon de Montford.
In the Wars of the Roses the castle was besieged by the Earl of Warwick, who razed much of it to the ground (this is where it comes in handy to have a keep with 11-foot-thick walls). This was the first English siege in which the castle was defeated by artillery fire. Henry VI, who had been living at Bamburgh, fled, and Bamburgh’s status as a focus of royal power was never the same again. It was finally abandoned by royalty altogether when James I gave it away to Claudius Forster in the 17th century as a token of thanks for loyalty. But he could not keep up with the immense task of maintaining it, and the castle became a ruin.
In 1903, the castle became a family residence, and was transformed into a traditional English stately home. The interior you can see today is mostly from this period. The great hall has a false beamed roof (which to my eye is convincingly medieval) and stained glass, as well as a suit of armour and ancestral portraits. There is also quite a lot of random bits and bobs – maiolica plates, a Honthorst replica, Dutch landscape paintings, an Italian marriage chest, 17th century weaponry, and a billiards table. The whole interior feels distinctly aristocratic but also cosy, with lovely views out to the surrounding landscape from the arched windows.
Like many castles, Bamburgh is eclectic and shaped by centuries of history. But for me, it is its Anglo-Saxon origins and its dramatic encounter with the Vikings that resonate the most. Although no architecture remains from this time, this is the period of its history that plays the most powerfully on the imagination.