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Bamburgh Castle
Bamburgh, Northumberland, UK
Bamburgh Castle
associated engineer
Not known
date  1131 - 1170, 1221, 1368-72, 1384 - 1388, 1403, 1757-66, 1894 - 1909
UK era  Medieval  |  category  Castle  |  reference  NU182350
photo  © Robin Drayton and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence
Parts of the present-day Bamburgh Castle in Northumberland date from Norman times, though earlier structures did exist on the site. A royal estate for more than a millennium, the castle was restored and enlarged into a private residence in the Victorian era. It is now open to the public and used as a venue as well as remaining a family seat.
Bamburgh Castle is located on the coast in the north east England, between Alnwick and Berwick upon Tweed. Archaeological excavations indicate this area has been occupied for many thousands of years, since at least Neolithic times, and was in use during the Roman occupation of Britain.
From 547, the town of Bamburgh is recorded as the seat of Anglo Saxon kings. The site of the castle, perched on a volcanic dolerite outcrop, close to yet 45m above the sea, was an ideal location for a royal citadel. Then called Din Guayrdi, its largely timber fortress became the capital of Bernicia — a kingdom roughly covering the modern counties of Northumberland, Durham, Berwickshire and East Lothian.
Around 604, King Aethelfrith (567-616) forcibly united Bernicia with its southerly neighbour Deira, whose capital was at York. The resulting kingdom of Northumbria was the largest and most powerful of the seven kingdoms of Anglo Saxon England and stretched from the Humber Estuary to Edinburgh. Din Guayrdi was renamed Bamburgh, a corruption of 'Bebbanburgh', after Bebba, Aethelfrith's wife.
A succession of royalty inhabited the castle during the next four centuries. Following Aethelfrith’s death and until 634, Northumbria was once again the two kingdoms of Bernicia and Deira but remained united thereafter.
During the 10th century, Vikings occupied much of Northumbria, imposing Danelaw on the population. In 993, Vikings attacked and ruined Bamburgh Castle. In the second half of the 11th century, it was a base for the armies of William the Conqueror (William I, 1028-87) and his son William Rufus (William II, 1056-1100) as the Normans set about seizing power in the north.
In 1095, the castle was under the control of Robert de Mowbray, Earl of Northumbria. Mowbray was captured by William Rufus and the castle was forfeit to the crown. Rebuilding in red sandstone began in 1131, under Henry I (c.1068-1135), brother of William Rufus.
The site is some 380m long and 80m wide with three wards, or baillies, covering about 3.5 hectares. Originally the castle had entrance gatehouses at the west (St Oswald’s Gate, NU181352) and east (Great Gate, NU184350) ends of the complex. The Great Gate has two round towers flanking a vaulted archway over a roadway, protected by high walls, leading to an inner gateway (Constable Tower), later rebuilt but probably originally of similar design to the main gate.
The walled inner ward lies on higher ground to the south west of the east gateways. A chapel with apse, now ruined, was built at the east end of the ward, and a kitchen block opposite on the south wall.
The main structure of the Norman castle is the robust great tower, or keep, which survives largely intact. In 1164, the sum of £4 was paid for its construction (completed 1170). It sits between the inner and east wards, on a stepped stone plinth on an earthen mound. The keep is about 18.5m square, with a round arched doorway and square turrets at each corner, rising above a battlemented parapet. Inside, the ground floor had two parallel tunnel vaults supported on square piers, the upper floors had groin vaulted ceilings and were accessed by stone stairs set into the walls.
In 1191, John Forster (c.1176-1220) was knighted by Richard I (1157-99) and granted the governorship of Bamburgh Castle, after reportedly saving the king's life at the Siege of Acre (1189-91, northern Israel) during the third Crusade. The Forster family would provide a string of castle governors during the next five hundred years.
In 1221, under Henry III (1207-72), a new building 45.7m long and 10.4m wide was constructed on the south of the inner ward. It housed a great hall (the King’s Hall) with separate chambers for men and women, and boasted the luxury of glass windows and proper chimneys.
It’s thought that some repairs were carried out in 1368-72, by stonemason John Lewyn and others, though no details survive.
In 1384-8, John Neville (c.1337-88, 3rd Baron Neville de Raby from 1367) contracted with Richard II (1367-1400) to extend the inner ward’s residential quarters at a cost of £866. Plans included a 20.1m by 10.4m hall — assumed to be a remodelling of the King’s Hall — with three gabled windows on the one side and four on the other, above two vaulted undercroft rooms. An existing tower in the adjoining wall to the south was raised by 7.3m to provide three more rooms. At the east end of the hall a new kitchen and service block was constructed, the Muniment Tower was heightened and a brewery and bakery built nearby.
Other medieval parts of the castle include a gatehouse (Neville Tower, NU182351) at the north corner of the east ward, a bell tower at the west corner of the east ward and curtain walls around the east and west (outer) wards. Rounded or rectangular towers were built into the external wall faces of all the wards, though the inner ward has more than the east and west wards.
In 1403, the castle’s defences were improved. In 1464, during the Wars of the Roses (1455-85) between the Plantagenet houses of Lancaster (symbolised by a red rose) and York (a white rose), the castle was partly destroyed by gunpowder and artillery attack during a nine-month siege. It was the first English castle to give way under cannon fire.
A further range of rooms was built along the south wall of the inner ward, between the kitchen and the chapel, possibly during the 16th century.
In 1610, Claudius Forster (c.1575-1623) became governor of the castle. He was created a baronet in 1620, by James I (1566-1625). Ownership continued to pass through members of the Forster family, and the castle gradually fell into disrepair.
After Sir William Forster (1667-1700) died, his sister Dorothy Forster (d.1715) inherited his estate, though it seems he had been bankrupt as his creditors were petitioning chancery for payment. Dorothy married Nathaniel Crewe (3rd Baron Crewe, 1633-1721), who served as bishop of Durham from 1674. Crewe purchased all of her estate, which was conveyed to him by deed on 15th and 16th May 1709.
Crewe was dedicated to restoring the castle, and the good name of his wife’s family. In his will he left a substantial fund for castle maintenance, managed by a board of trustees. In 1757-66, trustee Dr John Sharp (1722-92), oversaw repairs to the keep and the manorial court room, and rebuilt the towers of the Great Gate. Sharp also equipped the castle with a windmill and two granaries, and established schools in the court room. He set up shops and medical facilities in the town and initiated safety measures for shipping, such as a lifeboat, a fog signal (regular gun firing) and assistance for survivors from shipwrecks.
However, by the 19th century the castle was again in need of repair and the trustees faced enormous bills for restoration. In 1894, industrialist and inventor William George Armstrong (1810-1900, Baron Armstrong of Cragside from 1887) — a distant relative of the Forster family — purchased the Bamburgh Castle for £60,000. Cragside, Armstrong’s house in Northumberland, was the first in the world to be lit with electricity produced by hydroelectric power.
Armstrong planned to extend the castle, creating a grand country mansion to be used as a convalescent home. He spent £1m or more on refurbishment, including installing central heating and air conditioning. The new and rebuilt portions were constructed in red sandstone, grey Cragside stone and ashlar masonry to designs by architect Charles John (C.J.) Ferguson (1840-1904). Ferguson demolished much of Sharp’s refurbishment work but retained the original medieval stonework.
The Constable Tower gateway was extended above the 12th century vaulted tunnel archway by adding two storeys. The 18th century twin towers on the Great Gate were retained.
In the inner ward, Ferguson reconstructed the 14th century kitchen and service block, the hall (1896) and the Muniment Tower in the local red sandstone in elaborate Perpendicular style. The two outer walls of the 12.2m by 8.5m kitchen contain three original hearths with restored heads and four medieval doorways, two of which are now blocked. However, his hall and great chamber were designed as a single apartment, approximately following the medieval dimensions of the King’s Hall. He reused the existing cellar below the upper part of the hall and chamber block for domestic kitchens and service rooms.
The interior of the hall retains its three medieval service doors. Ferguson’s work includes two oriel windows, a substantial fireplace with a joggled lintel, a panelled overmantel and stone tracery, and a six bay false hammer beam roof of carved teak.
Around the 1896 or soon afterwards, the building to the west of the great chamber was extended northwards, also in Perpendicular style. Its 14th century undercroft was spanned by 10 chamfered semicircular transverse ribs, with an entrance from the courtyard. A billiard room and bedrooms were built in the space over the undercroft. The 16th century offices near the ruined chapel were refurbished in early Tudor style.
In the east ward, the bell tower, now a clock tower and library, and the Neville Tower were reconstructed. The clock tower retains its medieval vault while the Neville Tower is largely Victorian. New apartments were constructed in Cragside stone along the south wall of the ward, with stables and accommodation on the west wall, with octagonal corner towers, all in plain Tudor style. Additional stabling and accommodation ranges were constructed in the west ward, abutting the eastern half of the south wall.
By 1904, Armstrong’s great nephew and heir William Henry Armstrong Fitzpatrick Watson-Armstrong (1863-1941, Baron Armstrong from 1903) had completed the restoration project. However, Watson-Armstrong preferred the castle as a private residence. It remains in the same family.
In January 1952, Bamburgh Castle was Grade I listed.
In 1959-61 and 1970-4, archaeologist Dr Brian Hope-Taylor (1923-2001) carried out excavations in several locations within the castle’s west ward. The first dig recovered two pattern-welded swords and an axe. The most significant finds were the small solid gold plaque called the Bamburgh Beast and the large weapon known as the Bamburgh Sword.
In August 1987, the 18th century windmill built by Sharp was Grade II listed. Its three storey round tapering tower of ashlar and its low pyramidal lead roof remain in situ though its sails have disappeared.
In 1996, to investigate the archaeological potential of the castle site, the Bamburgh Research Project was established. It extends the work begun by Hope-Taylor, and in 2001-7 re-examined some of the trenches excavated in 1959-60. Many small copper and silver alloy coins, or stycas, were discovered. The project is ongoing with new digs taking place within the west ward.
Bamburgh Castle still belongs to the Armstrong family. Visitors can roam over the site or view 14 public rooms and more than 2,000 artefacts inside.
Research: ECPK
"Greater Medieval Houses of England and Wales, 1300-1500: Volume 1, Northern England" by Anthony Emery, Cambridge University Press, 1996
"Obituary. Lord Armstrong, 1810-1900", Minutes of ICE Proceedings, Vol.147, pp.405-412, London, January 1902

Bamburgh Castle