Bamburgh Castle: St Oswald’s Gate
Our current area of excavation is St Oswald’s Gate and the outworks beyond. The gate and outworks connect Bamburgh the fortress to Bamburgh Village, and to the wider landscape and seascape beyond. The low lying natural cleft in the bedrock was the entrance to the site from prehistory and has some of the least altered medieval structures available to be investigated today. The archaeological work below has been undertaken intermittently over a number of years and includes the fortress defences, the routes that would have led to the village and farmland beyond and even includes a now lost port! Our current excavation is exploring a medieval tower with a reputed well at its base, which could possibly date to the early medieval period.
The route of least resistance: the origins of the earliest known entrance into Bamburgh Castle
Bamburgh owes much of its long historical relevance to its location and geological form. A natural rock fortress with flat surfaces on the summit where buildings could be constructed, but also of a size that allows for it to be defensible. We now know it was occupied as a fortress from prehistoric times, as our earliest radiocarbon date suggests construction activity and occupation from the late Bronze Age (10th century BC).
The rock that forms the fortress extends some 320m west-south-west to east-north-east and 78m south-south-west to north-north-east. The highest point is in what is now the Inner Ward and is just over 45m above sea level. The bedrock undulates downwards towards the north and reaches its lowest point, 20m above sea level, at what is the base of the cleft of St Oswald’s Gate. This cleft is a natural fissure, 3.4m wide at the top that narrows down to 1.6m wide at the base, though it seems likely that the cleft has to some extent been widened in the past as only one side is formed of naturally solidified lava and the other is rough and angular and appears to have been cut away to some extent. The ground surface outside the entrance is 12m above sea level showing that the height difference between the surfaces within the fortress and the external ground is at is lowest here. The cleft is the earliest recorded entrance to the fortress, mentioned in writing in the later 8th century AD. Given that this route would have offered the path of least resistance, and easiest way up onto the castle rock, it seems highly likely that this was always the way in to the fortress from prehistory up to the 12th century.
One of the features that likely made Bamburgh a desirable high status fortress is the ready access to both land and sea. Immediately to the north of the gate there is a low lying area of ground that we know from the earliest map evidence was formerly a tidal inlet, now cut off from the sea by the developing sand dunes. Written accounts indicate that the inlet acted as a tidal beach-harbour for part of the medieval period, up to the middle 13th century. Past and current work to understand this area better and how it changed in importance over time is listed below.
A Defended Entrance
The area of the fortress within the gate has been the focus of investigation by the BRP from almost the beginning of the project, as one of the principal trenches (Trench 1) was sited to investigate inside the entrance and to find traces of early defences.
Research was frustrated at first by the presence of an intrusive and extensive construction trench from an early 20th century wall that encloses most of the West Ward. This had removed much of the evidence of the earlier defences down to boulder clay and bedrock level. Thankfully, in the area of the gate the medieval wall had survived (albeit it seems refaced in the post medieval period) and here we found evidence for earlier defensive structures preserved immediately inside the wall. This was because the later medieval wall had been constructed to overlap the break of slope at the edge of the plateau. This was to show a more impressive, and taller, wall face out to the world without the need of too much masonry. As a consequence the rear faces of earlier defensive structures, that had been constructed entirely on the top of the rock and close to the edge, survived on the inside of the later wall. Here we discovered traces of early timber defences, that were later replaced in stone, a series of substantial timber, then stone buildings, were also found aligned on the gate cleft and have been interpreted as the lodge of a gate-ward who controlled access to the palace.
The Small Port
The castle is the subject of many paintings dating back to the 18th and 19th centuries and those that depict it viewed from the north show a much more intimate connection with the sea than today. They frequently depict the tide coming much closer to the base of the rock and occasionally showing boats in the inlet near St Oswald’s Gate. This small tidal inlet is also depicted on the early mapping, from the 1st Edition Ordnance Survey (c. 1870) where it is labelled ‘Postern Nook’. It is easy to imagine the shallow draft ‘longships’ of the early medieval period being drawn up in the this tidal inlet and able to provide access to the sea, which was much more of a highway than a barrier in early periods. This crude and awkward little harbour seems to have been in use up to at least the early 13th century when we read of instruction sent to the Sheriff of Northumberland from the government to proceed to Bamburgh and arrange the release of ships that had been held there by the community.
Development of the Defences
St Oswald’s Gate was well sited to provide access to both land and sea via the modest harbour in the inlet, as a consequence of the low-lying topography making entrance easier. These factors help to explain why the gate remained the principal entrance for much of the fortress’ life and, as a result, adds to the importance of understanding how it developed, linking the archaeology undertaken at BRP Trench 1 within the entrance to the outworks and access routes that led up to the gate.
Within the gate the surviving evidence reveals well constructed timber defences that begin as deep set post-holes, cut into bedrock, that are later replaced by a rubble foundation in a trench that we believe carried a large baulk of timber into which vertical planks would have been set to form a wall. We do not yet know how early the post-holes were cut, but it is easy to imagine the site as a kind of Iron Age fort like those we see on hilltops throughout the north. We know from Bede’s history that Bamburgh was a well defended timber fortress in the middle 7th century when Bede describes how Penda King of the Mercians (a large rival kingdom to Northumbria in the English midlands) demolished all the timber buildings in the surrounding landscape to pile a huge bonfire against the rock in an effort to burn his way through the defences.
Inside these defences we found evidence of substantial rectangular halls of early medieval date. The earliest of them was 12m by 7m and built with a post-in-trench construction technique that suggests a construction date around the 7th century. This was later replaced by a stone structure that may have had a lead roof. We can offer a reconstruction like this as we have the outline of the building foundation (really a robber cut from which the stone had been removed for recycling) and a small number of the dressed stone building blocks still in place. The presence of a large and heavy lead ingot found in the trench is our evidence that a lead roof had been melted down, again for recycling.
The stone building was robbed out no later than the 11th to early 12th century so could be evidence of stone architecture of a pre-conquest date. Evidence that the defensive wall of the fortress had also been replaced in stone before the conquest was not as conclusive but a mortar impression of a stone block set on the bedrock and part of a wall set back beneath the later and wider 12th century curtain was seen just above the bedrock. This limited evidence was supported by the presence of a 9th century grain drying kiln set right inside and partly beneath the 12th century wall. As it was too close to the edge of the bedrock for a timber wall to have been present (timber structures and fire being a poor mix!) but a thinner stone wall could have been present from this time.
The evidence from these early medieval defences and structures shows an investment in functional and impressive architecture that seems to have been intended to impress or even awe those seeking to enter the royal fortress.
The Siege of 1095
One dramatic event that played out around this entrance occurred in AD 1095 when the then Earl of Northumberland Robert de Mowbray rebelled against King William Rufus, the son and successor of William the Conqueror. When Robert refused to attend at court William led an army up to Northumberland and up to the gates of Bamburgh where he realised that the fortress was too strong to take by force and so ordered a siege castle to be built to trap the defenders within. A chronicle tells us that as the earth and timber siege castle was thrown up, by the royal army and local soldiers called up to serve the king, that the defenders shouted abuse at them from the ramparts. The king called the siege castle – Mal Voisin – meaning evil or bad neighbour in Normal French. Given that the intension of the siege castle was to bottle up Bamburgh’s defenders it must have been close to the gate, which was of course St Oswald’s Gate at that time. Indeed, if the chronicle is correct, it must also have been at abuse shouting range! The mounds just beyond the gate, behind what is now the sports pavilion, have to be a good candidate for being the remnants of this castle – assuming that any trace does survive. One of our future aims is to investigate this and see if we can prove it.
A New Entrance and Access Route Defined
The layout of the fortress appears to have been substantially altered after the Norman Conquest and this involved changing the main entrance and access routes. Sadly we do not have a record that directly describes the building of the new Great Gate, so we do not know just when it was constructed. We do have a record of repairs to the gate and drawbridge in 1221, showing that they were old enough to be in need of repair by then, perhaps suggesting a construction date in the 12th century. It is tempting to see the gate and drawbridge and new entrance route that wraps around the Inner Ward as part of a new style in castle building, called concentric fortification. This was introduced to Europe after the crusades and changed the way castles were built. This again would suggest a construction date sometime in the 12th century.
Changes to the main entrance also reflects changes in how the castle was used and the role it played in its landscape. Now connected to the land and with the setting of the castle more about the drama of the site and how it impresses those that approach it. Much less focus was placed on the sea as a means of communication from this time.
Tower of Elmund’s Well
Oswald’s Gate remained a functioning entrance but was now not the main entrance. The fact that it retained importance is clear from the construction and maintenance of outworks and a tower beyond the gate. In the records the tower is called the ‘Tower of Elmund’s Well’, and when we look at these and its form (relatively small and rectangular) we can make a case for the tower being constructed by the 12th century. It is possible that the tower, in some form, is earlier as the name certainly seems to have pre-conquest origins, but only the current fieldwork has the chance to demonstrate if this is the case.
The reason for the complex outworks and the tower is surely at least at first related to the presence of the small port, as the tower is well sited to dominate it. We do have reason to think that the port, which would always have been small and rather limited in use, was replaced by a more practical deeper water port in Budle Bay during the 13th century. This may fit in with construction or reconstruction of a further postern gate the leads out towards the village.
Post Medieval Decline
As far as we can tell the postern remained in use throughout the medieval period but seems to have gone out of use as an entrance in the 17th century as animal carcasses were dumped onto the steps leading down to the gate around this time. This is perhaps not too surprising as after the great siege of 1464 the castle falls increasingly into ruin. Local tradition tells us that a different low lying gap in the bedrock of the West Ward, called the Miller’s Nick, was used as a way to climb up into the castle in its ruined state. Given the name it is perhaps understandable that the tradition was that it was the short cut to the windmill.
The ‘Witches Cottage’
When the castle’s fortunes began to rise again towards the end of the 18th century, the castle and its increasingly rebuilt structures found new uses. It was at this time that the Tower of Elmund’s Well was also repurposed. Expanded into part of a small cottage that seems to have been the dwelling of an apothecary who aided the medical needs of the poor of the district, providing herbal medicines from plants grown in the grounds. The apothecary would have been part of the infirmary within the castle with its Dr/Surgeon, paid for from the Lord Crewe Trust.
The Archaeological Work
The outworks beyond St Oswald’s Gate lie at ground level below the castle rock and are a good distance from the main buildings of the Inner Ward and as such have not been altered as much. Post-medieval work seems to have been just the reuse of the tower as part of a cottage and some rebuilding of the north and west walls that had long fallen. As a result of the area being so little altered it repays archaeological investigation as its medieval phases are much more apparent. In addition, a good understanding of the build sequence should aid in identifying the purpose of the outworks and how this changed over time as the importance of access to the port area and to the village changed with the fortunes of each.
The first trenches dug on the outworks were as far back as 2002. It did show us that the area was important and needed further work, so its good to have been able to concentrate on this area for the last two seasons.
The initial work had concentrated on the tall standing walls immediately outside the gate but had not got very close to the cottage where remains of the tower should also lie. Our first objective when embarking on the new work in 2020 was to be sure that something remained to be found or it could be a rather short dig. Our first task was to clear the steps down to the area where the cottage was known to have stood. This involved the removal of a lot of soil and ivy but secured our access to the new site and reassuringly confirmed that some structures were still present to be uncovered just where the cottage should be.
During the first season of the new work, in 2021, we were able to reveal the full plan of the missing tower and the elements built onto it it later to form the cottage. The surviving cottage structure was a complex entrance that led down to the basement level of the tower that we believe contained the well.
The cottage elements that survive at this level (ground floor and below) comprise two or three phases of the building (seen as different stonework) that form stairs that turn through right angles as they descend down. In the photo below you can see the entrance as it was uncovered being recorded by photography. Behind the two people in the foreground -still hidden at this time was the straight stair that led down to an archway into the medieval tower that was reused as the core of the later cottage.
As we began to uncover and empty the rubble fill of the room that we believed was the tower we found -built into two walls of the structure- were carefully constructed (later blocked) narrow arrow-slit style windows. This makes us fairly confident that we are right that this is the surviving medieval elements of the structure.
Work this Season (2023)
During the last two seasons of work we have been tracing the defensive structures and gaining an understanding of the arrangements of the cottage. We now know that the alignments of some of the defensive walls have been altered in different phases and this will likely give us an insight into how the access routes changed emphasis over time. In what we think will be the final season on this part of the site we should make it to the bottom of the room within Elmund’s Well Tower and, we hope, discover if any trace of the well remains there.
You can find out more in-depth information by visiting our blog:
Some useful posts include:
- Excavations Beyond St Oswald’s Gate: 2022 Season Round-up
- Excavations Beyond St Oswald’s Gate: 2021 Season Round-up
We have also published numerous articles on the excavations. Please visit our Publication page for a full list.