Bamburgh Castle and its environs together form one of the most important archaeological sites in Britain. The Castle contains layers representing more than 2000 years of continuous occupation, while the landscape around the castle rock is textured by over 6000 years of human history.
The following page provides a brief overview of the history of this fascinating building and its landscape.
Bede and the Golden Age of Northumberia
Northumbria produced many notable scholars, among them was the monk Bede, who was born in Monkwearmouth in Sunderland. He joined the monastery at Jarrow in 681 AD aged 9. Jarrow became famous for it’s manuscripts and the monks of Lindisfarne are thought to have borrowed their copy of Jerome’s translation of the Gospels, which had been brought from Rome, to use as the basis for the Lindsfarne Gospels. Bede spent much of his life translating the Bible from Latin into Anglo Saxon English. He progressed to writing a history of the English Church, and a life of Saint Cuthbert. His works added much to our knowledge of the origins of Anglo Saxon England. His great work of scholarship, “The Ecclesiastical History of the English People” became the equivalent of an early medieval best-seller.
In Bede’s history, Bamburgh was accorded the dual status of “urbs” and “civitas”, terms that indicate an extensive site of foremost importance. Further indication of this high status can be gleaned from the finds that have already come to light from the excavations within the castle. These include small gold objects such as the famous Bamburgh Beast, strap ends, and fragments of a carved stone seat or even throne, recovered from beneath foliage within the grounds. All of these finds are currently on display in castle’s archaeology museum. The recovery of such material supports the written evidence for the high status of the site during this period.
The heir to the Bernician royal line was Oswald, younger brother of Eanfrith and one of the many sons of Aethelfrith. He had been in exile in the west of Scotland and Ireland, under the protection of the Irish lords of Dal Riada. During his exile, Oswald became a Christian, schooled in the Celtic brand of Christianity of the monks of Iona. Assisted by troops from the Irish king, he gathered his forces and marched to meet the British king Cadwalla. Bede gleefully paints a picture of the devout Christian king, describing how the night before the battle, Oswald had a vision of Saint Columba, who told him “Be strong and act manfully. Behold, I will be with thee. This coming night go out from your camp into battle, for the Lord has granted me that at this time your foes shall be put to flight and Cadwalla your enemy shall be delivered into your hands and you shall return victorious after battle and reign happily.” Oswald recounted the vision to his war council and it was agreed that if they survived the battle they would all be baptised into the Christian faith.
Oswald ordered a wooden cross to be erected, and he held it in place as his men fastened it into the earth. He then knelt in prayer and asked his army to pray with him. When the battle was joined, Oswald faced far superior numbers, but his band of loyal followers, feeling God was on their side, routed the British enemy and their king, Cadwallon perished in the fighting. Bede’s use of Oswald as an exemplar of Christian superiority somewhat colours the narrative of Oswald’s achievements, but it is clear that he became a renowned and beloved leader to his followers, and he was formidable in battle. Following his victory, Oswald established himself as ruler of a united Northumbria. He was recognised as Bretwalda and according to Bede’s account, he “brought under his dominion all the nations and provinces of Britain”.
Oswald sent for monks from Iona to set about the conversion of his people. The first priest was not well received but when his replacement Aidan arrived from Iona, his gentle approach endeared him to the Northumbrians. Oswald granted him the island of Lindisfarne to build his monastery, which flourished, particularly in the latter years of the 7th century and throughout the 8th century, which saw the production of the Lindisfarne Gospels.
The success of Aidan’s ministry was due perhaps in no small part to the fact that Oswald himself acted as interpreter, having learned Gaelic in exile. He translated the monk’s native Irish preaching for his Northumbrian court. Oswald is noted for his piety and good deeds in life, and Bede recounts several acts of kindness that particularly stood out. Among them is the tale of the blessing of his arm by Aidan after Oswald broke up silver platters from his feast to be distributed to the poor at his door.
The Mercian Saxons had been somewhat held in check by Oswald’s defeat of their British allies under Cadwalla when Oswald came to power, but by the 640s AD, their king, Penda, who had previously defeated Edwin, had resumed his military ambitions and he began a campaign against the Northumbrians, gathering allies from the Welsh kingdoms of Powys and Gwynedd. Penda’s machinations culminated in the battle of Maserfelth which may have been in the midlands in Shropshire, in the territories bordering the two realms. Oswald’s army was defeated and he was slain on the 5th of August 642 AD aged 38.
His body was ritually dismembered and left on the battlefield with his limbs and head placed on poles and his torso tied to a tree in mock crucifixion. Before he was killed Oswald knelt and prayed. Bede records, ” …his life closed in prayer; for when he saw the enemy forces surrounding him and knew that his end was near, he prayed for the souls of his soldiers. ‘God have mercy on their souls, said Oswald as he fell’ is now a proverb…the king who slew him ordered that his head and hands with the forearms be hacked off and fixed on stakes.” Oswald’s last words have also been interpreted as asking for forgiveness of his murderers, an ultimate expression of the Christian ideal of turning the other cheek.
Following his death, Oswald’s dismembered body was eventually rescued and distributed as relics. According to Bede, “when Oswald was killed in battle, his hand and arm were severed from his body, and they remain uncorrupted to this day. They are preserved and venerated in a silver casket at the church of Saint Peter in the royal city, which is called after a former queen named Bebba.” Which is to say, that Oswald’s arm was venerated as a relic in the 8th century church in the fortress of Bamburgh during Bede’s lifetime.
Bede’s use of Oswald as a Christian martyr gives us an insight into the world of the Anglo-Saxons. At this time, books were incredibly valuable and rare, so for the new Christian movement to flourish preaching and oral storytelling were vital. The Christians had to demonstrate the advantages and power of their religion, and stories that demonstrated the efficacy of their faith and which legitimised it in terms of the endorsement of the ruling classes were important in strengthening the faith of new converts and encouraging non Christians to accept the faith.
Oswald was an ideal figurehead as his pious conviction and commitment to Christian beliefs was a hallmark of his reign. His political power and popularity could be equated with his faith, so by bolstering his holiness with tales of miracles, the Christians were able to create him as a Christian Hero, every bit as powerful as the heroes of sagas that were the familiar ideology of traditional Saxon heritage. The famous author and scholar of Old English, J.R.R Tolkien, speculated on the existence of an epic poem centred around Oswald, and though such a poem has not survived, the idea that it could have existed clearly shows the power of the Oswald story as his cult grew after his death. Members of the Northumbrian royalty and their retainers began to take positions of authority within the church. One of the most famous is Hilda, a distant niece of Edwin. Bishop Aidan installed her as the second Abbess of Hartlepool Abbey, where she instigated a fervent remodelling of the original site, creating a beacon of Christian worship with her new buildings. In 657 AD she founded a new Abbey at Whitby, which became the site of burial for the Christian kings of Bamburgh.
After Oswald’s death, the Northumbrian kingdom was divided. Bernicia came under the rule of Oswald’s brother Oswy and the Deira was inherited by Oswine who was the son of one of the two kings that had ruled for a year in Northumbria after the death of Edwin. For a time there was peace between the kingdoms as they were under thrall to Penda of Mercia who had defeated Oswald. However, in 651 AD Oswy moved against the southern kingdom, declaring war on it’s king Oswin. Bede records the events that followed: “Oswin realised that his opponents forces were far stronger than his own, and decided not to risk an engagement but to await a more favourable opportunity. So he disbanded the army that he had raised…and sent all his men to their homes. He himself, accompanied by a single trusted soldier named Tondhere, went back and lay concealed in the house of the nobleman Hunwald, whom he regarded as his greatest friend. Alas, it was far otherwise: for Hunwald betrayed Oswin and his man to Oswy, who amid universal disgust ordered his commander Ethelwin to put them both to death.”
Clearly, Oswy was no saint. He was also troubled by the persistence of Penda who brought a campaign against Northumbria in 655AD. Penda drove Oswy’s forces ahead of him and took the fight at least as far as northern Bernicia , where Oswy was forced to offer great treasures and hostages. This appeased the Mercian king for a time, but their armies clashed again later that year at the Battle of the Winwaed. Penda was killed along with many of his British allies and Oswy seized his chance to claim d ominion over the defeated Mercians. His son in law Paeda was installed as client king and Oswy solidifed his dominance of a vast territory, earning his title of Bretwalda. His success was cut short when Paeda was killed by the sons of Penda and Oswy was forced to concede the Mercian kingdom, but as king of Northumbria he was still formidable. Oswy’s most lasting achievement was to preside over and ultimately determine the outcome of the Synod of Whitby in 664 AD
It is no accident that the most crucial meeting of the new Christian church leaders was held at Whitby, in the province of Deira. The Northumbrian dominance of the early church is readily apparent. However, the Northumbrian traditions varied from those of the church in Rome and the Whitby gathering was intended to redress this imbalance and agree on crucial interpretations, most notably the timings of the important Christian festivals such as Easter. Oswy decided to adopt the Roman calendar, and to this day our modern western calendar retains this dating.
The 7th century was clearly a time where Christian Orthodoxy was still being debated. Even in the cemetery of Bamburgh, there are a bewildering array of burial types and varying positions. Burials provide some of the best archaeological evidence for the prevailing belief systems of a culture. How the dead were treated is a reflection of the individual and the cultural milieu as well as the personal circumstances of death, be it peaceful or violent, and whether it was a representation of orthodox practices or social taboos such as those with criminal or superstitious associations.
By Oswy’s death in February 670 AD, the Christian dominance of the Northumbrian royal house was irrefutable. Oswy was buried at Whitby Abbey alongside Edwin, and his wife and later his daughter became Abbess there before their own death and burial at the site.
Oswy was succeeded by Ecgfrith, who was later succeeded by Aldfrith as Northumbrian overlord.
The rival dynasty of Northumbrian Kings was represented by Edwin of Deira. Edwin inherited an expanded territory, and added to it with extensive military campaigns that brought him great success. For a time, Northumbria stretched as far south as the river Humber and west as far as Anglesey. Bede records, “Edwin king of the Northumbrians, that is, the people living north of the Humber…was a powerful king and ruled all of the people’s of Britain, both Angles and Britons, with the exception of the Kentish folk.”
As shrewd politically as he was in battle, Edwin married into the Kentish royal family, solidifying his connections with his southern rivals. Through this marriage, Edwin was courted by the Christians. Edwin was non-committal at first but he did not stop the Pope’s emissary Bishop Paulinus from freely preaching within the kingdom. Bishop Paulinus travelled with Edwin’s new wife to win Edwin over. In 627 AD, Bede tells us that Ad Gefrin, now called Yeavering, was the site of a mass baptism of Northumbrian converts. Excavation by Dr. Brian Hope Taylor in the 1950’s revealed the royal lodgings, including a large timber hall and amphitheatre.
During Edwin’s reign the royal court was likely to have been peripatetic, moving between royal centres at York and Bamburgh, and throughout the realm. Finally Edwin’s reign was brought to an end with his death in battle in 633 AD fighting the armies of the Mercian king, Penda and the British king Cadwalla at Heathfelth near Doncaster. His son Osfrid also died in battle and his other son, Eadfrith was held captive and later killed. After Edwin was killed the Bishop Paulinus was forced to flee from Northumbria along with the Queen and her daughter Eanfled.
Osric, the son of Edwin’s Uncle ruled Deira for a time, and Bernicia passed to Eanfrith, the elder son of Aethelfrith. Both these kings had only a short time in office. Death in battle or assassination left the kingdom in the hands of their enemy, the British king Cadwalla. The two dynasties of Deira and Bernicia were once again sundered and the Northumbrian throne was left open. It was now the turn of the Bernician royal house to wrest power from Cadwalla, and the marauding Penda, who spent a year harrying the people of Northumbria.
Post Medieval Bamburgh
The Castle was badly damaged by gunfire during a siege by the Yorkists during the War of the Roses in 1464 and left in a ruinous state. After the Union of the Crowns in 1603, having lost its military usefulness, the Castle was granted into the hands of the Forster family.
The Forsters were bankrupt by the beginning of the 18th century and the estate passed into the ownership of Nathaniel Lord Crewe, Archbishop of York, on whose death it formed part of a charitable trust, administered in the later 18th century by Dr John Sharp. It was Dr Sharp who began the restoration process creating a school for girls and hostel for shipwrecked mariners.
At the end of the 19th century, William 1st Lord Armstrong purchased the castle and rebuilt the living quarters of the castle on a lavish scale. The castle is still occupied in the present day.
Today, as it has always done, the castle rock and the structures on it have an impressive brooding presence over the surrounding landscape, perhaps the most recognisable structure in the Northumbrian landscape
For further information on the history of Bamburgh and Northumbria see Suggested Reading