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Bamburgh Castle: Inner Ward

Inner Ward, Bamburgh Castle

The Inner Ward of Bamburgh Castle lies at the heart of the Castle complex. Early mention by Bede notes the presence of a chapel and well. Excavation conducted by the Bamburgh Research Project, between 2004 and 2008, has demonstrated multi-phase activity on the site of the current chapel. Evidence includes early medieval stone-built structures and the butchery of animals in the Roman period.

The focus of the medieval castle, its great hall, royal chambers, kitchen and its church, lay at the summit of the castle rock in the Inner Ward just as the present state rooms do today. In fact, in some instances the current rooms follow the ground plan of their medieval predecessors and even incorporate substantial elements of medieval masonry in some areas. The focus of the most important buildings on the highest and dominant part of the castle rock should come as no surprise to anyone with even the most basic knowledge of castles and their architecture. They are sited here for the views out into the landscape, to be seen from a distance and to look impressive.

The early medieval palace complex of the kings of Northumbria is more elusive, but the little evidence that we do have suggests that the important buildings from this time also lay in the Inner Ward. We have a set of annals, compiled as a follow-on to Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, that was preserved in a later manuscript compiled at Durham. One annal describes Bamburgh and tells us that on the summit of the hill stood a church that contained the relicts of St Oswald and also mentions a well cut through a great depth of bedrock to its west. There was no mention of a great hall, but we know from other royal palace sites, like Yeavering, that one must have been present.

Excavation of the Inner Ward

As the Inner Ward continues to be the heart of Bamburgh Castle today it is not easy to undertake archaeological excavation as much of it is still built over and other elements, such as the lawns are carefully tended and kept in good condition. Despite this, we have managed to undertake two seasons of work in and around the ruins of the chapel and uncovered some fascinating evidence despite the limited size of the trenches.

Excavation of chapel interior 2004
Excavation plan of Inner ward excavations

The earliest material uncovered was animal bone that had radiocarbon dates from the Roman period. No structures were seen of this date, but clearly at that time people were already living on the castle rock. The most fascinating finds were early stone structures, walls and at least one building, all predating the 12th century as they were beneath the foundations of the 12th century chapel that itself had been built upon in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

Norman Wall above early medieval wall structure

Two phases of stone wall lay in the northern, seaward, side of the chapel and have been interpreted as early phases of defensive walls. They align with the extensive foundations of the 12th century north wall to the ward that takes a kink to the north in this area and which we believe was re-aligned to extend the size of the ward and incorporate the larger chapel built in the later 12th century. The upper of these early walls has a well-defined chamfer and is of uniform build and is almost certainly Norman in date. The earlier wall beneath it, however, was of a cruder style of build and almost certainly early medieval in date, being two generations earlier than the 12th century chapel.

Inside this wall-line, to the south and beneath the current chapel ruins, we identified lengths of walls that can be combined to make the plan of a rectangular building, some 16m east to west by 8m north to south. Could this just possibly be an earlier church and the very building mentioned by Bede and again by that annalist who continued his history? It would need more work to prove it, but it is a fascinating thought.

The presence of stone buildings, and even potentially a stone defensive wall, from such an early time speaks volumes about the importance of Bamburgh as a palace site for the Northumbrian kings. Clearly, it was a place that they wanted to look impressive and were willing to invest time and resources into.

The full excavation report for the Inner ward can be accessed here: Inner Ward Excavation Report