Let’s explore one of the most dramatic castles in Britain, Bamburgh in Northumberland
Cadwallader Bates, the pleasingly Arthurian-sounding 19th-century historian, wrote of Bamburgh Castle as “the very cornerstone of England”. Fifteen hundred years ago, it quite literally was. Its pre-Anglo Saxon name, Din Guarie, even encouraged some to believe that this fortress, towering aloft dolerite rock, was once the “Joyous Guard” of Arthurian legend, castle of Sir Lancelot and Sir Galahad.
Visitors to the castle today will find the sandstone monolith strikingly situated between the village of Bamburgh in Northumberland – the northernmost county in England – and the Farne Islands, which lie a couple of miles off the coastline and house a famous seabird sanctuary.
There have been settlements at Bamburgh since prehistoric times (regular archaeological digs take place here and spectacular finds have included a gold plaque known as the Bamburgh Beast and the Bamburgh Sword) but for its earliest recorded origins, we must go back to AD 547. That fateful year in the life of the castle was when the Germanic King Ida the Flamebearer and his fierce invaders, known as the Angles, who hailed from the German/Danish border, seized Bamburgh.
By the early 5th century, the Romans had all but left Britain after three-and-a-half centuries of rule, rendering the country’s internal borders defenceless. Making full use of their advantage, for over a century the Angles had busied themselves raging and raiding their way through East Anglia, Lincolnshire and up into Yorkshire. But it was in AD 547 that they made their most important acquisition yet: that of Bamburgh. While Ida no doubt held strongholds in the region, the then Din Guarie was by far the most significant in the establishment of his emerging kingdom of Bernicia, which was centred on the rivers Tyne and Wear. It became his capital and thus the seat of the most powerful leader in northern “Angle Land” (which, of course, later came to be known as England).
By AD 603, Ida’s grandson, the fiercesome King Aethelfrith of Bernicia, seized control of Deira (known today as the Yorkshire Wolds). He defeated rival Angle chief Aelle in Deira, as well as the Celts, to form, with the unification of Bernicia and Deira, a new kingdom: Northumbria. This powerful new realm constituted almost a third of Britain’s mainland.
To perceive Bamburgh as the cornerstone of England was, then, no exaggeration; at the height of its power, the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of Britain were ruled jointly from York and Bamburgh and the province remained ferociously autonomous right up until the Norman Conquest.
In homage to his wife Bebba, King Aethelfrith named the castle – or “burgh” – after her. And hers was no nominal influence; she ruled Bamburgh herself after her husband’s death. Over time, Bebba’s Burgh would be compounded as Bamburgh.
The reign of king and saint Oswald – successor to Aethelfrith – who ruled during the 7th and 8th centuries, would come to be known as the “golden age” of Northumbria, during which time he ruled jointly from Bamburgh Castle and a monastery in nearby Lindisfarne and introduced Christianity to the kingdom. But post this golden time, after the eventual demise of the Anglo-Saxon rulers, Bamburgh Castle has endured, enjoying a long and often chequered after-life.