First to Fall
Bamburgh lays claim to the dubious honour of having been the very first castle in the country to come under cannon fire. During the Wars of the Roses, the fortress – as a Lancastrian stronghold – became a place of refuge for King Henry VI and his wife Queen Margaret of Anjou, after a heavy defeat in battle at Hexham by the Yorkists in May 1464. At that time, Bamburgh constituted the sum total of his kingdom for the straitened monarch. Battered and disconsolate, he held court there until he came under siege from a heavily armed Edward IV. Despite its robust and sturdy walls, the citadel eventually buckled under the cannons after being laid siege to for nine long months at the hands of Yorkist Richard Neville, 16th Earl of Warwick. Henry VI had been defeated.
The original structure of Bamburgh had been demolished when the citadel was taken by the Vikings in 993. What stands in its stead today is a slice of fascinatingly layered history. The Normans built a new castle on the site. It is thought that King Henry II constructed the keep after the castle became the property of the reigning English monarch in the 11th century when William Rufus, the third son of William the Conqueror, set his sights on it.
Later, Bamburgh was used variously as a school, a hospital for the poor and a refuge for shipwrecked sailors after the last of the Forster family, in whose possession the castle had been for 400 years, was declared posthumously bankrupt and the castle passed to her husband, Nathaniel Crew, who was Bishop of Durham.
The bulk of the extant fairytale-style building, however, is relatively modern, having been restored by Sir William Armstrong, a Victorian industrialist, who bought Bamburgh in 1894 and without whom the castle might have fallen into total disrepair. Sir Armstrong’s legacy has been lasting. He reconstructed the King’s Hall, which retains original medieval arches and today the Armstrong family continues to live at their ancestral home.
Visitors can wander its 14 public rooms, and admire 2,000 artefacts spanning its extraordinary history. For many visitors, however, Bamburgh Castle may seem strangely familiar, thanks to one of its more glamorous latter incarnations as a film set.
Directors including Roman Polanski, Ken Russell and Shekhar Kapur have all chosen the astonishing castle as the backdrop to movies including Elizabeth and The Devils.
Most recently, none other than Michael Fassbender could be seen wrestling with his ambition and his soul as Macbeth in the Justin Kurzel adaptation of the Shakespeare tragedy. As the apotheosis of the medieval castle, it has graduated from welcoming the most feted kings and queens throughout history to the most distinguished kings and queens of the silver screen. Long may she reign over the north.