Bamburgh Castle and the Real Uhtred of Bebbanburg | History Hit

Bamburgh Castle and the Real Uhtred of Bebbanburg

Bamburgh Castle
Image Credit: ChickenWing Jackson / Shutterstock.com

On the rugged north-east coast of England, Bamburgh Castle sits on a plateau of volcanic rock. It has been a strategically important location for centuries. Once the capital of a kingdom, it marked a milestone in the story of castles in England before becoming a community hub and then a family home.

Bebbanburg

Bamburgh was the site of a fort created by the tribe of Celtic Britons known as the Din Guarie. Some accounts suggest it was the capital of the Gododdin people who formed the Kingdom of Bernica in the 5th and 6th centuries.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle first records a castle built at Bamburgh by King Ida of Northumbria in 547. The chronicle claims it was initially surrounded by a defensive hedge that was later replaced by a wall. This was probably a wooden palisade, because in 655, the King of Mercia attacked Bamburgh and tried to burn the defences down.

Ida’s grandson Æthelfrith gave the fortress to his wife Bebba. Protected settlements such as this were known as burghs and were designed to provide a safe haven for communities under attack. They became increasingly popular as Viking raids increased in later centuries. Bebba’s Burgh became known as Bebbanburg, which eventually became Bamburgh.

‘In dangerous waters off Bamburgh Castle, Northumberland’ by Vilhelm Melbye

Image Credit: Vilhelm Melbye, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The Real Uhtred of Bebbanburh

Bernard Cornwell’s Anglo-Saxon series The Last Kingdom tells the story of Uhtred as he tries to recover his stolen inheritance: Bebbanburh. He becomes embroiled in Viking raids and King Alfred the Great’s resistance to them. There was a real Uhtred of Bebbanburg, but his story was different from the novels.

Uhtred the Bold lived about a century later than King Alfred, during the reign of Æthelred. He was Ealdorman (Earl) of Northumbria, with his base at Bebbanburg. As a reward for helping the king against the Scots, Uhtred was given his father’s land and title, even though his father was still alive.

In 1013, Sweyn Forkbeard, King of Denmark invaded and Uhtred quickly submitted to him. When Sweyn died in February 1014, Uhtred returned his support to the exiled Æthelred, campaigning with Æthelred’s son Edmund Ironside. When Sweyn’s son Cnut invaded, Uhtred decided to throw his lot in with Cnut. On his way to peace talks with the new king, Uhtred was assassinated with forty of his men, reportedly at Cnut’s behest.

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The Wars of the Roses

Following the Norman Conquest of 1066, Bamburgh began to emerge as a castle. It soon came into royal hands, where it remained until the 17th century. During the Wars of the Roses the Lancastrian King Henry VI briefly based himself at Bamburgh Castle. When the Yorkist King Edward IV took the throne, Henry fled Bamburgh but the castle was besieged. Edward left a second siege in 1464 to his cousin Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, a man remembered now as Warwick the Kingmaker.

Warwick sent a royal herald and one of his own to deliver his chilling terms to those within Bamburgh. The castle was strategically important, near to the Scots border, and the king did not want to have to pay to repair it. If the garrison, led by Sir Ralph Grey, surrendered immediately, all but Grey and his aide Sir Humphrey Neville would be spared. If they refused, for every cannon ball fired at the castle, a man would hang when it fell.

Grey, convinced he could hold out indefinitely, told Warwick to do his worst. Two huge iron cannons and a smaller brass one pounded the walls day and night for weeks. One day, a dislodged lump of masonry fell on Grey’s head and knocked him out cold. The garrison took the opportunity to surrender. Despite Warwick’s threat, they were spared. Grey was executed.

Bamburgh Castle became the first in England to fall to gunpowder weapons in July 1464. The days of the castle were numbered.

Framed print, ‘Plucking the Red and White Roses in the Old Temple Gardens’ after the original 1910 fresco painting by Henry Albert Payne based upon a scene in Shakespeare’s ‘Henry VI’

Image Credit: Henry Payne, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

A Love Story

Bamburgh remained a royal castle until James I & VI gifted it to Claudius Forster. It was a wonderful present, but also something of a poisoned chalice. James got rid of it because he couldn’t afford to maintain it. Neither could the Forster family.

The castle’s fortunes changed when the last Forster heir, Dorothy, married Lord Crewe, Bishop of Durham in 1700. Lord Crewe was 40 years older than Dorothy, but their marriage was a love match. When Dorothy died in 1716, Lord Crewe was distraught and dedicated his time and money to renovating Bamburgh in memory of his wife.

When Lord Crewe died in 1721 aged 88, his will established a number of charities to use his money in Bamburgh. The trustees, led by Dr John Sharp, began restoring the castle, which became home to a school, a doctor’s surgery, and a pharmacy for the local community. Free inoculation against smallpox was offered, meat was given to the poor and subsidised corn was available. Locals could use the castle’s windmill to grind corn, and you could even take a hot bath in the castle if you wished. Bamburgh Castle had become a community hub that supported the local population.

Lord Crewe, Bishop of Durham

Image Credit: National Portrait Gallery, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The Family Home

Towards the end of the 19th century, the trust began to run out of money and decided to sell Bamburgh Castle. In 1894, it was purchased for £60,000 by the inventor and industrialist William Armstrong. He had made his fortune producing hydraulic machinery, ships, and weapons. His plan was to use the castle as a convalescent home for retired gentlemen. Armstrong was known as the ‘Magician of the North’ for his inventions. He was an early champion of clean electricity, and his manor Cragside about 35 miles south of here, was the first in the world with lighting powered entirely by hydroelectricity.

William died in 1900 before the restoration of the castle was complete. It was overseen by his great nephew, the 2nd Lord Armstrong, and cost over £1 million by the time it was done. Lord Armstrong then decided to make Bamburgh Castle his family home. The Armstrong family still own Bamburgh Castle today and invite the public in to explore this ancient and fascinating castle that is packed with history throughout the centuries. It’s well worth a visit!

Matt Lewis

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