How Bamburgh Became the Nucleus of Northumbrian Power

Tristan Hughes

4 mins

09 Jul 2019

Bamburgh – home to one of the most formidable fortresses in the British Isles.

Situated atop a dolerite outcrop near the north-eastern tip of what is now England, Bamburgh has formed a vital stronghold for various kingdoms throughout British history – a keystone for maintaining power in this area of the British Isles. Celts, Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Vikings, Normans, the site’s history stretches over 2,000 years.

The zenith of Bamburgh’s power occurred during the Anglo-Saxon period, when it formed the nucleus of the Kingdom of Northumbria. This is the story of Bamburgh’s early history.

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Votadini Bamburgh

The first embers of a strong fortress being established here date back over 2,000 years, to Iron Age Britain and the coming of a power that ruled large swathes of the Mediterranean World and beyond: the Romans.

At the time of the Roman conquest of Britain, this area belonged to the Votadini, a Celtic tribe that dominated Britain’s eastern coastline from the Firth of Forth in the north to the Tyne in the south.

As Rome’s reach grew ever further the Votadini soon found themselves subject to the emperor’s will and aiding the empire’s attempts to subdue Scotland during the late 1st and mid-2nd centuries AD.

Following the abandonment of the Roman frontier at the Antonine Wall, however, and the withdrawal to the more-formidable Hadrian’s Wall further south, direct Roman rule over the Votadini ended and the tribe were left largely to their own devices as a client state of Rome.

Peoples of northern Britain according to Ptolemy’s 2nd-century Geography. The Votadini tribe are here shown as ‘Otadini’. Credit: Notuncurious / Commons.

For the Romans the Votadini proved the perfect buffer between themselves and the dreaded Caledonians to the north.

Strong links between Rome and the Votadini remained. Archaeologists have uncovered an abundance of Roman goods at several of the tribes’ strongholds including their one at at Bamburgh, known to the British as Dynguoaroy.

Unearthed Roman-era pottery at the site has confirmed Dynguoaroy’s close connections to ancient Rome.

The coming of ‘the Flamebearer’

For over 400 years Dynguoaroy remained in Celtic control. But it did not last. In 547, long after the Romans had departed Albion’s shores, a Germanic warlord landed at Dynguoaroy with an army, seized the Celtic town and quickly conquered the ruling Celtic kingdom of Bryneich.

The warlord’s name was Ida, ‘the Flamebearer’. On the site of the Celtic stronghold he erected his own fortified centre – the capital for his new kingdom called the Kingdom of Bernicia.

Ida of Bernicia.

Half a century later Dynguoaroy’s importance grew larger. In around 604 Aethelfrith, grandson of Ida ‘the Flamebearer’, nearly doubled the size of his dominion when he brought the neighbouring kingdom of Deira under his control.

Owning land that now stretched from the Tweet to the Humber, the age of the Kingdom of Bernicia was at an end. The age of the Kingdom of Northumbria had begun.

Despite his kingdom’s vast increase in size, Aethelfrith’s capital remained at Dynguoaroy, though with one significant alteration. During his reign he renamed the stronghold ‘Bebbanburgh’ or ‘Bamburgh’ in honour of his wife, Bebba.

Whiteblade

Aethelfrith’s son proved an even more remarkable Northumbrian ruler: Oswald ‘whiteblade’. Following several successful conquests for a time Oswald was the most powerful warlord in Britain, ruling a kingdom that stretched from Edinburgh in the north to Leeds in the south.

From Bamburgh he ruled his large kingdom for 7/8 years, yet his greatest legacy was, arguably, not a secular one.

During his reign Oswald began to Christianise his kingdom. Not long after he ascended the throne the Northumbrian monarch had requested that the abbot of Iona send a missionary to his court at Bamburgh.

His name was Aidan and Oswald instructed Aidan to establish a splendid monastery on a tidal island to the north of Bamburgh: Lindisfarne. It would develop into one of the key centres of learning in early medieval history.

Oswald and Bishop Aidan of Lindesfarne. Image credit: Wolfgang Sauber / Commons.

Oswald’s reign came to an abrupt end on 5 August 641/2, when a joint Mercian-Welsh army commanded by Penda, the pagan Mercian monarch, routed Oswald’s Northumbrian force, killed the king himself and then had his body mutilated.

Oswald’s successors later made their forebear a saint, with his dismembered arms being taken back to his royal seat at Bamburgh.

Information on Oswald, Aidan and the Kingdom of Northumbria comes largely from the 8th Century writings of the Venerable Bede, a monk who had resided at the similarly-splendid monastery at Wearmouth-Jarrow in Northumbria.

Several times he mentions Bamburgh and its prestigious position as the seat of power for Northumbrian kings in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People.

The Venerable Bede translating the Gospel of John on his deathbed.

The Beast of Bamburgh

Discoveries during recent archaeological excavations at Bamburgh seem only to affirm the stronghold’s importance during Anglo-Saxon times.

From the best-preserved Anglo-Saxon sword in Britain to ‘the Beast of Bamburgh’, a tiny, intricately-detailed gold plaque believed to have been part of a throne, the popular belief that Bamburgh formed the strongly-protected nucleus of Anglo-Saxon Northumbria seems almost certain.

Anglo-Saxon coins from the site suggests a royal mint may also have been situated here, while the discovery of mortar and stone has led many to believe Bamburgh’s walls and several of its buildings were made from stone.

This was highly-unusual. The Anglo-Saxons constructed most of their secular buildings from timber, so the use of stone at Bamburgh suggests the stronghold had extraordinary status.

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From the mid-7th to the mid-8th century Anglo-Saxon Bamburgh and the Kingdom of Northumbria enjoyed its Golden Age. The military might of Bamburgh was unmatched anywhere in the land, while tales of the wealth and splendour of nearby Holy Lindisfarne spread far and wide.

But no golden age can last forever, and it was not long before Northumbria’s wealth reached unwelcome ears.

Featured image credit: Window to the south of the porch of St Oswald’s depicting St Oswald. Rodhullandemu / Commons.