Vikings to Victorians: A Brief History of Bamburgh from 793 – Present Day

Today we immediately associate Bamburgh with its magnificent Norman castle, but the strategic importance of this location stretches much further back than the 11th century BC. From the Iron Age Britons to bloodthirsty Viking raiders, from an Anglo-Saxon Golden Age to a shocking siege during the Wars of the Roses – waves of peoples have attempted to secure Bamburgh’s invaluable possession.

Bamburgh enjoyed the zenith of its power and prestige between the mid-7th and mid-8th centuries AD, when the stronghold was the royal seat of power for the Anglo-Saxon kings of Northumbria. Yet the kingdom’s prestige soon invited unwelcome attention from overseas.

The raid

In 793 sleek Viking warships appeared off Bamburgh’s coast and landed on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne. What followed was one of the most infamous moments in medieval English history. Having heard tales of the monastery’s great wealth, the Viking raiders plundered the monastery and killed the monks within sight of Bamburgh’s stone walls. It marked the beginning of the Viking age of terror in Northumbria.

Viking longships.

Intermittently over the next 273 years Vikings and Anglo-Saxon warlords vied for land, power and influence in Northumbria. Much of the kingdom fell into Viking hands, though Bamburgh managed to remain under Anglo-Saxon control. The Vikings did sack Bamburgh in 993, but it never came directly under the Viking yoke unlike York to the south.

Enter the Normans

Having resisted the Viking scourge, the Anglo-Saxon Earls of Bamburgh soon found themselves facing another threat. In the Autumn of 1066 William the Conqueror and his Norman army landed at Pevensey Bay, defeated King Harold at Hastings and subsequently seized the English Crown.

It was not long before he set about consolidating his hold on his spear-won kingdom, particularly in the north. Just as the Romans had done some 1,000 years earlier, William quickly realised Bamburgh’s strategic location and how it provided a vital buffer for his domain against the troublesome Scots to the North.

For a time William allowed the Earls of Bamburgh to maintain a relative degree of independence. But it did not last long.

Several revolts erupted in the north, forcing the Conqueror to march north and inflict great devastation on his northern lands until near the end of the 11th century.

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In 1095 William’s namesake son, King William II ‘Rufus’ successfully captured Bamburgh after a siege and the stronghold fell into the king’s possession.

The Normans went on to strengthen Bamburgh’s defences to keep watch over England’s northern frontier. The nucleus of the castle that remains today is of Norman design, although Bamburgh’s keep was built by David, a Scottish king (Bamburgh fell into Scottish hands several times).

During the rest of the medieval period Bamburgh Castle witnessed several of the Age’s most famous English figures. Kings Edward I, II and III all ventured to this northern bastion as they prepared to campaign in Scotland, and for a time during the late 1300s, a young, dashing and charismatic commander controlled the castle: Sir Henry ‘Harry’ Hotspur.

Bamburgh Castle’s swansong

By the start of the 15th century Bamburgh remained one of the most formidable fortresses in Britain, a symbol of power and strength. But in 1463 England was in a state of turmoil. Civil war, the so-called ‘Wars of the Roses’ divided the land between the Yorkists and the Lancastrians.

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Prior to 1462 Bamburgh had been a Lancastrian stronghold, supporting the exiled King Henry VI and his wife Margaret of Anjou.

In mid-1462 Margaret and Henry had sailed down from Scotland with an army and occupied the strategically-important castle, but it did not last. King Edward IV, the Yorkist king, marched north with his own force to drive the Lancastrians out of Northumberland.

Richard Neville, the Earl of Warwick (better known as the Kingmaker) and Edward’s trusted Lieutenant, besieged Dunstaburgh and Bamburgh: after a brief siege both Lancastrian garrisons surrendered on Christmas Eve 1462. Yorkist control of Northumberland had been secured. But not for long.

Attempting to reconcile his subjects Edward restored control of Bamburgh, Alnwick and Dunstanburgh – the three main bastions in Northumberland – to Ralph Percy, a Lancastrian who had recently-defected.

Edward’s trust proved misplaced. Percy’s loyalty proved paper-thin, and he betrayed Edward soon after, returning Bamburgh and the other bastions into Lancastrian hands. To strengthen their hold a new Lancastrian force – mainly French and Scottish troops – soon arrived to garrison the castles.

Once again fighting raged in Northumberland as Percy and Henry Beaufort, 3rd Duke of Somerset, attempted to cement Lancastrian authority in northwest England. It proved to no avail. By 15 May 1464 superior Yorkist forces had crushed the remnants of the Lancastrian army – both Somerset and Percy perished during the campaign. The Lancastrian defeat resulted in the garrisons at Alnwick and Dunstanburgh peacefully surrendering to the Yorkists.

But Bamburgh proved a different story.

1464: The Siege of Bamburgh

Despite being heavily outnumbered the Lancastrian garrison at Bamburgh, commanded by Sir Ralph Grey, refused to surrender. And so on 25 June, Warwick laid siege to the stronghold.

Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick. From the Rous Roll, “Warwick the Kingmaker”, Oman, 1899.

The siege did not last long. Within his army’s ranks Warwick had (at least) 3 powerful pieces of artillery, dubbed ‘Newcastle’, ‘London’ and ‘Dysyon’. They unleashed a powerful bombardment on the fortress. The strong Norman walls proved all-but powerless and soon gaping holes appeared in the stronghold’s defences and the buildings within, causing great destruction.

Soon large parts of Bamburgh’s defences were reduced to rubble, the garrison surrendered the city and Grey lost his head. The 1464 Siege of Bamburgh proved the only set-piece siege to occur during the Wars of the Roses, with its fall signalling the end of Lancastrian power in Northumberland.

Most importantly, it also signalled the first time an English castle had fallen to cannon-fire. The message was clear: the age of the castle was at an end.

Revival

For the next c.350/400 years Bamburgh Castle’s remains fell into disrepair. Fortunately in 1894 wealthy industrialist William Armstrong set about restoring the property to its former glory. To this day it remains the home of the Armstrong Family with a history few other castles can match.

Featured image credit: Bamburgh Castle. Julian Dowse / Commons.