Located right on the very tip of the North East English coast, Bamburgh Castle is one of the UK’s most stunning historic landmarks. Known as the ‘King of Castles’, this dramatic building is perched atop an outcrop of volcanic rock, with sandy dunes below leading to the choppy North Sea.
We visited on an unseasonably warm October afternoon, when the village of Bamburgh was crowded with flocks of half-term tourists. Having recently read Max Adam’s fantastic The King in the North: The Life and Times of Oswald of Northumbria, and a fan of the BBC adaption of The Last Kingdom, both of which feature Bamburgh, it was high time we made a visit for ourselves.
Bamburgh Castle has undergone a number of face lifts in its long and illustrious history. Bamburgh’s recorded history begins in AD547, when it was chosen as the capital of Northumbria, also known as Bernicia, the ancient Anglo Saxon kingdom covering much of southeastern Scotland and North East England. Northumbria was known as one of the most powerful of Anglo Saxon Britain’s seven kingdoms, known for being the site of both fierce battles and some of the most exquisite early Christian works. The stunning Lindisfarne Gospels, one of the most precious artefacts of early medieval Britain, was written at the Holy Island of the same name, only miles offshore from Bamburgh.
During this period, the kings of Northumbria made Bamburgh their home. Close to the North Sea, the site was in an ideal position for trade and defense, and was known as ‘Din Guayrdi’, from the meaning of ‘Din’ as ‘fortress.’ At this time, Bamburgh Castle as we know it now was likely a wooden fortress.
With the fort destroyed by the Vikings in the late tenth century, the conquering Normans later built their own building on the site. With power seized from the Anglo Saxon earls, the Normans establish Bamburgh as one of many military outposts along the northern border.
For centuries, Bamburgh remained as a vital strategic site for the English monarchy’s battles with the Scots. The castle was refortified on several occasions, with serfs and tenants forced to work on the Castle, or face heavy fines. The famous Great Tower, which stands at the heart of the Castle to this day, was built in 1164, ensuring Bamburgh Castle towered over the surrounding land, beaches and Farne Islands.
The imposing atmosphere remains at Bamburgh, even on a sunny autumnal afternoon. Despite various additions made by Lord Crew in the eighteenth century, and the local industrialist William Armstrong (whose family still own the property) in the nineteenth century, Bamburgh Castle retains a dark, brooding charm. It’s no wonder it’s been chosen as a filming location for Elizabeth, Macbeth and The Last Kingdom, among others.
For any budding historian living or visiting the North East, Bamburgh Castle is a must-see. To take in the full effect of the Castle as a defensive fortress – its original purpose – it’s recommended that you take the short walk across the dunes down to the beach. Look behind you, and you’ll see exactly how intimidating this magnificent castle really can be.