Bamburgh Castle and Dunstanburgh Castle, North East Coast, Northumberland

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Bamburgh Castle

Bamburgh Castle
Bamburgh 2006 closeup.jpg

Bamburgh Castle from the northeast

Bamburgh Castle is located in Northumberland

Bamburgh Castle
Bamburgh Castle
Coordinates 55.608°N 1.709°WCoordinates55.608°N 1.709°W
Site information
Owner Armstrong family
Open to
the public
Listed Building – Grade I
Designated 4 January 1952
Reference no. 1280155
Site history
Built 11th century

Bamburgh Castle is a castle on the northeast coast of England, by the village of Bamburgh in Northumberland. It is a Grade I listed building.

(Used in many a historical epics including the 1952 adaption “Ivanhoe” starring Elizabeth Taylor, “El Cid” with Charlton Heston and Sophia Loren in 1961, the 1972 film “Mary Queen of Scots” with Glenda Jackson and more…)

The site was originally the location of a Celtic Brittonic fort known as Din Guarie and may have been the capital of the kingdom of Bernicia from its foundation in c. 420 to 547. After passing between the Britons and the Anglo-Saxons three times, the fort came under Anglo-Saxon control in 590. The fort was destroyed by Vikings in 993, and the Normans later built a new castle on the site, which forms the core of the present one. After a revolt in 1095 supported by the castle’s owner, it became the property of the English monarch.

In the 17th century, financial difficulties led to the castle deteriorating, but it was restored by various owners during the 18th and 19th centuries. It was finally bought by the Victorian era industrialist William Armstrong, who completed its restoration. The castle still belongs to the Armstrong family and is open to the public.


The southwestern face of Bamburgh Castle, seen from ground level (top) and from above (bottom)

Medieval history

Built on a dolerite outcrop, the location was previously home to a fort of the indigenous Celtic Britons known as Din Guarie and may have been the capital of the kingdom of Bernicia, the realm of the Gododdin people, from the realm’s foundation in c. 420 until 547, the year of the first written reference to the castle. In that year the citadel was captured by the Anglo-Saxon ruler Ida of Bernicia (Beornice) and became Ida’s seat.

The castle was briefly retaken by the Britons from his son Hussa during the war of 590 before being relieved later the same year. In c. 600, Hussa’s successor Æthelfrith passed it on to his wife Bebba, from whom the early name Bebbanburh was derived. The Vikings destroyed the original fortification in 993.

Aerial photograph from 1973 showing the position of the castle, northeast of Bamburgh village

The Normans built a new castle on the site, which forms the core of the present one. William II unsuccessfully besieged it in 1095 during a revolt supported by its owner, Robert de MowbrayEarl of Northumbria. After Robert was captured, his wife continued the defence until coerced to surrender by the king’s threat to blind her husband.

Bamburgh then became the property of the reigning English monarch. Henry II probably built the keep as it was complete by 1164. Following the Siege of Acre in 1191, and as a reward for his service, King Richard I appointed Sir John Forster the first Governor of Bamburgh Castle. Following the defeat of the Scots at the Battle of Neville’s Cross in 1346, King David II was held prisoner at Bamburgh Castle.

During the civil wars at the end of King John’s reign, the castle was under the control of Philip of Oldcoates. In 1464 during the Wars of the Roses, it became the first castle in England to be defeated by artillery, at the end of a nine-month siege by Richard Neville, 16th Earl of Warwick, the “Kingmaker”, on behalf of the Yorkists.

Modern history

The State Rooms of Bamburgh Castle, in top-centre, The Card Players, by Theodoor Romboutsc. 1630.

The Forster family of Northumberland continued to provide the Crown with successive governors of the castle until the Crown granted ownership of the castle to another Sir John Forster in around 1600. The family retained ownership until Sir William Forster (d. 1700) was posthumously declared bankrupt, and his estates, including the castle, were sold to Lord Crew, Bishop of Durham (husband of his sister Dorothy) under an Act of Parliament to settle the debts in 1704.

Crewe placed the castle in the hands of a board of trustees chaired by Thomas Sharp, the Archdeacon of Northumberland. Following the death of Thomas Sharp, leadership of the board of trustees passed to John Sharp (Thomas Sharp’s son) who refurbished the castle keep and court rooms and established a hospital on the site. In 1894, the castle was bought by the Victorian industrialist William Armstrong, who completed the restoration.

During the Second World Warpillboxes were established in the sand dunes to protect the castle and surrounding area from German invasion and, in 1944, a Royal Navy corvette was named HMS Bamborough Castle after the castle. The castle still remains in the ownership of the Armstrong family.


An 1825 plan of the castle

About 9 miles (14 km) to the south on a point of coastal land is the ancient fortress of Dunstanburgh Castle and about 5 miles (8 km) to the north is Lindisfarne Castle on Holy Island. Inland about 16 miles (26 km) to the south is Alnwick Castle, the home of the Duke of Northumberland.

Environmental factors

Air quality levels at Bamburgh Castle are excellent due to the absence of industrial sources in the region. Sound levels near the north-south road passing by Bamburgh Castle are in the range of 59 to 63 dBA in the daytime (Northumberland Sound Mapping Study, Northumberland, England, June 2003). Nearby are breeding colonies of Arctic and common terns on the inner Farne Islands, and of Atlantic puffinshag and razorbill on Staple Island.

Archaeology at Bamburgh

Archaeological excavations were started in the 1960s by Brian Hope-Taylor, who discovered the gold plaque known as the Bamburgh Beast as well as the Bamburgh Sword. Since 1996, the Bamburgh Research Project has been investigating the archaeology and history of the Castle and Bamburgh area. The project has concentrated on the fortress site and the early medieval burial ground at the Bowl Hole, to the south of the castle.

Armstrong and Aviation Artefacts Museum

The castle’s laundry rooms feature the Armstrong and Aviation Artefacts Museum, with exhibits about Victorian industrialist William Armstrong and Armstrong Whitworth, the manufacturing company he founded. Displays include engines, artillery and weaponry, and aviation artefacts from two world wars.

In popular culture

“Bamborough Castle from the Northeast, with Holy Island in the Distance, Northumberland” by John Varley, 1827, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Selected literary appearances

The castle features in the ballad The Laidly Worm of Spindleston Heugh written in circa 1270. Late medieval British author Thomas Malory identified Bamburgh Castle with Joyous Gard, the mythical castle home of Sir Launcelot in Arthurian legend. In literature, Bamburgh, under its Saxon name Bebbanburg, is the home of Uhtred, the main character in Bernard Cornwell‘s The Saxon Stories. It features either as a significant location or as the inspiration for the protagonist in all books in the series, starting with The Last Kingdom, and the sequels The Pale Horseman, The Lords of the North, Sword Song, The Burning LandDeath of KingsThe Pagan LordThe Empty ThroneWarriors of the Storm,The Flame Bearer and The War of the Wolf. The castle also features in the 2018 racing video game Forza Horizon 4, where it can be purchased by the player as one of their homes.

Selected film appearances

In addition to appearances as itself, Bamburgh Castle has been used as a filming location for a number of television and film projects:

See also


  1. ^ Historic England“Details from listed building database (1280155)”National Heritage List for England. Retrieved 17 June 2018.
  2. ^ Historic England“Details from listed building database (1280155)”National Heritage List for England. Retrieved 5 December 2007.
  3. ^ “Bernaccia (Bryneich / Berneich)”. The History Files. Retrieved 18 June 2018.
  4. ^ ‘An English empire: Bede and the early Anglo-Saxon kings’ by N. J. Higham, Manchester University Press ND, 1995, ISBN0-7190-4423-5ISBN978-0-7190-4423-6
  5. ^ The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, entry for 547.
  6. ^ Hope-Taylor, pp. 292-293
  7. ^ Nennius. “Historia Brittonum, 8th century”. Retrieved 17 June 2018.
  8. ^ “Vikings invade Bamburgh Castle”. Northumberland Gazette. 4 June 2013. Retrieved 17 June 2018.
  9. Jump up to:ab “Bamburgh Castle”. Castles, forts and battles. Retrieved 17 June2018.
  10. Jump up to:ab “Bamburgh Castle”. Historic England. Retrieved 17 June 2018.
  11. ^ “Sir John Forster”. Find a grave. Retrieved 17 June 2018.
  12. ^ Todd, John M. (2004). “Oldcoates , Sir Philip of (d. 1220)”((subscription or UK public library membership required))Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/27983. Retrieved 7 January 2016.
  13. ^ Rickard, J (2013). “Siege of Bamburgh Castle, June-July 1464”. History of War. Retrieved 17 June 2018.
  14. ^ Raine, Rev James (1840). The History and Antiquities of North Durham: section on “History and pedigree of Forster family”. p. 306–310.
  15. ^ “The Bamburgh Charities”. Lord Crewe’s Charities. Retrieved 17 June 2018.
  16. ^ “The Hidden Hospital: Bamburgh Castle Infirmary and Dispensary”. History Today. 11 August 2015. Retrieved 17 June 2018.
  17. Jump up to:ab “Bamburgh Castle”. William Armstrong. Retrieved 17 June 2018.
  18. ^ “Tidal surge uncovers wartime structure at Bamburgh beach”. Evening Chronicle. 11 December 2013. Retrieved 18 June 2018.
  19. ^ “HMS Bamburgh Castle”. Naval History. Retrieved 17 June 2018.
  20. ^ Historic England“Alnwick Castle (1371308)”National Heritage List for England. Retrieved 29 November 2007.
  21. ^ “Staple Island”. Farne Islands. Retrieved 17 June 2018.
  22. ^ “Rare sword had 7th Century bling”BBC News. 20 June 2006. Retrieved 22 September 2012.
  23. ^ “Welcome”. Bamburgh Research Project. Retrieved 17 June 2018.
  24. ^ “Armstrong and Aviation Artefacts Museum”. Bamburgh Castle. Retrieved 17 June 2018.
  25. ^ Westwood, Jennifer. “BBC Radio 4 Land Lines – Bamburgh”http://www.englandinparticular. BBC. Retrieved 15 February 2016.
  26. ^ Black, Joseph (2016). The Broadview Anthology of British Literature: Concise Volume A – Third Edition. Broadview. p. 536. ISBN978-1554813124.
  27. ^ “Cornwell’s incredible link with Bamburgh”. The Journal. 4 October 2005. Retrieved 17 June 2018.
  28. ^ Chandler, Sam (28 September 2018). “All house locations in Forza Horizon 4”Shacknews. Retrieved 6 October 2018.
  29. ^ Huntingtower on IMDb
  30. ^ “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court”. Times Higher Education. 6 July 2011. Retrieved 17 June 2018.
  31. Jump up to:abc “A castle fit for a celluloid Queen”. The Independent. 25 October 1998. Retrieved 17 June 2018.
  32. ^ “Becket at Bamburgh (1963)”. Yorkshire Film Archive. Retrieved 17 June 2018.
  33. ^ “The Devils”. Movie Locations. Retrieved 17 June 2018.
  34. ^ “Macbeth”. Movie Locations. Retrieved 17 June 2018.
  35. ^ “Mary Queen of Scots”. Movie Locations. Retrieved 17 June 2018.
  36. ^ “Newcastle’s Castle Keep to pay tribute to 1980s Robin of Sherwood TV series”. The Chronicle. 5 September 2016. Retrieved 17 June2018.
  37. ^ Kirton, Joanne; Young, Graeme (2017). “Excavations at Bamburgh: New Revelations in Light of Recent Investigations at the Core of the Castle Complex”. Archaeological Journal174: 146–210. doi:10.1080/00665983.2016.1229941.
  38. ^ “Hollywood stars filming Macbeth at Bamburgh Castle”. The Journal. 27 February 2014. Retrieved 17 June 2018.


  • Hope-Taylor, Brian (1977). Yeavering: an Anglo-British centre of early Northumbria. Stationery Office Books. ISBN978-0116705525.

Further reading

  • Dodds, Glen Lyndon (1999). Historic Sites of Northumberland & Newcastle upon Tyne. Albion Press. pp. 33–39. ISBN978-0952512219.
  • Fry, Plantagenet Somerset (1980). The David & Charles Book of Castles. Newton Abbot: David & Charles. pp. 182–183. ISBN978-0-7153-7976-9.
  • Young, Graeme (2003). Bamburgh Castle: The Archaeology of the Fortress of Bamburgh AD 500 to AD 1500. Bamburgh Research Project. ISBN978-0954648008.

Dunstanburgh Castle

Dunstanburgh Castle
Gatehouse and curtain wall of Dunstanburgh Castle, 2009.jpg

Dunstanburgh Castle from the south-east

Dunstanburgh Castle is located in Northumberland

Dunstanburgh Castle
Dunstanburgh Castle
Coordinates 55.4911°N 1.5932°WCoordinates55.4911°N 1.5932°W
grid reference NU258220
Type Edwardian castle
Site information
Owner English HeritageNational Trust
Open to
the public
Condition Ruins
Site history
Materials Sandstonebasaltlimestone
Events The Despenser War
Wars of Scottish Independence
Wars of the Roses
Second World War

Dunstanburgh Castle is a 14th-century fortification on the coast of Northumberland in northern England, between the villages of Craster and Embleton. The castle was built by Earl Thomas of Lancaster between 1313 and 1322, taking advantage of the site’s natural defences and the existing earthworks of an Iron Age fort. Thomas was a leader of a baronial faction opposed to King Edward II, and probably intended Dunstanburgh to act as a secure refuge, should the political situation in southern England deteriorate. The castle also served as a statement of the earl’s wealth and influence, and would have invited comparisons with the neighbouring royal castle of Bamburgh. Thomas probably only visited his new castle once, before being captured at the Battle of Boroughbridge as he attempted to flee royal forces for the safety of Dunstanburgh. Thomas was executed, and the castle became the property of the Crown before passing into the Duchy of Lancaster.

Dunstanburgh’s defences were expanded in the 1380s by John of Gaunt, the Duke of Lancaster, in the light of the threat from Scotland and the peasant uprisings of 1381. The castle was maintained in the 15th century by the Crown, and formed a strategic northern stronghold in the region during the Wars of the Roses, changing hands between the rival Lancastrian and Yorkist factions several times. The fortress never recovered from the sieges of these campaigns, and by the 16th century the Warden of the Scottish Marches described it as having fallen into “wonderfull great decaye”. As the Scottish border became more stable, the military utility of the castle steadily diminished, and King James I finally sold the property off into private ownership in 1604. The Grey family owned it for several centuries; increasingly ruinous, it became a popular subject for artists, including Thomas Girtin and J. M. W. Turner, and formed the basis for a poem by Matthew Lewis in 1808.

The Dunstanburgh Castle golf course was built near the property in 1900, and expanded by the castle’s then owner, Sir Arthur Sutherland, in 1922. By the 1920s Sutherland could no longer afford to maintain the castle, and he placed it into the guardianship of the state in 1930. When the Second World War broke out in 1939, measures were taken to defend the Northumberland coastline from a potential German invasion. The castle was used as an observation post and the site was refortified with trenchesbarbed wirepill boxes and a mine field. In the 21st century the castle is owned by the National Trust and run by English Heritage. The ruins are protected under UK law as a Grade I listed building, and are part of a Site of Special Scientific Interest, forming an important natural environment for birds and amphibians.

Dunstanburgh Castle was built in the centre of a designed medieval landscape, surrounded by three artificial lakes called meres covering a total of 4.25 hectares (10.5 acres). The curtain walls enclose 9.96 acres (4.03 ha), making it the largest castle in Northumberland. The most prominent part of the castle is the Great Gatehouse, a massive three-storey fortification, considered by historians Alastair Oswald and Jeremy Ashbee to be “one of the most imposing structures in any English castle”. Multiple rectangular towers protect the walls, including the Lilburn Tower, which looks out towards Bamburgh Castle, and the Egyncleugh Tower, positioned above Queen Margaret’s Cove. Three internal complexes of buildings, now ruined, supported the earl’s household, the castle constable‘s household and the running of the surrounding estates. A harbour was built to the south-east of the castle, of which only a stone quay survives.


Prehistory – 13th century

The site of Dunstanburgh Castle in north-east Northumberland was probably first occupied in prehistoric times. A promontory fort with earthwork defences was built on the same location at the end of the Iron Age, possibly being occupied from the 3rd century BC into the Roman period. By the 14th century, the defences had been long abandoned, and the land was being used for arable crops. Dunstanburgh formed part of the barony of Embleton, a village that lies inland to the west, traditionally owned by the earls of Lancaster.

The origins and the earliest appearance of the name “Dunstanburgh” are uncertain. Versions of the name, “Dunstanesburghe” and “Donstanburgh” were in use by the time of the castle’s construction, however, and Dunstanburgh may stem from a combination of the name of the local village of Dunstan, and the Old English word “burh“, meaning fortress.

Early 14th century


Dunstanburgh Castle was constructed by Thomas, the Earl of Lancaster, between 1313 and 1322. Thomas was an immensely powerful English baron, the second richest man in England after the King, with major land holdings across the kingdom. He had a turbulent relationship with his cousin, King Edward II, and had been a ringleader in the capture and killing of Edward’s royal favouritePiers Gaveston, in 1312.

It is uncertain exactly why Thomas decided to build Dunstanburgh. Although it was located on a strong defensive site, it was some distance from the local settlements and other strategic sites of value. Thomas held some lands in Northumberland, but they were insignificant in comparison to his other estates in the Midlands and Yorkshire, and until 1313 he had paid them little attention.

In the years following Gaveston’s death, however, civil conflict in England rarely seemed far away, and it is currently believed that Thomas probably intended to create a secure retreat, a safe distance away from Edward’s forces in the south. He also probably hoped to erect a prominent status symbol, illustrating his wealth and authority, and challenging that of the King. He may perhaps also have hoped to create a planned town alongside the castle, possibly intending to relocate the population of Embleton there.

Building work on the castle had commenced by May 1313, with labourers beginning to excavate the moat and starting to construct the castle buildings. Some of the outer wall may have been built by workers from Embleton as part of their feudal dues to Thomas. The operations were overseen by a mason, Master Elias, possibly Elias de Burton, who had been previously involved in the construction of Conwy Castle in North Wales. Iron, Newcastle coal and Scandinavian wood was brought in for use in the project. By the end of the year £184 had been spent, and work continued for several years. A licence to crenellate – a form of royal authorisation for a new castle – was issued by Edward II in 1316, and a castle constable was appointed in 1319, charged with defending both the castle and the surrounding manors of Embleton and Stamford. By 1322 the castle was probably complete.

The resulting castle was huge, protected on one side by the sea cliffs, with a stone curtain wall, a massive gatehouse and six towers around the outside. A harbour was built on the south side of the fortress, enabling access from the sea. Northumbria was a lawless region in this period, suffering from the activities of thieves and schavaldours, a type of border brigand, many of whom were members of Edward II’s household, and the harbour may have represented a safer way to reach the castle than land routes.


The Great Gatehouse (left), inspired by the gatehouse at Harlech Castle in North Wales (right)

Thomas of Lancaster made little use of his new castle; the only time he might have visited it was in 1319, when he was on his way north to join Edward’s military campaign against Scotland. Civil war then broke out in 1321 between Edward and his enemies among the barons. After the initial royalist successes, Thomas fled the south of England for Dunstanburgh in 1322, but was intercepted en route by Sir Andrew Harclay, resulting in the Battle of Boroughbridge, in which Thomas was captured; he was later executed.

The castle passed into royal control, and Edward considered it a useful fortress for protection against the threat from Scotland. Initially it was managed by Robert de Emeldon, a merchant from Newcastle, and protected by a garrison of 40 men at arms and 40 light horsemen. Roger Maduit, a politically rehabilitated former member of Thomas’s army, was appointed as constable, followed by Sir John de Lilburn, a Northumberland schavaldour in 1323, who was in turn replaced by Roger Heron.

Maduit and the castle’s garrison took part in the Battle of Old Byland in North Yorkshire in 1322, and the garrison was subsequently increased to 130 men, predominantly light horsemen, and formed a key part of the northern defences against the Scots. By 1326, the castle was given back to Thomas’s brother, Henry of Lancaster, with Lilburn returning as its constable, and continued to be of use in defence against the Scottish invasions over the next few decades.

Late 14th century

The remains of the Constable’s house and complex of buildings (left) and the Constable’s Tower (right)

Dunstanburgh Castle was acquired by John of Gaunt through his marriage to Henry of Lancaster’s granddaughter, Blanche, in 1362. Gaunt was the younger son of King Edward III and, as the Duke of Lancaster, was one of the wealthiest men of his generation. He became the Lieutenant of the Scottish Marches and visited his castle in 1380.

Dunstanburgh Castle was not a primary strategic target for Scottish attack, as it was positioned away from the main routes through the region, but it was kept well garrisoned during the Scottish wars. The surrounding manor of Embleton had nonetheless suffered from Scottish raids and Gaunt had concerns over the condition of the castle’s defences, ordering the building of additional fortifications around the gatehouse. Part of the surrounding lands around the castle may have been brought into agricultural production at this time, either to feed a growing garrison, or to protect the crops against Scottish attacks.

In 1381 the Peasants’ Revolt broke out in England, during which Gaunt was targeted by the rebels as an especially hated member of the administration. He found himself stranded in the north of England in the early part of the revolt but considered Dunstanburgh insufficiently secure to function as a safe haven, and was forced to turn to Alnwick Castle instead, which refused to let him in, fearing that his presence would invite a rebel attack.

The experience encouraged Gaunt to further expand Dunstanburgh’s defences over the next two years. A wide range of work was carried out under the direction of the constable, Thomas of Ilderton, and the mason Henry of Holme, including blocking up the entrance in the gatehouse to turn it into a keep. In 1384 a Scottish army attacked the castle but they lacked siege equipment and were unable to take the defences. Gaunt lost interest in the property after he gave up his role as the Lieutenant of the Marches. Dunstanburgh Castle remained part of the Duchy of Lancaster, but the Duchy was annexed to the Crown when Gaunt’s son, Henry IV, took the throne of England in 1399.

15th – 16th centuries

Lilburn Tower, seen from the edge of the outer bailey

The Scottish threat persisted, and in 1402 Dunstanburgh Castle’s constable, probably accompanied by its garrison, took part in the Battle of Humbleton Hill. Henry VI inherited the throne in 1422 and during the next few decades, numerous repairs were undertaken to the property’s buildings and outer defences, which had fallen into disrepair. The Wars of the Roses, a dynastic conflict between the rival houses of Lancaster and York, broke out in the middle of the 15th century. The castle was initially held by the Lancastrians, and the castle’s constable, Sir Ralph Babthorpe, died at the Battle of St Albans in 1455, fighting for the Lancastrian Henry VI.

The castle formed part of a sequence of fortifications protecting the eastern route into Scotland, and in 1461 King Edward IV attempted to break the Lancastrian stranglehold on the region. Sir Ralph Percy, one of the joint constables, defended the castle until September 1461, when he surrendered it to the Yorkists. In 1462, Henry VI’s wife, Margaret of Anjou, invaded England with a French army, landing at Bamburgh; Percy then switched sides and declared himself for the Lancastrians.

The Gull Crag cliffs and Lilburn Tower

Another Yorkist army was dispatched north in November under the joint command of the earls of Warwick and Worcester, and Sir Ralph Grey. They besieged the castle, which surrendered that Christmas. Percy was left in charge of Dunstanburgh as part of Edward IV’s attempts at reconciliation, but the next year he once again switched sides, returning the castle to the Lancastrians. Percy died at the Battle of Hedgeley Moor in 1464, and the Earl of Warwick reoccupied the castle that June following a short siege.

The castle was probably damaged during the wars, but, other than minor repairs in 1470, nothing was spent on repairs and it fell into disrepair. It was used as a base for piracy in 1470, and by the 1520s its roof was robbed for lead for use at the castle at Wark-upon-Tweed, and further lead and timber were taken for the moot hall in Embleton. By 1538 it was described in a royal report to Henry VIII as “a very ruinous house and of small strength”, and it was observed that only the gatehouse was still habitable. Some repairs were carried out to the walls by Sir William Ellerker, the King’s receiver, but a 1543 survey showed it to still be in poor condition.

In 1550 the Warden of the Middle and Eastern Marches, Sir Robert Bowes, described Dunstanburgh as being “in wonderfull great decaye”. A report in 1584 suggested that it would cost Queen Elizabeth I £1,000 to restore the castle, but argued that it was too far from the Scottish border to be worth repairing. Alice Craster, a wealthy widow, occupied the castle from 1594 to 1597, probably living in the gatehouse, where she carried out restoration work, and farming the surrounding estate. For much of the 16th century, local farmers bought the right to use the outer bailey of the castle to store their cattle in the event of Scottish raids, at the price of six pence a year.

17th – 19th centuries

A sketch of the castle by Thomas Girtin, 1796

In 1603, the unification of the Scottish and English crowns eliminated any residual need for Dunstanburgh Castle as a royal fortress. The following year, King James I sold the castle to Sir Thomas Windebank, Thomas Billott and William Blake, who in turn sold it onto Sir Ralph Grey, a nearby landowner, the following year. Ralph’s son, William Lord Grey, was affirmed as the owner of the castle in 1625.

The Grey dynasty maintained their ownership of the castle, which passed into Lady Mary Grey‘s side of the family following a law case in 1704. The lands around the castle and the outer bailey were used for growing wheat, barley and oats, and the walls were robbed of their stone for other building work. A small settlement, called Nova Scotia or Novia Scotia, was built on the site of the castle’s harbour, possibly by Scottish immigrants. Several engravings were published of the castle in the 18th century, including a somewhat inaccurate depiction by Samuel and Nathaniel Buck in 1720, and by Francis Grose and William Hutchinson in 1773 and 1776 respectively.

The Great Gatehouse in 1884, showing the partially-blocked passageway

Mary’s descendants, the Earls of Tankerville, owned the property until the heavily indebted Charles Bennet, the 6th earl, sold it for £155,000 in 1869 to the trustees of the estate of the late Samuel Eyres. There had been some attempts at restoration in the early 19th century, and the passageway through the gatehouse was modified and reopened in 1885. The historian Cadwallader Bates undertook fieldwork at the castle in the 1880s, publishing a comprehensive work in 1891, and a professional architectural plan of the ruins was produced in 1893. Nonetheless, a representative of the estate expressed his concern to the Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle upon Tyne about the condition of the castle in 1898, noting the poor repair of much of the stonework and the importance of the ongoing preservation work that the estate was undertaking.

Dunstanburgh’s ruins became a popular subject for artists from the end of the 18th century onwards. Thomas Girtin toured the region, and painted the castle, his picture dominated by what art historian Souren Melikian describes as “the forces of nature unleashed”, with “wild waves” and dark clouds swirling around the ruins. J. M. W. Turner was influenced by Girtin, and when he first painted the castle in 1797 he similarly focused on the wind and the waves around the ancient ruins, taking some artistic licence with the view of the castle to reinforce its sense of isolated and former grandeur. Turner drew on his visit to produce further works in oilswatercoloursetchings and sketches, through until the 1830s, making the castle one of the most common subjects in his corpus of work.

20th and 21st centuries

A type 24 concrete pillbox from the Second World War, positioned north of the castle

A golf course was constructed alongside the castle in 1900, and the estate was later sold to Sir Arthur Sutherland, a wealthy shipowner, in 1919. Sutherland opened an additional course at the castle in 1922, designed by the Scottish golfer, James Braid. The costs of maintaining the property became too much for him and, after undertaking eight years of clearance work in the 1920s, he placed the castle into the guardianship of the state in 1930, with the Commissioners of Works taking control of the property. Archaeological investigations were carried out as part of the clearance work by H. Honeyman in 1929, exposing more of the main gatehouse, and further work was carried out under Robert Bosanquet in the 1930s. Aerial photography was carried out by Walter de Aitchison for the Ordnance Survey.

Shortly after the outbreak of the Second World War, concerns grew in the British government about the threat of German invasion along the east coast of England. The bays just to the north of Dunstanburgh Castle were vulnerable targets for an enemy amphibious landing, and efforts were made to fortify the castle and the surrounding area in 1940, as part of a wider line of defences erected by Sir Edmund Ironside.

The castle itself was occupied by a unit of the Royal Armoured Corps, who served as observers; the soldiers appear to have relied on the stone walls for protection rather than trenches, and, unusually, no additional firing points were cut out of the stonework, as typically happened elsewhere. The surrounding beaches were defended with lines of barbed wire, slit trenches and square weapons pits, reinforced by concrete pillboxes to the north and south of the castle, at least partially laid down by the 1st Battalion Essex Regiment.

Six-spot burnet moth, part of the Site of Special Scientific Interest around the castle

A 20-foot (6 m) wide ditch was dug at the north end of the moat to prevent tanks from breaking through and following the track south past the castle, and a 545-foot by 151-foot (166 m by 46 m) wide anti-personnel minefield was laid to the south-west to prevent infantry soldiers from circumventing the castle’s defences and advancing down into Craster. After the end of the war, the barbed wire was cleared away from the beaches by local Italian prisoners of war, although the two pillboxes, the remnants of the anti-tank ditch and some of the trenches and weapons pits still remain.

In 1961, Arthur’s son, Sir Ivan Sutherland, passed the estate to the National Trust. Archaeological surveys were carried out in 1985, 1986 and 1989 by Durham University, and between 2003 and 2006 researchers from English Heritage carried a major archaeological investigation of 35 hectares (86 acres) of land around the castle.

In the 21st century, the castle remains owned by the National Trust and is managed by English Heritage. The site is a Scheduled Ancient Monument and the ruins are protected under UK law as a Grade I listed building. It lies within the Northumberland Coast Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, and is part of a Site of Special Scientific Interest, with parts of the site comprising a Special Protection Area for the conservation of wild birds. The National Trust has encouraged the land around the outside of the castle to remain waterlogged to enable the conservation of amphibians and bird species, and the inside of the castle is protected from grazing animals to encourage nesting birds.

Architecture and landscape


Surrounding landscape: A – North Mere; B – North Gate; C – earthen bank; D – West Gate; E – West Mere and fishponds; F – dam; G – South Mere; H – South Gate; I – harbour

Dunstanburgh Castle occupies a 68-acre (27.5 ha) site within a larger 610-acre (246 ha) body of National Trust land along the coast. The castle is situated on a prominent headland, part of the Great Whin Sill geological formation. On the south side of the castle there is a gentle slope across low-lying, boggy ground, but along the northern side, the Gull Crag cliffs form a natural barrier up to 30-metre (98 ft) high. The cliffs are punctuated by various defiles, formed from weaknesses in the black basalt rock, including the famous Rumble Churn.

The landscape around the castle was carefully designed in the 14th century as a deer park or planned borough, and would have looked similar to those at the contemporary castles of FramlinghamKenilworthLeeds and Whittington; in particular, Kenilworth may have been a specific model for Dunstanburgh. The area around the castle was dominated by three shallow artificial lakes, called meres, and accessed by three gates on the north, west and south sides. The meres were fed from a fresh water spring 2,000 feet (600 m) inland, linked to the meres by an underground stone channel. The meres were originally bounded by a sod-cast boundary bank and ditch; today this is heavily eroded, and up to 3-foot 3 inches (1 m) high. The main route by land into the castle would have been from the village of Embleton, through the West Gate.

The North Mere is 5.6-acres (2.25 ha) large, and is blocked off on its northern end by a sod-cast bank, adjacent to the site of the North Gate. The southern half takes the form of a 331-foot (101 m) long moat, which was recorded as being 18-foot (5.5 m) deep in the medieval period, terminating in the West Gate. The northern part of this mere occasionally floods in the 21st century, creating a temporary lake, and the moated section usually still contains some standing water. The West Mere, covering 2.25-acres (1 ha), stretches away from the location of West Gate and is blocked at the far end by a small, stone dam. Three rectangular fishponds were built alongside the West Mere, the smallest, probably a stew pond for raising young fish, being fed with water from the lake. A protective earthen bank, probably originally reinforced by a timber palisade, ran for approximately 490 feet (150 m) along either side of the West Gate, where a gatehouse was probably built. At the far end of the lake complex was the South Mere, 2.25-acres (1 ha) in size, with the South Gate positioned in its eastern corner.

A harbour was built south-east of the castle, which would originally have been used to receive first building materials, then later senior members of the castle household or important guests. All that remains of the harbour is its 246-foot (75 m) quay, built from basalt boulders, and it may not have been in frequent use during the medieval period, since it could only have been safely used during periods of good weather. West of the castle is a later shieling, the earthwork remains of a longhouse. South of this is a rectangular earthwork, with walls over 3-foot 3 inches (1 m) high, which may have been a siege fortification from 1462. If this is in fact such a siege-work, it would be a unique survival in England from this period.


Plan of the castle: A – North Sea; B – Rumbling Churn; C – gateway to Castle Point; D – Gull Crag; E – Lilburn Tower; F – Outer bailey; G – Grange; H – Postern Gate; I – Huggam’s House; J – John of Gaunt’s Gatehouse; K – Inner bailey; L – Constable’s House; M – Egyncleugh Tower; N – Queen Margaret’s Cove; O – Great Gatehouse; P – Constable’s Tower

Dunstanburgh Castle’s buildings are located around the outside of the fortification’s outer bailey, enclosed by a stone curtain wall, which enclose 9.96 acres (4.03 ha), making it the largest castle in Northumberland. Possibly from the very start of the castle, and certainly by the 1380s, the castle buildings formed three distinct complexes supporting the Earl’s household, the castle’s constable and the administration of the Embleton barony respectively. The inside of the bailey still shows the marks of former strip farming, which can be seen in winter.

The southern and western parts of the walls were originally faced with a local ashlar sandstone with a core of basalt rubble; the sandstone was mostly quarried at Howick. The sandstone has since been stripped from the western parts of the wall, and the sandstone along the eastern end of the walls gives way to small limestone blocks, originally only laid 11-foot (3.3 m) high with a 4-foot 11 inches (1.5 m) parapet, but later raised in height with additional basalt boulders, probably during the Wars of the Roses. It is uncertain if the curtain wall originally extended above the cliffs along the northern edge of the castle.

Moving counter-clockwise around the curtain wall from the north-west, the rectangular Lilburn Tower looks out across Embleton beach. The tower was named after an early castle constable, John de Lilburn, but may have been built under Thomas of Lancaster; it was intended as a high-status residence, 59-foot (18 m) high, 30-foot (9.1 m) square with 6-foot (1.8 m) thick walls, with a guardroom for soldiers on the ground floor. The rectangular towers at Dunstanburgh reflects the local tradition in Northumberland, and are similar to those at nearby Alnwick. Further along the wall there are the remains of a small tower, called Huggam’s House by local tradition. Earthworks around the inside of the curtain wall suggest that there may once have been a complex of buildings stretching between Lilburn Tower and Huggam’s House.

On the south-west corner of the walls are the castle gatehouses. The most prominent of these is the Great Gatehouse, a massive three-storey fortification, comprising two drum-shaped towers of ashlar stone; originally 79-foot (24 m) high. This was heavily influenced by the Edwardian gatehouses in North Wales, such as that at Harlech, but contains unique features, such as the frontal towers, and is considered by historians Alastair Oswald and Jeremy Ashbee to be “one of the most imposing structures in any English castle”. In the 1380s this gatehouse was further strengthened with a 31-foot (9.4 m) long barbican, of which only the rubble foundations now survive, around 2-foot 4 inches (0.7 m) high.

The passageway through the gatehouse was protected by a portcullis and possibly a set of wooden gates. The ground floor contained two guardrooms, each 21-foot (6.4 m) wide, and latrines, with spiral staircases in the corner of the gatehouse running up to the first floor, where relatively well-lit chambers with fireplaces probably accommodated the garrison’s officers. The staircases continued up to the second floor, containing the castle’s great hall, an antechamber and bedchamber, originally intended for the use of Thomas of Lancaster and his family. Four towers extended above the gatehouse’s lead-covered roof for an additional two storeys of height, giving extensive views of the surrounding area. This design may have influenced the construction of Henry IV’s gatehouse at Lancaster Castle.

Plan of the Great Gatehouse

Immediately to the west of the Great Gatehouse is John of Gaunt’s Gatehouse, originally either two or three storeys tall, but now only surviving at the foundation level. This gatehouse replaced the Great Gatehouse as the main entrance, and would have contained a porter‘s lodge, defended by a combination of a portcullis and an 82-foot (25 m) long barbican. A inner bailey was approximately 50-foot by 75-foot (23 m by 15 m), defended by a 20-foot (6 m) high mantlet wall, was constructed in the 1380s behind John of Gaunt’s Gatehouse and the Great Gatehouse. This complex comprised a vaulted inner gatehouse, 30-foot (9.1 m) square, and six buildings, including an antechamber, kitchen and bakehouse.

Further along the south side of the walls is the Constable’s Tower, a square tower containing comfortable accommodation for the castle’s constable, including stone window seats. On the inside of the walls are the foundations of a hall and chamber, built before 1351, part of a larger complex of buildings used by the constable and his household, approximately 60-foot (18 m) square. To the west of the Constable’s Tower is a small turret that projects from the upper wall – an unusual feature, similar to that at Pickering Castle – and a mural garderobe; and to the east a small oblong turret with a single chamber, 10.75-foot by 7.5-foot (3.28 m by 2.3 m).

In the south-east corner of the walls, the Egyncleugh Tower – whose name means “eagle’s ravine” in the Northumbrian dialect – overlooks Queen Margaret’s Cove below. A three-storey, square building, 25-foot (7.6 m) across, Egyncleugh Tower was designed to house a castle official, and included a small gateway and drawbridge into the castle, either for the use of the castle constable, or possibly for the local people.

There is a postern gate in the eastern wall, added in the 1450s, and a further gateway in the north-eastern corner, which gave access to Castle Point and Gull Crag below. Along the inside of the curtain walls are the foundations of a yard, 200-foot by 100-foot (61 m by 30 m), and a large rectangular building, usually identified as a grange or a barn. This would have probably supported the administration of the Embleton estates, and have included the auditor’s chamber and other facilities.


Dunstanburgh Castle, reflected in the remains of the southern mere

Early analysis of Dunstanburgh Castle focused on its qualities as a military, defensive site, but more recent work has emphasised the symbolic aspects of its design and the surrounding landscape. Although the castle was intended as a secure bolt-hole for Thomas of Lancaster should events go awry in the south of England, it was however “clearly not an inconspicuous hiding place”, as the English Heritage research team have pointed out: it was a spectacular construction, located in the centre of a huge, carefully designed medieval landscape. The meres surrounding the castle would have reflected the castle walls and towers, turning the outcrop into a virtual island and producing what the historians Oswald and Ashbee have called “an awe-inspiring and beautiful sight”.

The different elements of the castle were also positioned for particular effect. Unusually, the huge Great Gatehouse faced south-east, away from the main road, hiding its extraordinary architectural features. This may have been because Thomas intended to establish a new settlement in front of it, but the gatehouse was also probably intended to be viewed from the harbour, where the most senior visitors were expected to arrive. The Lilburn Tower was positioned so as to be clearly – and provocatively – visible to Edward II’s castle at Bamburgh, 9 miles (15 km) away along the coast, and would have been elegantly framed by the entranceway to the Great Gatehouse for any visitors. It was also positioned on a set of natural basalt pillars, which – although inconvenient to build upon – would have enhanced its dramatic appearance and reflection in the meres.

The design of the castle may also have alluded to Arthurian mythology, which were a popular set of ideals and beliefs among the English ruling classes at the time. Thomas appears to have had an interest in the Arthurian legends, and used the pseudonym “King Arthur” in his correspondence with the Scots. Dunstanburgh, with an ancient fort at its centre encircled by water, may have been an allusion to Camelot, and in turn to Thomas’s claim to political authority over the failing Edward II, and was also strikingly similar to contemporary depictions of Sir Lancelot‘s castle of “Joyous Garde“.


Matthew Lewis, author of the poem Sir Guy the Seeker

Dunstanburgh Castle has closely associated with the legend of Sir Guy the Seeker since at least the early 19th century. Different versions of the story vary slightly in their details, but typically involve a knight, Sir Guy, arriving at Dunstanburgh Castle, where he was met by a wizard and led inside. There he comes across a noble lady imprisoned inside a crystal tomb and guarded by a sleeping army. The wizard offers Guy a choice of either a sword or a hunting horn to help free the lady; he incorrectly chooses the horn, which wakes the sleeping knights. Sir Guy finds himself outside Dunstanburgh Castle, and spends the rest of his life attempting to find a way back inside.

It is unclear when the story first emerged, but similar stories, possibly inspired by medieval Arthurian legends, exist at the nearby locations of Hexham and the Eildon Hills. Matthew Lewis wrote a poem, Sir Guy the Seeker, popularising the story in 1808, with subsequent versions produced by W. G. Thompson in 1821 and James Service in 1822. The tale continues to be told as part of the local oral tradition.

Several other oral traditions about the castle survive. One of these involves a child prisoner within the castle, who escaped, throwing the key to her dungeon into a nearby field, sometimes argued to be an outcrop of land north-west of the castle, which from then onwards was infertile. Another centres on a man called Gallon who was left in charge of the castle by Margaret of Anjou and entrusted with a set of valuables; captured by the Yorkists, he escaped and later returned to reclaim six Venetian glasses. The historian Katrina Porteous has noted that in the 14th century there are records of receivers and bailiffs at the castle called Galoun, potentially linked to the origins of the Gallon of this story.

There are local stories of tunnels stretching from Dunstanburgh Castle to Craster Tower, Embleton and Proctor Steads, as well as a tunnel running from the castle well to the west of the castle. These stories may be linked to the presence of the drainage system around the castle.

See also


  1. ^ It is impossible to accurately compare 14th-century and modern prices or incomes. For comparison, £184 represents about a third of the yearly income of a typical nobleman such as Richard le Scrope, whose lands brought in around £600 a year.
  2. ^ £155,000 in 1869 would be worth between £13 million and £244 million in 2013 terms, depending on the financial measure used.
  3. ^ Earlier scholarship had suggested that the meres were originally salt water inlets, linked by the moat of the north mere, and connected to the sea at either end. The 2003 investigations at the site comprehensively disproved this theory, showing the meres to have always been fresh water lakes.
  4. ^ There are historical references in 1543 to a former wall running along the north side of the castle, but it was already being described as having been eroded by the sea many years before, and the assertion that it originally existed may not be authoritative. It is also uncertain whether this statement referred to a defensive curtain wall, of which no trace remains, or a simpler wall to protect livestock. Some erosion of the cliffs has occurred since the castle was first built, but little has occurred since 1861 and it is far from certain that sufficient erosion would have taken place to have destroyed any original walls.
  5. ^ The Egyncleugh Tower was also called the Margaret Tower for a period, after Queen Margaret’s Cove below.


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  116. ^ Oswald & Ashbee 2011, p. 20; Blair & Honeyman 1955, p. 16
  117. ^ Oswald & Ashbee 2011, pp. 20–21; Blair & Honeyman 1955, p. 16
  118. ^ Oswald & Ashbee 2011, p. 14
  119. ^ Oswald & Ashbee 2011, p. 14; Blair & Honeyman 1955, p. 20
  120. ^ Blair & Honeyman 1955, pp. 20–21; Goodall 2011, pp. 249, 453
  121. ^ Oswald & Ashbee 2011, p. 15
  122. ^ Oswald et al. 2006, p. 54
  123. ^ Oswald & Ashbee 2011, p. 15; Blair & Honeyman 1955, p. 20; Oswald et al. 2006, p. 55
  124. ^ Oswald & Ashbee 2011, pp. 15, 17
  125. ^ Oswald & Ashbee 2011, pp. 16–17; Blair & Honeyman 1955, p. 18
  126. ^ Oswald et al. 2006, pp. 92–93
  127. ^ Oswald et al. 2006, p. 93; Oswald & Ashbee 2011, pp. 22–23
  128. ^ Oswald & Ashbee 2011, p. 23; Middleton & Hardie 2009, p. 20
  129. ^ Oswald et al. 2006, p. 96; Oswald & Ashbee 2011, pp. 13, 22
  130. ^ Oswald et al. 2006, p. 96; Oswald & Ashbee 2011, p. 13
  131. ^ Oswald et al. 2006, pp. 55–56
  132. ^ Oswald et al. 2006, pp. 57–58
  133. ^ Oswald et al. 2006, pp. 93–94
  134. ^ Oswald & Ashbee 2011, p. 28
  135. ^ Oswald et al. 2006, pp. 93–94; Oswald & Ashbee 2011, pp. 23, 28
  136. Jump up to:a b c d e f Oswald et al. 2006, p. 21
  137. ^ Oswald et al. 2006, pp. 24–25
  138. ^ Oswald et al. 2006, pp. 21–22
  139. Jump up to:a b c d e Oswald et al. 2006, p. 27
  140. ^ Oswald et al. 2006, pp. 27–28


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