Bamburgh – 10 Surprising Stories

Bamburgh Castle
Bamburgh Castle

Bamburgh Castle is built on a dramatic volcanic basalt perch overlooking the North Sea with impressive views along the coast as far as Holy Island to the north and Dunstanburgh Castle to the south.

The small village of Bamburgh tucks in neatly behind the castle with its long main street, picturesque cottages and village green. Today it’s a popular tourist destination but it played a vital ‘supporting’ role to the castle in medieval times.

Here are 10 surprising stories about Bamburgh which show it was much more than a small, sleepy coastal village.

1. Vikings Ahoy!

During the 10th Century Bamburgh Castle was an important Anglo-Saxon stronghold in northern Northumbria.

It was known as Din Guayrdi which translates as “Fort of the Guayrdi”, a tribe of the Brigantes.

In 993 AD the castle was completely destroyed by marauding Vikings who attacked and ransacked the fortress.

The Vikings had landed first at Holy Island many years earlier in 793 AD. It’s remarkable that Bamburgh held out from Viking attacks for as long as it did, but perhaps it was inevitable that they would overpower the early fortress eventually.

2. “Terrible Teeth

The early wooden fortress c/o Bamburgh Research Project

Before the Normans rebuilt the castle, there’s evidence that there was another earlier wooden fortress on the site.

Archaeologists from the Bamburgh Research Project have made the exciting discovery of the site of an early medieval cemetery about 300 metres south of Bamburgh Castle.

The Bowl Hole is believed to be the burial ground for the royal court of the Northumbrian palace that lies beneath the present castle. 

St Aidan's Church Bamburgh
St Aidan’s Church – Bowl Hole ossuary

The archaeologists have discovered that the people buried at the Bowl Hole had “terrible teeth”! This was probably a result of a rich food diet which included honey, mead and meat. 

Analysis of the teeth shows that few of these people grew up in near the castle and were mostly from the wider British Isles. This is probably due to connections between Northumbria and other centres of Christianty.

The skeletons from the Bowl Hole, known as the “Bamburgh Bones”, have been reburied in an ossuary at St Aidan’s Church in Bamburgh.

3. A ‘Fortified City”

The castle as we know it today was originally built in the 6th Century and its power became so great that in the 7th Century it was dubbed “the very foundation stone of England”. It was home to the powerful kings of Northumbria.

A writer in the 8th Century described it as a “strongly fortified city” covering an impressively large site with almost impregnable defences.

The name Bamburgh is thought to be a derivation of Bebbanburgh – named after Bebba, the wife of King Etherlfrith.

4. A Dangerous Trip to the Toilet!

Bamburgh Castle

Today the imposing Great Tower lies at the heart of Bamburgh Castle and its impressive fortifications. Built in 1164 at the grand cost of £4, it was visited by a succession of English kings including King John and Kings Edward I, II and III.

One intriguing fact I discovered was that death by assassination on the toilet was a major hazard for soldiers in medieval times.

Assassins with spears often perched waiting for their victims below the garderobes (toilets) which were positioned on the top of the steep castle walls!

5. Birth of the ‘Welfare State’?

In the 18th Century Bamburgh Castle was remodelled as a residence for the Fraser family and was further restored by Lord Crewe’s Charity trust, led by Dr John Sharp

The enlightened Sharp was a social pioneer who started an early ‘welfare’ system for people living in the nearby village including a surgery, midwifery and pharmacy. He was committed to creating a better society.

Whilst at Bamburgh he created free educational activities in the castle for 300 underprivileged children. When he inherited his brother’s library, he sold it to the trustees for public use, an early example of a community library.

He also appointed a surgeon and set up a dispensary where free medical treatment was provided, perhaps an early prototype of the NHS.

His philanthropic work was boundless. Sharp provided two granaries in the castle and two in the village, with a windmill in the castle, selling wheat, peas, beans and barley to poor people living within 40 miles of Bamburgh.

There was also a cheap shop selling butter, rice, candles, alum and other household goods – a sort of early Poundshop.

6. The First Lifeboat?

Photo credit – The lifeboat image is copyright and courtesy of the British Library Board.

Everybody knows how treacherous the North Sea is but few people know about how one of the first lifeboats took shape at Bamburgh Castle.

In 1786 Dr John Sharp commissioned Lionel Lukin to convert a coble (a type of fishing vessel) into an “unimmergible boat” for use in sea rescues. He also stated to develop a pioneering coastguard system.

This ‘rescue coble’ served for several years as a lifeboat, making it the first ‘known’ lifeboat in the world. Bamburgh Castle also became the first lifeboat station.  

During stormy weather, Dr Sharp hired men from the castle to patrol Bamburgh beach on horseback, waiting for the call to go out in the lifeboat to help shipwrecked boats. He also provided food and shelter in the castle for shipwreck victims for seven days.

7. A Victorian Superstar

Grace Darling was one of the most famous heroines of the Victorian period in England and ‘daughters’ of Bamburgh. She lived on the Farne Islands which were notorious for their tempestuous waters and shipwrecks.

During the early hours of 7 September, 1838 Grace was looking out from an upper window at Longstone when she saw the wreck of a ship which had been torn apart on a nearby rocky island called Big Harcar.

The ill-fated SS Forfarshire, which was carrying 62 passengers and crew, had hit the rocks and was sinking. The appalling weather conditions and storms made a rescue attempt difficult.

But Grace Darling displayed phenomenal courage in rowing a 30 foot long coble to rescue survivors. After she had taken five survivors back to the lighthouse, her father made a second trip to rescue the remaining passengers.

Grace became a Victorian superstar. Theatre plays, shows, songs and poems were produced to celebrate her exploits, and she became a poster girl for British heroism.

Whilst in Bamburgh you can visit the Grace Darling Museum and walk the Town Trail which takes in the main sites associated with this Victorian heroine.

8. From Castle to Victorian Mansion

Bamburgh beach
Bamburgh beach

In 1894 the famous industrialist and inventor Lord Armstrong bought Bamburgh Castle and restored it as a splendid Victorian mansion.

When he bought Bamburgh Castle, it was in a ruinous state after hundreds of years of neglect. He commissioned architect Charles Ferguson to undertake a large-scale programme of renovations.

He set about transforming the house and making it into a home for his unique collection of artwork, ceramics and objets d’art.

One of his ideas was to convert part of the castle into a convalescent home but Armstrong died in 1900 before that plan could be set in motion. The restoration works took 10 years to complete at a cost around £1 million.

His biggest legacy was to save the castle and furnish it as we see it today, complete with Victorian artefacts.

9. The Bamburgh Beast

The Bamburgh Beast c/o Bamburgh Castle

Who or what is the “Bamburgh Beast”?

Sadly, it’s not a mythical sea monster which rises from the North Sea nor is it a creature which stalks the corridors of the castle by night.

The beast is thought to be based on the story of the Laidley Worm. Legend has it that the jealous step mother of a Bamburgh princess turned a young maiden into a laidley ( loathsome) ‘worm’’ which terrorised Bamburgh village.

Hearing of this angry beast, the princess’s brother returned to England from abroad to deal with the serpent. The creature greeted the prince’s ship at nearby Budle Bay and – to cut a very long story short – turned it into a toad.

It’s a crazy story but conjures up images of a giant earthworm attacking Bamburgh

It’s also one of several spectacular archaeological discoveries found at Bamburgh. This solid gold plaque dates from the 7th Century and features a stylised depiction of an animal. It’s thought to have been part of a shrine or book cover.

“The Bamburgh Beast” gold was found by archaeologist Dr Hope-Taylor during his 1970-74 excavations.

10. Hollywood on Sea

Bamburgh beach
Bamburgh – Hollywood magnet

Bamburgh Castle is fantastically photogenic so it’s no surprise that it has attracted many film productions down the years.

Hollywood came calling earlier this year when the production of “Indiana Jones 5” with Harrison Ford arrived at the castle for one of its major film location shoots.

Other famous films made at Bamburgh include Roman Polanski’s “Macbeth”“The Devils” (with Oliver Reed), “Elizabeth” (starring Cate Blanchett, “The BFG”, “Becket” (starring Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole) and “Mary Queen of Scots”.

Recent archaeological finds at Bamburgh Castle have inspired the forthcoming documentary film “Castle of Legend”, due for release in 2022.

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