The castle is without doubt the noblest in Northumberland, its huge dimensions, crowning the cliffs, making an instant impression of grandeur. The level sands below, where the waves curl and break along the spacious bay, with the Farnes rising darkly in front, complete a picture of unassailable dignity. The village, with its ” sweet Auburn ” air of peace and prosperity, stands probably where Ethelfrid strengthened Ida’s citadel and called it fondly after Bebbah, his wife. Proud Eadwine rode out and in here in royal state, pious Oswald offered his almost hourly prayers beside the mocking voices of the sea, humble Cuthbert walked among the country folk teaching them by example as much as by precept. Then was the golden age of Christianity, when the tides of faith beat full around rocky Bamburgh. Robes of magnificence, too, rustled here – to contrast with the humility of Cuthbert – when Wilfred, after a simple training on Lindisfarne, became Bishop of Northumberland. The world called to him, and his fortunes fluctuated between York and Hexham, where he founded the glorious church. But robe of noble and prelate at this, the greatest period perhaps of Bamburgh, can be seen in the illuminated wonderful gospels of Lindisfarne, and the high state of Barn-burgh’s civilization is shown in the furniture drawn by the artist from what he had seen in the palace.
On the road from Belford to Bamburgh there are several places tempting one to linger. Budle Bay, a large sandy stretch of coast, is two miles from Belford, and the Budle Hills rise above the little hamlet of that name. Where the Waren stream runs into the bay stood a town called Warnmouth, long since covered by the sea. It must have been a port of some size, for a charter was granted to it by Henry III, but little else is known of it. About a mile inland to the south lies the well-known Spindleston Heugh, the scene of the ballad of the Laidley Worm (loathsome snake or serpent) :
Word went east and word went west Word is gone over the sea That a Laidley Worm in Spindleston Heugh Would ruin the North Countree.
This was a princess of Bamburgh Castle who, by a wicked step-mother, had been transformed into the worm until her brother, “the Childy Wynd,” should come from oversea and rescue her. On hearing of his sister’s misfortune he embarked in a ship “with masts of the rowan tree, and fluttering silk so fine.” The queen, seeing the ship approaching, sent her witch wives to destroy it. This turned out to be beyond their power, as the rowan tree of which the masts were made was charmed. There is an old north country saying : “Witches have no power where there is rowan tree wood.” Then the sorceress tried a boat of armed men, who were likewise unsuccessful in the attempt to break through the rowan’s spell. Childy Wynd landed on Budle Sands after passing” the banks of Barnburghshire.”
When he met the Worm He sheathed his sword, and bent his bow And gave her kisses three ; She crept into a hole a worm And stepped out a ladye.
So he wrapt her in his mantle and hastened to King Ida’s castle, where the queen grew pale as she watched their approach. In just wrath he addressed the trembling queen and, with three drops from the well, turned her into a most horrid toad.
The virgins all of Bamburghtown Will swear that they have seen This spiteful toad of monstrous size Whilst walking on the green.
The cave where the Worm lived and the trough ” out of which she did sup the milk of seven stately cows ” were shown at Spindles-ton sixty years ago, but were destroyed in the making of a quarry.
An isolated pillar of whinstone still standing is said to have been used by the brother to throw the bridle of his horse over when he went to meet the Worm. It is unreasonable perhaps to ask why he needed a horse for the short distance from his ship co the cave. It is a wild and rugged spot where this strange adventure is placed, with the Cheviots to the west, a beautiful view. To the north are lonely sands, with a number of streams winding slowly and circuitously to the shining sea. Over Beal Sands is that little thread of a river,the Low, where the Celtic King Urien was treacherously killed when he had almost succeeded in wresting Bernicia from Ida’s son. Urien was king of a Celtic State called Reged, afterwards probably Redesdale. It was in the moment of triumph, when he had driven the English across the sands to Holy Island, the Celtic Medcaud, that he fell on the banks of the Aber Lien. His heroic exploits and those of his son, called “The Chief of the Clittering West,” was sung by the bards.
To the south, dunes of blown sand lead the eye past the Harkness Rocks to Bamburgh.
From remotest times its position must have made it desirable, and the eyes of the early English invaders turned to it as the most promising fortified place for securing the domination of the country. Ida, in 547, in his appointed task of uniting under one rule the scattered States, seized and strengthened the Celtic fortress of Dinguardi, which had probably been raised on a Roman one. It is hardly likely that the Roman would have left such a splendid position untenanted. The summit of the Whin Sill is here about eighty feet thick and a hundred and fifty high, and forms an impregnable and glorious situation for a castle. The castle takes us back, as does no other in this country, to days before the Conquest, and before the Dane. Here Ida reigned, and his six sons followed him as rulers of Bernicia.
Northumbria had been growing rapidly as the various newly-founded States of the English battled for power, and to Eadwine, who mounted the throne in 617 on the death of Ethelfrith, Bamburgh became the chief city in a kingdom which extended from the Humber to the Forth. He succeeded in defeating the East Anglians, East Saxons, and West Saxons, and the south country became subject to Northumbria, now at the height of her greatness. Eadwine was a ruler whose talents were notable as much in peace as in war, and in his kingdom of Northumbria began a settled and civilised government embodied in the proverb : “A woman with her babe might walk scathless from sea to sea in Eadwine’s day.” He was the first great Northumbrian. His northernmost city was called Eadwine’s burgh, the romantic Edinburgh of later days. As he rode through the villages of his domain a standard of purple and gold floated above him, and a banner formed of globes of feathers, the Roman tufa, preceded him. Thus he is said to have ridden, in imperial pomp, through the wild northland. In places where he saw clear springs near the highways, he caused stakes to be fixed, with brass dishes hanging from them for the refreshment of travellers, and so strongly were Eadwine’s laws administered that none injured the dishes. He married Ethelburg, a Kentish princess, who brought with her Paulinus, a follower of St. Augustine. The Venerable Bede, who died in 804, has preserved an impression of the first great missionary of Northumbria, given to him by a monk who had talked with an old man baptised by Paulinus in the presence of King Eadwine. He remembered the tall, stooping form, slender aquiline nose, black hair round a thin, earnest face – a picture truly of the resolute man whose pilgrimages have left a trail of legend across the north country. As no mention is made of any inability to make himself understood by the Northumbrians, it has been suggested that Paulinus may have been among those English slaves in Rome who, according to the famous story, attracted the notice of the benign and punning Gregory and were Christianised by him in order to return to their native land to convert their pagan but handsome brethren. Paulinus had a struggle to convert Eadwine, who, although abandoning idols, hesitated about the worship of Christ. A wise and thoughtful man, he debated long the new religion. The Pope wrote him an able letter and sent him a shirt, a gold ornament and the blessing of Peter. Also, with worldly guile, he wrote Ethelburga, pointing out her peculiar opportunities to influence her husband and supplementing his advice with a silver mirror and an ivory comb inlaid with gold – wonderful intuition in femininity in a celibate ! But it was years after this that the king, evidently an obstinate, questioning, cautious north countryman, made the great decision that throws glory on Northumbria. Bede’s account of this acceptance of Christianity has surely no equal for beauty and wisdom in all the stories of conversions. The wise men of Northumbria gathered together to hear the doctrine that was to replace the pagan worship. We would like to think that it was in the hall at Bamburgh, the waves whitening the giant rock amid all the passionate declamation of winds and clamorous sea-birds – the voices perchance of Thor and Woden that the voice of an aged Ealdorman broke on their ears.
” So seems the life of man, O king, as a sparrow’s flight through the hall when you are sitting at meat in winter-tide, the fire on the hearth, the icy rainstorm without. The sparrow flies in at one door and tarries for a moment in the light and heat of the hearth-fire, then flies forth into the darkness whence it came. So tarries for a moment the life of man in our sight, but what is before it. what after it, we know not. If this new teaching tells us aught of these let us follow it.”
A wholesale conversion and baptising of the Northumbrians followed. Seven years after, Eadwine’s wonderful reign ended, when he was only forty-seven. Penda, King of Mercia, the champion of the deserted gods, allied himself with Cadwallon, the Welsh king, and slew Eadwine at the battle of Hatfield, in Yorkshire.
Oswald, who succeeded him, became a champion of Christianity and won the great battle of Heavenfeld. Cadwallon fell in flight where the Rowley Burn runs into Devils Water, near Hexham. Oswald may be regarded as the first great Christian king who inhabited Bamburgh. Paulinus had fled from Northumbria after Eadwine’s death, although his memory still survives in a few place-names.
It was at Bamburgh that the king and bishop, one Easter day, were at dinner when the thane whom he had set to give alms to the poor came in to say a great multitude still fasted outside. The king at once ordered the untasted meat on the table to be carried out and the silver dish to be distributed among them. Aidan seized the royal hand and blessed it. ” May this hand,” he cried, ” never grow old.” Oswald received the surname of Langwyn or Fair Hand, and after his death and mutilation in a battle against Penda, in 642, his ” white hand ” remained uncorrupted. Bede saw it still fresh in a silver case at Bamburgh. As Oswald died he prayed, and the memory of him was preserved in an old couplet :
” God have mercy upon their souls ! Quoth Oswald as he fell to the ground.
Thus died the greatest and gentlest king of Northumbria. The country was given over to the savage Penda for the next few years. All England bowed before him, and the Christian faith was almost overthrown. Only the dour Northumbrians refused to yield. Once he even reached royal Bamburgh, impregnable and steadfast on its rock. Assault would not take it, so he pulled down the surrounding cottages and, piling the wood against the walls, fired it, and Bamburgh seemed doomed. Aidan, on an isle of the Farnes opposite, saw in anguish the coming triumph of the barbarian. ” See, Lord, what ill Penda is doing.” The wind changed and the smoke lifted from the fair city and drove the flame in the faces of its persecutors. But in spite of Penda’s victories, when the rest of England was ” swithering ” in its new alliance with Christianity, in Northumbria the Cross stood firm, held up by the brave band of missionaries who wandered on foot from Holy Island all down the coast. The gentle Aidan died leaning against the west end of the wooden church in Bamburgh, and that night a vision came to the shepherd boy Cuthbert, who saw Aidan’s soul carried heavenward by angels as he lay praying on the hills. On him descended Aidan’s mantle. Oswi, brother of Oswald, was now king, but Penda still lived, old and indomitable, to disturb the peace of the harried Christians. His son became converted, and this perhaps aroused the wrath of the great pagan, who, indeed, said he hated ” those whom he saw not doing the works of the faith they had received.” The Northumbrians offered him costly gifts ; Oswi offered his son as a hostage at Penda’s Court ; but they were contemptuously refused. Penda laid waste Bernicia, and all that was left of the church and village of Bamburgh was the wooden stay against which Aidan had leant in his last hours. It was probably on the banks of the Tweed, dark and swollen with autumn rain, in November 655, that Penda and his forces had to halt. They were destroyed by the rushing waters as much as by the swords of the Bernicians, and with his death the cause of the ancient gods was lost for ever. A wild but not ignoble figure, he strides across the early history of Bamburgh, a man of blood and iron, a constant and perhaps fanatic opposer of the pale Galilean whose doctrine he would have stamped out ferociously.
Oswi, after reigning twenty-eight years, was succeeded by Ecgfrith, and he raised Northumbria to its highest glory, for in his continued campaigns against the British he extended his kingdom to Carlisle. But, attempting to conquer the land north of the Firth of Forth, he and his army perished at Nechtansmere in the dim moorlands where the Picts dwelt. After that disaster Northumbria never again had any real chance of becoming a reigning power in Britain, in spite of heroic efforts of later rulers. Lindisfarne, after being the centre of English Christianity for a century, saw the spiritual headship of the Church transferred south. By the middle of the eighth century the glory of royal Bamburgh departed, when Corbridge on the Tyne became the capital.
Bamburgh’s greatness in the past was nearly forgotten in the anarchy that became the lot of Northumbria. A chronicler in the eighth century thinks it necessary to describe the ancient capital :
Bebba is a most strongly fortified city, not very large, being of the size of two or three fields, having one entrance hollowed out of the rock and raised in steps after a marvellous fashion. On the top of the hill it has a church of extremely beautiful workmanship, in which is a shrine, rich and costly, that contains, wrapt in a pall, the right hand of St. Oswald the king, still incorrupt, as is related by Bede, the historian of this nation. To the west, on the highest point of the city itself, there is a spring of water, sweet to the taste and most pure to the sight, that has been excavated with astonishing labour.
For over a century Northumbria had been a scene of terrible anarchy, and king after king came and passed in murder or battle. Eventually Athelstan, the grandson of King Alfred the Great, came north in 926 and took the inviolate fortress of Bamburgh and Northumbria after that was practically incorporated in Athelstan’s domains. There is a record of the latter’s victorious campaign in the rhyming grant he is said to have made of Roddan and Heddon to Paulan :
I Kyng Adelstan giffs here to Paulan Oddan and Roddan, als gud and als fair, as evyr thai myne war, and thar to wytnes Maid my Wiffe.
In 954 Eric Bloodaxe, the last king of Northumbria, perished by the hand of a traitor on the wilds of Stainmoor. It was now weak and open to attack from Scots and Danes, and the latter sacked Bamburgh in 993. The kingdom had shrunk to about the size of the modern county and become an earldom. Bamburgh continued to lose prestige. From the ruined church a monk of Peterborough stole the right arm of St. Oswald, and nothing could mark the degradation and the neglect of Bamburgh more completely in medieval eyes. Reginald of Durham thus laments its fall : ” The city renowned for the splendour of her high estate is in these latter days burdened with tribute and reduced to the condition of a handmaiden. She who was once the mistress of the cities of Britain has exchanged the glories of her Sabbaths for shame and desolation. The crowds that flock to her festivals are represented by a few herdsmen. The pleasures her dignity afforded are turned to naught.” When the Norman Conqueror received the fealty of the great nobles of the North, Earl Oswulf of Bamburgh was the only one who did not bend his knee, and his earldom was given to a henchman of William’s, who never enjoyed it, as at the feast of welcome, at Newburn, Oswulf managed to kill the intruder. However, a few months later he himself was killed in pursuing a robber, and thus obscurely perished the last descendant of the great house of Bamburgh whose forty kings had reigned. When William came north to quieten the rebellion against him, he left a desert from the Humber to the Tweed, the lurking-place of wolves and robbers only. York, Durham, and Bamburgh were the only inhabited towns left, and for nine years cultivation ceased. Later on Northumberland was parcelled out amongst William’s friends, and only the native proprietors continued on the small estates.
In 1095 Rufus marched north to Bamburgh to chastise the comparatively new Earl, Robert de Mowbray, who refused to appear at Court when commanded. The Earl had taken refuge in the Castle with his young bride. Finding it impossible to take the castle, William built a Malvoisin. The nobles in his army who had promised to assist Robert’s rising, William maliciously bade help in the erection of the Bad Neighbour.
Mowbray, from the ramparts of the castle, shouted taunts to them on their broken oaths, and their confusion and shame greatly amused Rufus. However, the siege was unsuccessful and William returned south. A promise from Newcastle that its gates would be opened to him induced the Earl to escape from Bamburgh. It turned out false. He had to fly to Tynemouth, where the castle and monastery made a brave defence for two days ; but he was at last taken prisoner. His brave young countess continued to hold out in Bamburgh, which was still besieged. William ordered that Mowbray should be taken in front of the castle, and the lady was told that his eyes would be gouged out unless she submitted. She saved him that torture ; but little light he saw, poor rebel, in those adamant days, for a dungeon held him for the rest of his life.
Another unfortunate, Edward II, after Bannockburn, arrived in a small boat at the gates of Bamburgh. A miserable time followed for Northumberland after that battle. Safety was only found under the shadow of a castle – and that was dearly bought at Bamburgh, for the Constable would only allow them to purchase a truce from the Scots if they paid him a similar amount of blackmail. He also charged them heavily for storing their goods in the castle, while the porters would not let their chattels out or in without more payment. In addition the garrison robbed the villagers of their provisions. For years the country suffered unspeakable misery, and the land even down to the Tyne was desolate except where, the owners paid blackmail to the raiding Scots. For instance, at Dunstan-burgh Castle only one horse was lifted from the ” garniture ” – a piece of fortune due to Thomas of Lancaster’s dealings with the Scots.
At Berwick three little boys who had gone out to play in the Magdalene Fields were coming back through the Cowport, when one found he had forgotten his song-book and went back to look for it. They were immediately seized for trafficking with the Scots. The suspicion and fear were terrible. It was Northumberland’s blackest hour. A century or more earlier it was said that ” Northumberland was then so renowned that right down to the Pyrenees there was no country so well provided with the necessaries of life nor inhabited by a race more universally respected.” There is little to record of importance after those years until the Wars of the Roses sent the tumult of opposing factions against the grey walls of Bamburgh. It was seized in 1463 by the Lancastrians. Margaret of Anjou tried vainly to take Norham, but it proved too wary. In July of that year the royal fugitives at Bamburgh were in such straits that for five days they lived on one herring. On St. Margaret’s day, the 20th, her namesake had nothing to offer at mass. In desperation she begged a Scots archer to lend her something, and ruefully he gave her a groat ! Ten days after that, on the approach of the Yorkists, she set sail with her French supporters for Flanders. One headstrong French drummer refused to go, and remained tabouring and piping on a sandhill near the castle till Warwick came up. Prince Henry, in the castle, was strong enough to defy the besiegers, who retired south-ward, and he was left reigning over Bamburghshire. The Scottish allies of the Lancastrians decided to sue for peace. As their envoys had to pass through troubled Northumberland, and the Lancastrians now held Norham, Lord Montagu, with a force, set out for the Border to convoy them. On April 25th he found his progress barred on Hedgeley Moor by the Duke of Somerset and a large body of Northumbrians.
Sir Ralph Percy fell, crying : ” I have saved the bird in my bosom.” The poignant allusion is probably to the faith he had kept so bravely – courage and faith, ” vain faith and courage vain.” In a small enclosure of trees, now fenced, on the side of the road near Wooperton Station, can be seen two large stones, twenty-seven feet apart, which are said to mark the leap of his dying fall. Further down the road on the way to Alnwick, but on the opposite side, behind some cottages half hidden by sombre trees – they seem melancholy – is the Percy Cross, weather-stained and carved with the arms of Percy and Lucy. An ancient grief surrounds the spot :
‘Tis of the Percy’s deathless fame That dark grey cross remains to tell ; It bears the Percy’s honoured name, For near its base the Percy fell.
The only place Henry was safe at was Bamburgh ; for at Bywell Castle, shortly after, he was nearly surprised by Earl Montagu. ” How and whither the King himself escaped,” says the chronicler, ” God only knows, in whose hands are the hearts of kings.”
Bamburgh, besieged by Warwick, was valiantly defended by Sir Ralph Grey; but Henry, alarmed at the fall of Dunstan burgh, had escaped. With the courage of despair, for he was exempted from the general pardon offered, Grey replied to the heralds who demanded its surrender that he had determined to live or die in the castle. The heralds then laid the blame of further bloodshed on Grey, and said that, if it took seven years to win, they would capture it. ” If ye deliver not this jewel the which the King our most dread Sovereign Lord hath so greatly in favour seeing it marcheth so nigh his ancient enemies of Scotland, and especially desireth to have whole, unbroken with ordnance ; if ye suffer one great gun to be laid unto the wall and be shot, to prejudice the wall, it shall cost you the chieftan’s head . and the last head of any person within the place.” From the battered castle Sir Ralph was taken and executed at Doncaster, and Bamburgh never more had her walls assailed in all the subsequent rebellions and invasions that swept over Northumberland.
In Elizabeth’s reign the governorship of Bamburgh passed into the hands of the Forsters, and in 1715 the name of Forster became notorious through the incompetence of General Forster, who was chosen to lead the Northumbrian Jacobites from the mistaken idea that a Protestant would rally many more to the cause. He was taken prisoner, and according to tradition his sister Dorothy rode up to London in the company of John Armstrong (whom she afterwards married), and, obtaining an impression of the key of his cell in Newgate, contrived his escape. The whole story is to be found in Sir Walter Besant’s romance of Dorothy Forster.” Her beautiful aunt married Lord Crewe as a second wife. He had long been enamoured of her. He was Bishop of Durham, and after her death, when the Forsters were ruined through extravagance, he bought the estates and Barnburgh Castle. He left a large sum of money in the hands of trustees to found the Bamburgh Trust, the most eminent of whom, Dr. John Sharpe, Archdeacon of Northumberland, conceived the idea of restoring Bamburgh Castle and adapting it for the famous Crewe Charities. He repaired it at his own expense and left a sum to maintain it, and founded the library and collected the tapestry and pictures. The humane archdeacon wisely interpreted Lord Crewe’s desire to benefit the manor and coast to which his loved wife belonged. He used to spend hours by her grave at Stene, where she was buried in 1715, a comparatively young woman, and when he followed her, in 1722, he was nearly ninety.
The castle occupies an area of eight acres, enclosed by great battlemented walls. At the south-east angle are the remains of St. Peter’s chapel, which was discovered in 1773 when the sand was removed under which it had long been buried. At the north front is the castle windmill. The castle is entered through the barbican on the south-east and through the sally-port on the northwest approached by a flight of steps.
The Norman keep is within the bailey and the walls are of great strength. The original roof was only the height of the second storey. It is now raised to the height of the battlements. There are no signs of chimneys at any early date, and the room believed to be the guard-room has burnt stones on the floor. In the large vaulted room on the ground floor is the ancient well the virtues of which have been already quoted. It was rediscovered in 1770. It is 145 feet deep, cut through the solid rock. At the bottom is said to lurk the queen of the ballad of the Laidley Worm in the form of a great toad. It is of unknown antiquity, perhaps the work of Ida. In the entrance hall hang two huge chains formerly used for raising sunken vessels, now facetiously known as King Ida’s watch-chains.
The passages in the upper part are very narrow gulleys in the thickness of the wall just wide enough to pass.
There is a Court Room and Armoury, Banqueting Hall (now partly used as a kitchen), and a library that contains many interesting relics and portraits of the Forsters and others. Nothing remains of the Saxon church, and the fine Norman church that succeeded it, dedicated to St. Aidan, is large and impressive and has been often subject to alteration. In the chancel is a recumbent effigy of a cross-legged knight locally called Sir Lancelot’ du Lake. The name reminds us that Bamburgh Castle, the only pre-Conquest castle in Northumberland, is supposed, as has already been said, to be the Joyous Gard of Mallory, where Lancelot came home to die. ” So, when he was housled and eneled, and had all that a Christian man ought to have, he prayed the bishop that his fellows might bear his body unto Joyous Gard.”
” And now, I dare say,” said Sir Ector, ” that Sir Lancelot there thou liest, thou were never matched of none earthly knight’s hands; and thou were the courtliest knight that ever bare a shield ; and thou were the truest friend to thy lover that ever bestrode horse ; and thou were the truest lover of a sinful man that ever loved woman ; and thou were the kindest man that ever struck with sword ; and thou were the goodliest person that ever came among press of knights ; and thou were the meekest man, and the gentlest, that ever eat in hall among ladies ; and thou were the sternest knight to thy mortal foe that ever put spear in rest.”
” Then there was weeping and dolour out of measure.”
In the north transept is a figure chivalrous and devoted as that of Sir Lancelot, the Northumbrian heroine, Grace Darling, resting with an oar by her side. Her name lives for evermore here, where the sea boils around the rocks that witnessed her daring, and in all lands where the English tongue is spoken.
Underneath the chancel is an Early English crypt, the most remarkable feature of the building, which was rediscovered in 1837 and contained the bodies of members of the Forster family. Among them is the famous Dorothy, and Ferdinando, who was shot in the streets of Newcastle by Sir John Fenwick, and whose helmet, gauntlets and sword hang on the wall of the chancel. General Thomas Forster had two dates on his coffin ; the first, 1715, referred to the mock burial which the intrepid Dorothy carried out when he escaped from prison. This ill-fated Jacobite died in France in 1738 and his body was brought back to rest under the shadow of the great castle which he once owned, and is the pride of every true Northumbrian “though mountains divide him and a world of seas.”