Friday, May 26, 2017

Bamburgh Castle

Bamburgh Castle looms over the northeast coast of England, remnant of ancient kingdoms and folly of Victorian magnates. It has much in common with the Tower of London: both are places of great antiquity and extraordinary history, but both are still occupied and have been rebuilt and restored so many times that you can never tell who might have placed the particular stones in front of you, or in which century.

Bamburgh was the citadel of one of the earliest Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, Bernicia, which is first attested under a King Ida in 547 CE. Ida was known as Flame-Bearer, probably in reference to his favorite style of warfare. He is supposed to have named the fortress Bebbaburgh after one of his wives.

A 9th century Welsh text calls the place Din Guarie, which would be a good name for Brittonic fort. On the basis of this one source, some authorities assert that Bamburgh was the seat of a Brittonic lordship in the fifth century, perhaps even the capital of Coel Hen's semi-historical kingdom of the north. Coel Hen is Old King Cole, which should give you an idea how much myth is mixed in all of this. Archaeology does show that this strategic hilltop has been occupied since Mesolithic times, and there have been numerous Bronze Age and Roman finds finds. So perhaps when the Roman world fell apart some chieftain did take over this spot and build a hall for his gold-torc'd men.

According to Bede, between 547 and 590 the place passed back and forth between Britons and Anglo-Saxons three times. After 590 it became the seat of the Kings of Northumbria, including the mighty Bretwaldas (high kings) Edwin, Oswald and Oswy. The Staffordshire Hoard is thought by some historians to be the loot collected after one of the battles between Edwin or Oswald and the rival kingdom of Mercia.

The Northumbrian fort was wrecked by the Vikings in 993. After the Normans came they built a castle on the spot, and in 1095 King William II besieged it during the revolt of Robert de Mowbray, Earl of Northumbria. After that it was a royal castle for 500 years. The keep was built by Henry II, who reigned from 1152-1189.

The castle was maintained as a royal base in the north through the high Middle Ages and figured in many campaigns, although the Scots never tried to besiege it. The walls seem to date to the 14th century, although I can't find any definitive statement on the matter. In the Wars of the Roses the castle passed back and forth between factions, and then in 1464 it was besieged by Richard Neville, the Earl of Warwick, who comes down to us under the title of Kingmaker. He took it after using artillery to batter a breach in the wall, making it the first English castle taken in that wise.

After the union of the crowns of Scotland and England in 1603 the castle was of no more military use, so James VI/I gave it to the long-time wardens of the castle, the Forster family. They could not afford the upkeep, so it deteriorated badly in the 17th century; in 1700 they went bankrupt.

The castle then passed to Nathaniel Lord Crewe, Archbishop of York, on whose death it formed part of a charitable trust. The trust's activities included a school for girls and hostel for shipwrecked mariners, both of which were housed in the castle. (One hopes they were not adjacent.) The trust was administered in the later 18th century by Dr. John Sharp. It was Dr. Sharp who began restoring the castle, an effort that sputtered along for a century. It was finally bought by the Victorian era industrialist William Armstrong (1810-1900), who spent some of his gigantic fortune on a major restoration but died before it was completed. That's his coat of arms above, as it appears above the entrance to his quarters in the castle.

Thanks to Armstrong parts of the castle became a lavish modern mansion; these are called the "state rooms." The castle still belongs to the Armstrong family but is open to the public.

Serious archaeology at Bamburgh began in 1961. The director was Brian Hope-Taylor, a noted archaeologist and an even more noted eccentric. He excavated at the castle on and off until 1974, but then illness cut short his work and he died before he ever published his finds. One of his team's discoveries was the small gold ornament dubbed the Bamburgh Beast (above.)

When excavations resumed in 1996 the new team, led by Graeme Young, thought that all of Hope-Taylor's notes and papers had been lost, so their only clues to what had been done came from interviewing some elderly former volunteers. But then one day they were exploring the castle grounds with one of the keepers, looking for a place to store their tools. They broke open a small storeroom built into the castle walls and found Hope-Taylor's study, untouched since the excavations ceased; there was even a 1974 copy of the Daily Telegraph on the desk. All of his notes, maps, and plans were there, right where he had left them.

The new excavations have uncovered many remains of the royal Northumbrian fortress, including fragments of a stone throne (which might have looked like the reconstruction above) and traces of a great mead hall.

The biggest part of the archaeology done at Bamburgh was the excavation of more than 100 burials from the Bowl Hole Burying Ground, which is along the coast a ways south of the castle. The place had long been known because skeletons occasionally eroded out of the bluffs after storms. The burying ground proved to date to the 7th through 9th centuries. The burials showed a confusing mix of pagan and Christian characteristics, for example some of the most pagan looking burials had crosses around their necks. The skeletons were mostly tall, robust people, and some had sword wounds, so it is thought to be an elite group. Elemental analysis suggested that only a minority were local, others came from other parts of Britain, and a few were born in Norway or Denmark.

I would love to tell you more about the project, but as with most British digs the results have only been published in obscure journals and presented at out-of-the-way conferences. There is an excavation blog, but it has been scrubbed of all information that anyone might want to publish, making it one of the most frustrating things I have ever read. One day I suppose there will be a fat report that I will have to go to England to read – provided, of course, that Graeme Young doesn't also die before he gets around to it. But meanwhile it seems like a wonderful place to visit.

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