Once the ancient royal seat of the kings of Northumbria, Bamburgh is dominated by a striking castle that traces its roots back to around 420.
Ida the Flamebearer, an Anglo-Saxon king who was a widower, lived in the castle with his teenaged daughter, Margaret, while his son, Childe Wynde, sought adventure abroad. Ida remarried, choosing a woman named Behoc who, unknown to him, was a sorceress who was so jealous of Margaret that she decided to cast a spell on her, and no one saw Margaret again. In the years that followed, a scary dragon settled on a nearby hill, terrorized the kingdom, and became known as the Laidly (loathsome) Wrym (dragon). One day, the news reached Childe Wynd, and he returned on a ship with a keel made from the rowan tree, which offered protection against magic. Queen Behoc saw the ship coming and started a storm, but the rowan keel kept the ship safe. When he docked, Childe Wynd overtook the dragon and was going to kill it until he saw it was crying. The dragon told him that it was under a spell, which could be broken if he kissed its face three times before the sun set. He did, the dragon turned into his sister, Margaret, and they went back to the castle, where they found Queen Behoc, used her own magic against her, and turned her into a toad that still lives in a cave below the castle. The Laidly Wyrm of Spindlestone Heugh is told through a series of ceramic rubbings created by local potter Graham Taylor that visitors can work on at the castle and take home with them.
The castle passed to King Ida’s grandson, Aethelfrith, who named it Bebbanburgh for his wife, Bebba, then to Aethelfrith’s son, Oswald, who would play a significant role in Northumbrian history by bringing a monk named Aidan from Iona to establish a monastery on Lindisfarne.
A piece of stone found during archaeological excavations in 2010 is thought to be part of an Anglo-Saxon throne or “gift stool.” Based on the style of the carvings, it dates from around 800. The original is on display in the castle’s museum, but the castle grounds include a replica of the throne that was made by a local stonecarver.
The Vikings destroyed the original building in 993, and the Normans built a new castle there. After an unsuccessful siege in 1095, the castle belonged to the reigning English monarch, and the Forster family of Northumberland governed it for 400 years, eventually coming to own it until they became bankrupt.
In 1894, the castle was purchased and restored by William George Armstrong, a successful and famous Northumbrian engineer who designed a hydraulic engine used in cranes and lifting mechanisms, like the one originally used at the Tower of London. During the Crimean War, he developed a field gun that was much lighter and easier to maneuver, leading him to be knighted by Queen Victoria and regarded as the inventor of modern artillery. Armstrong’s Northumbrian home, Cragside, was the first house in the world to be powered by hydroelectricity, with power generated from its five surrounding artificial lakes.
One of the many rooms on view at the castle is the magnificent King’s Hall, which Armstrong built on the site of the castle’s medieval Great Hall as a place to host grand balls and other social events. The intricately carved ceiling is made of Siamese teak, and musicians performed in a minstrel’s gallery.
For more on William George Armstrong and Bamburgh Castle, see Emperor of Industry: Lord Armstrong of Cragside, by Ken Smith; Armstrong: The Life and Mind of an Armaments Maker, by Kenneth Warren; and The Laidley Worm of Bamburgh, by Steve Chambers. Bamburgh Castle is the setting of Bernard Cornwell’s The Saxon Stories, Matthew Harffy’s The Serpent Sword, and Anne Thackery’s Ragnarok. It also been featured on film, including A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1949), Elizabeth (1998), Robin Hood (2010) and Macbeth (2015). Historian Michael Wood’s “In Search of Eric Bloodaxe,” an episode about the last ruler of Northumbria from the 1981 BBC television series, In Search of the Dark Ages, includes a visit to the castle.