Dunstanburgh Castle

Moving southwards on the coast, there’s Dunstanburgh. Or, rather, what was Dunstanburgh. With the castle being so closely tied to the fate of its lords, the fact that the Lord, Thomas of Lancaster, earned royal displeasure by killing Piers Gaveston, did not help Dunstanburgh rise through the times. Thomas was often on the wrong side of any argument after that, and it was not long before he died. It is not even known whether the Earl ever made it to his castle.

The final dagger through the heart of Dunstanburgh was, of course, its destruction in the Wars of the Roses when Lord Warwick’s artillery decided that the castle’s masonry was of the previous century. As expected, it did not hold out.

What is clear, however, and what stood through the times, is that the king’s men in Bamburgh could see the defiance inherent in Dunstanburgh. Even now, when one stands facing north, the mighty keep at Bamburgh is clearly visible. When the great walls of Dunstanburgh were still intact the sight would have been similarly majestic from the other side. Majestic, I say, by which I mean the king’s men would always have known that their vigilance was required.

Dunstanburgh Castle

What is not noticeable from this photo is the fact that as one goes further along the coast (or the walls), the coastline develops into a massive sea-cliff. Thomas chose this position very very well. It is a pity it doesn’t survive better, but in a lot of ways, ruins can be more spectacular than the full thing.

The other bit worth mentioning here is the John of Gaunt gatehouse. John is well-known to readers of 14th century as the instigator of a massive raid into France in the Hundred Years’ War, and he came to own Dunstanburgh for a while in the late 14th century. He clearly also left his mark on the grounds though indeed I don’t know much about it.

What is also interesting but what I cannot really comment on is how the Edwardian fortification construction lessons from Wales were applied in the next set of castles. The plentiful placards on the site note that Harlech and Conwy resemble certain works on this site, and I imagine people who have visited both will have more to draw on. Maybe when I visit them, I’ll take another guess at comparing these…

Bamburgh Castle

I wish I could say I visited Bebbanburgh, but regrettably as yet we can still travel only in space and not in time. If we could… Until then, I visited Bamburgh.

Northumbria’s ancient seat of power had been in my list of places to see. Firstly, because I have taken an interest in early English history (5th to 9th centuries), and, secondly, because it has lately been popularised by the writings of Mr Bernard Cornwell. Indeed, it was the latter which built in me the enthusiasm for the former.

The present castle is of course not the one we would have seen in the 8th or 9th centuries, nor is our understanding of what those castles looked like particularly good. But, it is ever my principle than in experiencing the places people previously have experienced one can grasp an idea of what they may have thought.

However, one should also think about what Bamburgh symbolised for all of the years after then. It is steeped in history, like so many of the other local fortifications. Bamburgh rebelled against William II when the third Norman Earl of Northumbria, Robert de Mowbray thought he had found a better king than William. After the castle submitted, it became a property of the king, and the royal standard flew from the keep for centuries after then.

Indeed, the various stages of fortification would have added to the keep so that people all around the local area would unrecognisably see the power and authority of the king. And, he was powerful. But, power is always contested. More on this elsewhere (namely, when I’ll get to writing about Dunstanburgh)…

But back to Bamburgh: I found the complex environment of the dunes of the beach and the rock of the castle a very curious mix. The castle from the beach was striking, and the beach from the castle looked like an integral part of the landscape. The dunes seemed to comprise more of a landscape than the entirety of the landward countryside.

And though we shan’t know how exactly Bebbanburgh looked like, but if you’re as curious as I am to see what the people there could have made of it, go and take a look.

And, for a second, back to the Anglo-Saxon Northumbria. How would a lord of this castle behave? What would he think? Would he have looked in admiration onto the Holy Island and the monks there; the very same monks who turned Northumbria into a centre of the Christian culture? What would have been the limit of his aspirations?

Bamburgh Castle

Lindisfarne Priory

The Priory was close to the Castle. Apparently, it was out of use and being slowly dismantled by the time construction started on the castle, which is why it is in such a state of disrepair. Although, the one thing I noted was that the main object standing is a massive arch even though it had barely any support. The monks (and masons and assisting people) built those arches well, or rather, figured out clever geometry for the arches to support themselves well!

Though this priory carries very little in itself of the original 7th century centre of all Christian learning (or, well, most of it in the former Western Empire), I can sense why this place was chosen for the monastery.

Well, of course, let’s step back — firstly, one of the reasons was the proximity to the seat of the kings of Northumbria (Bernicia / Deira) across the water in Bebbanburgh. But, more than that, I think if St Aidan had to have chosen after coming wondering around Northumbria, the sheer beauty of the island would have made him want to make this place it. The beauty, but also the tranquillity. It must count as one of the more peaceful places I have experienced.

I think the present-day islanders follow the wish for peace, firstly, by still being secluded from the mainland by the tides, but also by preventing too many mainlanders coming across at any one time (same tides, limited accommodation, defined parking areas for outsiders, restricted access to some places, etc).

Lastly, I was particularly gifted in visiting the place during a day which was dry and sunny. I also heard that, similarly to every other region and county, Lindisfarne is meant to be the driest place in the British Isles (version Northumbria).

I’d like to go back.

Lindisfarne Priory

Lindisfarne Castle

I read some books on early Northumbrian development last year (7th century), and it only reinvigorated the wish in me to see the places which gave life to its original greatness. Finally, my  journeying this weekend took me to the Holy Island. Lindisfarne, it is known by others, but, I think, especially after having been there that the name of the ‘Holy Island’ is perfectly suitable.

Admittedly, the castle is presently in the process of reconstruction which should be over by the March of 2018. Hence, entry to the castle was forbidden and all visitors can do is walk about here and there. Therefore, I did not actually stay for too long, but I still got a sense of the area.

Now, before I continue too far, this castle was begun in 1550 and hence some of what I will say below will not readily apply. Warfare on the borders and internally had (with some notable exceptions) ceased by this point, and the kingdoms on this island would soon be unified. However, even so there would have been a period of at least thirty to forty years when it was militarily relevant.

The castle has also been portrayed in several films and thereby has claim to an iconic status. What I considered more iconic, however, was the view across the bay to where Bamburgh rules the skyline. What the people garrisoned here must have thought, seeing their comrades-in-arms so close (and yet so far). What must have the people in Bamburgh thought when the Norsemen raided and pillaged in Lindisfarne to begin with…

The rest of the island, and particularly the priory, are probably more thought-inspiring but even so, this was worth visiting.

Lindisfarne Castle