Bamburgh castle from the beach. Wikipedia Commons.
You knew I couldn’t wait too long to do Bamburgh. 🙂 Thanks to Bernard Cromwell it may be the best known Anglo-Saxon fortress site in England today anyway.
Din Guaïroï is the name given to Bamburgh in the Historia Brittonum, which then later tells us that it was renamed Bebbanburgh for Æthelfrith’s queen. The name is British in the same form as Dunbarton, Dunbar, DunEden (Edenburgh). Dun meaning a fortified place or dwelling while the second half is a British name. The site was originally known to the Irish as Dún Guaire, their version of the same name.
Din Guairoi was occupied by Britons from the Iron Age through the Roman period. Occupation of a hillfort with such a commanding position over the surrounding area during the Roman occupation is significant and may suggest that these Britons had made positive accomodation with the Romans. According to the Bamburgh Archaeology Project, there are finds suggesting occupation in both the Early and Late Roman period. The Bowl Hole cemetery shown in the video below holds graves from Britons dating back to before the Anglian occupation. I have also been told that there are prehistoric barrows near that cemetery which are expected to have graves of Iron Age or earlier rulers. Din Guairoi should have been ruled by some of the wealthiest Britons because the Tweed valley that it overlooks is some of the best agricultural land in northern Britain.
There is no specific information on the Britons of Din Guairoi in the written record. The Historia Brittonum may give us one hint when it says that a leader called Outigern fought against the northern English in the time of Aneirin, Taliesin, and several other bards.
Ida, the son of Eoppa, possessed countries on the left-hand side of Britain, i.e. of the Humbrian sea, and reigned twelve years, and united Dynguayth Guarth-Berneich
62. Then Dutigirn [Outigern] at that time fought bravely against the nation of the Angles. At that time, Talhaiarn Cataguen was famed for poetry, and Neirin [Aneirin], and Taliesin and Bluchbard, and Cian, who is called Guenith Guaut, were all famous at the same time in British poetry.
The great king, Mailcun [Maelgwn], reigned among the Britons, i.e. in the district of Guenedota [Gwynedd], because his great-great-grandfather, Cunedda, with his twelve sons, had come before from the left-hand part, i.e. from the country which is called Manau Gustodin [Gododdin], one hundred and forty-six years before Mailcun reigned, and expelled the Scots with much slaughter from those countries, and they never returned again to inhabit them.
Historia Brittonum section 61-62
Given that Ida’s reign is dated to 547 and Maelgwn’s death to the 540s, it suggests that Outigern was active in fighting against Ida. This suggests that Outigern may have been from the last British group that ruled from Bamburgh. Presumably at least some of the bards listed after his name sung about Outigern in poetry that lasted until at least 825 when the Historia Brittonum was written but has since been lost. This corpus of lost poetry, in addition to the surviving poetry, could help explain how the Men of the North became such a major theme in Welsh literature.
All sources we have for Ida of Bernicia claim that he took the hillfort today called Bamburgh. He would have known it as Dun Duairoi and presumably it was known by that name for some time afterwards. Keeping the British name, or some Anglian translation of it, may have assisted in the process of amalgamation that must have happened in Bernicia between the Anglian rulers and the common people, who in Bede’s day, were still recognized as British. It took some time for English names to slowly replace or exist dually with British names. Although the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle claims that Ida built the first walls around the castle, these were almost certainly of British origin.
We don’t hear much about the fortress for the next three generations, until the Historia Brittonum claims that King Æthelfrith grandson of Ida gives it to his Queen Bebba.
The naming of the royal fortress for Queen Bebba appears to be confirmed by Bede, although he doesn’t note who her husband was. It is possible that the author of the Historia Brittonum noted Bede’s reference to Queen Bebba and credited her to Æthelfrith, but I don’t think this is what happened. If it were a fictional link then she would more likely be said to be the queen of Ida than Æthelfrith.
Personally, I think renaming the fortress for a queen could only have been solidified during the reign of a long reigning son. In this case, I think it has to be Oswiu. A story that the family fortress had been given to his mother may have helped him succeed over his brothers after Oswald’s death. We know that Oswald was the son of Acha of Deira and this may partially explain why Oswald’s brother wasn’t acceptable to the Deirans, although Oswald’s son Oethelwald apparently was acceptable enough for him to rebel against Oswiu’s hegemony. We can’t assume that because Oswiu supported Oswald’s sainthood that they were allies in life, or at least it doesn’t mean that Oswald would have supported Oswiu as his heir. Indeed marrying Oswiu off to a British woman from Rheged may suggest that Oswiu wasn’t very highly placed in Oswald’s court. Presumably he made more advantagous marriages for some of his other brothers. (Both the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and Historia Brittonum name six brothers of Oswald, two of which were Oswiu and Eanfrith.) Of course, its unlikely that all of the other four were still alive after the violent deaths of Eanfrith and Oswald. It seems likely that one or more could have been among the twelve men executed along with Eanfrith by Cadwallon, and it seems likely that some brothers died beside Oswald in battle.
Of the events that took place at Bamburgh, we know quite a bit (relatively speaking). It was the personal home of the ruler of Bernicia, Northumbria and then the Earldom of Bernicia. We know of two sieges that took place there neither of which succeeded. The first occurred before 651 when Penda attempted to burn down the wooden gates of Oswiu’s fortress. The change in the wind that drove the fire back on Penda’s forces was credited to the prayers of St Aidan who was watching and praying from Farne isle. The second siege or uprising occurred during the succession of Aldfrith’s son Osred. In the Life of Bishop Wilfrid, Duke Berht reports that he vowed to support Bishop Wilfrid while clinging to a small ledge at Bamburgh when Eadwulf’s forces were trying to force them out, if the royal boy, Osred, succeeded his father. This sounds to me like Aldfrith’s sons hadn’t surrendered Bamburgh to his successor Eadwulf, who was trying to take the royal fortress from the children and their supporters. Interesting… it is possible that the descendants of Oswiu (or Æthelfrith) considered Bamburgh their personal property, not necessarily property of the king.
Of all the kings associated with Bamburgh — Ida, Æthelfrith, Oswiu — it is Oswald whose name is most reflected at Bamburgh. His legend would have dominated the castle from the time of his death. Lasting reminders come in St Oswald’s gate and St Oswald’s chapel, where his arm relic was kept for over 500 years. This arm relic would have been considered to be a personal relic for all the rulers of Bamburgh and, with Oswald’s sword arm enshrined in the chapel, perhaps a divine right to rule for those who now sat on Oswald’s throne. Oswald had great symbolic importance as the first Christian king to rule Bernicia from Bamburgh. We have no clue if Edwin or his men used Bamburgh during their rule over Bernicia, but if they did they left no physical or legendary trace. Given that the Deirans and Edwin really don’t show any inclination towards hillforts or fortresses of any kind, its possible that they did not, perhaps preferring lowland halls like Yeavering.
Here is Bamburgh today on Google Maps. You don’t get the feeling of its elevation in the map but you can zoom in or go out. Look at that beautiful white beach that would be ideal for beaching ships.
The Bowl Hole cemetery excavation by the Bamburgh Research project is on the fortress cemetery. It is located on the edge of the beach near some dunes. It contains graves of Late Roman Christians, Saxon pagans, and then Saxon Christians. They note in the video that it phases out of use when the church yard of St Aidan’s church in Bamburgh comes into use in the 650s.
This is a long (8 min) video of Bamburgh and Millfield. This is a black spot in the second video so wait for the second half. Millfield, mentioned in the second half of the video, is near Yeavering. Millfield is where Bede reports that Yeaverings administrative functions were moved after Yeavering was no longer in use.
I forgot to mention that Bamburgh has been suggested to be the site of Joyous Gard, the castle of Lancelot, in the Arthurian cycle. It is reputed to be the site of Lancelot’s burial. Its been suggested that Thomas Mallory’s Joyous Gard was suggested by its original name Din Guairoi.
See Bamburgh Research Project
An Anglo-British Cemetery at Bamburgh: An E-Interview with Graeme Young of the Bamburgh Research Project The Heroic Age, Issue 4, 2001.