Bronze Age. Iron Age Hillfort. Roman. Romano-British. Medieval castle.
This blog is only an overview of the site. There are so many reports, articles, and books that I do not wish to repeat everything here – plus it would be more like a book than a blog! Enjoy!
The etymology of the site is believed to have come from St. Dunstan. Dunstan, the Abbot of Glastonbury, Bishop of Worcester and London, and Archbishop of Canterbury, was a favourite of King Athelstan. In Anglo-Saxon times a burgh was a fortification or fortified settlement. Hence Dunstan-Burgh.
During the Iron Age there was a promontory hillfort on the site. It is believed to have been a tribal centre, at the most, or a large settlement at the least, for the Brigantes tribe, who inhabited this area of Northumberland at that time. Defensive ditches from this period have been uncovered during archaeological excavations.
Plenty of Roman artefacts have been uncovered at the site dating from the 1st to 3rd centuries. There is strong evidence for a military presence here – possibly a signal station. The Romans shipped supplies up and down the coast, so a signal station here would make sense.
The area covers a total of 4.3ha, the largest in Northumberland.
The enclosing curtain wall, measuring 2.1m in height, was constructed in the 1380’s. Within this area were located six buildings, known to date. The wall itself included six rectangular towers. Only the ruins of Lilburn Tower, Egyncleugh Tower, and Constable’s Tower remain. The two gatehouses, John of Gaunt’s Gatehouse, to the southwest of the site, the original entrance, and the Great Gatehouse, at the southern side of the curtain wall, also remain.
The Lilburn Tower stood 18m in height and measured 9.1m square with walls 1.8m thick. A soldier’s guardroom was located on the ground floor. The tower was named after one of the Constables of the castle, Sir John de Lilburn. It faces north towards Bamburgh Castle.
The Egyncleugh Tower, meaning eagle’s ravine, stood three storeys high and measured 7.6m across. It was also known as the Water Tower. This is where the officials were housed and included a small gateway with a drawbridge giving access to the castle. It overlooks Queen Margaret’s Cove, on the coast.
Constable’s Tower is a square structure which stood to the east of the main gateway. This served as the accommodation for the Constable of the castle and included stone window seats. Domestic buildings were constructed next to the tower.
There is a small oblong turret situated east of Constable’s Tower. It included a single chamber and measured 3.28m by 2.29m.
The great Gatehouse stood three storeys high and was built of course-grained sandstone. It had two drum towers which originally stood 24m in height. A guardroom stood on either side of the entrance passageway which measures c.6.4m wide. There were also latrines, a spiral staircase leading to the first floor, and fireplaces. Above this were the Great Chamber and the Hall. This gatehouse was converted to a keep when John of Gaunt’s Gatehouse was constructed.
There was a portcullis, and two wooden doors which gave entrance to the castle. This entrance was blocked up in 1383 when, following the Peasants Revolt, the Great Gatehouse was turned into a keep.
A Barbican was added to the Great Gatehouse in 1382 and its foundation remains can still be seen today. These can be seen in front of the right-hand side drum tower, as you approach the castle, measuring 9.4m in length and standing 0.71m high.
John of Gaunt’s Gatehouse is located to the west of the Great Gatehouse. As its name suggests, this was added by John of Gaunt. It stood 2-3 storeys high and included a porter’s Lodge. The defences included a portcullis. Only the foundations of this site remains. John of Gaunt was the Lieutenant of the Scottish Marches between 1380-1384.
The location of the castle’s chapel is, to date, unknown. It would be amazing if this could be located.
Building materials for the site have been found to have come from England, Scandinavia, and Spain. This is a wide area to source materials but does demonstrate the importance placed upon its location and structure that only the best materials were used and shipped to the site.
It is believed that tunnels ran from Dunstanburgh to Craister Tower, Embleton Vicarage and Porter Steads. Another tunnel ran from the well to outside of the castle. It would be great if these could be located and investigated – who knows what will be found lurking beneath the site!
Three artificial water areas surrounded the site, forming a moated area. These areas are now known as the North Mere, West Mere and South Mere, and added to its defences.
A harbour is believed to have once existed near the south-eastern side, at the Southern Mere, at the area named Nova Scotia. This was apparently utilized by Queen Margaret following the Battle of Hexham, and by Henry VIII when his fleet sought shelter from a storm. However, archaeologically this has been found to have not been a harbour in the sense that we know today, but more of a quay on which to moor ships and other boats. The subject of this harbour has been, and continues to be, hotly debated, however, the archaeology is unravelling its history and structure, and it is with this evidence that I stand. But I do look forward to more investigations being undertaken in this area and the updates they will provide.
Numerous colourful personalities are associated with the site, including Sir Ralph Percy, the turncoat, under whose control the site changed hands five times. The castle was also held by Simon de Montford and Thomas of Lancaster. Too many personalities to mention here, but you will find them in the Timeline below.
The garrison from the site provided manpower for the numerous battles that occurred during its colourful past. Including the Battle of Homildon (Humbledon) Hill. The men fought under the direction of the castle’s Constable, and it was and English victory.
The site has also been involved in the Despenser Wars, the Wars of Scottish Independence, the Wars of the Roses, and was garrisoned during the Second World War.
Timeline for the site –
3rd C BC-43 AD Iron Age hillfort on site occupied.
2nd C Roman activity on the site.
1256 The site was held by Hereward de Mareys (Marisco) Baron of Embleton who sold it to Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester.
1265 Simon de Montfort died, and the castle went to the Crown. Henry III granted it to his son, Edmund Crouchback, Earl of Lancaster.
1294 Edmund Crouchback, Earl of Lancaster, died and his son, Thomas Plantagenet succeeded him, becoming the Earl of Leicester and Derby.
1312 Thomas, Earl of Lancaster, who held the site, was one of the men responsible for capturing and the murder of Piers Gaveston, King Edwards favourite.
1313/1315 Work began on building the castle. Thomas Plantagenet, Earl of Lancaster was not on good terms with the king at the time.
1314 The moat was being cut, measuring 24.3m wide and 5.48m deep.
1314 Thomas, Earl of Lancaster, was at the Battle of Bannockburn.
1315 21 August: A Licence to Crenellate was granted to Thomas, Earl of Lancaster.
1319 A constable was placed at the castle.
1321 The Despenser War: The Barons revolted against Edward II, including the Earl of Lancaster.
1322 The Earl of Lancaster fled to Dunstanburgh Castle but was captured before he arrived.
1322 24th March: The castle was entrusted to Richard Emeldon. The Constables were John de Lilburn and Roger Mauduit.
1322 Late: The castle was held by the Crown and managed by Robert de Emeldon with a garrison of 40 foot and 40 light horsemen. Roger Maduit was appointed Constable of the castle.
1322 The garrison fought with the Constable at the Battle of Old Byland between the Scots and the English. It was a Scottish victory. The garrison at the castle was then enlarged to 130, mostly mounted men, to counter any Scottish attack.
1322-1326 Sir John de Lilburn was Constable of the castle.
1324 Henry Plantagenet had the Earldom of Lancaster restored to him by Edward II.
1325 Lilburn Tower was constructed.
1326 Sir John de Lilburn was Constable of the castle.
<1351 A hall and chamber were added to Constable’s Tower measuring c.18m square.
1362 The Crown handed the castle to Thomas, brother of Henry Lancaster. The Constable was Sir John Lilburn.
1362 Came into the hands of John of Gaunt through his marriage to Blanche, granddaughter of Henry of Lancaster.
1368 Repairs were made to the site including replacing the drawbridge. The Watergate and Barbican were held by Custodians.
1372 A new wall was built at the castle.
1380 Visited by John of Gaunt.
1381 Thomas de Ildreton was Constable.
1381 Peasant’s Revolt.
1382 John of Gaunt extended the defences. A Barbican was added to the Gatehouse. A wall was constructed behind John of Gaunt’s Gatehouse to protect the inner ward, and six houses were added to the castle grounds.
1383 The defences were expanded following the Peasant’s Revolt – The entrance to the Gateway was blocked up with a wall. The Gatehouse was turned into a keep.
1384 Unsuccessfully attacked by the Scots.
1399 Held by the Crown.
14th C Deer Park was created next to the castle.
1402 The Castle garrison fought at the Battle of Hamildon Hill, between the Scots and the English. It was an English victory.
1409 Robert Harbottle was Constable.
1421 Henry Lound was Constable.
1422 The castle was held by the Crown – Henry VI. Repairs were undertaken to the castle and the defences.
1427 Stephen Hatfield was Constable.
1436 Ralph Babthorpe was Constable, and also Constable of Hatfield.
1438 Part of the eastern curtain wall fell down.
1439 Repairs were undertaken to the section of the eastern curtain wall which had fallen the previous year.
1442 New oven constructed. The foundations of the Eastern Tower were repaired and strengthened. To place in the chapel were brought up from London.
1444 The Constable’s Hall and houses were repaired. Windows in the castle were glazed.
c.1455 Wars of the Roses: The castle was held by its Constable, Sir Ralph Babthorpe for the Lancastrian cause.
1457 Wars of the Roses: The well was cleaned out. Possibly the tunnels? Were they rediscovered at this time, or added?
1458 Wars of the Roses: The windows in the Great Hall and chamber were glazed.
1459 Wars of the Roses: Works were undertaken in the outer bailey including the addition of a postern in the eastern curtain wall.
1461 Wars of the Roses: Edward IV granted to Sir Ralph Percy some of the buildings belonging to the castle, including the disused dovecote and the Grange. He turned the dovecote into a malt drying kiln.
1461 Wars of the Roses: Part of the site was repaired and garrisoned for the Lancastrian cause.
1461 Wars of the Roses: Sir Ralph Percy defended the castle against Edward IV, but finally surrendered to York.
1462 Wars of the Roses: 25th October: The castle was held by Queen Margaret D’Anjou, who had landed on the Northumberland coast with an army comprising of French and Scottish soldiers.
1462 Wars of the Roses: November: The Earl of Warwick, the Earl of Worcester and Sir Ralph Grey besieged the castle with approximately 10,000 men.
1462 Wars of the Roses: 27th December: The castle surrendered at Christmas to The Earl of Warwick, the Earl of Worcester and Sir Ralph Grey. Sir Ralph Grey was left in charge of the site for the Yorkist cause. John Grosse, the Constable, was taken to York and beheaded.
1463 Wars of the Roses: January: Sir Ralph Percy switched sides again (what a turncoat!!!!) and handed the castle over to the Lancastrian cause.
1464 John Grosse was Constable.
1464 Wars of the Roses: Following a short siege, the Earl of Warwick retook and held the castle.
1464 Wars of the Roses: June: The Feast of John the Baptist was celebrated at the castle by the Earl of Warwick.
1465 Wars of the Roses: May: William Douglas was created Porter of the castle, and Robert, William and John Haggerston were Constables.
1470 Wars of the Roses: Repairs undertaken on the castle and barn.
1470 Wars of the Roses: The site was used by pirates.
1471 8th December: A grant was received for repairs to the castle.
1474 Wars of the Roses: Henry, Earl of Northumberland, was Constable.
1489 Edmund Craster was Constable.
15th C Held by the Crown.
1514 Henry VIII’s ships took shelter in the ‘harbour’ at the castle.
1524 Cardinal Wolsey agreed with the Crown that lead from the castle roof be taken and used to repair Wark Castle. The lead roof was removed and taken to Wark Castle. Timber was removed to be used at Embleton Hall as it was considered too expensive to repair Dunstanburgh.
1538 Reported by a Royal Commission of Henry VIII as being in ruins and of little strength. The only area that could be habitable was the gatehouse.
* Some repairs were undertaken by Sir William Ellerker.
1535-1543 John Leland: ‘Dunstaneborowgh a 2. Miles beyond Howwik harde on the se shore. It stondethe on a hy stone rok. The castle is more then halfe a mile in compace, and there hathe bene great building in it. Thereby is a strong…..’ (Smith, 1910).
1543 In very poor condition.
1550 Sir Robert Bowes reported the castle as being “In wonderful great decay”.
1584 Commissioners of the Crown considered it would be too expensive to repair the castle.
1594-1597 The gatehouse was lived in by wealthy widow Alice Craster. She undertook some repairs to the gatehouse – her residence.
16th C In ruins. The outer bailey was used by local farmers for grazing their livestock.
1604 Sold by James I to Thomas Balliot, Sir Thomas Windebank, and William Blake.
1605 The castle was sold on to Sir Ralph Grey.
1617 A yearly fee was paid for the upkeep of the castle.
1625 Site owned by William, Lord Grey, son of Sir Ralph Grey.
1704 The site passed to Lady Mary Grey. Stone was robbed from the site, and crops were cultivated in the outer bailey.
1797 Painted by William Turner, the British artist.
1869 Sold to the Trustees of Samuel Eyres by Charles Bennet, the 6th Earl of Tankerville, the descendant of Lady Mary Grey.
* Charles Bennet sold the site to cover his debts.
1880’s Antiquarian fieldwork undertaken by historian Cadwallader Bates.
1885 The gateway entrance was reopened.
1893 Architectural plans were created for the improvement of the site.
1898 In ruins.
1919 Sold to Sir Arthur Sutherland.
1930 Presented to the State.
1939 WWII: Observation post during the Second World War.
1940 WWII: Fortified against German attack. Garrisoned by the Royal Army Corps. Area protected by pillboxes north and south of the castle, constructed by the 1st Battalion Essex Regiment, minefield, barbed wire and trenches.
1946 Aerial Photograph.
1948 Aerial Photograph.
1961 Sir Ivan Sutherland granted the estate to the National Trust.
1969 Field Investigation.
1994 Scheduling amended.
2003-2006 Investigated by Historic England.
21st C Owned by the National Trust and maintained by English Heritage.
Archaeology of the site.
As expected, there is an abundance of archaeology from the site. Considering the use of the area spans from – as far as we know to date – the Bronze Age up until the Second World War.
Following is a list of some of the artifacts uncovered. There are so many more……..
For a full archaeological report head over to https://historicengland.org.uk/research/results/reports/6339/DunstanburghCastleNorthumberlandArchaeologicalArchitecturalandHistoricalInvestigations
The age of this site dictates that there are surely legends, myths and folklore associated with it.
One legend states that a child was being held at the castle, but they managed to escape. How they accomplished this daring feat is unknown.
Another that Queen Margaret of Anjou sought refuge at the castle and later escaped by a small boat from its harbour, but her ghost still haunts the grounds.
At the gatehouse is rumoured to be a knight who wanders around at night.
People have heard a high-pitched horn blasting in the knight – is this a carnyx of the Celts dating back to its Iron Age occupation?
Yet the best known and most often told tale from the site is that of Guy the Seeker. CLICK HERE for the poem of his legend.
References & Bibliography.
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Bates. C. J. 1891. The Border Holds of Northumberland. Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle upon Tyne.
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Dunstanburgh Castle1024px-Gatehouse_and_curtain_wall_of_Dunstanburgh_Castle,_2009By Tim Simpson – originally posted to Flickr as Dunstanburgh Castle, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8572812
The remains of the Constable’s house and complex of buildings (left) and the Constable’s Tower (right). Dunstanburgh_Castle_-_geograph.org.uk_-_984. By Paul Allison, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9114547.
Lilburn Tower, seen from the edge of the outer bailey. Dunstanburgh_Castle_-_geograph.org.uk_-_924510. By Chris Gunns, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=13613992.
The Gull Crag cliffs and Lilburn Tower. Dunstanburgh_Castle_and_Whin_Sill_-_geograph.org.uk_-_109789. By Nigel Chadwick, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9204994.
Dunstanburgh Castle, reflected in the remains of the southern mere. Dunstanburgh_Castle_-_geograph.org.uk_-_1716666. By John Sutton, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=14433494.