Historian John Sadler arrived in the morning to start our drive south. He spoke more or less non-stop the entire day, which was at times tiring. But he is so breathtakingly knowledgeable, I really couldn’t get enough of either his narrative or cynical and dryly hilarious asides.
With the Firth of Forth (the bay on which Edinburgh sits) on our left, we headed east toward the North Sea—fully as rocky, wide and windy as advertised. The Vikings must have been incredibly tough to repeatedly cross this rough expanse 1200 years ago—and must have been ready for some serious plunder when they reached the shore.
Because these civil wars were spread out over much of north and central England, we aren’t doing this history trip in strict chronological order, The first battle was 300 miles south of here at St. Albans in 1455, where the Yorkists defeated King Henry VI, a Lancastrian. Five years later they actually captured the king, and a year after that, the Duke of York was crowned King Edward IV.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Today, Bamburgh Castle was our first goal:
prime real estate occupied by the Anglo-Saxons, destroyed by the Vikings, rebuilt by the Normans, royal reward for a Crusader, prison of Scottish King David. Then in 1464, it was the first castle in England to be defeated by artillery, after a nine-month siege by the Earl of Warwick, commander of the Yorkist forces. And that’s why we’re here.
The castle is lovely. The Crown awarded it into private hands about 1600, where it has stayed ever since. In 1894 industrialist William Armstrong (whose gun innovations had made our Civil War even bloodier) bought it, and his family completed the restoration begun earlier.
Maybe it’s been restored a bit too much. I yearned for a bit more medieval and less Victorian. The building’s stones were a little too clean, too straight, and too, well, gray. Or not gray enough. I strolled the Great Hall where Warwick had his triumphant banquets. I couldn’t quite hear his harsh laugh.
Built sometime after the Norman conquest of 1066, the castle changed hands often during three hundred years of border wars with Scotland and internal English strife. King Henry V (“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers…”) gave the castle to the powerful Percy family in 1416, who supported the Lancastrians. When the Yorkists won at St. Albans and Towton, Edward IV confiscated all the Percy property, including Warkworth. It went back and forth in the succeeding decades of warfare.
We had the place to ourselves on an overcast but mild day. The place hadn’t been rebuilt, but wasn’t falling apart, either. Interior stairways led to intact vaulted storerooms, kitchens, and other chambers. The late-medieval tower was safe enough to walk through, with magnificent views of the river and current town below. With its strategic views and source of water, this site had been perfectly selected.
The architecture was both familiar and exotic, combining French/Norman, Scottish, and later English elements. The king’s chapel was especially beautiful, even without the colorful tapestries, stained glass, and rugs that would have enswathed it. It felt both cozy and regal.
Castles were essentially walled towns. Soon it was time to leave Warkworth’s beautiful old stones and head to the seaside for a few days of rest.