Last updated on August 23rd, 2023 at 11:55 am
There are several reasons to go to the little Northumbrian coastal village of Craster. It is famous for its kippers, offers several pleasant eating options, an art gallery and is a popular base for bird watchers, fishers and walkers alike. Our excuse was to revisit Dunstanburgh Castle, surely one of the most dramatic set of ruins in Britain, and an easy stroll of no more than two miles north from the small harbour. Others go further; the round walk from Craster to Low Newton (or vice-versa) via Dunstanburgh and Embleton Bay regularly crops up as one of Britain’s favourite walks. To be fair, there’s not actually much castle left at Dunstanburgh. You visit for the views, the walk and the sense of history.
A sea mist lingered like an uninvited guest as we set off along the grassy foreshore. Ahead, the murk swallowed people and dogs whole; they simply disappeared into another world. But, gradually, the sun worked its magic and the silhouette of the castle began to emerge, mounted on its headland of ancient rock, jagged fingers of broken towers pointing randomly at the slowly bluing sky. You can appreciate why artists, including JMW Turner, have painted Dunstanburgh so often. Though I’m not sure how accurate Turner’s efforts were, he certainly evoked the drama of the place, which, you’ll be delighted to hear, has a reasonably turbulent history and comes equipped with its very own ghost.
Dunstanburgh Castle was built on the orders of Thomas, 2nd Earl of Lancaster (c1278-1322), nephew to King Edward I and cousin to King Edward II. Thomas’ father was Edmund Crouchback, son of Henry III and Edward I’s younger brother; Thomas’ mother was Blanche of Artois, a niece of the King of France and, before she married Edmund, Queen of Navarre. Among other things, Thomas was also Earl of Leicester, Derby, Salisbury and Lincoln. So this was an immensely well-connected, wealthy and powerful man – at one time the most powerful individual in the kingdom, after the king himself. In his younger days, he was a strong supporter of Edward I, participating in the king’s wars in Scotland, and on good terms with the future Edward II – a relationship that continued when the younger Edward became king in 1307.
The site of Thomas’ castle at Dunstanburgh has been in use for centuries. Prehistoric and Roman finds have been discovered on the promontory and in the area, and archaeologists believe that an earth bank by the castle’s south wall is the remains of an Iron Age rampart. Local memories of a fort would explain the name, which is of uncertain age but I’m guessing a mixture of Celtic and Anglo-Saxon: dun – ‘hill’, or maybe ‘fort’ or ‘town’; stan – ‘rock’; burgh – ‘fortress’, or ‘fortified place’. By the time the medieval castle was begun, in 1313, relations between Thomas and Edward II had become strained – not helped by Thomas taking up arms against Edward and his subsequent part in the mock trial and execution – more accurately, murder – of Edward’s irritating favourite, Piers Gaveston, in 1312. With the bulk of his lands lying further south, perhaps Thomas envisaged Dunstanburgh being a northern bolt-hole, in case his feud with the king got completely out of hand. Interestingly, despite its size – it has the largest area of any castle in Northumberland – and unlike many castles, the interior of Dunstanburgh inside its curtain wall was curiously empty. But it provided a massive defensive area in which a large army could securely pitch its tents.
There were rumours – so far as I know unsubstantiated – that Thomas was in league with the Scots, whose border with England lay, as it still does, just a few miles north of Dunstanburgh. He certainly took no part in the king’s failed attempt to rescue the besieged English garrison at Stirling, which culminated in the decisive Scottish victory at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314. By 1319, though, Thomas was sufficiently onside to join Edward in the siege of Berwick, at that time a Scottish town, and passed by Dunstanburgh – probably the only time he ever saw his great, northernmost, fortress – en route. However, dissatisfaction with the latest of Edward’s favourites, Hugh Despenser, culminated in Thomas leading a baronial rebellion that culminated in defeat at the Battle of Boroughbridge in 1322. Thomas was captured, tried for treason in the hall of his own favourite castle. Pontefract, where, prevented from speaking (as he and his allies had prevented Piers Gaveston from speaking at the latter’s mock trial), he was found guilty, taken to a nearby hill, and beheaded. In a curious postscript, miracles were reported to take place at his tomb in Pontefract and, later, there was a campaign to have him canonised. Curious again, there is an account that his bones turned up in a box at an auctioneers in Essex in 1942.
Where was I? After the Earl of Lancaster’s execution, his property was seized by the crown, but by 1326 Dunstanburgh was back in Lancastrian hands. The powerful John of Gaunt, son of Edward III and 1st Duke of Lancaster, considerably strengthened the castle in the 1380s, converting the great gatehouse to provide better accommodation, blocking the main entrance, essentially turning it into a type of castle keep, and creating a new gatehouse on the west side. Dunstanburgh Castle was attacked by the Scots in 1384 and was a Lancastrian stronghold during the Wars of the Roses, eventually falling to the Yorkist Earl of Warwick in 1464. It is said that the Captain of Dunstanburgh, John Gosse, was taken to York where he was beheaded with a hatchet. After that, the castle seems to have been abandoned and by the 16th century it was in a state of decay. It’s amazing so much has survived, frankly.
Dunstanburgh Castle had a mini renaissance during the Second World War, though, when fear of German invasion from occupied Norway resulted in various defences being erected all along this beautiful stretch of the north east coast. A detachment of the Royal Armoured Corps used the old fortress as an observation post. If you look carefully, you might spot a concrete pill box in the gorse in front of the castle; there are more to the north, in and around the sands of Embleton Bay.
Approaching Dunstanburgh Castle, it’s useful to know that in the medieval period it was surrounded on the landward side by a series of shallow lakes, or meres, so that the castle appeared to be an island. These low-lying areas still flood at times. The most impressive remaining part of the castle is undoubtedly the original gatehouse, which looms overhead with its two D-shaped towers – often likened to some of the castles built by Edward I in Wales. You can see where the portcullis went and, on the first floor, are two holes designed to pour nasty things onto attacking soldiers – or simply to provide close observation. You can still climb a spiral staircase to a small platform at what would have been roof level, from which there are stunning views. It’s not for the faint-hearted, but has to be done. Above you are the remains of taller towers which, unusually, projected far above the original structure and which would have given lookouts fair warning of any approaching army; except, perhaps, during one of those sea-mists… It is always thought-provoking to see staircases and doorways, suspended in mid-air, heading to nowhere now, and wondering when they were last used.
To the east, along the curtain wall, are the remains of two more towers, one of which shows the outline of a good-sized house – probably once used by the constable. The curtain wall continues along the edge of the cliffs overlooking the north sea. There is a tiny inlet, Queen Margaret’s Cove, which might have been used as a landing place (though there was once a small harbour outside the south wall) and a significant number of medieval loos set into the wall at intervals. We guessed that these would have been handy for patrolling sentries – and well-used by any army camped in the castle’s interior. To the north, sheer cliffs occupied by nesting kittiwakes and fulmars provide more than adequate defence. On the north west edge is the remains of the Lilburn Tower, thought to be completed by the Earl of Lancaster’s retainer, John de Lilleburn, shortly after his lord’s death. Its primary use was as a watchtower, but it provided (relatively) quality accommodation too. The ground falls away in sheer drops here and all along the ruined curtain wall to the west. Little remains of John of Gaunt’s gatehouse and there is no obvious trace of the few buildings – including a stables and a forge – that must have once been inside the walls, but which were probably built of wood.
Now – what about that ghost? The wraith is supposed to be that of a young knight, Sir Guy the Seeker. Legend has it that beneath the castle rock is a secret cavern, wherein sleeps a beautiful maiden. A wizard encouraged Guy to rescue the girl from the spell she was under by choosing to either draw a sword or blow a horn; unfortunately, our hero made the wrong choice (the horn) and was forever doomed to wander in search of his heart’s desire (the girl).
One final thing: if you visit Dunstanburgh Castle – and I hope you will – there is just a small English Heritage ticket office and shop on the site; there are no other facilities, so ensure maximum comfort in Craster before setting off. Next time, I need to photograph it from the north!