Subscribe to Archaeology

Letter from England

Stronghold of the Kings in the North

Excavations at one of Britain’s most majestic castles help tell the story of an Anglo-Saxon kingdom

July/August 2016

Letter From England Bamburgh Castle


On the windswept northeastern coast of England, Bamburgh Castle rises high above a massive outcrop of black dolerite. Its brooding sandstone fortifications command sweeping views of the surrounding county of Northumberland, which was once the heart of the medieval kingdom of Northumbria. Visit the castle today, and what you see is an ornate Norman fortress that was extensively rebuilt by its owners in the eighteenth and early twentieth centuries, though traces of medieval masonry are still visible in many of the buildings. But view the site through the eyes of archaeologist Graeme Young, and a different vision of the castle emerges. On his morning tea break, Young takes a few moments from supervising his crew to explain that he has spent 20 years excavating inside and around Bamburgh in an effort to understand the site’s 2,000-year history. Beneath the stately grounds of the modern castle, he and his team have unearthed the remains of a royal citadel from the early medieval period, when Northumbria’s Anglo-Saxon kings made this nearly impregnable volcanic plateau their seat of power. In the popular imagination, this era is the violent and barbaric Dark Ages, but Young suggests that discoveries here paint a more nuanced picture. “We’ve long known Bamburgh was an important site during the Anglo-Saxon period,” he says, “but we’ve discovered it was much more cosmopolitan that we imagined.”


Sitting in a small office tucked into the wall of Bamburgh’s west courtyard, Young tells the unlikely story of archaeology in the castle. It begins in the 1960s, when famously eccentric archaeologist Brian Hope-Taylor started to excavate inside the castle walls. He had previously dug at a nearby early royal Anglo-Saxon settlement called Yeavering that he believed was a co-capital with Bamburgh of the kingdom of Bernicia, which predated Northumbria. “He was one of the first archaeologists to seriously study Anglo-Saxon sites,” says Young. “He really was a pioneer.” Scholars consider Hope-Taylor’s meticulous publication of the Yeavering excavation a landmark in Anglo-Saxon archaeology. Unfortunately, though he made several spectacular discoveries at Bamburgh, including the best-preserved Anglo-Saxon sword in Britain and a solid gold plaque depicting a stylized animal known as the “Bamburgh Beast,” he was not able to publish his results before his death in 2001.Letter From England Bamburgh Beast


Young has a personal investment in Hope-Taylor’s work. He grew up visiting Bamburgh and credits the formative experience of exploring the castle as a boy with inspiring him to become an archaeologist. In 1996, he and his colleagues contacted the castle owners to request permission to follow up on Hope-Taylor’s excavations. “We didn’t know where he had dug,” says Young, “so we were hoping to use geophysics and small-scale excavation to determine that.” The owners gave their permission, and the small team began their work. Twenty years later, Young shakes his head and smiles at the memory. “We were thinking of it as a short project that we’d do on weekends among friends,” he says. But that short project quickly bloomed into a much bigger effort when it became apparent to the team that the richness of the site meant it would take years to understand it properly. They also became the unexpected heirs of Hope-Taylor’s considerable legacy.