History of Dunstanburgh Castle

One of the most atmospheric and inspiring castles in England, Dunstanburgh Castle was built in the second decade of the 14th century by Thomas, Earl of Lancaster, the wealthiest nobleman in England. Earl Thomas was later executed for his role in the barons’ rebellion against Edward II, but the castle was extensively modernised in the 1380s under John of Gaunt. It played a role as a Lancastrian stronghold in the Wars of the Roses, but fell into disrepair at the end of the Middle Ages, and its ever more ruinous silhouette inspired many artists, including JMW Turner. Recent research has radically altered our perceptions of both the extent of the castle and the nature of its surrounding landscape in the Middle Ages.

Dunstanburgh Castle, seen from the south-west

Dunstanburgh Castle, seen from the south-west

Before the Castle  

The name Dunstanburgh – which translates as ‘the fort’ (burgh) ‘of the town’ (dun) ‘by the rock’ (stan) – was certainly in existence in the second decade of the 14th century, when the castle was first built. As at other places such as Edinburgh or Scarborough, it could suggest that occupation of the site began much earlier.

The archaeological record gives us hints of this. During clearance works by the Ministry of Works in the 1920s and 1930s, shards of prehistoric and Roman pottery, Iron Age millstones, a Roman brooch and hearths of the 1st century BC and 2nd century AD were found on the site.

In 2003, English Heritage archaeologists confirmed that the headland on which the castle stands had indeed been occupied during the Iron Age and early Roman periods.[1] Observation and surveying near the castle’s south curtain wall revealed that the ridge-and-furrow field system, which pre-dated the stone wall, cut into an earlier earth bank, now visible as the edge of the dry ditch along the south side.

The archaeologists interpreted the bank as the remains of the rampart of an Iron Age promontory fort. This had been abandoned centuries before Thomas of Lancaster chose the site for his castle, but the earthworks may have remained visible as a reminder to local people of earlier occupation.

 

Dunstanburgh Castle gatehouse as it might have appeared when first built in 1313, with its massive drum towers and roof turrets

Dunstanburgh Castle gatehouse as it might have appeared when first built in 1313, with its massive drum towers and roof turrets
© Historic England (illustration by Nick Hardcastle)

Thomas of Lancaster and His Castle

Dunstanburgh Castle was begun in 1313 on the orders of Thomas, Earl of Lancaster (d. 1322), lord of the barony of Embleton in which the site lay.

From his father, the king’s younger brother Edmund ‘Crouchback’ (1245–96), Thomas had inherited one of the largest and richest aristocratic estates in England, with substantial holdings in the north Midlands and Yorkshire. The Embleton barony was geographically far removed from his centre of power.

Just before he inherited, war broke out between England and Scotland. But although the border lay dangerously close, only 25 miles north, Thomas seems to have been less concerned with border security than with his own protection.

This was particularly the case after April 1312, when he and other earls led an army against Edward II (1307–27) and the king’s favourite and alleged lover, Piers Gaveston. The king escaped by sea, but the earls captured Gaveston at Scarborough. During his journey to London under arrest, they summarily executed him in Warwickshire, on Lancaster’s land.

Edward II had good cause to seek revenge for his favourite’s death, and although he issued a formal pardon to those who had risen against Gaveston, it was soon afterwards that Thomas began preparations for a new castle on his northernmost estate.

A surviving account for the first year’s work on the castle, though damaged, shows the scope of the works in the year beginning spring 1313, including the excavation of a ditch on the castle’s western side and the construction of a great gatehouse.[2]

No later building accounts from this period have survived, but it seems likely that the castle was finished or at least operational by March 1319, when Robert of Binchester was appointed as the first constable.[3] Even Scottish incursions after their victory at Bannockburn in June 1314, and catastrophic famines in 1315–17, do not seem to have halted building works.

In August 1319 Earl Thomas passed through Dunstanburgh en route to the siege of Berwick, almost certainly the only time that he ever saw his new castle.

A mid-14th-century manuscript illustration of the execution of Thomas of Lancaster in 1322

A mid-14th-century manuscript illustration of the execution of Thomas of Lancaster in 1322
© British Library Board (Add MS 42130 fol 56r)

Lancaster’s Capture and Execution    

 In 1321 and 1322, Thomas again led military action against the forces of Edward II and his new favourites, the father and son Hugh Despenser.

When it became apparent that this campaign would fail, Thomas and his adherents planned to retreat to Dunstanburgh, as the safest and most remote stronghold in his possession. But a royalist army intercepted and defeated them at Boroughbridge, Yorkshire, on 16 March 1322, and captured Thomas.

After a humiliating trial, Lancaster was beheaded at his own castle at Pontefract. The king took Dunstanburgh Castle into his own hands, garrisoning it with 40 foot soldiers and 40 hobelars (lightly armed cavalry).

A reconstruction drawing showing the castle as it may have looked in about 1325

A reconstruction drawing showing the castle as it may have looked in about 1325
© Historic England (illustration by Peter Dunn)

The Castle after Thomas of Lancaster    

 Dunstanburgh Castle was probably completed soon afterwards. The name Lilburn Tower suggests that it was John de Lilburn, joint constable between 1322 and 1323, who finished building the tower overlooking Embleton beach and Gull Crag. By April 1326, the castle had been returned to Earl Thomas’s younger brother Henry (d. 1345), who succeeded him as Earl of Lancaster.

The second quarter of the 14th century was a period of particular tension in the border area, especially after the accession in 1341 of David II to the Scottish throne. His capture at the battle of Neville’s Cross in October 1346 brought little respite: an account from the early 1350s records that Dunstanburgh Castle had served as a refuge for people and their goods during a Scottish raid.[4] This probably refers to the population of Embleton and other local townships – the castle’s enclosure was certainly large enough to house such a population.

The same account contains some of the earliest details of the castle’s buildings, including a barn and a hall and chamber for the constable, almost certainly the building whose remains can still be seen beside the Constable’s Tower.

The remains of John of Gaunt’s gatehouse, built in 1383

The remains of John of Gaunt’s gatehouse, built in 1383

John of Gaunt and Dunstanburgh    

 Edward III’s fourth son, John of Gaunt (1340–99), inherited Dunstanburgh Castle in 1362 as part of the Duchy of Lancaster, by right of his marriage to Blanche, Henry of Lancaster’s granddaughter.

He did little to the castle until 1380, when a visit to the Scottish marches, of which he was now lieutenant, convinced him of the shortcomings of the defences there. Over three years, he made several important changes to the castle’s layout.

Gaunt’s first work was a wall or ‘mantlet’ 6.5 metres high and 1.3 metres thick, creating a courtyard on the north side of the great gatehouse, which contained his own apartments. The mantlet, built by John Lewyn, the most celebrated builder of his age in the north, served to separate this area from the rest of the castle.[5]

Much more radical work followed the Peasants’ Revolt of June 1381, in which Gaunt had narrowly avoided being attacked, and which increased his sensitivity over security. The mason Henry Holme strengthened the mantlet with a new tower and gateway, tightly controlling access into the lord’s enclosure from the body of the castle. Within the enclosure he also built six ‘houses’ or service buildings.

Finally, in 1383 a new entrance was made on the castle’s western flank, complete with barbicans and a drawbridge. The carriageway of the great gatehouse was probably blocked at this time, and John of Gaunt’s gate became the castle’s main entrance. In later documents, the former gatehouse was re-named ‘donjon’, the lord’s tower – in modern parlance, the castle keep. 

This medieval dovecote in the village of Embleton is mentioned in the royal accounts of the 1440s as one of the buildings funded from the income from the Dunstanburgh Castle estate

This medieval dovecote in the village of Embleton is mentioned in the royal accounts of the 1440s as one of the buildings funded from the income from the Dunstanburgh Castle estate

The Wars of the Roses    

 In 1399, John of Gaunt’s son claimed the throne as Henry IV (r. 1399–1415), and the Duchy of Lancaster was annexed to the Crown.

Numerous accounts survive from the reign of Henry VI (1422–61), showing that various buildings in the castle were repaired, furnished or rebuilt during this time. They reveal, for example, that the king’s hall and great chamber (and presumably the earl’s apartments in the 14th century) lay on the top floor of the former great gatehouse.[6]

The accounts also show that the castle functioned as part of the wider barony of Embleton. Many entries concern estate buildings outside the castle, including mills, a dovecote, and the ‘house of pleas’, the predecessor of the moot hall of 1586 that still stands in the village.

The military history of Dunstanburgh Castle during the Wars of the Roses in the 15th century (fought between the houses of York and Lancaster for possession of the English throne) was eventful.

The joint constable of Dunstanburgh, Sir Ralph Percy (1425–64), had Lancastrian sympathies, and held the castle for Henry VI even after the Yorkist victory at Towton in March 1461. After a brief submission to the Yorkists later in the year, he declared again for Lancaster in 1462 in support of Queen Margaret of Anjou (1430–82), who had landed at Bamburgh with a French army.

The Yorkist commanders, the Earls of Warwick and Worcester, then besieged Dunstanburgh again; the writer Sir Thomas Malory fought under their command. Even though Percy capitulated on Christmas Eve 1362, it was only in June 1464 that the Yorkists secured the castle for good.

Dunstanburgh Castle gatehouse photographed in 1884, showing the remains of two stone walls blocking the entrance

Dunstanburgh Castle gatehouse photographed in 1884, showing the remains of two stone walls blocking the entrance

Decline and Decay

 In the late 15th and 16th centuries, Dunstanburgh Castle was in decline. Too large and expensive to maintain, its decaying walls provided a tempting source of stone for other buildings, while its strategic weakness – lying too far from the Scottish border, and too distant from the main road – was all too apparent.

Surveys in 1538 and 1543[7] highlighted the deterioration. The curtain walls were in poor repair, the lead roofs of some buildings were partly missing, and only the gatehouse was deemed habitable. It was presumably in this building that the widow Alice Craster took up residence in 1594, using the castle as the centre of a farming estate.

Ten years later – a year after the union of the English and Scottish crowns sealed the castle’s redundancy in national affairs – James I sold Dunstanburgh into private ownership. In 1605 it passed to Sir Ralph Grey, owner of nearby Howick Hall.

In the 17th century Dunstanburgh reverted to arable land. Francis Place’s sketch, made in 1678, shows harvest under way in the fields west of the castle, and in 1695 ‘240 Winchester bushels of corn’ and several cartloads of hay were harvested inside the castle walls.[8]

Place’s sketch also reveals the ruinous state of the buildings by the 1670s. Not surprisingly, later artists including JMW Turner found great appeal in the dramatic appearance of the ruins, particularly against the background of a storm at sea. 

One of the pill-boxes erected in 1940 below Dunstanburgh Castle, on Embleton beach, as a defence against a possible sea attack from occupied Norway

One of the pill-boxes erected in 1940 below Dunstanburgh Castle, on Embleton beach, as a defence against a possible sea attack from occupied Norway
© Alastair Oswald

The 19th and 20th Centuries  

 In the 19th and early 20th centuries the ruins changed hands several times. In 1869 Samuel Eyres of Leeds purchased Dunstanburgh from the Earl of Tankerville, and in the early 20th century it passed to Sir Arthur Sutherland, who struggled to pay for maintenance.

In 1929 the ruins passed into the guardianship of the Office of Works, on behalf of the freeholder, the National Trust, which continues to manage the adjacent stretches of coastline.

During the Second World War, Dunstanburgh found itself in the middle of a potential site for German invasion. The capitulation and occupation of Norway in the summer of 1940 raised fears of an amphibious assault against north-east England.

Dunstanburgh was incorporated into a new system of defences, concentrated along the coast itself and in the gap between the castle and the rocky outcrop to the south-west, the likely place for German tanks to break out from the beach-head. They included pill-boxes, other gun emplacements, anti-tank trenches and a minefield. The castle itself functioned as an observation post for a small detachment of the Royal Armoured Corps.

 

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About the Author

Jeremy Ashbee MA PhD FSA is English Heritage’s Head Properties Curator and his specialist interest is in the history and architecture of medieval castles. He has written extensively on castles including guidebooks to Goodrich, Conwy and Beaumaris castles.

Footnotes

1. A Oswald, J Ashbee, K Porteous and J Huntley, Dunstanburgh Castle, Northumberland: Archaeological Research and Historical Investigations, English Heritage Research Department Report 26/2006 (Swindon, 2006).
2. The subject of a contract for £224 in silver, negotiated between Earl Thomas and ‘Master Elias the mason’: The National Archives (TNA), DL29/1/3.
3. TNA, DL25/3392.
4. Bodleian Library, MSS Yorkshire Rolls Box 1 no. 2.
5. WD Simpson, ‘Further notes on Dunstanburgh Castle’, Archaeologia Aeliana, 4th series, 27 (1949), 21–5.
6. TNA, DL29/361/5971–84.
7. E Bateson (ed), A History of Northumberland, vol 2: The Parishes of Embleton, Ellingham, Howick, Long Houghton and Lesbury (Newcastle upon Tyne, 1895), 207–8 (accessed 21 March 2013).
8. William Camden, Britannia (1695).

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