Research on Dunstanburgh Castle

Despite its relatively inaccessible location, Dunstanburgh Castle has attracted the attention of antiquaries and artists since the 17th century. Their descriptions, sketches and paintings enable modern scholars to trace, at least in outline, the deterioration of the castle’s masonry.

Lilburn Tower from the north. The antiquarian Cadwallader Bates wrote in 1891, ‘You almost expect to be challenged by the basalt giants that are drawn up like so many warders around the base of the stately Lilburn Tower’
Lilburn Tower from the north. The antiquarian Cadwallader Bates wrote in 1891, ‘You almost expect to be challenged by the basalt giants that are drawn up like so many warders around the base of the stately Lilburn Tower’


The earliest detailed descriptions – four reports in 1538, 1543, 1550 and 1584 – are official documents relating to the defensibility of the region, but they give a strong sense of the poor state of the castle’s buildings.[1] The first two describe the condition of individual buildings by name.

The sketch produced by Francis Place in 1678 has particular value in showing several features of the castle that are now missing. These include stretches of the western curtain wall (complete with the mural tower whose remains are sometimes known as Huggam’s Hoose), the lowest storey of John of Gaunt’s gatehouse, elements of the east tower of the mantlet, and the battlements of the great gatehouse.

The oil paintings by JMW Turner also suggest the form of the castle’s ruins, though concentrating on the atmosphere created by wind and waves.

Of the descriptions left by visitors, that by W Hutchinson, recording a visit in 1776, typically emphasises the setting, though also containing useful details about the architecture.[2]

The most remarkable description is that provided by Cadwallader John Bates in 1891.[3] Bates identified the fact that the history of Dunstanburgh and its raison d’être were concerned with the politics of England, rather than Scotland.

He transcribed a number of important historical documents relating to the castle, and also speculated that Thomas of Lancaster’s motivation in building it might have reflected his enthusiasm for Arthurian legend, a theme picked up again recently.[4]

Four years later, Bates’s work formed the core of the treatment of Dunstanburgh in Bateson’s monumental History of Northumberland.[5]

The gatehouse at Dunstanburgh Castle may well have been inspired by the gatehouse built by Edward I, uncle to Thomas of Lancaster, at Harlech, in north Wales, though Dunstanburgh is an even taller and more ambitious structure
The gatehouse at Dunstanburgh Castle may well have been inspired by the gatehouse built by Edward I, uncle to Thomas of Lancaster, at Harlech, in north Wales, though Dunstanburgh is an even taller and more ambitious structure


Dunstanburgh’s great gatehouse has traditionally been seen, in its use of half-round towers, enormous dimensions, and the incorporation of important residential apartments on the upper floor, as a response to the great castle gatehouses of the previous generation.

Such an interpretation remains justifiable, although the importance of the Edwardian programme is currently being revised by Dr John Goodall, who emphasises the other castle-builders who influenced it, and draws attention to the high quality of castle design in the period afterwards.[6]

The usual comparison with Harlech and Beaumaris does not take into account several architectural differences between the Dunstanburgh gatehouse and the classic Edwardian gatehouses. The most fundamental difference is in plan form: those gateways, along with St Briavels and Kildrummy, generally have internal compartments running lengthways, dividing the frontal turrets from the residential spaces behind them. Dunstanburgh contains no such division, a feature it shares with baronial gatehouses of the 13th century, such as Tonbridge and Caerphilly.


Recent work by Malcolm Hislop[7] on John of Gaunt’s new gateway analysed the series of indentures of 1380–83 in which John of Gaunt contracted with the mason John Lewyn and subsequently Henry Holme to create new defences at the castle.

Based on a close reading of the indentures, Hislop corrected the previous interpretation of the ‘mantlet’ as one of the barbicans to the south of John of Gaunt’s gate, and proposed a three-stage sequence.

  • John Lewyn initially built a rectangular enclosure north of the great gatehouse, with an opening directly into the main bailey.
  • From December 1381 Henry Holme built a gatehouse leading from this enclosure into the main body of the castle, as well as six houses.
  • Only in 1383 were the western gate and barbican usually known as John of Gaunt’s gate constructed.

This sequence is generally accepted, although it seems most likely that some kind of gate already existed on the site of John of Gaunt’s gatehouse, even from the time of Thomas of Lancaster.

The back of Thomas of Lancaster’s great gatehouse, seen from across the inner ward
The back of Thomas of Lancaster’s great gatehouse, seen from across the inner ward


John Maddicott’s 1970 biography of Thomas of Lancaster pointed out that the earl’s Northumberland estate represented only a tiny and insignificant part of his land-holding.[8]

However, it was the work of Andy King[9] that characterised most clearly the local political context in which the earl began his castle. King pointed out that many of the figures in the earl’s Northumberland affinity were minor gentry, with fragile loyalties. The defeat and execution of Earl Thomas in 1322 consequently left no great power vacuum in Northumberland.

The mismatch between the extremely ambitious castle at Dunstanburgh and the earl’s tenuous local connection is therefore all the more striking. This gives further support for the notion that Earl Thomas was thinking more about national politics than control of his small Northumberland barony when he commissioned massive building works on the Dunstanburgh headland.


The construction and use of the castle between the 14th and 16th centuries were illuminated by discoveries made during clearance works in the late 1920s.

In November 2003, however, a team of archaeologists, led by Alastair Oswald, undertook a survey of the above-ground earthworks and topography of the castle and its environs which revealed that previous interpretations were in need of revision and extension.

At the same time as the survey, palaeo-environmentalists took soil cores from waterlogged ground to the west of the castle. Further studies between 2004 and 2006 included a collation of references to the site in literature and poetry, and an examination of the standing fabric of several structures, notably the great gatehouse.

The survey revealed that the landscape at Dunstanburgh was rich in material remains from all periods from prehistory to the present day – the construction, occupation and abandonment of the medieval castle being just one phase of many.

Another discovery was that the castle was much larger than had been thought. Most dramatically, the palaeo-environmental samples revealed an extensive and elaborate designed landscape of freshwater meres creating a ring of water to the north and south of the existing water-filled ditch (whose excavation is documented in 1313), effectively turning the promontory into an island.

Within this island, extensive remains of an outer rampart were found, defining a much larger area than the stone castle, with an especially large open area south of the great gatehouse. There has been speculation that this was intended as the site for a planned town associated with the castle, though this remains unproven.

Finally, on the rocky foreshore beyond, several areas were found in which the basalt rocks had been deliberately assembled as the kerb of a man-man structure, interpreted as the quays of a harbour.

One of these was closely aligned on the great gatehouse, suggesting the possibility that it dated to the initial construction of the castle by Thomas of Lancaster. This accords with a documentary reference to the earl keeping a boat at ‘Embleton’, presumably Dunstanburgh.[10]

The Great Hall of Winchester Castle with the late 13th-century Round Table made for Edward I, uncle of Earl Thomas of Lancaster; both men shared a fascination with Arthurian myth
The Great Hall of Winchester Castle with the late 13th-century Round Table made for Edward I, uncle of Earl Thomas of Lancaster; both men shared a fascination with Arthurian myth


Great Gatehouse

There is potential for further work on the precise architectural context of the great gatehouse, for the reasons outlined above.

Buildings of the Interior

The appearance of the castle interior has changed little since clearance works during the first half of the 20th century. Within most of it, the vegetation is allowed to grow long, and the greater part appears empty: the only known structure not exposed is a possible barn towards the east side.

But other structures are known to have existed, including a chamber of the auditor and receiver of Embleton (possibly one of the rooms inside the gatehouse), a chapel, and numerous ‘houses of husbandry’, including a byre, though their location and form are not yet known. The castle almost certainly contained other structures not mentioned in any documents, such as stables and a forge.

The form of the constable’s house is confusing and difficult to interpret using the normal conventions of medieval house plans. Geophysical surveys carried out by Durham University in 1989 revealed evidence of structures inside the south curtain wall, some of them likely to be part of the same complex as the constable’s house. Others lie closer to the Egyncleugh Tower.[11]

It seems likely on the basis both of this geophysical information and the earthwork survey carried out by English Heritage that the constable of Dunstanburgh had his own enclosure, perhaps with the Egyncleugh Tower as its entrance.

Futher excavations might confirm this hypothesis and locate other buildings on the site, as well as in the area south of the great gatehouse.

Thomas of Lancaster’s Motivation

While the 2003 archaeological survey and the work of Dr Andy King have shed light on Thomas of Lancaster’s vision and his place in local politics, further research might elucidate why Dunstanburgh took the precise form that it did.

One possible explanation, now a fruitful subject in castle studies, is that the design of the castle embodied a complex series of iconographic meanings, particularly associations with other castles, and with personalities, both real and mythological.[12]

The meres that converted Dunstanburgh into an island offer particular scope for this kind of interpretation. But it may be that they held other meanings, relating to Earl Thomas’s self-image. His career had some similarities to that of the most famous baronial rebel of the 13th century, Simon de Montfort of Leicester, one of whose greatest castles, Kenilworth in Warwickshire, was distinctive for its meres. Perhaps Thomas was trying to create his own Kenilworth in the north.

An even bolder hypothesis is to link the castle to Arthurian legend. In common with other barons and his uncle Edward I, Earl Thomas seems to have been interested in Arthurian stories, even calling himself ‘King Arthur’ in secret correspondence with the Scots.

More work is needed on the literature of Arthur in circulation in Thomas of Lancaster’s time, but Dunstanburgh does conform in general to images from later versions, notably the isle of Avalon, where the king slept, awaiting his recall to arms.

Sequence of Deterioration and Demolition

Precisely when and how Dunstanburgh Castle fell into disrepair is presently unknown. It seems unlikely that the castle played a significant part in any military action after the Wars of the Roses, and 16th-century documentation suggests gradual though accelerating decay.

No representative images of the castle exist before Francis Place’s sketch of the 1670s, but a collation of subsequent topographical illustrations and descriptions might reveal some of the sequence by which the curtain wall largely disappeared, a substantial part of the Lilburn Tower collapsed and other buildings fell into ruin.

This could show whether human action was involved, either through opportunistic robbing, or as a more considered action, perhaps connected with enhancing vistas from viewpoints including Craster Tower, or the de Grey bathing house between Craster and Howick.


1. E Bateson (ed) A History of Northumberland, vol 2: The Parishes of Embleton, Ellingham, Howick, Long Houghton and Lesbury (Newcastle-upon-Tyne, 1895), 207–9 (accessed 21 March 2013).
2. W Hutchinson, A View of Northumberland with an Excursion to the Abbey of Mailross in Scotland, Anno 1776, vol 2 (Newcastle, 1778) [accessed 13 February 2013].
3. Cadwallader Bates, The Border Holds of Northumberland, vol 1 (Newcastle upon Tyne, 1891) (accessed 21 March 2013).
4. 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).
5. Bateson, op cit, 196–216. 
6. J Goodall, The English Castle (London, 2011)
7. M Hislop, ‘John of Gaunt’s building works at Dunstanburgh Castle’, Archaeologia Aeliana, 5th series, 23 (1995), 139–44.
8. JR Maddicott, Thomas of Lancaster, 1307–1322: A Study in the Reign of Edward II (Oxford, 1970).
9. A King, ‘Lordship, castles and locality: Thomas of Lancaster, Dunstanburgh Castle and the Lancastrian affinity in Northumberland’, Archaeologia Aeliana, 5th series, 29 (2001), 223–35; A King, ‘Bandits, robbers and schavaldours: war and disorder in Northumberland in the reign of Edward II’, in Thirteenth Century England, ed M Prestwich, R Britnell and R Frame (Woodbridge, 2003), 9, 115–29.
10. TNA, PRO 30/26/71/1.
11. Oswald et al, op cit, 16 and fig 10. 
12. See for example modern interpretations of Caernarfon Castle and Tintagel Castle: A Wheatley, ‘Caernarfon Castle and its mythology’, in The Impact of the Edwardian Castles in Wales, ed JR Kenyon and DM Williams (Oxford and Oakville, 2008), 129–39, and C Thomas, Tintagel,Arthur and Archaeology (London, 1993), passim.

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