A short walk along the coast from Craster is another of the most iconic sights on the Northumbrian shore…Dunstanburgh. The castle has inspired artists and poets over the centuries; Turner and Girtin both painted the ruins, and so did I, long ago, when I was teaching myself to paint. I had only ever seen the castle from a distance, though… this was the first time I would step within what remains of its walls.
Like the castle at Bamburgh, just nine miles up the coast, Dunstanburgh was built on a much earlier site. Our earliest ancestors had used the rocky outcrop and had built a promontory fort there, ringed with earthworks that were, almost two thousand years later, incorporated into the defences of the thirteenth century castle. It is a curious feeling to see those same ancient earthworks still intact, topped by the ruins of a grandeur a mere seven hundred years old.
The earth itself provides the foundations of the castle that is built on black basalt that juts up from the green earth and a gilded shore. Around the castle are the remains of the meres, the artificial lakes that would have provided fresh water for livestock and additional defences, whilst making the mirrored castle seem twice as impressive. There are fish ponds too, for the raising of freshwater fish, with the water being fed into the meres through a stone channel from a nearby spring. Within the castle is a well, and even besieged there would have been a water supply.
There are legends of tunnels connecting the castle to local farms and towers… stories of unknown men passing to and from the castle in secret through concealed trap doors. While it is possible that these legends are no more than a garbled memory of the water channels, it is no secret that Dunstanburgh was a place of intrigue and plots.
The castle was built between 1313 and 1322 by Thomas, the Earl of Lancaster. Thomas and his cousin, King Edward II had a very poor relationship and, by the time the castle was built, in full view of the royal castle at Bamburgh, Thomas saw himself as a rival for power. Having been involved in the capture and murder of Piers Gaveston, Earl of Cornwall and the king’s favourite in 1312, Thomas was severely out of favour at court, so the castle may have been a safe retreat, away from the king’s armies in the south.
He may also have built the castle as a direct challenge, a taunt or a political statement. It was one of the largest castles in the country and cannot have met with anything but the king’s displeasure. Whatever the reason, the castle never served Thomas’ purpose. He rode to war, but was himself captured and executed after the Battle of Boroughbridge. The stories tell that the executioner was unfit for his job and that battle-seasoned soldiers who witnessed the execution fainted as the headsman struck eleven times before finally ending Thomas’ life. It is, they say, for this reason, that his ghost walks the castle, carrying the severed head which bears an expression of utter horror…
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