Over five dramatic seasons of The Last Kingdom spanning several decades, protagonist Uhtred, son of Uhtred has endured a rollercoaster existence. Born an Anglo-Saxon noble but raised as a Dane, he’s been orphaned and adopted, betrayed – more than once – and sold into slavery. He’s won and lost battles and loves, switched allegiances, consorted with kings and with Vikings. Throughout it all, though, one obsession has dominated his hopes and schemes: a determination to reclaim his birthright – his ancestral home, Bebbanburg.


Is Bebbanburg a real place?

Uhtred himself, hero of Bernard Cornwall’s hugely popular Last Kingdom novels and the BBC/Netflix series based on them, is a composite character, albeit named for at least one real medieval noble from Northumbria. But Bebbanburg, the fortress on which Uhtred is fatefully fixated, is far from fictional. Today it’s known as Bamburgh Castle.

The hulking stone citadel that now guards the Northumberland coast south of Lindisfarne from atop its dolerite outcrop largely dates from after Uhtred’s era of Viking-on-Saxon conflict. But the castle’s history stretches back centuries earlier, and its tumultuous and often violent tale continues through the Middle Ages and beyond. It’s a story populated by Vikings, saints, kings, conquests and conflict.

Where is Bebbanburg?

Like so many castles around Britain, Bamburgh was planted in a border region. This is a liminal point where land meets sea, standing between the peoples of what’s now Scotland and England, the territories of the Anglo-Saxons and the Danelaw, paganism and Christianity. Today it’s just 15 miles south of the Tweed, which marks the modern border with Scotland.

In the Iron Age, a Celtic people now commonly known as the Votadini inhabited the area. They built a fort called Din Guaydri (or Din Guarie) that may have stood on the site now occupied by Bamburgh.

After the Roman retreat from Britain in the fifth century AD, Anglo-Saxon conquerors pushed north, establishing the kingdom of Bernicia. It was here, in AD 547, that – says the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle – Ida the Flame-bearer, first king of Bernicia, founded his capital, building a fortified wooden stockade.

Why is it called Bebbanburg?

According to at least one source, Ida’s grandson, Æthelfrith, gave the fortress to his wife, Bebba – from whom it took the name Bebbanburh (or Bebbanburg).

His son, Oswald, ruled a unified kingdom of Northumbria, where he promoted Christianity and gave the nearby island of Lindisfarne to the monk Saint Aidan. According to the historian-monk Bede, after Oswald’s death in battle in AD 642, his arm was brought back to Bamburgh, where it was venerated as a holy relic in the castle chapel.

Bede’s description makes it clear that Bamburgh was an important urban centre by the turn of the seventh century. Archaeological excavations have unearthed artefacts from that era backing up that impression, including the embossed gold ‘Bamburgh Beast’ brooch, an iron sword and fragments of a carved stone seat that may have been a throne.

Was Bebbanburg attacked by Vikings?

All too soon, a new enemy arrived in Northumbria: Vikings. The attack on Lindisfarne, just five miles from Bamburgh Castle, on 8 June AD 793 marked the start of terrifying waves of assaults by Danes hungry for loot, slaves and land.

Seven decades later, the Great Heathen Army invaded, conquering and occupying much of eastern England, which became known as the Danelaw. And in AD 993, Bamburgh was sacked by Vikings, then left to fall into disrepair.

Bamburgh in the medieval period

Rebuilt after the Norman Conquest, it was certainly back in defensible shape by 1095, when the rebel Earl of Northumbria Robert de Mowbray made the mistake of defying William II. Following a siege that ended with Robert’s capture, Bamburgh became crown property, and was further developed.

The mighty stone keep, oldest part of the extant fortifications, probably dates from the early reign of Henry II, who came to the throne in 1154. Over the next few centuries, a number of monarchs stayed in this key north-eastern base, including King John, Henry III and the first three Edwards.

One less-willing guest was the Scots King David II, son of Robert Bruce, held as a wounded hostage after defeat at the battle of Neville’s Cross in 1346.

Years of relative calm at Bamburgh came to an end in 1462, when the Wars of the Roses arrived at the castle gates. Then a Lancastrian stronghold supporting Henry VI, that December a Yorkist siege masterminded by Richard Neville, the ‘Kingmaker’ Earl of Warwick, forced the garrison to surrender.

A brief respite followed but a second, much longer siege by Yorkists in 1464 ended with the castle largely in ruins – making Bamburgh the first British castle to be substantially damaged by artillery fire.

Who was the last king to hold Bamburgh Castle?

Bamburgh, somewhat rebuilt, was granted to prominent local landowner Claudius Forster in 1609 by James VI and I, who – after the union of the crowns in 1603 – had no further need for a border fortress. Forster and his descendants didn’t have the money to maintain such a large property, which crumbled into ruins once more.

In 1700, the last Forster heir, Dorothy, married the bishop of Durham, Lord Nathaniel Crewe – a man well over twice her age – who invested heavily in the restoration of the castle. That work continued after this death through a charitable trust in his name, directed by influential trustee Dr John Sharp. Much of Bamburgh village was rebuilt and its people supported through the foundation of a hospital, school and pharmacy within the citadel.

Who owns Bamburgh Castle today?

Castles are expensive, though, and in 1894 the Lord Crewe Trustees were forced to sell Bamburgh for £60,000 to inventor and arms manufacturer William Armstrong. His renovation of the castle cost more than £1 million, and wasn’t completed until after his death in 1900. The result of his ambitious remodelling is a romantic melange of faux-Medieval fortress and grand Victorian mansion – a suitable home for a wealthy industrial magnate.

Armstrong’s family live in the Grade I-listed Bamburgh Castle to this day – though it’s also open to visitors keen to discover the ancestral home of the legendary Uhtred of Bebbanburg.

Five things to see at Bamburgh Castle

The Great Hall

In the 13th century King Henry III, one of successive monarchs who held Bamburgh, was keen to make it a more comfortable residence. He’s credited with installing glass windows and constructing a magnificent great hall. That original construction is long gone, but on the same site now stands a replacement matching William Armstrong’s vision of a grand medieval hall. Though lined with historic artefacts and artworks, the main draw of the Victorian Great Hall is the spectacular hammer-beam ceiling made with teak imported from Thailand.

The keep

The square stone tower, believed to have been built by Henry II in the decade after he took the throne in 1154, is the oldest surviving part of the Norman castle. With walls more than three metres thick, it stands on a platform of solid rock to prevent attackers from tunnelling into it from below. Today it houses the armoury, a collection of weapons including pikes, halberds, muskets, a composite 15th-century bow and a 17th-century Flemish crossbow. You can also explore the vaulted Keep Hall, where an Anglo-Saxon well was sunk over 40 metres into the rock.

The archeology museum

With a recorded history stretching back nearly 15 centuries, Bamburgh has been the focus of major archaeological study. Today, some of the fruits of various excavations in and around the castle can be admired in the Archaeology Museum. Highlights include the Bamburgh Beast, an ornately embossed gold brooch featuring a curious creature, and a rare pattern-welded iron sword from the seventh century. Together the artefacts highlight the importance of this site during the Anglo-Saxon period.

The Armstrong and aviation artefacts museum

William Armstrong, who bought Bamburgh Castle in 1894 and funded its restoration and redevelopment, was an industrialist and inventor who rose from lowly beginnings to make his fortune from hydraulic engineering then arms manufacturing. This museum in the castle’s West Ward explores his life and work, featuring not just artefacts and inventions from his own career but also a range of items relating to aviation during both World Wars.

The wards and grounds

From a historical perspective, almost more fascinating than the surviving buildings are the echoes of the past to be found wandering outside. The Inner Ward, protected by battlements facing the sea, was likely the site of the earliest fortification. Remains of the 12th-century chapel remain at its eastern end, probably built over St Peter’s Chapel, where Saint Oswald’s arm was kept following his death in the seventh century. At the opposite end of the grounds, past the Keep in the Western Ward, stands St Oswald’s Gate – the medieval entrance to the fortress. And from the Battery Terrace, fortified with cannons in response to the threat of invasion by Napoleon’s forces, you can enjoy views across to the Farne Islands and holy Lindisfarne.


Bamburgh Castle is open daily between mid-February and autumn. There are regular family-friendly events, many themed around Uhtred, and a special exhibition featuring props and costumes from The Last Kingdom runs until 5 November 2023. Find out more at bamburghcastle.com


Paul Bloomfield
Paul BloomfieldWriter and editor

Paul Bloomfield is a writer and editor who has contributed to BBC History Magazine since 2013. He's worked in various publishing roles for over a quarter of a century, holding staff positions at the likes of Lonely Planet Publications, Wanderlust magazine and BBC Wildlife Magazine.