Grace Darling

Grace Horsley Darling by Thomas Musgrave Joy. Reproduced from

Grace Horsley Darling (1815-42) is one of the Victorian era’s premier heroines and her story is well told by the website dedicated to her memory. Grace was born in a cottage next to St Aidan’s Church, Bamburgh, Northumberland.

She grew up a lighthouse keeper’s daughter upon Brownsman Island, one of the Farne Islands. Adept at sea and familiar with seabirds and island life, she then moved aged 10 into the newly built Longstone Lighthouse in 1825.

On 7th September 1838, she observed the wreck and survivors of the Forfarshire and subsequently rowed with her father in a storm to their rescue. Grace was a young woman who lived a relatively isolated life who through her heroism became a worldwide early Victorian celebrity.

The Victorian obsession with this female celebrity (including fascination from clergy as well as laypeople) was replete with Christian spiritual allusions connecting her residence and acts and the deeds and habitations of the early saints Aidan and Cutbhert who inhabited the Farne Islands. Grace also embodied the adventurous romance of the sublime isolation and dangers of this maritime environment.

Yet the affinity for Grace manifest itself in the deeply, material and corporeal one desire to possess her body. People wrote fan mail to Grace, wished to kiss the paper and post it back, send locks of her hair, asking her to appear at public events as a ‘token’ and almost as an living saintly icon. People travelled to see her and there was a desire to have her act of bravery depicted by artists. Also, portraits of this lady were taken and widely distributed. Grace embodied the virtues of English Christian virginal womanhood. Whether it was the pressure of her fame alone, Grace died only four years later, aged only 26, on 20th October 1842. Perhaps she was hounded to an early grave by her public exposure; near her end she was fearful of imagined eyes watching her. Still, she was ultimately diagnosed with tuberculosis and died from that condition.

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Lindisfarne Priory from the Heugh

Re-posted from Archaeodeath.

Recently, for the first time in my adult life, I had the opportunity to visit the premier medieval site of Lindisfarne. This is a site of key historic and archaeological importance for understanding the Anglo-Saxon church, its origins, development and diversity. It was here that Aidan established the earliest Christian monastic foundation in the kingdom of Northumbria. His founder status was superseded to a large extent by the cult of St Cuthbert, but forgotten he was not. Lindisfarne is also famous for being subject to one of the earliest, and certainly the most famous of Norse raids, in AD 793. Following a decline (or abandonment) of the site during the tenth century, the Benedictine priory was a focus of monastic life and pilgrimage to the cenotaph of Cuthbert’s original grave and to St Cuthbert’s Isle – the site of his hermit’s cell – through the Middle Ages. The monastery survived until Henry VIII’s suppression of the monasteries.


The English Heritage commissioned artist’s impression of the Anglo-Saxon monastic site

I couldn’t stay long on the island, but I can only enthuse about the striking landscape and seascape, appreciable even from a short visit. The first thing to note is the striking topography of the island itself, joined as it is by a tidal causeway to the mainland. Dunes constitute much of the north of the island, leaving a relatively small and protected area of habitable ground. The Anglo-Saxon monastery was located beside a natural harbour on the sheltered southern shore.

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Bamburgh Castle from the beach

I recently visited Bamburgh where I received a warm welcome from Bamburgh Research Project director Graeme Young and his team. I was last at Bamburgh as a child. From photographs and from memory, I recall the castle as dramatic indeed. I half-expected to be underwhelmed by the reality. However, the site, its archaeology and its landscape failed to disappoint. A spectacular location and a fantastic archaeological site. What is ‘Bamburgh’ in archaeological terms? Well, I regard it as a famous multi-period fortress: the focus of the long-running but perhaps still under-valued archaeological research project: the Bamburgh Research Project (BRP).


BRP excavations in Bamburgh Castle, chasing Hope-Taylor…. in the rooms behind, sealed like a mummy’s tomb, BRP uncovered Hope-Taylor’s work room!


Excavations by BRP have revealed trench-slots possibly related to a guard-room and gate for the Anglo-Saxon fortress.

Their ongoing mission is to boldly go where others have gone before. Incorporating many training and community dimensions, their recent work has involved the re-evaluation early antiquarian discoveries and re-exploring the archives and trenches opened by Brian Hope-Taylor (of Yeavering fame) who dug at the castle but failed to complete or publish his work. Their other ongoing mission – that rubs shoulders (and trenches) with the first – is to boldly go where no-one has been before, since BRP has produced many exciting new discoveries both outside the castle and inside the castle grounds (in the trenches formerly opened by Hope-Taylor and beyond in new areas).

BRP’s excavations of the Bowl Hole early medieval cemetery have provided exciting new evidence of the complex social groups contributing to an Anglo-Saxon royal fortress’s population.

Meanwhile their work within the castle is providing evidence both in the area of castle’s church where they may have found an early medieval crypt, and in two zones in the northern half of the castle near what may have been the early medieval entrance and industrial areas serving the Anglo-Saxon fortress.


The likely original approach to the fortress from the west-north-west.

In very broad and simple terms, BRP are revealing new information about the socio-political and industrial dimensions of the fortress, as well as its mortuary and religious significance. Despite the inevitable restrictions on working at an open heritage attraction overlain by centuries of monumental late- and post-medieval castle architecture, BRP have soundly dismissed any cynic who might think that digging in a castle will only reveal slight traces of early medieval activity. If this wasn’t enough, reinterpreting other archaeologist’s old trenches is challenge enough but in the context of complex layers and a shallow bedrock, it is even more challenging. Unsurprisingly, for almost a decade, I have supported students from Exeter and Chester wishing to go on their fieldwork at Bamburgh but it was great to see the site finally in person.

I defer to their own website and blog for details regarding the archaeology and you can read about some of their recent discoveries in the castle’s museum, a book composed for visitors about the site’s archaeology, and also in academic publications in journals like Medieval Archaeology and Archaeologia Aeliana.


A classic and effective presentation strategy, an early medieval comb displayed next to a replica


Display of a hoard of copper coins of Middle Anglo-Saxon (mid-ninth century) date, found in the excavations by BRP.

Early Medieval Bamburgh

‘The city of Bebba’. As an early medievalist, the task is to see past all of the later medieval rubbish, and post-medieval fantasies regarding the Middle Ages, to try to discern what physical evidence survives from the Anglo-Saxon phase. For this was an Anglo-Saxon fortress. As such, it is best seen as one example of the many early medieval uses for hill-top fortifications. Hence it is best described as a ‘hill-fort’ in my view, prior to its recreation as a medieval castle.


Jayne Brain’s reconstruction of a royal hall of Anglo-Saxon date.

Indeed, it is utterly anachronistic to see its early medieval phases as a ‘castle’, although I concede that the presence of later phases, and the place-name, make such back-projections seductive and confusing for visitors and experts alike. I still find it amazing that early medieval hill-forts are frequently caricatured as settlements of the ‘Britons’ and ‘Picts’ when there is plenty of evidence for their use in lowland Britain – in areas that are generally regarded as ‘Anglo-Saxon’, during the fifth to eleventh centuries AD. Bamburgh is one such example.


Oswald almost certainly didn’t look like this, but that isn’t a problem in itself.

Re-posted from Archaeodeath

BRP believe they have found traces of a box-rampart in the northern area of the citadel. Analogy with Yeavering leads to imaginative but likely reconstructions of the monumental timber hall (or halls) that would have formed the focus of the royal site on the highest part of the hill-top, paired with one or more churches and chapels further to the east underlying the later church of St Peter.


The ruined church, where BRP believe was a crypt containing the relics of St Oswald


Did the Norman keep overlay a pre-existing palace site of the Earls of Northumbria?

A Place of Memory?

As an archaeologist of memory, the complex genealogy of the site, its enduring use and reuse as a place of power, make it of interest in a contrasting sense. From this perspective, my interest is not to strip away later activity, but to consider how the site’s ‘pedigree’ has been augmented and rewritten in multiple ways within the Early Middle Ages and then subsequently from the Anglo-Saxon period to the present day through a near-continuous sequence. Approaching Bamburgh’s long history of occupations means more than charting a time-line of events. It is instead about considering how the history of the site has fed into its social memories in contrasting and varied ways over time; how the site has been packaged and repackaged, subsumed and highlighted in contrasting ways. This is an interesting and legitimate focus of archaeological research in itself.

Hope-Taylor found evidence of Iron Age activity. It would be interesting to learn how much prehistory can be discerned and whether there was a demonstrable Iron Age/Roman predecessor to the early medieval fortress. How precisely was the early origin of the castle important in subsequent periods of use and reuse? These questions still seem to have sketchy answers at present, but the ongoing research by BRP is revealing more and more information about the long-term use of the site and its adaptations, but also its continuities over time. In many ways this is the inverse of the situation at Yeavering/Ad Gefin, where the argument for a ‘forgetting’ of the site after the seventh century still remains plausible.


Bamburgh castle, view from the south-west

Landscape Archaeology

As a landscape archaeologist, one would take a further view, noting not only its maritime situation but its maritime context, the near presence of the Farne Islands, the monastery of Lindisfarne, and its situation on the maritime highway that defined the kingdom of Northumbria from the Firth of Forth to the Humber. A landward perspective is also legitimate, including the relationship to the dunes in which an early medieval cemetery has received extensive excavation by the Bamburgh Research Project, to the church of St Peter and the settlement of Bamburgh as well as the wider hinterland of land use. In many ways, Bamburgh is a node in a complex multi-scalar early medieval landscape of power and faith.


The war memorial, set into the rock at the base of Bamburgh Castle


A memorial bench with a view of the castle


Memorial within the ruined church to the first Lord Armstrong

Contemporary Commemoration

I was interested in how recent commemorative memorials to individuals and groups modern and medieval were integrated into the castle and its environs, including the industrialist and inventor, the first Lord Armstrong, who has a museum and plaques dedicated to his memory, while St Oswald is commemorated in the ruins of the chapel when his relics may once have resided. There is even a plaque commemorating the castle as a film-set, as for the 1972 film Macbeth. Equally fascinating was the utilisation of the castle’s immediate context as a memorial environment including Bamburgh’s First and Second World War memorial, and the commemoration of the cult of Victorian heroine Grace Darling, involving memorials in the church, churchyard and her RNLI museum.


The start of the Bamburgh time-line…. I love the depiction of Aethelfrith


The archaeology museum


The Bamburgh chair, based on designs by Joanne Kirton


Tourists posing for pics in the Bamburgh chair

Heritage and Memory

From a heritage perspective, it is of interest in many regards as a privately owned site (i.e. not under the guardianship of English Heritage or the National Trust). What struck me was how archaeologists have been permitted to work in the heritage site conducting long-term excavations but also how much their work has been incorporated into the heritage signboards, reconstructions and even an archaeological museum within the castle. I was particularly proud of my student – Joanne Kirton’s – design utilised in the reconstruction of the ‘Bamburgh throne’, now a popular option for photographs by tourists. There are very few places where you can ‘sit like an Anglo-Saxon’…


Gate forged with the initials ‘B H T’ (Brian Hope-Taylor)

Commemorating Archaeology

Interestingly, there is a striking piece of material culture commemorating the failed excavations of Brian Hope-Taylor – gates to his dig forged with his initials! I want some of these on my  future excavations….



So from my perspective, Bamburgh is important as an early medieval site, as a place of memory and power over the long term, as a node in a complex maritime landscape. Bamburgh is also an active and distinctive heritage site with everything from cheesy torture chambers to ongoing excavations to view.