The jagged towers of this huge medieval stronghold present an iconic and enigmatic silhouette on the stunning Northumbrian coast. There are several castles in dramatic locations in this part of the world, but Dunstanburgh, situated on a naturally defensive position on a headland, is one of the best. The artist JMW Turner (1775-1851) obviously agreed, because he painted it several times. The castle has played its part in England’s turbulent and bloody history and comes fully equipped with its own ghost. Kittiwakes and fulmars soar overhead as the waves crash on the rocks below.
The site has probably been in use since prehistoric times. Thomas, 2nd Earl of Lancaster, started building his fortress on it in 1313. A strong supporter of King Edward I, who he fought for in Scotland, Thomas was one of the most powerful barons in England – amongst other things, he was also Earl of Leicester, Salisbury and Lincoln. By the time construction began at Dunstanburgh, though, Thomas was in open opposition to King Edward II, his cousin and Edward I’s son. He was instrumental in the murder of Piers Gaveston, the King’s favourite, and was leader of a baronial rebellion that culminated in the Battle of Boroughbridge in 1322. Thomas was captured, convicted of treason and beheaded at Pontefract.
|Dunstanburgh by Turner - watercolour c1798-1800|
His castle at Dunstanburgh was probably intended as a northern stronghold and was certainly a massive statement of his power, though it is thought he only saw it once. After his execution, the castle was seized by the King but later passed back into Lancastrian hands. John of Gaunt, the 1st Duke of Lancaster, considerably strengthened it – including the enormous gatehouse you see today. The castle was attacked by the Scots in 1384 and twice besieged by the Yorkists during the Wars of the Roses, eventually falling to the Earl of Warwick in 1464. It is said that the Captain of Dunstanburgh, John Gosse, was taken to York where he was beheaded with a hatchet. After that, it seems to have been abandoned and by the 16th century it was in decay.
The ghost is supposed to be that of a young knight, Sir Guy the Seeker. Legend has it that beneath the castle rock is a secret cavern, wherein sleeps a beautiful maiden. A wizard encouraged Guy to rescue the girl from the spell she was under by choosing to either draw a sword or blow a horn; unfortunately, our hero made the wrong choice (the horn) and was forever doomed to wander in search of his heart’s desire (the girl). Why do wizards do things like this?
Though in ruins, Dunstanburgh is dead impressive and worth a call if you like castles and enjoy a short walk along a lovely coast. It’s roughly equidistant from the villages of Craster and Embleton and can be approached on foot from either one. The walk from Craster, where there is a reasonably picturesque harbour, and refreshments, is shorter and either pleasant or bracing, depending on the weather. From Embleton, you can walk across sandy Embleton Bay – which is on the radar for a future visit. Take the minor road from the B1339.
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