Ruins Of Dunstanburgh
( Originally Published 1920 )
Barony and Manor Purchased by Simon de Montfort - Building by Thomas of Lancaster - Queen Margaret at Dunstanburgh - Saddle Rock and Rumbling Churn - Dunstan and Duns Scotus.
LEAVING North Sunderland, we pass the fishing village of Beadnell, with a fine sandy bay, and the rocky shore of Newton-by-the-Sea, and, turning the bold headland of Newton Point, Embleton Bay, two miles in extent, stretches before us. At its southern extremity magnificent basaltic cliffs are seen crowned by the ruins of Dunstanburgh Castle, the most imposing in Northumberland. It rises a hundred feet above the shore, and Turner's genius was hardly needed to idealise a position wherein the grandeur of nature is added to the romance of human history. On the north and east the sea dashes against the frowning cliff and in stormy weather batters it with gigantic waves. Water and wind have combined to wear away the walls. In the thirteenth century the Manor of Dunstan and the adjacent Barony of Embleton were bought by Simon de Montfort, doubtless attracted by the extraordinary fitness of this part of the coast for a fortress, as he was anxious to extend his influence in the north. After his death, at the battle of Evesham, his forfeited lands were given by Henry III to his own son Edward, Earl of Lancaster. Thence they came to Edward's son Thomas, a grand-nephew of Simon de Montfort, who had married Henry's sister and succeeded in 1294. He began to build the castle in 1313, and in 1316 the earl obtained a licence to crenellate it. It is interesting to note here that many of the masons' marks are the same as those at Alnwick Castle, which about that time was being rebuilt by the first Lord Percy. In 1322 the earl was executed at Pontefract, either for dealings with the Scots or for organising rebellion against the weak favouritism of Edward II. Later on, his forfeited estate was restored to his brother Henry, and in the deed of gift it is remarked that Earl Thomas " had gone the way of all flesh " ! He was, however, regarded as a martyr and was canonised ; the hill on which he was beheaded was called St. Thomas's Hill. Later on, Dunstanburgh came again into the possession of the Crown, as Henry Wryneck, son of Earl Henry, had a daughter, Blanche, his heiress, who married John of Gaunt and became the mother of Henry IV.
During the Wars of the Roses the castle was a great strong-hold of the Red Rose in Northumberland. After the battle of Towton, when the Lancastrians were defeated, Queen Margaret attempted to retrieve her fortunes in the north, which was well disposed to her, and in 1462 seized Dunstanburgh, but had to surrender it after a short siege. In 1464 Margaret, still bent on restoring her husband to the throne, again captured it. But after the battle of Hexham, and her total defeat, the castle was delivered up to the Earl of Warwick. The chronicle says he slept in it on the Feast of St. John the Baptist in June 1462, a month after the fatal field of Hexham. Warwick took the captain of the castle, John Gosse, to the King at York, where he was beheaded with a hatchet. The south-eastern tower is called St. Margaret's Tower, as tradition says the Queen occupied it when she stayed there. But it is loosely called either St. Margaret, after the Scottish saint, or Queen Margaret tower. A creek below it is called Queen Margaret's cove, where she is supposed to have embarked in a fishing-boat for Scotland when her hopes were ruined, but this is an unconfirmed tale. We know she retired to France after Henry's death, where she died after many sorrows.
Dunstanburgh had been much injured by the artillery in these sieges, and its strength was gone for ever. Henry VII's survey in 1538 pronounced that it was a"very reuynus howsse and of smaylle strength," and in 1550 Sir Robert Bowes, in his "Book of the State of the Marches," said it was in "wonderfull great decaye." It was never repaired, and its further ruin was augmented by the stones, etc., being used for other buildings in the neighbourhood. Sir Ralph Grey became its owner in 1625, and it remained with his descendants till it was sold by the late Earl of Tankerville to the Eyres trustees of Leeds. It has been sold again recently.
The ground plan of the castle covers about eleven acres. There was no wall on the north side as the perpendicular cliffs supplied a natural defence. On the east was a wall about six feet thick ; on the west side a wall and towers and also a deep ditch eighty feet broad. On the south there were walls, towers, and a great gateway, and the traces of a rough stone rampart which show that it was probably fortified in prehistoric times. A recent writer (J. E. Morris) says : " Its military engineering is hardly more ingenious than that of the neolithic Britons who constructed the existing ramparts round the top of Yeavering Bell. Each started with a site of such singular natural strength that the most that they accomplished, or needed to accomplish, was merely to accentuate existing conditions."
The chief building left is on the south, and consists of the entrance gateway and two semi-circular towers which, when entire, rose to a height of eighty feet. This may have been the keep. At any rate there is no other to be traced.
On the west side the most remarkable feature is the Lilburn Tower, rising grandly above the black basaltic cliffs. It was probably built by Sir John Lilburn, Constable of the Castle, about 1325. Its walls are six feet thick. At each angle rose four smaller turrets, which completed at about sixty feet from the ground this noble and commanding tower. In storms, whitened with spray, it stands a sentinel looking over the wild surge. No hamlet creeps up to its base supplying a softer and humbler note as in the other great castles of Northumberland. Untouched by Border warfare and its battles and feuds, the spirit of loneliness and majesty finds expression in its weather-beaten walls.
Below the tower a small postern gate with a round, decorated arch leads down the slope to Embleton. A few yards further on the castle walls cease abruptly on the Gull Crag, a precipice a hundred feet above the sea. In this headland is the famous Rumble Churn, a perpendicular chasm hollowed out by the crumbling of a column of the basalt. Just here the columns, are so distinct as to resemble the more regular forms at Iona and the Giant's Causeway. The sea rushes up this gully with a great noise in a storm. The stones roll together violently and a column of water spouts up. This commotion and foam, suggestive of the movement in a gigantic churn, is the reason of the name. In the cove beneath the castle are the quartz crystals, locally known as Dunstanburgh diamonds. On the shore there is a contorted limestone called the Saddle Rock. The theory regarding it is that in a remote age two molten streams of rock collided with each other and made this curious formation, but there are other theories interesting to geologists.
Two miles from Dunstanburgh lies Embleton, which is reached by taking the path by Embleton Burn and the farm of Dunstan Steads.
The visitor to Dunstanburgh coming to Christon Bank Station passes through this village. The church, part of which is early Norman,. was rebuilt in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries and has much to interest the antiquarian. In the entrance porch are several grave covers ornamented with crosses and swords, and one has shears, which indicate the tomb of a female.
The vicarage has a pele tower after the manner of Elsdon and Witton, mentioned as existing in 1415.
About a mile and a half from the castle, near to Craster, is the interesting hamlet of Dunstan, near which is a Jacobean building called Proctor Steads, with an ancient pele tower attached. The lowest storey of the tower is much older than the two above, and was probably built at the same time as Dunstanburgh, as the masonry is of similar character. The walls are four feet thick. The mansion beside it was probably built by the owner of the tower when he wished a more comfortable dwelling. The dismantled castle of Dunstanburgh evidently supplied most of the stones. The name of the original owner is unknown, but on the lintel of the doorway are the letters J.P. and the date 1652, very indistinct.
Dunstan has long been the reputed birthplace of Duns Scotus, the great medieval schoolman and theologian. But, equally with Duns in Berwickshire, it sues in vain for fame, as there is no proof existing of his birthplace. As Embleton was and is in the gift of Merton College at Oxford, it is believed that he went there from Dunstan. But his name is not mentioned in the rolls at Merton either as student or professor, and the apocryphal manuscript often quoted as in the library at Merton College, which states that " this is the lecture of Duns Scotus of the ham-let of Dunstan in Embleton, sometime known as the Subtile Doctor," has never been verified at Merton.