Dunstanburgh Castle

Has been described as a Certain Masonry Castle

There are masonry ruins/remnants remains

NameDunstanburgh Castle
Alternative NamesDunstanborough; Dunstaburge; Dunstanbrough
Historic CountryNorthumberland
Modern AuthorityNorthumberland
1974 AuthorityNorthumberland
Civil ParishCraster

Dunstanburgh Castle is a well-documented example of an extensive enclosure castle with its own harbour and associated outworks. Its importance lies not only in the good state of preservation of its standing remains but also in the range of ancillary features which survive throughout the castle and the adjacent area as buried features and include the buildings of its home farm. Also of importance is the earlier use of the site during the Romano-British period, and its later reuse during World War II.

The monument occupies an isolated basalt promontory overlooking the North Sea and includes the sites of a second century Romano-British settlement, a 14th century enclosure castle with associated outworks and a harbour, and a World War II pillbox and foxhole. Evidence for Roman occupation was found during partial excavations carried out within the castle in 1930 and 1931 when fragments of imported Rhenish millstones were found in addition to sherds of samian pottery. Although the precise nature of the occupation is not yet fully understood, the site is a likely setting for a small fort or signal station since the Roman frontier, during the second half of the second century AD, ran from the Forth to the Clyde. The enclosure castle was begun in 1313 and work on its walls and gatehouse appears to have been complete by 1316 when Edward II made its construction legitimate by granting licence to crenellate. The gatehouse, which became the keep of the later castle, comprises two D-shaped drum towers separated by a rib-vaulted gate-passage. A barbican or outer defence was built to guard the front entrance, but this was largely removed during alterations carried out in the later 14th century. The semicircular fronts of the towers were originally five-storeys high, projecting two storeys above the main part of the building. Each of the towers carried a corbelled stair turret which rose above the gate- passage and provided access to the upper levels of the tower

Other turrets occupied the north-facing corners of the gatehouse and could be reached from the wall-walk which extended round the curtain wall of the castle. Guardrooms containing fireplaces and a garderobe or privy occupied the ground floors of each tower, while small chambers were built into the thickness of the curving walls and have been interpreted as porters' lodges. The first floor of the gatehouse comprises numerous chambers including one, set above the gate- passage, which originally contained the winding gear for a portcullis and also murder holes (narrow, slanting shafts through which projectiles could be aimed at attackers below). The second floor contained the lord's hall, which was divided from his solar or private chambers by wooden partitions. Between 1372 and 1383, the gate-passage was blocked at either end and the gatehouse ceased to function as an entrance and instead became the keep. A new gate-tower was built in the west curtain and was protected by a barbican to which a mantlet or screen wall was later added. This wall ended in a second gateway which adjoined the south west tower of the keep. In 1382-83, an inner ward was created behind the keep by the construction of narrow building ranges round a small courtyard. Along with a tower at the north east corner, these will have included accommodation for guests and men-at-arms in addition to the main service buildings of the castle. A large oven indicates that the north range included a bakehouse while the west range contained a kitchen. The inner ward, keep and gate occupy the south west angle of a much larger enclosure bounded on all four sides by curtain walls and containing the remains of further defensive and domestic structures. The latter include the buried and earthwork remains of the castle's home farm. This is recorded as having an oak barn built in 1454 and last repaired in 1470. Other buildings of the farm complex appear to have been stone constructions. Only the west, south and east curtain walls are upstanding, the north curtain having been greatly damaged by the action of the sea as early as 1543. In addition to the gate-tower, included in the west curtain is the Lilburn Tower. This was built in c.1325 for John Lilburn, constable of Dunstanburgh, and is a three-storey building with tall corner turrets projecting above its flat roof. Each floor included a single apartment, all with fireplaces and the upper two with projecting garderobes. At first floor level, a passage is contained within the thickness of the east wall, allowing direct access between the wall walks on the north and south sides. A postern or secondary gate also lies to the north. Two further towers exist in the south curtain. The first, built overlooking a narrow inlet at the junction of the south and east curtain walls, is Egyncleugh Tower. This tower dates from the same period as the Lilburn Tower and has opposing gateways at back and front, showing it to have been the water gate referred to in a document of 1386. A drawbridge crossed the rock cut moat to the south and was protected at its outer end by a barbican or similar structure depicted in a drawing of 1678. Above the gate were two floors containing single apartments, each with a fireplace and garderobe. To the west, approximately midway along the south curtain, is the Constable's Tower, built in the later 14th century at the south east corner of a courtyard which formed the middle ward of the later castle. This three-storey tower also contained apartments on its upper floors, each with south-facing windows furnished with window-seats. A small group of buildings attached to the north east corner of the tower have been interpreted as the constable's hall, chambers and offices, while building foundations along the north side of the middle ward indicate the positions of ancillary buildings such as kitchens and workshops. The remaining east curtain, built above the steep 30m cliff, originally consisted of a flat-topped earthwork faced with stone. Into this were inserted three garderobe chambers for the men-at-arms patrolling the wall walk. In the 15th century, a wall was constructed on top of the earthwork. Approximately 500m south of the castle, north west of the inlet called Nova Scotia, is an area formerly occupied by the castle harbour. In 1314, a ditch was dug from the harbour to Embleton Bay, north of the castle. This ditch, which measures c.4m deep and 24m wide, made the castle and the area lying between it and the harbour into an island, and access was via a drawbridge across the ditch. A World War II pillbox and foxhole lie just north of where the ditch and harbour joined. The area enclosed by the ditch is crossed, predominantly from east to west, by the earthwork remains of post-medieval ridge and furrow beneath which, in 1949, building foundations of possible medieval date were found. In addition, c.50m south of the castle keep, are the earthwork remains of a roughly square enclosure flanked to the north by the foundations of a range of buildings forming two sides of a courtyard. These remains have been interpreted as an outwork commanding the approach to the castle but may, alternatively, be the site of a later farmstead. Ridge and furrow crosses the enclosure, but it has not been determined which is the later feature. From early in the Norman period, Dunstanburgh was part of the barony of Embleton but no castle was built there until Thomas Earl of Lancaster, High Steward of England, ordered its construction in 1313. Unusually for the area and the time, the castle was not built to defend the Scottish Marches nor was it the centre of the baronial fee. It appears to have been intended as a bolt-hole for Lancaster who spent most of his life in opposition to King Edward II and his favourites, even to the point of unlawfully executing Piers Gaveston. It did not serve him, however, and he himself was executed in 1322 after the battle of Boroughbridge. For four years, the castle continued under its constables, providing horsemen for the army that invaded Scotland in 1322 and, in 1326, ships to protect the king against Queen Isabella. In the same year the castle was returned to the heirs of Earl Thomas and, in 1362, was succeeded to by John of Gaunt who, in the 1380s, in response to Scottish raids, ordered the repairs and alterations that were made to the castle at that time. John of Gaunt died in 1399 and was succeeded by his son, Henry Bolingbroke who, in the same year, usurped the throne of Richard II to become King Henry IV. In this way Dunstanburgh became a royal castle governed by constables and appears to have been allowed to decay. However, annual expenditure reports made to the Duchy of Lancaster from 1436, show that large scale repairs were being carried out in the years leading up to the Wars of the Roses when, but for a brief period in 1462, Dunstanburgh remained a Lancastrian stronghold. It was finally taken in 1464 in a Yorkist victory that, together with those at the recent battles of Hedgeley Moor and Hexham, ended the Lancastrian cause in the north. From that time it fell into ruin and, in 1604, was sold by the Crown. In 1885, the original gate-passage through the keep was reopened and the gate arch that can be seen today was added to the front. The castle has been in state care since 1930 and is a Grade I Listed Building. (Scheduling Report)

C14 castle situated on a coastal headland in Northumberland. The castle was built for Thomas, second Earl of Lancaster with the first phase of construction taking place between 1313-1325 (licence granted in 1315). The gatehouse was remodelled as the castle's keep in the late 1380's with a new gatehouse built. This remodelling was undertaken by Henry of Holme for John of Gaunt. The site of the castle encloses an area of 11 acres. Thomas of Lancaster's Gatehouse is situated at the south west corner backed by a small inner ward. John of Gaunt's Gatehouse is situated on the west curtain immediately beyond the inner ward, approached by a barbican with a mantlet wall running to an outer gate adjoining Lancaster's Gatehouse. Constable's Tower, the residence of the castle's commanding officer, lies midway along the south curtain. Behind the tower are a complex of buildings for his own use and that of his staff. At the south east corner is Egyncleugh Tower, an important tower which commanded the 'clough' under its east wall. Lilburn Tower stands at the north end of the west curtain. This was a watchtower and a residence for soldiers, with a postern at its foot. The castle was built from sandstone with a whinstone rubble core, except for limestone in the east curtain. Earl Thomas, who seems to have built the castle as a refuge rather than a residence, was executed in 1322 and the fortress passed into Royal hands. John of Gaunt as lieutenant of the Marches towards Scotland ordered the late C14 alterations. Before the alterations were complete the castle withstood a Scottish attack in 1384. Held for the Lancastrians in the Wars of the Roses, Dunstanburgh fell to the Earl of Warwick after a siege. In the Second World War a pillbox and foxhole was built and a corps of the Royal Armoured Corps who were installed amongst the ruins. Finds of Romano-British pottery indicates earlier occupation of the headland. (PastScape)

Castle. 1313 under Master Elias the mason for Thomas, second Earl of Lancaster. Gatehouse remodelled as great tower, and new gateway constructed, shortly after 1380 under Henry of Holme for John of Gaunt. Some restoration in 1885 when blocking of early C14 gate passage removed. Squared sandstone with whinstone rubble core, except for roughly-squared limestone in east curtain.

Plan: 11-acre enclosure on headland, with sea cliffs to north. Great Gatehouse at south-west corner backed by small inner ward. Late C14 new gatehouse on west curtain immediately beyond the inner ward, approached by a barbican with a mantlet wall running to an outer gate adjoining the Great Gatehouse. Constable's Tower, with constable's house behind, lies midway along south curtain and Egyncleugh Tower at south-east corner. Lilburn Tower stands towards north end of west curtain.

Great Gatehouse consists of two large D-plan towers, originally 5 storeys high flanking a 3-storey block containing a 2nd-floor hall. Restored segmental- pointed entrance arch. Flanking towers have multi-chamfered plinth, cross loops at basement level and windows of two shoulder-headed lights above. Upper two floors largely fallen except for corbelled-out turrets on inner faces. Rear elevation of the 3-storey part mostly stands to full height; gate passage flanked by projections capped by semi-octagonal chimneys with moulded and pierced caps, under the remains of one 2-light transomed hall window. Interior: gate passage with vault on chamfered ribs; at inner end small vaulted guard rooms, western with rock-cut dungeon. Chamber over passage shows murder holes above the outer gate and a portcullis slot above the inner. Restored newel stair at north-east corner, with remains of umbrella vault at top.

Curtain of inner ward stands to 2-3 metres high, with jambs of a gateway on the east and the base of a tower at the north-east corner. West of the tower is a room retaining part of a large domed oven. Deep rock-cut well within the ward.

The south curtain stands high but has been robbed of lower parts of facing. East of the Great Gatehouse is a corbelled-out turret, then the projecting square Constable's Tower with 2-light windows to 1st and 2nd floors; inner face of tower largely fallen, and adjacent constable's house reduced to footings and fragments. Further east a projecting square turret, and the Egyncleugh Tower which housed a second gateway; outer face partly fallen but inner face stands, with a chamfered archway and a 2-light window above; gate passage shows remains of a vault on heavy square ribs.

The east curtain is of poor-quality masonry and only stands c.1.5-3 metres in height, containing 3 small garderobe chambers and the jambs of a postern near the south end. Near south end of the west curtain are the chamfered jambs, with portcullis slot, of the late C14 gateway; associated mantlet wall and outer gate are only foundations; rest of curtain is reduced to footings and core fragments. The shell of square Lilburn Tower is complete except for south-east corner, and has several 2-light windows, a square-headed doorway to the wallwalk on north, 2 corbelled-out garderobes on west, and taller embattled angle turrets; fragment of curtain on north holds pointed sallyport arch.

The Great Gatehouse and towers show remains of newel stairs, mural garderobes, plain fireplaces and jamb seats in the inner splays of the larger windows.

Historical Notes: Finds of Romano-British artefacts and the -burh termination of the name indicate earlier occupation of the headland. Earl Thomas, who seems to have built the castle as a refuge rather than a residence, was executed in 1322 and the fortress passed into Royal hands. John of Gaunt as lieutenant of the Marches towards Scotland ordered the late C14 alterations; his conversion of the gatehouse and construction of a new gate alongside compares with Llansteffan in Carmarthenshire. Before the alterations were complete the castle withstood a Scottish attack in 1384. Held for the Lancastrians in the Wars of the Roses, Dunstanburgh fell to the Earl of Warwick in 1464 after a siege; it was never fully repaired. (Listed Building Report)

This was probably the site of an Iron Age promontory fort and the southern curtain wall runs along the line, and reuses, an ancient ditch and bank. There were extensive freshwater meres and short, linking, canal to the east of the castle which were never deep but would have increased the visual effect of the castle and its approaches. As well as the earthworks associated with these medieval freshwater features there is extensive ridge and furrow, which predates the castle, a WW2 anti tank ditch and pock marks from a mine field and to the south vague remnants of a medieval dock used by the castle in the pebble filled beach called nova scotia. The extensive waterworks and the association with John of Gaunt has lead to the castle being called the 'Kenilworth of the North'. Thomas of Lancaster had extensive estates through England but Embleton, the manor in which the castle is located, was his only coastal estate. The castle may well have been built as a place of retreat during troubled political times but one from which it was possibly to escape by sea if need. Unfortunately, for Thomas, he was taken prisoner on his way north, following the battle of Boroughbridge, before he could get to his new stronghold, and then executed. (derived from Oswald, 2009)

This site is a scheduled monument protected by law

This is a Grade 1 listed building protected by law

Historic England Scheduled Monument Number
Historic England Listed Building number(s)
Images Of England
Historic England (PastScape) Defra or Monument number(s)
County Historic Environment Record
OS Map Grid ReferenceNU257217
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Guide Books

  • Ashbee, J. and Oswald, A., 2007, Dunstanburgh Castle (London: English Heritage)
  • 1994, Dunstanburgh Castle (London: English Heritage)
  • Hunter Blair, C.H., 1988, Dunstanburgh Castle, Northumberland (London: English Heritage)
  • Hunter Blair, C.H. and Honeyman, H.L., 1986, Dunstanburgh Castle, Northumberland (London: English Heritage)
  • Hunter Blair, C.H. and Honeyman, H.L., 1982 (3edn), Dunstanburgh Castle, Northumberland (HMSO)
  • Hunter Blair, C.H. and Honeyman, H.L., 1982, Dunstanburgh Castle, Northumberland (HMSO)
  • Hunter Blair, C.H. and Honeyman, H.L., 1955, Dunstanburgh Castle (London)
  • Hunter Blair, C.H. and Honeyman, H.L., 1936, Dunstanburgh Castle, Northumberland (HMSO)

Primary Sources

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  • Oswald, Al, 16 May 2009, 'Dunstanburgh Castle, Northumberland - Stronghold or symbol' Castles, Landscapes and Lordship: Aspects of Castle Studies (Royal Archaeological Institute/Yorkshire Archaeological Society Medieval Section Conference at York)
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