Bamburgh Castle perched on the edge of Budle Bay is another of the Percy castles but its history is much longer than that. It was home to Gospatrick Earl of Northumbria at the time of the Norman Conquest. He was eventually forced to submit to the Conqueror. Bamburgh was handed over to the Bishop of Durham. Sources differ as to whether it was William the Conqueror who built the first castle on the site or the bishop. Suffice it to say that by the reign of Henry II after several changes of ownership it was in Crown hands – Henry II funded the great keep and it became a venue for a number of Plantagenet visitors.
Now is not the time to discuss the politics of the English East March or the rivalry between the Nevilles and the Percies. Suffice it to say that Bamburgh was a Lancastrian Castle during the Wars of the Roses. Following the Battle of Towton in 1461 Bamburgh, Alnwick, Warkworth and Dunstanburgh remained in the hands of the Lancastrians. This meant that Edward IV was not secure from Scottish incursions or from Lancastrian forces landing along the coast.
Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick , a.k.a. The Kingmaker besieged Bamburgh and it surrendered in July 1462. Unfortunately for the Yorkists Margaret of Anjou landed with troop in October with french mercenaries – the Yorkist garrison now promptly handed themselves and Bamburgh over to the Lancastrians. Edward IV now came north and Margaret decamped to Scotland leaving Sir Ralph Percy and Henry Beaufort (Duke of Somerset) in charge of the castle. There was another short siege and in December the castle was once again in Yorkist hands.
Ralph Percy, the garrison commander, was allowed to swear allegiance to Edward IV. Edward wanted the Percy family on his side but by the new year Ralph had concluded that he preferred the Lancastrian cause to that of the Yorkists and the Nevilles who were, after all, long time enemies of the Percies. In March 1463 Bamburgh was back in the hands of Margaret of Anjou. In the North East of the country 1463 was a year of sieges and intermittent warfare orchestrated by Margaret and her Scottish allies but by the end of the year the politically savvy Scots had organised a truce with the Yorkists.
It says something that during 1462-1464 Henry VI was at Bamburgh at various times. In 1464 looked as though the Lancastrians might be on firmer ground when the Duke of Somerset changed sides once again. John Neville, the Kingmaker’s younger brother now came north and a battle was fought at Hedgeley Moor in April 1464 followed dup by the Battle of Hexham the following month. Neville defeated the Duke of Somerset who was captured and promptly executed. Henry VI left Bywell Castle the day after the Battle of Hexham and went into hiding in the uplands of Northumbria and Cumberland.
The Northumbrian castles that had remained Lancastrian now surrendered but Bamburgh in the hands of Sir Ralph Grey remained obdurate. In part this was because he had been Yorkist in 1463 and having changed sides permitted the Lancastrians back into Alnwick – making this post feel rather like a game of musical castles. The Yorkists told him that they would execute him just as soon as they could – oddly enough this did’t encourage him to surrender nor did the information that one man would be executed for every cannon ball fired at the castle – Nine months, many canon balls and a collapsing tower later Bamburgh had no choice but to capitualte making it the first castle in England to be defeated by the power of artillery. And it wouldn’t have surrendered even then, had Sir Ralph not been knocked senseless and his second in command taken the opportunity to surrender whilst Sir Ralph was out for the count.
The Earl of Warwick didn’t carry out his threat to execute one man per cannon ball but Grey was executed in July. After the fall of Bamburgh the Yorkists more or less controlled the whole country with the exception of Harlech Castle and a few isolated pockets.