The strange story of the Bamburgh Castle Chapel

In researching the history of the Castle over recent years, especially the treasure trove of stories revealed in the Lord Crewe Charity papers, held at Woodhorn County archive, some wonderful stories and characters from 18C Bamburgh emerge. The papers are still owned by the Lord Crewe Trustees, but on deposit at and accessible by the public, at Woodhorn. The stories really do bring to life previous centuries of life at the Castle, where I am a volunteer Guide-and village. This story relates to work on the “Chaple” during Dr Sharp’s time; these frequent accounts and references in correspondence throw up a real mystery, which is not yet 100% resolved….

Everyone who knows Bamburgh Castle, will be aware of the ruins of St Peters Chapel, where it is said that long ago, the relics of St Oswald were held. St Oswald was the Christian King of Northumbria who died in 642 in battle against the pagan king Penda; it is said that his arm was revered at St Peters Chapel, Bamburgh, although later stolen. Recently, archaeological excavations have confirmed the existence of Saxon foundations beneath the Norman ruins, the apse area confirmed as Norman although there are later restorations to the walls. The British library owns a remarkable etching of the ruined Chapel by Samuel Grimm, who produced many etchings of the Castle, before any restoration work was undertaken by Dr Sharp, showing it not unlike it appears today.

Hence, when studying the voluminous correspondence in the Archive, and especially the letters written to Dr Sharp whenever he was absent, by his Foreman and Constable at the Castle, George Hall, frequent references to work at the “Chaple” seem really puzzling, indicating a substantial restoration.

March 17 1787

There is now 2 masons building the chimney in the Vestry as you ordered it to be done

Dec 27 1788

Robson and son will continue dressing stones for the Chaple

Jan 31 1789

This week Robson and son have been dressing stones for the Chaple at the Castle (DN-confirms St Peters Chapel-NOT St Aiden’s)

Feb 21

This week Robson and son have been dressing stones for the Chaple-they have a great many stones drest for the Chaple. I think Robsons should begin to sett them

Feb 28

I will set the Robsons to work on the Chaple on Monday

March 7

This week Robsons have got 2 courses stones set in the sinclor (circular!) part of the Chaple

March 21

Robsons are going on with the third course upon the Chaple..

On firing the guns at Alnwick Castle for the Kings Recovery one of them unfortunately busted and took a poor mans thye from his body

March 28

Robson have been casing the inside wall of the chancel which were much the lowest part of that work but are now higher than the alter part

April 2

This week we have had very unfavourable weather for our masons work going forward not one day without great falls of snow.

Robsons has been dressing a part of the outside of the Chancel wall-

April 11

The Robsons are going on with the alter part of the Chaple…

May 9

Received yours of the 6th was sorry Robson had left off the alter part of the Chaple before and are going on with the South Wall of it and have laid one more window sole {sill].

May 30

Robsons have got the collard of the Chaple to the same height of the other [?]next to this which joins the door. We are raising the jamb of the door a little at the same time work and are now going with the other collard

Jan 8 1790

On Sat last the two Robsons began dressing stones for the Chaple

Jan 16

The two Robsons are dressing stones for the Chaple, old Wilson is winning stones for them, the other 3 masons are winning stones at Sunderland Quarry

Jan 23

The Robsons are yet dressing stones for the Chaple and old Wilson winning stones for them. The bottom of the Quarry turns out as fine stones as ever (DN the quarry, now the Grove, is near exhaustion; trials are being made to seek a new source of stone elsewhere in the village)

Jan 30/Feb 6/13,20

The Robsons are yet dressing stones for the Chaple and old Wilson winning stones for them, and other Masons are working on flagging

March 6

The Robsons now have a great many stones dressed for the Chaple and the weather are now very promising for walling if you think it convenient for them to begin to sett

March 13

I rec’d yours of 8th inst on Thursday and set the Robsons to wall of the Chaple on Friday morning they have since got the window soles level-what height from the Chaple floor should the fireplace for the Organ loft be placed?

March 20

The Robsons are now going with the third course above the window soles each course being one foot high. I mentioned in my last what height the fireplace for the organ loft should be placed from the Chaple floor-which should be determined as the work are going on in that part of the Chaple

April 17

Since you left us Robsons has repaired both the large jambs in the Chaple and are now going on with the North Front

April 24

We have now got a scaffold raised to that part of the Chaple which are now going forward-also a scaffold on that part of the old hall both of which are going on very well. I think a base should be taken of the pillars in the old hall in the going on of that building

May 1

The Robsons is now leveling the North Wall of the Chaple to the height of the fachea

May 8

Robsons has got the fachea course put in the Chaple which looks very well

May 15

There is now one course stones put in the Chaple work above the fachea

(Letters for 1791 cease)

There is a further handwritten Account Book containing sadly, little information-

Chapel Accounts 1787 (NRO 00452/D/5/12/2-)

(in Dr Sharp’s hand)

BC Chapel begun to be repaired March 27 1787

(Individual payments of wages detailed; no info re work or site)

Work at Chapel paid for by Contingencies

1787 June 7 To George Wilson-Cottagers Bondage rent- £2-12-9

1788 July 23 Dr Poyn’s present laid out upon the chapel-paid to Guy the Mason-£1-11-6

1789 A Present to the Chapel-anon-£20-0-0

When the Castle management, and BRP Graeme Young were given these references, they could not accept that so much restoration work was undertaken on St Peter’s Chapel, without any trace remaining, or sketches of the restored Chapel.

Months later, a thought occurred-for years, there had been a building in the West Ward, abutting the Castle Wall, the entrance through the Smith’s Gate(now Neville Gate). Could this be the Chaple?

Bamburgh Castle in the 19th century

Bamburgh Castle in the 19th century

The windows appear to be gothic in structure, however the entrance door cannot be seen, and all trace of the building has disappeared with Lord Armstrong’s subsequent work in that area, after he purchased the Castle in 1894. Graeme Young believes that the orientation of the building is not correct for a church-and there is a further fly in the ointment. In 1835, Mrs Catharine Sharp, niece of Dr John, and widow of Rev Andrew Sharp(Bowlt) wrote of work carried out during her late husband’s Curacy at St Aiden’s Bamburgh. This included-

1817 Between this year and the year of his death 1835 the following works were carried out in the church by Rev Andrew Sharp-

– A Gallery was built for the Castle Schools and an Organ erected by Subscription. The Gallery was erected at the expense of the Lord Crewe Trustees

NRO 00452/J/29

Why would a Gallery (since disappeared) be erected for the Castle Schools if indeed this building was a Chapel used by Castle residents and Schools?

The mystery remains to be conclusively settled, but meanwhile, I continue to believe this is indeed Dr Sharps lost “Chaple”!

With thanks to Woodhorn Archive

Carol Griffiths

2 thoughts on “The strange story of the Bamburgh Castle Chapel

  1. Have also seen your article on this puzzle in Tyne & Tweed. Just to let you know that the building in the photo is not a chapel. An 1809 plan of the castle in Northumberland Archives (NRO 6452-02. an image of it can be seen on their catalogue or purchased) shows the building was a laundry and was house!

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