The Inner Ward of Bamburgh Castle holds many secrets, and one of the most interesting at hand (…sorry, couldn’t help it) is the church of Saint Peter/chapel of Saint Oswald. Across from the modern staterooms stands a small ruin. Don’t be fooled, however, because the ruins were modified during the Victorian Age! There seems to have been an intention to rebuild a chapel on the spot even in the 18th century, but it was never completed and dismantled early in the 19th century. It was extremely fashionable to have ruins on your property if you were wealthy, and if you didn’t have actual remnants of historical buildings, you could simply commission some. There was a certain romance in the decaying masonry of peoples long since gone. We call the false ruins found scattered on estates throughout the country “Victorian follies.” The folly that demarcates the holy space at the top of the Bamburgh rock does contain the tiniest bit of 12th-century Norman masonry in the far corner, but otherwise only preserves a rough guess at where the Anglo-Saxon period church would have stood. The Anglo-Saxon church is mentioned in a few key chronicles of the period, including Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (Ecclesiastical History of English People) written by the Venerable Bede. In Bede’s time, the church was dedicated to Saint Peter, but Norman records suggest the same site became the chapel of Saint Oswald.
Oswald was son of a Bernician king who had been sent to exile after the death of his father; he was victorious over the numerous rival communities and kingdoms during his reign, and he was regarded as the overking of the English, called Bretwalda. The northern kingdoms of Bernicia and Deira were joined for perhaps their most successful stretch by Oswald. The royal city of this now-united-but-only-temporarily kingdom was Bamburgh, at the time called Bebbanburh. The origin of that name seems to stem from the name of the wife of Æthelfrith, descendant of King Ida who was the first recorded Anglian king of Bernicia (547AD). Oswald encouraged the Celtic Christianity brought by Aidan (from Iona but later founder of Lindisfarne), making the united Northumbria a Christian kingdom.
Bede’s Ecclesiastical History is also full of many juicy little morsels about Anglo-Saxon kings, and King Oswald is no exception. One anecdote of Oswald’s piety witnessed by Aidan, bishop-turned-saint, is recounted by Bede:
At dinner, the two men received word that outside a crowd of beggars had amassed hoping the king would spare some food. Oswald immediately sent his silver plate piled with food out to them and had the plate broken up and pieces given to each. Aidan was so pleased by such a gentle and generous king, he held the hand that had offered relief to the poor of his kingdom and blessed him that his arm and hand would never wither. When Oswald was defeated by Penda, last pagan king of the Mercians, his head and limbs were struck from his body. The arm and hand were eventually recovered and sent to Bamburgh, where they lay in a reliquary of silver.
In 1997, 2000, and finally in 2010, the BRP did some geophysical surveys of the area where the Victorian folly now stands; the first year involved survey of resistivity (which measures how an electrical current travels through the ground), the second was ground-penetrating radar, while the last involved both methods, this time with the help of Channel 4’s Time Team crew. The initial data were promising, suggesting a vaulted crypt might lay beneath the ruins. After subsequent excavation, numerous features on the church site were discovered and recorded, but none that matched the anomaly from the surveys. One theory is that the shape was actually a signature of the subsurface material that had been flipped when the data were compiled. The area did however suggest Romano-British occupation, medieval construction phases, and post-medieval disturbance during the Armstrong rebuild period. All in all, the trenches, although not containing a crypt with or without a 1,377-year-old hand, proved incredibly valuable in our understanding of some of the Inner Ward of the castle.
So was this where Saint Peter’s church actually stood? What happened to Oswald’s miraculously uncorrupted arm and hand? Well, we aren’t quite sure. As much as we love solving mysteries with archaeology, a mystery that continues to remain just out of reach tantalizingly urges us forward to reassess our approaches and previous interpretations.