Background to our September 2021 Field School Excavation: the outworks of St Oswald’s Gate

This year the focus of our field school excavation will be the outworks beyond St Oswald’s Gate and the ‘Witches Cottage’ situated on top of the medieval masonry.
Here we provide an introduction to this area of the castle and an overview of preliminary work undertaken in this area in the early 2000’s.

The outworks beyond St Oswald’s Gate

St Oswald’s Gate formed an entrance to the fortress from at least the later 8th century when it is mentioned in an annal written by an unknown monk. At that time it is quite likely to have been the only entrance to the fortress. Its position would have granted access out to the early medieval ‘vill’ settlement that lay beyond to the west, very likely sited around St Aidan’s church which has been present in the village from the middle 7th century. It is now thought very likely that it also provided access to the sea via the beach and possibly a small harbour.

In 2000 we lifted a couple of the paving slabs in the natural cleft, just inside the gate. We believe the paving slabs to be late post medieval in date and beneath them we found traces of what we think to be their medieval predecessors. Earlier surfaces lay beneath these in the form of a rubble surface set in a yellow mortar. Perhaps most interesting of all the bedrock beneath this surface was worn smooth, not an easy thing to do with a rock as hard as dolerite, suggesting in our minds that it had been worn by footsteps over hundreds, even thousands, of years.


Excavation within St Oswald’s Gate with the stone and mortar surface exposed.

In the later medieval period the main entrance to the castle was moved to its present location at the south end of the castle, from which the high status Inner Ward could be reached without having to pass through the East or West Wards. This relegated St Oswald’s Gate to the status of a postern gate, a secondary entrance, though in the case of Bamburgh a very well protected one. The outworks here are not just substantial but are also some of the least altered parts of the medieval castle. Given our interest in St Oswald’s Gate, which was one of the reasons for the siting of Trench 1, we were quick to  do some  investigation of the outworks, excavating various little trenches in 2001 and 2002. These were given context numbers in the 500s and collectively represent Trench 5 in our recording system.

Looking over the castle wall at the main part of the outworks beyond St Oswald’s Gate. Very little remains of the other sides but the landward wall still stands to a great height. The cross wall with the arched passage is visible at the left side.

The medieval outworks are broadly rectangular and extend out from the gate on an east to west alignment with a cross-wall extending out perpendicularly from the castle wall, dividing off a small triangular area, directly in front of St Oswald’s Gate, from the main outwork enclosure to the west.

The cross wall and archway with the later build upper right. Patching and some of the upper courses may well be of 18th century and later date. Careful study of the masonry will likely confirm more phases than this though

A gate in the main rectangular wall allowed access out across the area of the village playing fields towards the village and a further arched passage led from the triangular area through the cross wall in to the walled off area that medieval records show contained a corner tower called ‘The Tower of Elmund’s Well’. We have reference in the records (History of the Kings Works) to the tower of St Elmund’s Well that C J Bates places in the outworks beyond St Oswald’s Gate. We also have a reference to a wall at the base of the castle collapsing during a brief siege in 1138, which gives us an idea of how long this area has been fortified and also why we see so many phases. Who Elmund was we do not know but in later centuries the tower base formed the shell of a small building called, in the later post medieval period, the Witches Cottage.

The main rectangular wall that closed off the outworks area appeared to be a single massive build, four metres wide at its base, rising with a gentle inward sloping batter to a narrower top some metres above. The original height of the wall is not certain, but from what survives it was an imposing structure. The huge width of its base became obvious when we realized that it had been constructed on sand. It certainly needed the stability. It appeared to be a single phase, that is built in one phase of construction.

Looking back up at the west ward of the castle from the area enclosed by the outworks. St Oswald’s Gate is hidden behind the cross wall

The cross-wall was more complex, much thinner, only 1.3m wide, and with at least three build phases. The central and western part with the arched passage appears to be quite early in build, probably no later than the 12th century and perhaps a little earlier. The connecting element between the early mid section and the castle rock and wall is of later medieval date and the upper part, and some repairs are likely to have been constructed by Dr Sharpe in the later 18th century.

So why was the outwork built?

Well part of its function would be to add layers of defence to St Oswald’s Gate, but this clearly does not explain the size of the main part of the enclosure. It is possible that it was built to enclose and defend the well that presumably lay in or near to the Tower of Elmund’s Well. It’s also quite possible that the tall wall, and the tower, was constructed to overlook and defend our possible port.

Research questions for 2021

We have two primary research objectives for this year’s excavation:

  • To better understand the gates presence and something of the phases after this season’s work.
  • We will seek to identify what survives of the cottage and investigate if we can still trace something of the tower beneath it.

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