Well, well, well…

Any castle worth its weight would not need just defensive structures, but also internal infrastructure to support the many people who made the community run day-to-day. One absolute necessity for any community was drinkable water, whether or not they were expecting to be subjected to a siege or trapped during inclement weather. We have documentary evidence of at least three wells situated around the outcrop, but only one is still securely located: the well at the base of the keep. We’ve talked about it briefly before here on the blog.

The Saxon well with a Victorian cap at the base of the Keep.

The other two? A wee bit harder to pin down. One attributed to Waltheof is likely located on the northern side of the Inner Ward of the castle, where the clock tower now stands. The third, the Tower of Elmund’s Well, is hopefully somewhere in our trench! These two wells were recorded in the 13th or 14th century on castle plans, but likely were in use long before. The names of the men associated can give us some clues about possible dating. Let’s break them down.

Waltheof is of North Germanic, that is Scandinavian, origin, and it has been recorded alternatively as Waldehaveswell. The first half of the name probably comes from the word for “foreigner,” in Old English as wealh, which eventually was also used to mean “slave.” We can see this word root in both the English name for Cymru, known as Wales, and the surname Walsh. Thēof is the root of the modern word “thief.” Perhaps together, therefore, they meant “foreign thief,” but that sounds a bit cruel to saddle a cute little baby with such a name.


What seems to have happened to shift the name to the alternate form of Waldehaveswell is the th sound, represented in Old English as ð or þ has been voiced as a d. Ð and ð are the letter called eth, upper and lower case respectively, which is a voiced interdental fricative. That is a fancy linguistics way of saying there is more vibration in your throat while you put your tongue between your upper and lower teeth and force out the air. Think of the word “father.” The letter thorn is represented by the symbols Þ and þ (for upper and lower) such as in the word “thorn.” This is a voiceless version of the interdental fricative, meaning you don’t quite feel the same grumble in your voice-box, but you articulate the sound by forcing air around your tongue between your teeth. Scandinavian languages like Icelandic still differentiate, but sometimes in Old English texts you see the letters substituted for each other. It can be rather confusing! Put your fingertips on your neck over your voice-box and say “father” and “thorn” and you will feel a stronger grumble when saying the former. As mentioned above, this sound can be articulated as a d. The f of thēof has been voiced as a v in the alternate name. The suffix “well” naturally tells us a well is involved.

We know of primary sources for least two famous Waltheofs in Northumbria during the medieval period:

The earlier Waltheof was active in the end of the 963-995 as an ealdorman here at Bamburgh. He was a grandson of Osulf I, a high-reeve of Bamburgh in the mid-10th century known from several charters and usurping Eric Bloodaxe. Waltheof also fathered Uhtred the Bold, the name that inspired that of the main character of Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon tales and television show “The Last Kingdom.” We do get asked about Uhtred a fair bit out here!

The later Waltheof was a son of Earl Siward (who defeated Macbeth of Shakespeare fame in 1054) and a descendant of the earlier Waltheof. He was Earl of Northumbria, but the last of the English hierarchy and beheaded for his pair of revolts and recants. He supported an attack on York under Sweyn II (Denmark) but received pardon from William I; his second mistake, this time, joining the Earls who rebelled against William led to his execution in 1075. After his death, he was regarded a martyr with a miraculously incorrupt corpse and suddenly reattached head. He was recorded in folklore and might have been partially a source for the Robin Hood legend.


The name Elmund is a bit trickier, but it seems to be quite early for Old English naming. The first half may come from a very early Germanic word for settlement, temple, or house with the connecting idea being shelter: ealh. The second part of the name, mund, also means protection, or guardian, or even poetically one’s hand. There are entries in the Prosopography of Anglo-Saxon England with the name Ealhmund in the 8th and 9th centuries, so we know that it’s a cognate. His name in essence is “protection-protection,” but more kindly could be probably “house guardian.”

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is map.jpg
From Directors Graeme Young and Paul Gething’s 2003 Bamburgh Castle: The Archaeology of the Fortress of Bamburgh AD 500 to AD 1500.

In search of Elmund’s Well

Our Trench 5b is looking for Elmund’s Well, and we seem to have chased the footprint of the associated tower. There are, unfortunately, no references to Elmund beyond his tower and well. The Void initially intrigued us as a possible well, but after extending it, it appears to be a rubble and soil-filled room within the tower. We have considered two other nearby areas, the adjacent masonry that stands within the footprint of the tower or, less likely, the as-yet un-landscaped area on the north end of the enclosed outerworks. Stay tuned!

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