Lindisfarne Castle (England)

North East England     See list of castles in Inghilterra

Lindisfarne Castle is an absolute gem. Sitting on top of the 30m high Beblowe Crag on the otherwise low lying tidal Holy Island of Lindisfarne, it is a castle built on an unusually domestic scale. What makes it so attractive is that it is a castle you could imagine living in. And what makes it so fascinating is that in 1902 the Country Life magazine founder and owner Edward Hudson decided to do exactly that.

As a result what you find today is a remarkable fusion of a Tudor artillery fort and an Edwardian country mansion, a fusion created by the noted architect Edwin Lutyens in the years from 1903. The castle that emerged from this process dominates the island on which it stands, and the wider coastal landscape of Northumberland. Yet it is also a castle which could almost be called cute.

Visitors to Holy Island normally have to park on the north west side of the island's village and thereafter explore on foot. Lindisfarne Castle can be found some two thirds of a mile east of the village, and the walk past the harbour and around the bay is a real joy. Those wishing to avoid the walk might like to know that a shuttle bus runs between the castle and the village during normal hours of opening.

If you walk, you have plenty of time to admire the castle and its location as you approach. You'd have thought that the most obviously defensible site on this stretch of the Northumberland coast, bar Bamburgh Castle, would have been fortified from a very early date. Yet despite this being an area fought over by the Scots and English for five centuries, and by Vikings, Northumbrians, Angles, Picts, Caledonians and Romans over the previous millennium, no sign has ever been found of early fortifications here. Either there were none, or all trace of anything earlier was obliterated by the structure you see today.

The known origins of Lindisfarne Castle date back to the mid 1500s. Henry VIII had ordered the dissolution of Lindisfarne Priory (and other monasteries) in 1537 and its estates became crown property. In 1543 Holy Island served as a military base for the landing of troops being assembled for a planned expedition by Henry VIII's forces into Scotland. In order to protect what became a vital naval base, three earth and timber defensive positions were built around the harbour. Another was added on the top of Beblowe Crag in 1548, and this is the earliest structure we know of on the crag. It was reported at the time that "Beblowe Fort" provided a good base for guns protecting the island's excellent natural harbour.

In 1561 a military survey of the defences along the Scottish Border reported that by then little remained of Beblowe Fort beyond a flat platform on top of the crag surrounded by the base of a turf wall. Work began to build a stone fortification on the site in 1565, and had been completed by 1571 at a cost of £1,000. Again the aim was to house artillery that could defend the harbour from attack.

James VI of Scotland unified the crowns of Scotland and England in 1603 when he succeeded Elizabeth I to become James I of England. On the face of it, this removed the need for fortifications along the border between the two countries. Despite this, the fort on Beblowe Crag remained fully manned and armed. In June 1639, Charles I landed an army on Holy Island in the early stages of a series of conflicts with the Scots over the organisation of the Church, which developed into the ill-named English Civil War. He was greeted by the castle's governor, Captain Rugge, a man who impressed all who met him with his generous hospitality and his large drinker's nose.

By 1646 the castle's then governor, Captain Batton, held Lindisfarne for the Parliamentary side in the civil war. He was asked to surrender the island to the Royalists holding Berwick-upon-Tweed in return for a promise that the unpaid wages of the garrison would be made good. He declined, and it took until 1649 for wider situation to allow the Parliamentary garrison on the island to really feel secure. Further improvements were made to island's defences in 1671, when Osborne's Fort was built on the heugh projecting into the western side of the harbour, but this appears to have fallen into disuse by 1740 and little remains of it today.

By the time of the 1715 Jacobite Uprising the garrison of Lindisfarne Castle comprised just 7 men. The castle's master-gunner earned additional money by acting as a barber, and on 10 October 1715 the captain of a ship anchored in the harbour, Lancelot Errington, visited the castle with his nephew on the pretext of getting a shave. Once inside they drew pistols, and forced the master-gunner and only other man actually in the castle to leave, declaring it captured for the Jacobite cause. Their signals to the mainland did not bring the hoped for Jacobite reinforcements, and the following day they surrendered to a force of 100 government troops who had arrived on the island from Berwick-upon-Tweed. The two subsequently escaped from Berwick gaol.

Lindisfarne Castle continued to be home to a garrison and defensive artillery through the 1700s and intermittently through the early and mid 1800s. In 1882 the castle was re-equipped with three 64-pounder guns and manned by members of the Volunteer Coast Artillery. They left in 1893, and thereafter the castle fell into disrepair despite occasional use by the Coast Guard.

In 1901 Edward Hudson visited Holy Island while on holiday and fell in love with the castle. The following year he took out a lease from the Crown and commissioned his friend, the architect Edwin Lutyens, to transform a Tudor artillery fort into a holiday home in which Hudson could entertain during his summer visits. Lutyens was working without the constraints of modern planning laws, but his transformation of Lindisfarne Castle nonetheless appears to have been a very sympathetic one. The main external change was the "filling in" of a gap in the upper part of the structure to allow additional accommodation to be created. A short distance to the north an old walled garden was restored to use in 1911, laid out to a design by Gertrude Jekyll and now known as the Gertrude Jekyll Garden.

The result was an Edwardian country mansion set largely within the structure of the old fort. It comprised four public rooms, nine bedrooms, and a bathroom (a second bathroom was added later). Most of those who visited loved Lindisfarne Castle, including Lutyens and his children. Others were less enamoured, including the Prince of Wales (the future George V), and Lutyens' wife Emily, who liked neither Hudson nor what she saw as his cold, smoky castle. Another visitor, the author Lytton Strachey, was obviously a city boy at heart, and found the castle uncomfortable and far from his taste.

Hudson never married, and the son of a friend who he intended to bequeath the castle to was killed during the war. Perhaps with a view to to recouping his investment he purchased the freehold of the castle in 1918, and then sold it in 1921 for £25,000 to the London stockbroker Oswald Falk. Within a few years Falk had sold Lindisfarne Castle to Sir Edward de Stein, a rich merchant banker. Sir Edward gave the castle to the National Trust in 1944, and lived here until his death in 1965. His sister Gladys took over the tenancy until she died in 1968. Lindisfarne Castle was subsequently opened to the pubic by the National Trust, restored very much to the way it would have been (with the addition of electricity) when Edward Hudson and his house guests spent their summers here in the years before World War One.

Your visit starts in the hut at the foot of the west end of the crag that serves as a reception and ticket office. From there you progress up the cobbled incline to the castle's only external entrance, a door in the south side of the building. A flight of steps within the structure then takes you up to the Lower Battery, complete with gun emplacements, that acts as a forecourt to the castle.

The entrance hall is a lovely space, divided by columns into three distinct areas. Above the large fireplace that dominates one end of the room is a beautifully ornate wind indicator. Off to one side of the entrance hall is the large kitchen, and beyond it is the scullery, complete with the mechanism for lowering the portcullis that can still be used to bar the entrance below. The accommodation in the castle forms an L-shape, and you progress down the long arm of the "L" via a wonderful passage that almost seems to have been cut through the living rock. Off to one side is the vaulted dining room, dominated by a large fireplace at one end, and enlivened by a wall painted in Prussian blue at the other. At the far end of the corridor is Ship Room, created from the fort's ammunition store and named after the large model of a Dutch ship hanging from the vaulted ceiling. This is a magnificent room, on a very human scale.

A curving flight of stone stairs once led directly up from behind the entrance hall to the Upper Battery. They still do, but Lutyens inserted a junction on the stairs and a half flight now leads up to the Long Gallery, which together with three bedrooms to its north are in the "new" structure added by him. The Long gallery is another superb space, and from its far end more stairs give access to the upper gallery, tucked beneath the castle roof.

Images of the castle

Castles in England

Windsor Castle


Warwick Castle


Useful infos

Latitude: 55.6690617
Longitude: -1.784746
See the map
See the images

Map of Lindisfarne Castle