Nicola here and today I'm talking about alphas but in a slightly different way. I’ve recently come back from a trip to Northumberland, in the far north of England. Northumberland is a history-lover’s paradise. It has more castles than any other county in England. It’s past has been shaped by violence and conflict: Viking raids, Scottish incursions, battles and rebellion. I was staying in the village of Bamburgh, in the shadow of the iconic Bamburgh castle, once the seat of the Anglo Saxon Kings of Northumbria.
I think of Northumberland as the land of ""alpha castles," big, strong and built to show power and military might. Sometimes you will come across fortified houses that have been given the title "castle" but when you look at them up against the big ones their pretty little crenellations look as though they will fall over at the first sight of a trebuchet. It was important that Northumberland's castles could withstand serious attack, at least until the 17th century when the threat from Scotland diminished.
Bamburgh Castle has a rich and turbulent history. It was one of the most northerly garrisons of English rule during the medieval period and was the first castle in England to fall to cannon fire when the Earl of Warwick besieged it during the Wars of the Roses. By the beginning of the 17th century it was semi-derelict because with peace between England and Scotland it had outlived its use and had fallen into disrepair. Not until the late 18th century was a restoration project begun which saw the castle take on a variety of roles such as granary (it has a windmill on the battlements!) school and hospital. The current impressive building is largely the work of William Armstrong, a Victorian industrialist who also owned Cragside, the first house in the world to be powered by hydro-electricity. He established an estate of workers' cottages to house the craftsmen who restored the castle during the 19th century. It was in one of these "Armstrong cottages" that we stayed.
I loved visiting Bamburgh. The mix of medieval and Victorian architecture was intriguing and the castle houses a fascinating collection of historical artefacts. These include a sedan chair that was used as an ambulance in the later 18th century. It belonged to the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary and there is a record of its use: “The Great stair leading to the operating theatre being spacious and of easy ascent, admits of street chairs in which patients are brought to the hospital with fractures, dislocation or dangerous wounds…” You can imagine those wounds might have made quite a mess of the upholstery!
In a dark corner (unfortunately, as I wanted to take a photograph) there is a beautiful golden gown and matching shoes that were said to have belonged to Dorothy Forster. Her brother Tom, who inherited Bamburgh in 1704, was a Jacobite who was imprisoned for taking part in the 1715 uprising. Dorothy sprung Tom from Newgate gaol and hid him at Banburgh for two years before he escaped to France. The story of Dorothy and Tom's exploits makes it clear which sibling was the alpha in that family!
Down the coast from Bamburgh sits a very different castle. Dunstanburgh is a photogenic ruin that can only be approached via a mile and a half walk along the beach. In the Middle Ages its setting was even more dramatic than it is now as it was surrounded on the landward side by artificial lakes that effectively turned the cliff into a promontory.
Dunstanburgh was built in 1313 by what was in those days known as an “over-mighty subject,” Thomas, Earl of Lancaster, cousin to King Edward II. It’s possible that Thomas’s rivalry with Edward went back to their childhoods when it was said the warrior King Edward I preferred his nephew to his son. Whatever the case, Thomas was one of Edward II’s main political opponents and his main reason for building Dunstanburgh was to give himself a power base in the North. The King owned both Bamburgh and Lindisfarne Castles at this time. Lancaster was determined to build a castle as impressive and luxurious as any royal residence.
All this posturing by the alpha males of the medieval era was very interesting. It was Edward who finally emerged victorious from his struggles against his cousin. When Lancaster led a rebellion against the king he was captured and executed in 1322. Dunstanburgh fell into royal hands.
From one alpha males to another and I wanted to share a photograph we took very early in the morning when we were staying in Scotland. We were in the Highlands and witnessed the Red Deer rut. Here is the dominant buck of the herd adorning himself with "deer bling" to proclaim his control over his territory and signal his readiness to breed. Doesn't he look attractive!
So as we're on the subject of alphas, what aspect of a historical alpha male would you find most attractive? His big castle? His shiny curricle? His bling? Is power attractive or does all that posturing turn you off?