There are many stories associated with the castles of the Northumbrian coastline, some historical, others apocryphal, but it is often buried within the myths and legends that some fragment of truth may be found. Few tales will pique the interest as much as when dragons or the name of King Arthur are mentioned. Stuart has told the story of the Laidly Wyrm of Bamburgh, in which a princess becomes a dragon, and were that the only tale the castle had to tell, it would be enough. But the castle has not always been known by its present name. It was once at the heart of the ancient realm of Bryneich, or Bernicia, and the castle was known as Din Guarie, a name that comes down to us through the Arthurian legends as Dolorous Guard….
The Castle of Dolorous Guard was the home of Sir Brian of the Isles, who some call King Bran Hen… Bran the Old… a cruel and evil knight and the sworn enemy of King Arthur. Sir Brian had learned enchantments from the Lady of the Lake and turned them to sate his own vicious pleasures. He took great delight, so the story goes, in imprisoning and torturing both men and women alike.
Many of Arthur’s knights were lost to Sir Brian’s enchantments, for whenever a knight approached the castle, they were faced by a band of ten warriors at each of the two gates and were forced to fight. Many made the attempt, but none succeeded. Even Gawain, one of the greatest knights, was captured and cast into the dungeons with the rest. As each knight was imprisoned and their helmets hung upon the wall as trophies, a mysterious gravestone sprang up outside the castle, bearing their name and they were lost to the world.
Sir Lancelot du Lac, had been raised by the Lady of the Lake and had her favour. He asked Arthur for some quest with which he could prove himself and was sent north to Bamburgh in search of the lost knights, armed with a magical shield.
Lancelot conquered the guardian warriors expelled Sir Brian, who fled south to Pendragon Castle, but the enchantment could not be broken until he had spent forty nights under its roof. Exploring his conquest, Lancelot came upon a large metal slab encrusted with jewels, which bore the inscription:
Only he who conquers La Doloreuse Garde
will be able to lift this slab,
and he will find his name beneath it.
Summoning all his strength, Lancelot raised the slab and found beneath it another inscription:
Here will repose Lancelot of the Lake, the son of King Ban.
Abandoned as a babe by the Lake and left to be found and raised by its Lady, it was only now that Lancelot learned of his royal lineage, and he knew that this would be his final place of rest.
In the castle’s chapel, Lancelot found a door which led deep underground and into a cave. The earth shook, and a deafening noise filled the cave. As he entered, two copper knights armed with huge swords attacked. Lancelot did not falter, defeating the metallic monsters and moving deeper into the cavern. There he found a wailing well, guarded by an axe-wielding monster. Lancelot fought with all his might, breaking his shield upon the creature’s hide. At the end, he throttled it with his bare hands and cast it down into the well.
Catching his breath, he raised his head and saw a beautiful maiden clad in copper and in her hand she held two keys which she offered to the victorious knight. Taking them, he realised that they were the keys to end the enchantment. One unlocked a copper pillar containing thirty copper pipes that screamed. The other unlocked a casket from which a whirlwind escaped. Then, at last, the castle was free of the evil spell. The mysterious gravestones and the trophy helmets disappeared, the lost knights were found and released from their prison and Lancelot took the castle for his own.
Lancelot renamed the castle Joyous Guard, filling it with colour and light. Delicate bridges linked the towers upon which were carved fabulous beasts, the dark chambers were ablaze with candles and the rich glow of tapestries and the walls were plastered and gilded so that, catching the rays of the rising sun across the sea, the light of the castle could be seen far across the land.
It is told that many knights and their ladies were his guests, including Arthur and Guinevere, his queen, with whom Lancelot fell in love. His love was returned and the two, loving their king, were broken hearted.
Perhaps it was for this reason that Lancelot allowed the ill-fated Tristan to stay at Joyous Guard with Isolde after the two had fled from her husband, King Mark.
Accompanying Arthur to Camelot, Lancelot’s love for the queen was exposed and Guinevere was condemned to death. Lancelot rescued her from the pyre and carried her to Joyous Guard, but the tragedy unfolded, Arthur laid siege to the castle, inflicting heavy damage, and Lancelot was forced to return to the land of his birth. The castle sank back into gloom, becoming once again the castle of Dolorous Guard.
Yet, the story tells that Lancelot returned. His body was brought back to his castle and laid in a vault. It lays there still, buried by the sands of time and veiled by the mist that rolls in from the sea.